Our world is dark and full of terrors. I won’t bother enumerating them here. Either you already know them or you’re already hiding in the peace and safety of your own personal new dark age. And anyway, it all will have changed utterly by the time we hit publish on this review.
Bummed out? Now think about the people of Iraq, the cradle of civilization that we’re only the most recent society to have somehow decided would be better off blown to splinters. As exiled Iraqi artist Hassan Blasim reminds us in the introduction to Iraq + 100, the ordinary people of Iraq haven’t known peace in anyone’s lifetime, and that’s just for starters.
But some people have gotten out, including some amazing artists, including the aforementioned Blasim, primarily a filmmaker, but also a writer and anthologist, who, from faraway Finland saw that if there was one thing his beleaguered countrymen (and the rest of us) needed these days, it’s some speculative fiction, some stories created under the assumption that Iraq (and the rest of us) will still be around in 100 years. And thus was born Iraq + 100, an anthology of fantastic, disturbing, wondrous and deeply historically grounded stories by authors and translators who now live all over the world but once called Iraq home.
Right away some interesting themes emerge. One we might expect is occupation, and indeed three stories, Blasim’s own “The Gardens of Babylon”, Khalid Kaki’s “Operation Daniel” and Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Kuszib” envision important Iraqi cities under outsider rule in a hundred years, with Blasim and Kaki imagining Chinese rule, and Abdulrazzak imagining extraterrestrials in charge of a human population kept mostly as livestock. This latter story may not seem like it fits the criteria for inclusion in this anthology, until one learns that “Baggy-Dad” was chosen as the first city to conquer because it “was already war-torn and its inhabitants weary of fighting.”
“Kuszib” is as necessarily Iraqi as anything in the anthology.
Disease also rears its head, chiefly in Zhraa Alhaboby’s “Baghdad Syndrome”, in which an architect faces deteriorating health and incipient blindness due to a genetic condition with origins in the pollution of the petroleum industry and of decades of military activity and occupation that poisoned his ancestors (our contemporaries). The only story in the collection that I know was written by a woman*, it might be my favorite because of its concern with a pair of statues that once occupied Baghdad’s Lovers’ Square. The architect has been set the task of redesigning that square, his last project before he loses his sight, and he enlists his college-aged niece to help him discover the history of the square and the statues of Scheherazade and Shahryar that are haunting him. As his sight fades, his understanding grows as he learns of how the artwork disappeared bit by bit but is still waiting, after a fashion, for him.
Another theme is the loss of religion, either through competition with other human endeavors that makes it fall out of fashion and favor or (especially in the aforementioned “Operation Daniel”) because it has been suppressed. Ibrahim Al-Marashi’s “Najufa”, though, treats Islam as something that has been cherished even as it’s adapted over the century; when the petroleum runs out, religious pilgrimage becomes Iraq’s primary revenue source, and a whole new infrastructure for managing, educating and providing experiences for these pilgrims has sprung up, complete with maglev trains connecting Baghdad to the shrine cities and android guides. Meanwhile, the terroristic religious extremists are now the Americans. That’s all just by way of background, though; the story itself concerns a young man making such a pilgrimage with his family, and is full of accounts of his parents’ and grandparents’ experiences of the Sectarian Wars and other conflicts before he was even thought of. The focus, though, is on his relationships with them, with the science fiction trappings mere details in a nice story of generations.
And then there’s my other favorite, Diaa Jubaili’s dreamlike and darkly funny “The Worker”, in which the theocrat of an Iraq depleted of every possible resource including its sand and gravel spends most of his time addressing his people via mandatory broadcasts, that he might admonish them not to feel too downtrodden as many in history have had it much, much worse. “If we cast a discerning glance over the path of prior nations, the size of our current calamity would shrink in comparison,” he says.** Meanwhile, he is preparing to exploit the country’s very last resource: its numerous bronze statues. The narrative and point of view then shift to an account of one of those statues and what it has witnessed, which includes a period in which robots were the main workforce but now fill mass junk/graveyards. At times the statue-narrator seems to have once been one of these, as it bizarrely describes itself moving around, collecting corpses and performing helpful deeds before it meets its final fate, rescued from the forges but misidentified and mistakenly revered.
Other entries feature a kind of time travel, weaponized snot (yes, snot) and, hauntingly, a woman who escapes an arranged marriage to a mullah only to become a media icon until yet another version of the “truth” of her story casts her down again.
A collection like this isn’t just about the editor or the authors, though, and each story in Iraq + 100 has a different translator. These are uniformly brilliant, with beautiful command of English prose and impressive resumes from work in literature, film and education. Not all are Iraqi. All were necessary to bring us this book as it is, full of graceful sentences, startling images and potent ideas. Not every story is going to be to your taste, but there’s bound to be one that grabs you, stays in your memory, and reminds you that where there is art, there is hope.
*Unless Anoud, whose “about the authors” entry simply advises that “Anoud is an Iraqi-born author living in London”, is also a woman? Anoud’s story, “Kahramana”, relates a woman’s experience vividly, so it’s possible. But then again, Anoud might be trans. Or intersex. Or whatever Anoud wants to be. Since we don’t even get the clue of a pronoun, Anoud is Anoud, a mystery. That’s OK.
**Diaa Jubaili is one of the few authors in this collection who still lives in Iraq, and the stories were actually composed in 2015, so I don’t think this theocrat was necessarily inspired by anyone who might now be, say, a resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but then again, who’s to say how things wind up in the zeitgest?