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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 4/7/14

The Crucible of Iraq

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The mistake almost sees him killed, but he redeems himself in the eyes of his kidnappers when he is dressed up as an Afghan fighter with five men standing behind him. Six men are brought in "screaming and crying out for help from God, his Prophet, and the Prophet's family." The men are slaughtered in front of him as he announces before the camera that he is "the new leader of the al Qaeda organization in Mesopotamia."

When violence is that random and capricious, everyone -- and those of us who were war correspondents were not immune to this -- becomes deeply superstitious. You believe in signs, totems, vague premonitions, dreams, opaque messages or warnings or ritualistic habits, as if you can do something to ward off the slaughter around you and control fate. In the story "The Iraqi Christ," a Christian soldier named Daniel is stationed with his company in the front lines in the war against the Americans in Kuwait. Daniel, whom the other soldiers call "Chewgum Christ," for his habit of always chewing gum, has bodily premonitions that warn him of attacks. The soldiers, enduring daily saturation bombing from American B-52 bombers and cruise missiles, cling to him like a life raft. When Daniel climbs out of a trench to lie in the shade of a water tank the soldiers follow him "as if he were a shield against missiles." Three bombs hit the trench 35 minutes later.

"In Daniel's company the war played out like the plot of a cartoon," Blasim writes...

"In the blink of an eye, reality lost cohesion. It fell apart and you started to hallucinate. What could one make, for example, of the way a constant itching in Daniel's crotch foretold that an American helicopter would crash on the headquarters building? Is it credible that three successive sneezes from Daniel could foretell a devastating rocket attack? They fired at us from the sea. We soldiers were like sheep, fighting comic book wars."

In the story "The Hole," a thief fleeing gunmen falls into a hole near the Natural History Museum in Baghdad and discovers a decrepit old man living next to the body of a Russian soldier who "fell in the forest during the winter war between Russia and Finland." The old man lived in Baghdad during the ancient Abbasid caliphate and, after he had supervised the hanging of lanterns in the streets at that time, criminals angered by the illumination chased him into the hole. Those who fall into the hole, he tells the thief, learn "how to find out about events of the past, the present, and the future."

"Are you with the government or the opposition?" the thief asks the old man.

"I'm with your mother's c-word," he answers.

"I'm speaking your language, man!" the old man says. "But you can't speak my language, because I was in the hole before you. But you'll speak the language of the next person who falls in."

In ordered European societies, immigrants desperately trying to survive as exiles, straining to fit into an alien culture and speak an alien language, soon discover they are forever bound to this wheel of fire. That experience, too, is one the author knows intimately.

Blasim, 40, short and stocky and with a graying beard, is a poet and a filmmaker in addition to being an author. It took him four years to get from Iraq to Finland, where he has lived since 2004. He was smuggled out of Iraq and lived miserably as an undocumented worker in Turkey and Bulgaria, where he lost a finger while working illegally in a restaurant. Like most exiles, he is haunted by what those around him cannot comprehend. "There are disguised moments of sadness that hide in various clothes and smells," he writes. His work, because it eviscerates all who wield the weapons of violence and because it is written in raw street slang and colloquial Arabic rather than the formal, classical Arabic of the educated classes, was banned in Jordan and heavily censored in Lebanon. He said most exiles never adjust. Some turn with venom on Western culture and retreat into hatred and radical Islam. Others desperately attempt to assimilate into the new culture, learning its language and customs, cursing the backwardness of their homeland and often changing their names to mask their Arab identity. The two sets of exiles split into antagonistic groups, he said. "It is hard to find balance."

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 deserters from the Iran-Iraq War. They were torturing these deserters with hoses and water. A week later they released me."

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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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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