Middle East

Sci-fi stories envisage Iraq in 100 years

British tank, Iraq, 2004 Image copyright AP
Image caption The writers were asked to imagine Iraq 100 years after the US-led invasion

A Chinese-run hive of digital development dependent on "water trains" from Europe. A hi-tech destination for a new generation of religious pilgrims. A dried-out wasteland with little left to trade but corpses and sand.

When the award-winning Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim and British publisher Ra Page asked Iraqi writers to imagine their homeland in 2103, 100 years after the US-led invasion, a plethora of haunting, dissonant - and sometimes uplifting - versions of the future emerged.

The resulting anthology, Iraq +100, published in the UK this week mixes science fiction with other genres including fantasy, fairy tale and satire.

The aim was to overturn literary traditions Mr Blasim felt had become staid under decades of censorship and violence, and create a platform for a generation of younger writers shaped by the internet and modern technology.

Image copyright Katja Bohm
Image caption Anthology editor Hassan Blasim walked across Europe without a passport to seek asylum

The opening story envisages Iraq divided into the "Islamic Empire of Wadi Hashish", run by extremists who eschew all digital media, and the fortress-like "American Annex of Sulaymania".

'Badass underdog'

The border of the American-controlled zone is "kind of like Calais... everyone wants to cross the fence," says its London-based writer, known only as Anoud for fear of repercussions for her family in Iraq.

The story's central character, Kahramana, is a reference to Ali Baba's slave girl in One Thousand and One Nights.

A statue of her has stood for years at a Baghdad roundabout, gracefully pouring boiling oil into metal pots in which, according to the tale, 40 thieves are hiding.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The character Kahramana - depicted in a Baghdad statue - inspired one of the stories

Anoud's Kahramana escapes a marriage to "Mullah Hashish", leader of a so-called Islamic State-style "Empire", only to find her fortunes fluctuating wildly at the mercy of bitterly caricatured humanitarians-cum-immigration officials and Western TV reporting.

Like her namesake, she is a "badass underdog" - "smart, cruel and undermined," Anoud explained in an article for the writers' organisation PEN.

She wrote the story after confusion over her visa at London's Heathrow Airport led to an immigration officer threatening her with deportation: "I had never been so angry in my life and I had never felt so small."

The story aims to "give the people in the gutter a chance to laugh at their do-gooders, clergy and oppressors", she says, comparing it to the irreverent American TV animation South Park.

Human remains

Eight of the nine writers are from the Iraqi diaspora, moving between Iraq and world cities such as Madrid, London, Brussels and Los Angeles.

Only one, Diaa Jubaili, lives permanently in Iraq, in the southern city of Basra.

His story, The Worker, portrays a grisly future, his home city littered with technological detritus and human remains after the oil, gas - and even uranium - have run out.

Image copyright Mortada Gzar
Image caption Diaa Jubaili: Basra today is "living through its worst times"

He says it's "a vision of what a century of private deals with unaccountable foreign corporations will do to the city".

"As much as we love it," Mr Jubaili says, Basra today is "living through its worst times", with problems ranging from pollution, to failing health and education systems, water and electricity shortages, kidnappings and armed robberies.

In Mr Blasim's own short story, a "Magical Generation" exports world-leading software from hi-tech domes which hark back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon described in ancient texts.

Psychedelic insect

Outside, sandstorms blow through the relics of the early 21st Century - after which, the reader is told, the violence stopped only when climate change took its toll and the oil wells ran dry.

The narrator is tasked with turning old literature into digital "story-games". He uses an electronic "psychedelic insect" - a tiny crawling device which connects to his brain activity - for inspiration, gaining hallucinogenic insights into the past.

Mr Blasim himself left Baghdad without a passport in 1998, fearing repercussions over a documentary he had made under then President Saddam Hussein. He travelled illegally through Europe, walking virtually all the way to Finland where he was finally granted asylum in 2004.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Diaa Jubaili imagines his home city Basra after the oil wells have run dry

He says that after years of having to seek Culture Ministry approval for their work, Iraqi writers now have more freedom, but self-censorship remains a problem.

The stories contain some provocative scenes. Anoud feels the current "anarchy" in the country has created "more room for creativity", but says experimentation does not come without cost.

"People might say 'blasphemy!' and 'whore!' or call you a 'western puppet'," she says, but "you can put a book freely on sale on the street in Iraq and people will read it."

While many of the stories portray quite a dark future, Mr Blasim is hopeful.

"Society needs time to learn from this violence," he says, pointing to Europe in the wake of World War II.

And several of the writers employ black humour. "For me, that's also hope," he adds.

The collection, published by Comma Press, is on sale in the UK. International sales and an Arabic language edition are planned.

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