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The Crucible of Iraq

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Posted on Apr 6, 2014

By Chris Hedges

(Page 3)

The last three stories are about exile. In “That Inauspicious Smile” an Iraqi cannot wipe a grin off his face and is beaten by a group of neo-Nazis. In “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes” a man wears a silver ring he took off the severed finger of a victim of a truck bombing in Iraq. When he arrives as a refugee in Holland he consults his cousin in France by phone about his changing his Arabic name. His cousin tells him: “You’re quite right. It’s a hundred times better to be from Senegal or China than it is to have an Arab name in Europe. But you couldn’t possibly have a name like Jack or Stephen—I mean a European name. Perhaps you should choose a brown name—a Cuban or Argentine name that would suit your complexion, which is the color of burnt barley bread.” His cousin finds the name Carlos Fuentes in a newspaper “literary article of which he did not understand much” and suggests it to him. He changes his name to Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes learns flawless Dutch and “always scoffed at the immigrants and other foreigners who did not respect the rules of Dutch life and who complained all the time. He calls them ‘retarded gerbils.’ ” He finds a Dutch girlfriend who “weighed two hundred pounds and had childlike features like a cartoon character.” But then the “dream problem” begins. In his dreams he forgets his Dutch and “a group of children in the poor district where he was born [are] running after him and making fun of his new name.” One night he dreams “he had planted a car bomb in the center of Amsterdam.” He consults books and magazines on dreams, including Erich Fromm’s “The Forgotten Language,” which he says is “pure bullshit.” He begins to alter “his eating and sleeping habits and when he went into and came out of the bathroom.” “Fuentes would sit at the table chewing each piece of food like a camel, because he had read that chewing it well helps to get rid of nightmares.” He eats a lot of chicken because “eating the fowl of the air might bring about dreams that were happier and more liberated.” The nightmares continue. He begins to perform “mysterious secret rituals” such as dyeing his hair and his toenails green and sleeping on his stomach repeating obscure words. “One night he painted his face like an American Indian, slept wearing diaphanous orange pajamas, and put under his pillow three feathers taken from various birds.”

Blasim, like his characters, endures the covert racism of supposedly post-racial societies. Liberal white Europeans and Americans, he says, regard racism as wrong but continue to unconsciously express racist impulses. Blasim, for example, was reading a book in a subway car when an older woman next to him asked if it was in Arabic. “It is beautiful script,” she told him. “The writing goes from right to left, doesn’t it?” He nodded. “Are you reading the Koran?” she asked. “No,” he said, “Kafka.”

He described to me his ordeal of getting a visa so he could go to the United States to give readings. At the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki he had to pass through a security gantlet. When he eventually arrived before a woman behind a bulletproof window, she asked him the address he would be staying at in the U.S. He did not remember. When he said he would get the information from his bag, she shouted, “Don’t move!” “I felt I was back in Iraq. The U.S. Army does not need a visa to go to Iraq. No one invites them. They arrive with guns. But if you are a writer and try to go to America with an invitation from your publisher you are nothing because you are an Iraqi.”

Blasim is as haunted by violence as his characters. He dedicates the story “Crosswords” to three friends who were killed or committed suicide. The cruelty and mayhem he witnessed drive him to create, to write and to film, he said. “I am always under stress,” he said before stepping outside for another cigarette, away from the hotel lobby where we were seated at a coffee table. The trauma visits him at night, too. “I have the same dream, over and over,” he said. “It is this. I am in Iraq. I am leaving the house. My mother asks if I have my identification card. I know why. If you are an Iraqi and you are picked up without your ID it is a huge problem. I studied art and film in college. I worked at the time at the reception desk of a hotel. One day I was smoking by the door and the secret police showed up and asked for my ID. I gave it to them. I told them I studied art and film. They told me it was a fake. I told them to call the college. They looked at me. ‘Who are you?’ they shouted. ‘You think we are going to call your college?’ I swore and said, ‘Then how can I prove it is not a fake?” They were furious. They threw me into an army prison for a week with army deserters. They were torturing these deserters with hoses and water. A week later they released me.”

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Hallucinations merge with reality in wartime. Your eyes and memory play tricks on you. You experience things and then wonder if you experienced them.  Morality is turned upside down. Killers prey on the weak, the vulnerable and the innocent in the name of God or the state or some twisted ethnic loyalty. Murderers and assassins are rich and powerful statesmen. American soldiers blow up houses on a whim, obliterating entire families. Death is a lucrative industry. You lose your footing. You peer in the terrifying possibilities of human evil. You struggle to give words to it.

“When you tell them these stories,” Blasim writes in “The Composer,” “after a time they think the stories are figments of imagination. Take our neighbor in the market, for example: Abu Sadiq, who sells onions. When he now tells his story about the battle with the Iranians at the River Jassim, it sounds like a Hollywood horror story he made up.”


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