Gautam Bhatia, for the sci-fi magazine Strange Horizons, hosted critic Marcia Lynx Qualey, writers Anoud and Ali Bader, and me, for a fascinating discussion on Arab sci-fi and other genre experiment. This was prompted by the short story collection “Iraq + 100”. You can read the discussion here.
This review was published first at the Guardian.
Since 1980, Iraq has suffered almost continuous war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions, and war-related cancers. “The President’s Gardens” by Muhsin al-Ramli –published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren – at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi, and deeply human, perspective.
“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This book must belong to Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘the Fated’, the discovery of whose head (in a banana crate) opens and closes the novel in 2006, and whose life until that decapitation is narrated in the most detail. Yet Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq ‘the Befuddled’ and Abdullah ‘Kafka’, are essential to the story.
Tariq is a schoolteacher, a perfumed, snappy dresser, and a grinning, earthy imam. As such he is spared military service, and prospers in the village, making necessary accomodations to the ruling system.
Abdullah, the “prince of pessimists” who describes contemporary events as “ancient, lost, dead history”, is already alienated by his illegitimacy when he is called up in 1988 for the war against Iran, captured, and incarcerated as a POW for the next 19 years, with almost 100,000 others. In Iran he is paraded, tortured, starved, and lectured on Khomeinism. Prisoners are separated by religious affiliation, but those ‘penitents’ who adopt the Islamic Republic’s ideology are raised up to rule over the unconverted.
There is no sectarianism at all in the narration. The main characters, from north of Baghdad, are probably Sunnis, but the reader must bring knowledge from beyond the text to make this assumption. Their travels through the country’s beautiful landscapes and terrible warscapes convey a clear sense of Iraqi nationhood alongside a sustained disdain for exclusionary and propagandistic nationalism. “When I look at the flag of any country,” says Abdullah on his release, “I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”
If Abdullah’s chief mode is principled nihilism, Ibrahim’s is gentle resignation. “Everything is fate and decree” is his catchphrase, and he names his daughter Qisma, ‘fate’. Made sterile by poison gas in the Iran war, lamed during the invasion of Kuwait, he finds a job in the paradisal gardens of the title, secret expanses within Baghdad studded by Saddam Hussain’s palaces, where the fountain water is mixed with perfume, camels graze between rose beds, and crocodiles swim in the pools. Naturally, horrors lurk beneath this surface.
This review was first published at the National.
Saeed works in an advertising agency, lives with his parents, and prays irregularly “as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” Nadia, against the wishes of her family, chooses to live alone. She rides a motorbike and wears black robes to ward off predatory men. They meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. They soon become friends, then something more.
Both are trying to build their lives in increasingly precarious circumstances. Saeed’s father is a university lecturer in a country which hasn’t done well by its professional class. He blames himself for not providing for his son: “The far more decent thing would have been to pursue wealth at all costs.”
They inhabit a city “teetering on the abyss”, filling up with refugees and prone to random violence. This could almost be Lahore, where Mohsin Hamid, the novel’s author, was born. But the war, when it arrives, feels like a tale from the Arab counter-revolutions. The encroaching militants behave like Daesh, outlawing music and staging public executions.
So Nadia and Saeed’s hometown could be many places, and this is part of the novel’s point. “Exit West” is formally adventurous despite the initial impression of realism. Set in the near future, or in an alternative and intensified present, the tale twists between magical realism and gentle science fiction.
At its centre is a magical image. Naturally, the war changes people’s relationship to windows, “the border through which death was possibly most likely to come”. But their relationship to doors changes too. Rumours spread of doors closely guarded in secret locations, infinitely dark doors which open onto random distant lands.
A slightly edited version of this review was published at the National.
In “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State”, journalist Graeme Wood aligns himself with the orientalist tradition of Bernard Lewis, who warned liberal students against projecting secular frameworks on contemporary Muslim politics. Lewis believed religion, not secular grievance, was the prime motivator of this politics.
This may or may not be true. In any case, the argument has limited explanatory power. It doesn’t explain why Islamism is more in vogue today than in the 1960s, for instance, or why contemporary extremists are destroying the ancient temples which previous generations left unharmed.
Does scripture account for ISIL’s crimes? It’s a fact that the Prophet’s Companions took slaves as war booty. The overwhelming majority of contemporary scholars, considering custom (’urf) and public interest (maslaha) as well as learned precedent, nevertheless see slavery as obsolete, no more relevant to modern warfare than bows and arrows. But ISIL, ignoring these considerations, has proudly revived the practice.
Wood rightly expresses exasperation with Muslim scholars who claim that ISIL’s behaviour has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. It would be equally wrong to claim that American slavery had nothing to do with Christianity (see, for example, 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”) “It is the interpretation,” Wood writes, “not the historical fact itself, that is up for debate.”
His account lacks political (or ‘secular’) context, but still, with hard-boiled humour, it provides a sometimes fascinating journey through some varieties of Islamic interpretation, from hate preaching to gentle quietism.
An edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.
In March 2013, Free Syrian Army fighters, alongside the al-Qaida-linked militia Jabhat al-Nusra, liberated Raqqa, a city in Syria’s east. Crowds assaulted the dictator’s statues. Detainees were set free. A hip-hop concert was held. Activists hotly debated the shape of the democracy to come. They set up a local council. Nusra set up a Sharia court.
Then ISIS, or Daesh, an Iraqi-led group, split from Nusra. It was contained for a while, until the Free Army in Raqqa was weakened, battered by airstrikes and “busy fighting the regime elsewhere”.
In January 2014 Daesh captured the city. “Snatching it away from the revolutionaries who had sacrificed everything to liberate it,” the jihadists immediately established rule by fear. Some people fled, some submitted, and some resisted as best they could.
“The Raqqa Diaries” are as powerful and fast-paced as a thriller, but this is brutal non-fiction, plainly and urgently told. Their author, risking his life to break Daesh’s communications siege, goes by the pseudonym ‘Samer’. His group, al-Sharqiya 24, made contact with the BBC’s Mike Thomson, and a barebones version of the book was read on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Raqqa is a generally conservative but deeply civilised city, its roots stretching to the Babylonian period. Samer describes its people as “humble” and friendly.
Under Assad, Samer’s father was detained for muttering against corruption. The family was forced to exchange its wealth for his freedom.
This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.
Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?
“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.
Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.
Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.
“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”
As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.
This was first published at the National.
The true subject of science fiction is always the present. Its imagined futures are mirrors to today’s hopes and fears. George Orwell’s “1984” simply shifted the numbers of the year in which he wrote the book – 1948 – and made a metaphor of that time’s dark politics. Likewise “2084”, the latest from Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, is addressed to, and in some way is part of, very contemporary woes.
Sansal lays out a fantastically detailed dystopia in complex and often elegant prose. After the Great Holy War killed hundreds of millions, an absolutist theocracy has been founded by Abi the Delegate, servant of the god Yolah. Abi’s rule is secured by such institutions as the Apparatus and the Ministry of Moral Health, and displayed by frequent mass slaughters of heretics in stadia built for the purpose. The nine daily prayers are compulsory. Women must cloak themselves in thick ‘burniqabs’.
Dissent, individuality, and progress have been abolished. The future must be a strict replica of the past. All languages are banned save the state-invented ‘Abilang’.
Ati, the story’s vague hero, is sent to a sanatorium in the mountains to cure his tuberculosis. Here he hears rumours of a nearby border, a limit to Abi’s reign. The notion “that the world might be divided, divisible, and humankind might be multiple” sparks a crisis of doubt in him, and then a journey of discovery.
At times “2084” suffers from science fiction’s most common pitfall: an unwieldy listing of technical or political information describing the imagined world outweighs and obscures the necessary human information. Sansal’s characters are somewhat two-dimensional, and the plot can seem almost accidental.
It is best, therefore, not to read this as a conventional novel but as a mix of satire, fable, and polemic.