REVIEW: “Najufa” by Ibrahim al-Marashi

Review of Ibrahim al-Marashi, “Najufa”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 155-173 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The dominant theme of this story is memory — memory and history — making it a fitting capstone for the entire anthology. Muhammad, the narrator, and his grandfather, Isa, have gone on pilgrimage to Najufa, the city that was once the two separate cities of Najaf and Kufa. It is a pilgrimage that Isa has never made before, but it is the last in a long line of pilgrimages that his ancestors have made. We are told the stories of Hassan in the 1920s; of his son, Mortaza, who was Isa’s grandfather; and of Isa’s father, Ibrahim, who accompanied Mortaza on his final pilgrimage to the shrine of Iman Ali in 2010. Now, while Muhammad is on pilgrimage with his grandfather, Isa, Isa recounts the final pilgrimage of his own grandfather, the stories of all of these men twining and intertwining. “That trip was their story, not yours!” Muhammad tells his grandfather at one point, but what is left unspoken is Muhammad’s story himself. There is a point in the story point where suddenly one is hit the with the realisation that of six generations of men, we are missing one — Muhammad’s father is never named, though once they arrive in Najufa, Isa is continually advising his grandson, “Call your father”.

It is a small point, but it is one that becomes very big at the end. For the majority of it, the story wears its SF genre like veneer. There are droids, synthetic foods, Tau beams, but nothing that is integral to the story itself — to the point where in the notes I took while reading, I was all prepared to say in this review that the story was “just speculative/futuristic, no SF”. But then the very last paragraphs come with a twist that could only occur in an SF story, to kick you in the gut and make you cry.

At the very end, “I stepped outside, and tapped my forehead: ‘Call Dad’,” Muhammad tells the reader, and this final act seems to encapsulate the entire anthology. No one knows where we are going, what the future might hold (whether China will be the rulers of the Middle East; whether there will ever be a “CAKA”, the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas; whether glucose will become a substance as highly regulated as hard drugs are today); but equally so we can never truly know where we have come from. Yet both our history and our future are integral to who we are, and what we can do. We cannot disregard either if we hope to understand the other.

REVIEW: “The Here and Now Prison” by Jalal Hasan

Review of Jalal Hassan, Max Weiss (trans.), “The Here and Now Prison”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 139-153 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

If I had to sum up the theme of this story in one line, it would be the question “How do we deal with continuity in the face of radical discontinuity, before and after?” Or perhaps, “How do we understand the present as history from the point of view of a radically different future?” This is, in a sense, the question that shapes the entire anthology, but it is more clear in this story than in some of the others, and Hassan makes it clear how our language is simply not up to the task. In the opening scenes, a teacher tells his students:

We call it the world whether it is our own world or that which we no longer know, the way it was before the year 2021. As if nothing changed.

It was a strange, beautiful, and sweet story, but also one which was never entirely explained. In particular, the reader is left to guess at what the title is meant to mean. I can think of a number of interpretations, but I am hesitant to articulate any of them, because they seem to be nothing more than idle guesses or speculation.

There are a handful of minor typographical/editing errors: missing commas on p. 143 and p. 146, an extra “the” on p. 152, and one occurrence of “effected” on p. 149 which I am pretty sure should have been “affected” (although there is a reading of the sentence in which “effected” works.)

REVIEW: “Baghdad Syndrome” by Zhraa Alhaboby

Review of Zhraa Alhaboby, Emre Bennett (trans.), “Baghdad Syndrome”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 87-106 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story has so many layers to it, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s the “future-day” story of a man suffering from Baghdad Syndrome who dreams of a weeping woman. There’s the “present-day” story, set in our present or near past, of two star-crossed lovers whose story was commemorated in a statue in a central square. There’s the “past-day” story, of Scheherazade at the 1001 nights. These stories weave in and out of each other and the thread that ties them all together is names and naming. Some of the characters are not named at all; they are simply placeholders that could be anyone. The narrator’s name depends on who it is that is addressing him, whether he is “Patient Sudra Sen Sumer” or “Architect Sudra Sen Sumer”. Some characters are named, but their names are “new” names, names that have been consciously divorced from history, because:

Old names and surnames became dangerous things to hold onto, and people were allocated new, neutral names, free from any affiliations to religions or sects of the past. The slogan we read about in history was: ‘Leave behind your names and live!’ (p. 102).

In one poignant moment, Sudra Sen Sumer visits the family of his coworker Utu, and the older members of the family go around one by one saying the names of their grandparents and great-grandparents, their names connecting them to their histories. Names encode our history, and when those names are taken away, so too is our access to our history; the playing out of this theme is central to the story, and it is also in the periphery at every step.

And then there’s the name, “Baghdad Syndrome”. It’s a destructive illness, one of the long-term consequences of chemical warfare. The course of symptoms is well-known, and there is no cure; when there is no cure and you know what your fate will be, what point is there in visiting the doctors who will do nothing more than give a name to what it is that ails you?

But the illness is only superficial. It is not the real Baghdad Syndrome. For:

You see, if you’re a sufferer of Baghdad Syndrome, you know that nothing has ever driven us, or our ancestors, quite as much as the syndrome of loving Bahgdad (p. 106).

There is so much love in this story. So much love and so much heart. I think it’s probably my favorite in the entire anthology.

REVIEW: “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili

Review of Diaa Jubaili, Andrew Leber (trans.), “The Worker”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 61-80 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story is two distinct halves stitched together into one story by their shared narrator. In the first half, our unidentified narrator tells us about what life is like, 100 years into the future, and it is a strange collection of facts. Measles has not yet been eradicated, and AIDS is still prevalent — but antibiotics are still viable. At some point in the past automata replaced many ordinary workers, but these automata are now broken and nonviable. World War Three happened about 20 years previously, and the fall-out of climate change and war has wreaked havoc on society. There is slavery. There is cannibalism. But there is also the Governor, who employs clerks to search through history to provide him with examples of calamaties, atrocities, horrors, tragedies, and catastrophes. From these he composes his sermons which indulge in the very strange sort of reasoning that is often known as the ‘Pain Olympics’ — surely his people cannot be that badly off, since many other people in history have had it much, much worse.

In this first half, we have no idea who the narrator is, nor who the titular worker is. This is addressed in the second half, where it turns out that they are one and the same. But the worker is no ordinary worker, and it is only towards the end of the story that we find out that he is not just a worker but The Worker, the essence of the ordinary every day working man captures in concrete and made into a statue. His history is recounted, as well as his present context, until the story ends, quite abruptly, without any clear resolution.

Tales told from the point of view inanimate objects are often listed on journal wish-lists. But they are hard to write without unduly anthropomorphising the object, or having to tell some tortuous story about how it is this unconscious, inanimate thing can even have a point of view. This story simply entirely ignores the question of how the statue is a position to be able to tell us a story, and also simply cares nothing at all about whether it is being too anthropomorphic. This blithe disregard is noteworthy because it is perhaps the clearest speculative element of the story: It is just taken for granted that this type of narrator and narration is possible without feeling any need to explain or justify this possibility.

The story is well-populated with informative footnotes (you know how much I love an informative footnote — especially when one of them is such that I can feel very smug because I didn’t need it, I know who ibn Khaldun is, thank you very much). There was one moment of frustration though: Footnote 5 appears on p. 65. Footnote 7 appears on p. 72. When one flips to the end of the story, one finds that there are only 6 footnotes: And the content of footnote 6 does not match the sentence footnoted 7. Footnote 6 actually turns up on p. 77, but we are left forever in the dark as to what footnote 7 was intended to be.

REVIEW: “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim

Review of Hassan Blasim, Jonathan Wright (trans.), “The Gardens of Babylon”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 11-33 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

For a speculative story about how the world will be in the future, “The Gardens of Babylon” spends a lot of time looking back to the past, with the speculative (or in this case, properly science fiction) elements primarily a means of allowing the characters to not just look backwards but also experience what life then/now was like. The title itself is intended to invoke a memory of the historic wonder of the ancient world; the titular gardens in this story are very clearly presented as a new vision and interpretation of paradise.

The story is woven out of two threads: One is the story of a present-day man who worked as a translator, translating Raymond Carver stories, and the other is the story of the narrator, in the future, who is tasked with converting the stories of the past — include the tale of the translator — into an interactive game for people to enjoy in paradise. Both the narrator and the translator have similar narrative voices and styles, as well as similar goals — the narrator to preserve history through retelling it, the translator to preserve it through translating it. At times, it is difficult to keep the two speakers and the their two tales distinct; but this confusion ends up being exploited in the resolution of the story.

Two things struck me about Blasim’s vision of the future as depicted in this story:

  • First, this is the second story in the anthology wherein the dominant power is the Chinese.
  • Second, the biggest influence on the future was not the war or the fall-out from war, but rather climate change. The war is basically an afterthought, a nonevent.

This is part of what I have enjoyed so much about this collection — the sheer diversity of imagined futures.

REVIEW: “Kahramana” by Anoud

Review of Anoud, “Kahramana”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 1-10 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Anoud’s story of a woman pledged to be married to Mullah Hashish, who attacks her would-be husband when he tries to rape her, escapes to the American Annex of Sulaymania and becomes poster-girl for the refugee women the war has left only to be cast aside and forgotten when the media had no further use for her, is the opening story of the anthology, and starts the book off on a remarkably down note. (It does have an Informative Footnote, though, and we know how much I love an informative footnote.)

This story is more prosaic than some in the collection; there is little about it that is either science fictional or fantastic, and the main speculative elements come from simply imagining that the world in 100 years isn’t all that much different from the world now. There is no clear setting, and except for a few sparse details that impact on the plot hardly at all, the story could be set contemporarily. The result of this is that one comes away from the story with the feeling that nothing ever really changes.

The narrative voice shifts from a bird’s eye, abstracted account, to a close personal telling from Kahramana’s point of view, to clips from reporters and interviews. Each is distinctive from the other and together they provide the reader with both close and far views of the world. But whichever view is taken, what is seen is not very hopeful. I’ve actually read this story twice now: Once when I first received the anthology, and then again now to review it. Between starting the anthology off with this story, and the one that follows it (“The Gardens of Babylon”), the first time around I did not get a very good picture of what the collection as a whole would be like — which is partly why I’m reviewing them out of order for SFFReviews.

REVIEW: “The Corporal” by Ali Bader

Review of Ali Bader, Elisabeth Jacquette (trans.), “The Corporal”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 35-60 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Many of the stories in Iraq+100 betray a deep sadness and fear about the future — but not this story. Bader’s story is a mix of exuberantly hopeful, riotously funny, and — in places — scarily prescient. Bader’s vision of the future is told through the eyes of someone from the past. The Corporal was killed by a sniper during the original invasion, and ends up in limbo while awaiting to learn whether or not his death made him a martyr (as a philosopher, I love the idea that the reason why the limbo queue in the afterlife is so long is because Socrates won’t stop asking God questions!). Eventually, though, he gets sent back to earth as a prophet — 100 years in the future. In that future, the American invasion “worked”; Iraq is now a democracy, a place of peace and calm, and a beacon of democracy in the rest of the world. The cities of Kut and Nasiriyah are quiet and clean and filled with happy people.

The speculative element of the story is quite minimal, especially in the beginning, simply there to scaffold the juxtaposition of the two Iraqs; this does not make the story any less gripping.

Reading the story, it’s hard to remember that these were written before November 2016 and the aftermath of the US election. For example, a 21st-century man explains to the Corporal:

“Just take America: now it’s an extremist state, gripped by religion…The extremists found refuge in America, and that’s the problem now. America has become an extremist state, overrun by religious intolerance…”

“Are you telling the truth, sir?”

“Yes, America is a rogue state now. It’s part of the axis of evil. The civilised world is trying to bring the country back to its senses and bring back democracy.” … “The problem is with the West — that’s right, the problem is with the West, which has been transformed into an oasis of terrorism, a haven for religious intolerance and hatred” (pp. 56-57).

It’s hard not to read this and reflect on how much truth resembles fiction sometimes.

It was a brilliant story with a brilliant ending, and one that hits a little too close to home for comfort. My favorite of the book so far.

REVIEW: “Kuszib” by Hassan Abdulrazzak

Review of Hassan Abdulrazzak, “Kuszib”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 115-138 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Of all the stories in this anthology that I’ve read so far, this one is by far the most strange. Abdulrazzak imagines a world a century from now where aliens have taken over and humans are reduced to the status of farm animals, and it is from the point of view of the aliens that the story is told (this confused me at first when wine-drinking was mentioned, but was cleared up quite quickly). Through their eyes, we are given a picture of humanity which picks up on all our flaws, our hubris, and our lack of civilization. When the aliens land at Centre Point, which used to be called “Baggy-Dad” in the archaic human language of “Arabaic”, they laugh at the fact that the people of “Newey Pork”, “Lindon”, and “Beige-inn” are all insulted that their cities were not the ones chosen as the invasion site. But “humans were never that good at logic”, the aliens are all taught, and they are uncivilized too, whatever they think. It is easy for those newly arrived conquerors to conclude that their technological superiority translates into superiority in all contexts. From there, it is an easy step to the hunting, herding, and farming of human beings, a thread running through the story whose treatment is just casual enough to make it entirely unsettling.

The story contains more erotic elements than others in the book — fair warning for anyone who would prefer to avoid anything explicit — but these elements are handled with a good measure of humor. It is refreshing to see that alien sex is amusing not because it is alien but because it is sex.

This is the first story in the collection where I have noticed some editorial issues. There is a distinct lack of commas setting off the addressee of speech, and two typos — one “it’s” for “its” on p. 124 and one “pour” for “pore” on p. 123.

REVIEW: “Operation Daniel” by Khalid Kaki

Review of Khalid Kaki, Adam Talib (trans.), “Operation Daniel”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 107-114 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Operation Daniel” answers the question “What would Iraq be like 100 years after the invasion” with the perhaps unexpected “ruled by China”. This answer forces the reader to consider not only how Iraq might be transformed over the next century but also the rest of the world.

It’s an all too familiar world that Kaki paints, with the repression of the local languages, culture, songs, literature, and names and the introduction of a dictator who rules under the guise of benevolence for all. It is also a macabre world, where people who don’t adhere to the rigid rules of repression are extracted, cremated, and their remains compressed into a tiny diamond to decorate the dictator’s shoes.

The narrator is quite circumscript in their telling, telling us what shouldn’t happen or what cannot happened, rather than what must and what did, and this circumscription fits well with the story. Nothing is ever addressed head-on, only aslant, and this leaves the reader with the lingering feeling that this is a future that might possibly be escaped.

The story is both forward looking (in the sense that it looks forward from the present to the imagined future, but also in that it looks forward from the imagined future) and deeply historical, rooted in the ancient history of Kirkuk — a history one need not know in order to enjoy the story, because there are informative footnotes! Can I just say how much I love reading a piece of fiction that has informative footnotes? One footnote discusses contemporary and historic geography, two discuss the history of Kirkuk, and one provides information about local music. I love informative footnotes.

REVIEW: “The Day by Day Mosque” by Mortada Gzar

Review of Mortada Gzar, Katharine Halls (trans.), “The Day by Day Mosque”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 81-85 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Gzar’s story is told with language that has a lovely lyric quality, full of beautiful imagery and clever turns of phrase; I can only admire Halls’s translation, which must have been a difficult piece in order to retain this quality of prose from the original language. “The Day by Day Mosque” is quite a short story, and though it is set in the future, I felt like I learned a lot about the present reading it, both when the narrator harkens back to their past and their history, and in the way the future is contrasted with the past, i.e., our present. This importance of the present for a story set in the future is a theme that Page picks up on in the afterword of the collection:

The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict” (p. 175)

Some of the stories in the anthology require the reader to have more knowledge of the current present than others; this one, unfortunately, is one of them. The main speculative thread running through the story was the “Inversion Project, which will convert south to north” (p. 84). The resulting change in orientation seems to be quite significant, but the significance of it unfortunately escaped me, without a deeper context in which to locate the story. In this particular instance, I’m willing to say the defect is in me, not the story.