Distance in Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass”

There is no such thing as diversity in Arab America; there are diversities. We do not adhere to a singular body politic: we engage in all sorts of politics. We do not occupy an Arab American culture: we belong to numerous cultures housed, somewhat reductively but usefully as intellectual shorthand, under the rubric of an Arab American ethnic community. We do not produce a particular style of literary fiction: like all good authors, we write literary fictions spanning the available range of aesthetic and structural paradigms – sometimes we alter them to better exhibit cultural flavor, and sometimes we transcend them and create new ones.

Steven Salaita, p 2

Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics

 

The simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy gives distance a plural status in literature. One can be both near to something because of empathetic experience and far from it relative to its physical subject as a reader. If I relate to a character I am emotionally intimate with him or her while simultaneously distant from him or her, as I exist outside the fictional story-world, beyond the pages of the book. But how does this simultaneity help us understand plurality in world literatures? In this essay, I will explore how Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass” takes up the simultaneity and relationality of distance by invoking the very act of storytelling and making rhetorical shifts in tense sequence. It is my argument that by so doing, Blasim’s story accomplishes the “ethic of plurality” Salaita says exists for Arab (American) literature and affirms Al-Ali and Al-Najjar’s claim that “Iraqis exist in the plural as any other population” (Salaita 2, Al-Ali and Al-Najjar 32). While Blasim is not himself Arab-American, the translation into English of his stories in The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq presents an important space to further problematize the dangerous us/them binary narrative that exists between what is represented as a dominant U.S. culture, which is itself self-actualizing and patriotic, and what is simply represented as “Arab” culture, which in its creation must oppose and threaten the former and thus must be un-patriotic and non-dominant and which becomes ultimately racialized. In an effort to explain what Carol Fadda-Conrey calls a post-9/11 resurgence of portraying Arab people “through an antihomogonous lens,” I will argue that by invoking distance in the very act of storytelling in “The Killers and the Compass,” Blasim’s characters inhabit a plurality in themselves because of their plural story-world (Fadda-Conrey 534). I will then move on to how the relational function of distance operates to break down or problematize non-plural representations of any peoples and simultaneously re-establishes the artificial boundaries that prevent yet necessitate different realities.

As his older brother, Abu Hadid, trots Mahdi around the neighborhood, each encounter invokes storytelling as a means to understand character. This is to say that for Mahdi, every relation he has to where and whom they visit is tied to a story. The muddy lanes are muddy because of a storm, the smell of fried fish becomes about Majid the traffic policeman’s being drunk, even Abu Hadid’s picking up a stone and throwing it at cats becomes a story about Abu Rihab and his daughter (Blasim 14-15). Blasim’s invocation of storytelling within his story aesthetically creates community within the story. It takes little narrative space to create a sense of a larger community within the neighborhood. Beyond this, it also creates minor structures of storytelling that are then echoed and expanded in the story-within-the-story of the Palestinian kid and the compass.

For example, the shirt as a device travels. Abu Hadid orders Mahdi to take his off then orders the mechanic to fetch a new one. The clean one is from mechanic’s son who is a student at medical college. This is to say the shirt is the article of relation – who wears it, where does it come from, what does it smell like. Associations between the shirt and those who wear it are also in tandem with the way the shirt encounters distances: literally from one person to the next and figuratively based on the experience of the shirt, the shirt “smelled of soap” and was that of the student’s (16). It also inhabits a space of surprise when it fits Mahdi. By invoking this sense that beyond every geographic location in the neighborhood, beyond every article of clothing even, is an infinite number of characters, stories, or memories relationally connected, Blasim is affirming the plurality of these characters. The narrator does not exist in one storyline or even two, but in any infinite number of storylines.

A bit later, there is a brief interlude within the story about Abu Hadid that makes shifts in tense between past, present, and future. What is so special about Abu Hadid that his story can operate both in a past tense that contains a future interlude? This only lasts one paragraph and then the story continues in the past tense. Beyond the paragraph, the story shifts from just past-tense to a future tense: “I would never understand what the man [who Abu Hadid sexually assaulted with a cucumber] had to do with my brother” (18). The interlude creates another circle of distance outside of the story. This is different from the earlier moment when Mahdi questions what his brother whispered to the gerbil: “All along the way I was wondering what Abu Hadid had whispered in the gerbil’s ear” (16). The latter happens within the story-world while the former is outside it. This shift with the interlude allows for the story-world to have another layer within itself. In other words, it’s a story within a story within a story, endlessly. In a story about storytelling, this device may also be a way to remind the reader that he is still reading a story. Nonetheless, the effect is that within each story is itself another story and so on forever.

The narrative distance seems to again affirm the plurality of the universe Blasim creates or is referencing. If there are an infinite number of stories within stories, the more realistic his world remains. While his darker more experimental style seems to toggle into the fantastical, the world Blasim creates is as real as it gets. It is this aesthetic of narrative distance that complicates each character’s life. In a story that seems to be about establishing one’s own god-ness through fear and violence, distance is also unequivocally tied to this relationship.

Distance is relational; it requires at least two parties. It is defined as the observable or felt space between two or more things (OED Online). Understanding something as inhabiting multiple valences of location – being relational, needing more than one part – is another way of saying it operates plurally. Salaita’s monograph, quoted as an epigraph to this essay, aims to take up different sociopolitical contexts for in-depth literary analysis of Arab-American writing, giving due acknowledgement to the frequently misrepresented peoples of Arab America in what self-manifests as a more-dominant American ‘mainstream’ culture. His impetus for this analysis is in establishing what he calls an “ethic of plurality” (Salaita 2). What does this plurality look like? One of the answers to this question may be in the relational quality of distance.

Distance can be far or near, long or short. Intimacy may be accomplished through a short distance while remoteness may be accomplished through a longer one. The plurality of distance exists in its relational quality. As Dara N. Byrne points out in her essay “The Future of (The) ‘Race’: Identity, discourse and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres,” social networking websites like AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and Naijanet can function to facilitate “diasporan interconnectivity” (Lane 439). The plurality that exists in distance’s relational qualities exists because of its simultaneous use toward intimacy and remoteness. One may find intimacy from a remote location by using the Internet. One can be both near to something and far from it because of the remote connection the Internet offers. Even the phrase “remote connection” seems almost oxymoronic given the context that remoteness requires vast distance. Remoteness, in fact, requires connection, for its very understanding lies in its relation to a different perspective.

In her review of Roy Scranton’s War Porn for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Hoenicke says,

All of these characters, and all of us — we either face our realities or don’t, but they remain realities. The Iraqis are for the United States and against it; the people are religious but not always devout; there is intelligence on both sides, and ignorance.

It is the simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy that remains integral to understanding the complex underpinnings of any global landscape. The minutiae are doubly crucial and no local, simple view can suffice. It is by recognizing the vast complexities within each locale, the myriad of details in each character relationship, that we can begin to condense and collapse the orientalist binary that not only sets up West and East but ties them to an endless battle between one another. Further, it is also in recognizing that the binary exists for many people and that the orientalist west-east/us-them dichotomy is the dominant worldview that we can begin to find ways, like in analyzing Blasim’s fiction, to collapse this narrative. Before we can prove the boundaries we create between ourselves are artificial, we must first acknowledge the different power structures that create and benefit from these boundaries. I hope that this essay and other like it become a means to explore these issues further.

 

Works Cited

  • Al-Ali, Nadje and Deborah Al-Najjar, editors. We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. Syracuse University Press, 2013.
  • Blasim, Hassan. The Corpse Washer and Other Stories of Iraq. 2014. Translated by Jonathan Wright, Penguin Books, 2014.
  • “distance, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Arab American Citizenship in Crisis: Destabilizing Representations of Arabs and Muslims in the US After 9/11.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2011, pp. 532-555.
  • Hoenicke, Sarah. “When the Hurlyburly’s Done: Roy Scranton’s ‘War Porn’” LA Review of Books, August 16, 2015. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Lane, Richard, editor. Global Literary Theory: an anthology. Routledge, 2013.
  • Salaita, Steven. Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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