|Blasim takes some time out from creating his acclaimed prose.|
Risking it all to have a voice.
I was apprehensive to meet this mysterious man who 16 years ago had fled Iraq in fear of his life. Before we met I wondered if there would be many difficult walls to break down when we tried to have a conversation together. Would he be as dark as his gruesome stories, with no such thing as a happy ending?
Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi author and filmmaker who lives as a refugee in Finland. He ran from his home because he couldn’t live as himself. He couldn’t speak his thoughts or beliefs, or things he questioned. In order to live there, he had to keep quiet. And he as himself, couldn’t keep quiet. So he risked his life on the run to continue writing and creating, to bring the world a story that is all too common, but all too commonly kept hidden.
As he came in the room and shook my hand, I could see he was kind and open to talk about life. A natural connection instantly opened between us and I never even had to start the interview; it was simply a long interesting conversation. I sat wide-eyed listening to the story of a refugee straight from the source; from an intriguing Iraqi man full of hidden scars, but brave enough and with enough trust in himself and human kind to keep his art flowing.
What led you to be seen as an activist figure in Iraq?
I wasn’t free to be myself there. You must be quiet and not speak your mind. At a young age I was reading and questioning things about society and religion. I became angry at the oppressive regime we lived under with Saddam Hussein, always being the one talking about the problems while my friends said to be quiet. So I started writing and making films to spread these ideas.
Why did you flee the country?
I was making these movies while studying film in Baghdad. My film Gardenia won best film in the Iraqi Arts Academy film festival and Saddam’s Baath party did not like this.
I came to be seen as an activist and the secret police began questioning me, and scaring me saying, “We are going to send you after the sun.” Or in other words, they were going to kill me. So I fled Baghdad in a car and then paid a smuggler to lead me through the mountains into Kurdistan, which was independent from Saddam at the time.
Hassan Blasim’s work has received many awards, including one of English Pen’s four Writers in Translation Awards for 2012 and has been written up in The New York Times as well as The Wall Street Journal. More info:
And this is when you made the film Wounded Camera. How did this get you into trouble?
Yes. I was living there making films and teaching filmmaking under the pseudonym Ouazad Osman, which means ‘free man’ in the Kurdish language. I made this film against Saddam about millions of poor people fleeing the Iraqi army to the border. After this it became unsafe for me there as well, so I fled again on foot to Turkey. Then to Bulgaria. And then further on up into Europe. I ended up in Finland in 2004 when an Iraqi friend invited me to come stay with him.
What is it like to live as a refugee in a foreign country?
It’s not easy to live as an immigrant, especially when you carry bad memories from your past. It’s especially difficult in Finnish society as a refugee, coming from such a terrible life to serve pizza to a generation that has had it so good and not seen this sort of death. They are in a different rhythm altogether.
Do you regret your path having to live in exile and do you plan to go back to Iraq?
I am always suffering because I am not there doing my work back home and fighting to make a difference. But I had a friend with the same feeling who went back to film a movie. They killed him. So I can’t go back, not now. I’m not trying to be a hero.
You natively write in Arabic, but your work is translated and published only in Western countries. Why is this?
Arabic publishers refuse it because I talk about taboo things and use dirty language. I mix Arabic languages instead of just using the holy language. But actually recently, after receiving good reviews and prizes in English, one Arabic publisher is printing my work. But only after much cutting and editing.
What do you write that gets Western attention? Do you format your creativity for Western tastes?
All the writers and filmmakers that produce work about Iraq are Americans, not insiders. So Westerners don’t get a real Iraqi perspective. But I’m not thinking about getting the attention of anyone or influencing anyone when I write. I’m an artist just writing literature about my own country’s problems, not trying to appease to anyone.
What is the source of your writing? What do you draw upon?
It comes from many things; problems in life or in my country, personal experience, seeing people die in the streets as a kid. It comes from age and my imagination. It comes from other books. I fell in love with literature first. I love books. They saved my life. I was often with my book instead of around the violence. It’s hard to say. It just comes. I just want to write. I want to write. I want to write.
Much of your stories have an atheist tone. In The Reality and the Record, a particular line of the Professor is striking. “Man is not the only creature who kills for bread, or love, or power, because animals in the jungle do that in various ways, but he is the only creature who kills because of faith.” How do you see the role of religion in the Mid East?
The world would be better and more peaceful without religion. I was born Muslim, but during my teenage years began reading philosophy, talking to people, and questioning. Now I’m an atheist. I believe in nature.
But I’m not talking bad about religion in my fiction writing. I’m playing when I write fiction. It’s not real. It’s not real to go to the market and a car bomb takes your family. It’s not real. They plan violence from a cave or it comes in an American missile. I make humour from violence because I don’t understand it. It’s scary and it makes me boil inside.
In this same story a hostage is held and sold between various political factions and forced to make propaganda videos confessing crimes committed by rival groups. Is this really happening and does this man represent something larger?
This story is a critique of the media. People think they are getting the truth, but many videos like this are fake, yes. It’s a good business for the average person to do this type of media.
So like in The Corpse Exhibition you tell the story of a man getting hired to murder and display bodies. Are you telling us that a lot of the atrocities such as car bombs and such are really independent paid acts, not even made by actual members of the groups who lay claim?
Yes. The average person can get paid a lot to help plant a bomb. They don’t care what they are doing to hurt the country. People just do anything to survive.
Then in the story The Madman from Freedom Square, you write of two godlike men called ‘the two blonds’ that start coming to an Iraqi town everyday. And since their arrival good things come like electricity, pavement, telephone lines, better schools, ect. But then the book also speaks of a loss of history, heritage, and religion. Do you see the US invasion and occupation of Iraqi as a positive or negative thing?
It’s very bad and was a big mistake. With a dictator life was secure, safe, and clear. We knew how to be. Kids could go to school safely. Women could go to work safely. Now you can’t even go shopping safely because car bombs are everywhere. When people leave their homes they pray they will make it back alive. It’s very difficult to live with this kind of stress.
Saddam was a very bad dictator that did terrible things. But we didn’t need the US to take him out. We should have done it ourselves through revolution. And we were on the way. It was taking hold in writing and films and people talking. Democracy is not a medicine. If the US really wanted to help the Iraqi people, they should have let us keep our oil.
Why do you never bring your reader a happy ending?
I don’t like happy endings personally. They’re too romantic and not real. There has been no happy ending in Iraq, only war.
Does your new collection of short stories Corpse Exhibition reflect or overlap the work in your prior books, Iraqi Christ and The Madman in Freedom Square?
Yes. It is a collection of stories from both.
Where has your work been published and where can people get it?
My books have now been published in English, Finnish, Italian, Polish, Arabic, and soon in Spanish and Bulgarian. You can get them at most bookstores here and major online dealers like Amazon.
When 6D spoke with you earlier, you didn’t foresee yourself living in Finland in the long run. Has this changed? What lies ahead?
As I said before, life is like a hotel room for me, nowhere is really home. But for now, yes. I am happy here. I have roots here and people that are important to me. In Finland I can be free. I can write what I want in peace. I can sit here and talk to you in a nice coffee shop without fear. This is a big gift for me.
Image: Katja Bohm