The Rumpus: The Mirror's Shards
First published in The Rumpus
To lie in politics is unexceptional. In the last year alone we have seen Donald Trump claim that he opposed the Iraq invasion, despite video evidence to the contrary. We have seen Vladimir Putin deny the presence of Russian troops in Crimea. The millions of pounds promised to Britain’s ailing National Health Service by pro-Brexit campaigners will likely never materialize. Fake news litters our social media timelines, their headlines retweeted as immutable fact. Awash with misinformation, the present moment supposedly marks a deep shift in attitudes towards truth. Reality no longer matters in the age of post-factual politics, the op-eds tell us; instead, it’s about winning the game.
However, the post-fact thesis, which has itself become almost incontestable, is based on the assumption that truth had previously been the raw stuff of politics. It is taken for granted that these developments mark some sort of deviation from a time in which lying was not the norm. All one needs do is think back to 2002’s fervent pronouncements of WMDs in Iraq for evidence to the contrary.
In recent weeks, with the weight of the future hanging over me, I’ve found myself returning to Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s story collection The Corpse Exhibition. I first came across Blasim’s work a couple of years ago, around the same time that I was researching my dissertation. I had been looking at post-conflict cultural production in the Middle East, and I was eager to find new ways of seeing, outside of the flattened images offered to me through war reporting. What other realities could be found, beyond shelled streets lying in ruin, and young-but-tough militiamen?
Blasim recognizes the multiplicity of truths that emerge from conflict. In addition to the big political lies, these include the wide-ranging stories that emerge from a complex and multifaceted war. He helped me to understand that the things I considered to be true were, in fact, only partial. In “The Iraqi Christ,” one narrator quotes the words of Rumi: “The truth was once a mirror in the hands of God. Then it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Everybody has a small piece of it, but each one believes he has the whole truth.” Every narrative, every story, is a fragment of a whole. Blasim doesn’t offer us more ‘authentic’ perspectives of Iraqi life, a dubious concept given the history of power and knowledge between the West and the Middle East. Instead, he encourages us to consider a multiplicity of perspectives and the cumulative nature of truth.
Of course, this kind of postmodern relativism is a far cry from the deliberate falsehoods spouted by political leaders. In Blasim’s stories, truth—or its ambiguity—is at its most compelling not as a thing in itself, but as something that exists in a relationship with power. Take, for instance, this opening paragraph to “The Reality and the Record”:
Everyone staying at the refugee reception centre has two stories—the real one and the one for the record. The stories for the record are the ones new refugees tell to obtain the right to humanitarian asylum, written down in the immigration department and preserved in their private files. The real stories remain locked in the hearts of the refugees, for them to mull over in complete secrecy. That’s not to say it’s easy to tell the two stories apart. They merge and it becomes impossible to distinguish them.
In “The Reality and the Record,” storytelling is a means of survival. Since refugees’ lives are at the mercy of international asylum law, they can be—and often are—ended with the flick of a red pen. But, Blasim notes, the line that separates these two stories is blurry; fact and fiction merge, and neither version can be said to be true or entirely false.
Like many of the characters in his stories, Blasim is also a refugee. He made the journey from Iraq to Finland on foot, travelling without documents across the borders of Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Hungary. Born in 1973 under Saddam Hussein’s regime, he would have witnessed firsthand the extensive manipulation of truth to suit political ends. Throughout the 1970s, school textbooks were rewritten from Hussein’s Ba’ath Party perspective. They were wholeheartedly anti-US in sentiment, and claimed that Hussein personally and single-handedly defended the Arab world against Zionism. There were to be no alternatives: this was Iraq’s history—at least until the early 2000s, when the US occupation initiated yet another revision. This time, all anti-western references were removed.
Blasim’s short stories often feel like they are being told to us, rather than something we read silently on a page. Which, in some sense, they are: in “The Army Newspaper,” a dead soldier testifies to a court from the afterlife; in “The Reality and the Record,” a refugee makes his case to an asylum officer. These are tales within tales, richly layered folk narratives in the style of One Thousand and One Nights. But rather than djinns and sultans, Blasim’s protagonists are soldiers and traffickers.
His stories bear another resemblance to that classic work. In the Nights, Scheherazade must tell stories to her husband—an embittered king with a penchant for murdering wives—each night, to ensure her own survival. Blasim’s stories, too, feel like tactics for survival. They bear witness to a moment in history, told from vantage points that are in danger of being obliterated by other, more dominant narratives about the post-invasion years. In telling these stories from street level, through the eyes of citizens, he is keeping this multiplicity of truths alive.
“The Hanging Gardens of Babylon”—Blasim’s contribution to Iraq +100, an anthology of Iraqi science fiction—looks a century ahead, to a time when these stories are all but forgotten. It takes place in a futuristic version of Babylon, filled with hackers and engineers, and made habitable by through a system of giant biodomes. Citizens of this prosperous and creatively liberated city show little interest in its violent and bloody past, an attitude shared by our narrator who, unfortunately for him, has been charged with turning 21st-century novels into contemporary story-games. It is only when he is able to revisit the post-invasion years—through the means of a hallucinogenic insect—that he begins to realize the importance of listening to voices that speak to us from the past.
Many of the sources at our disposal are teaching us to understand the Middle East and Islam within an increasingly restrictive framework. The rise of far-right politics in the US and Europe is no doubt a consequence of this. Searching for other voices, ones that offer us alternative perspectives, is itself a powerful act of resistance. But much like Rumi’s mirror, Blasim makes clear these stories are still only fragments—they are not absolute.
In the face of colossal and destructive political lies, we need a more nuanced understanding of the world than simply truth versus lie. Otherwise we risk undoing decades of work by countless feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, and anti-racist campaigners, those who first taught us about the importance of subjectivity. When I read Blasim, I’m reminded that we can still fight with a mirror’s shards.