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.

Perception and Performance Inherently Bonded To Action

For this post, I am reading Hassan Blasim’s story “The Reality and the Record” from his collection The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, which was translated by Jonathan Wright and published with Penguin Books. “The Reality and the Record” was first published by Comma Press in 2008 in Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East, edited by Joumana Haddad.

“We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad.”

p 156, “The Reality and the Record”

“I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum”

p 161, “The Reality and the Record”

 

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how laws are called “acts” — as in the Affordable Care Act or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Questions surrounding the way that laws are inherently actions, they operate not only philosophically or legally or in some abstract realm, but in the most fundamental, semantic way, they are actions. And while I recognize that, unlike Remy and Laura, I’m not versed in law or legal language, I think this is still something that we, as connoisseurs of words, can discuss.

Now obviously each story has action — in fact, what is a story without it? (A tract? a theory?) The very form of narrative requires it. In other ways, the very form of our lives is narrative, and thus requires action. So I don’t want this to be too immersed in the notion of how “action” happens in the story (and out of the story) — of course it does. I want to instead focus on the ways perception and performance are inherently bonded to action.

Take the first quote above, “We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad” (156). Perception begets action. The Professor is known as the professor — but then he is also mad because they hate him. He is both called professor and called mad. This is to say, again, that action derives from perception. This, too, gets us to a “so what?” question. So perception begets action. What does that do for us that we know it? Or Of course it does. Duh.

But take the second quote above, “I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum” (161). This complicates the notion of asylum because it is the very act of story-telling that gains one access to a “right.” It is the details of the narrator’s story that will allow him/her to receive “the right of asylum.” I want to pause here, too, on the word “right.” To (very) loosely quote Rachel Maddow (political correspondent/academic/badass), “[the point of having rights is that you don’t have to qualify them with any sort of voting or action. That’s why they’re rights!]” And yet, within this story we see the complications of seeking asylum — itself only realized if one does something to prove they deserve it (which by the way, does not make it a right — it makes it a privilege, a reward and as we all either know and/or must accept, those who have money or access to the higher tiers, or the people who run the higher tiers) of the hierarchical structure get their privileges first and foremost).

Access to one’s “right” to seeking asylum is itself tied to action. It is the performance of one’s story — in other words “what matters…is the horror” (167).

As we have also briefly discussed the work of Hannah Arendt, I think it relevant to mention that Arendt’s point that human rights do not exist in a vat — that guaranteeing human rights is dependent on the existence of a state that guarantees and protects those rights — is imperative to our understanding of this text and of the refugee crisis itself. Gaining access to an asylum from authoritarian governments that commit countless (with the aid of other governments — like the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China) human rights violations itself involves the admission of one’s own state’s inability or disinterest in preserving one’s human rights and seeking the preservation of those rights by another state. Thus, we have again come up to the inextricable link between action and law, between what is perceived to be true and what becomes so, between what can be done and what is done.

Abdulrazzak’s “Shadow of Their Former Selves”

For this, I am pulling from the Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar collection entitled We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. The image used here is also used as the jacket art for the book, entitled Iraqi Landscape 2005 by Hashim Al-Tawil.

 

“Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes,
Through a night hole hastily sprung,
Emerging on the other side to the warmth
Of an interrogation cell.”

“Shadow of their Former Selves”
Hassan Abdulrazzak

 

The first thing I notice about this stanza of the poem is the second line: “Through a night hole hastily sprung” where the predicate and subject in the syntax have been inverted in the sentence. It still grammatically makes sense, but it doesn’t take much to see the difference between “Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes” and “[Father was] through a night hole hastily sprung.” What does this syntactical inversion do?

For me, my experience reading this, that second line threw me out – I was confused and I didn’t really know what it was saying. I was forced to re-read the line so I could understand. So, there’s this pause then. A stop that interrupts the otherwise consistent syntax of the stanza and the poem. In the same way, the father in the poem’s being taken was a brief pause in the regular on-goings of the poem.

Most of the readings acknowledge that the experience of the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions, and then the 2003 invasion and on-going occupation were all a slow cakewalk, each step different and more severe than the one before it. But most of them acknowledge a specific moment where it’s obvious there is no going back – a pause in the syntax of their ongoings where an inversion occurs.

I want to hastily resist pushing all of these pieces into a one-size-fits-all understanding of the obvious plurality that Iraqi art and experience showcases in We Are Iraqis, so I will digress on this point – with the acknowledgement that while Al-Ali and Al-Najjar demand the collection’s mosaicity, the very existence of this collection seems to be an attempt to invoke that collectivity while still demanding “collection”’s lack as a term.

Back to Abdulrazzak’s third stanza, second line: I’m also drawn into the words (whether it’s because in English the syllable stresses are on these) “night hole” and “hastily sprung.” The term night hole is not one I’m familiar with and after an extensive google search it seems to be an Abdulrazzak neologism, but I’m guessing from the fourth line of the stanza that the night hole is perhaps the keyhole? door of some sort? that leads into an interrogation cell. And yet it isn’t called a keyhole or door. It’s called a night hole. What is the effect of calling it a night hole? A hole is a hollow space in an otherwise solid body or surface. To call it a “night” hole, as if its very existence depends on the time of day seems to imply that the darkness (literal and figurative – invoked from the first line “black Mercedes”) of night is something the hole requires. A hole is also defined informally as a small unpleasant place. But this unpleasant-ness or this informal image of the hole seems to contrast the “warmth” in the third line. The whole both requires its night-ness and its warmth. Now I’m thinking of a damp, hollowed out place in the ground. The warmth from the dirt. But the warmth doesn’t come from the dirt in the poem, it comes from the interrogation cell, from the interrogation. “warmth of an interrogation cell” – So the interrogation is heated? Is what makes the hole warm and nightly the interrogation combined with the feeling of being whisked off in a black Mercedes.

 

Spring/sprung

To spring means to move or jump suddenly upward or forward. He was sprung into the interrogation cell’s warmth via the night hole. But to spring also means to originate from, as in “to spring forth from.” Thus, Father was not only hastily thrown into the warmth of the interrogation /interrogation cell, he has also come from that night hole. I don’t know that there could be a more perfect understanding of this piece than being both sprung into and sprung from. The speaker’s parents are simultaneously themselves and shadows of their former selves. As Sinan Antoon puts it “I am forced to return [home] every day, but not to a physical space … Thousands rot…selling their future after having been robbed of their present and past” (25). Father is both originated from the night hole and sprung into it the same way Antoon’s Barbarian is both forced to return home “as much as [he tries] not to” and home is the place from which he originated.

 

What does it mean to be the shadow of one’s former self?

Just briefly, displacement is where I want to move with this question. To say the speaker’s parents are not themselves, not their former selves, but shadows of their former selves. That’s three degrees of displacement. Refugee status is granted to those who apply and are accepted by the U.N. as people who have been physically displaced for fear of violence or death. But what about emotional displacement? Could a shadow of one’s former self be the definition of an emotional refugee? This relates to a notion of both being sprung into and sprung out of one’s home because the emotional refugee may not ever truly be ‘displaced’ the same way one can be physically displaced. Instead, in a muddled way, saying someone is a “shadow of their former self” still acknowledges the self in there. In other words, this emotional displacement – status as an emotional refugee – may be the experience of being both simultaneously sprung out of home and sprung into home.

However, again I want to be careful not to lump all refugees into any sort of box. Nor do I want to try and take this poem as an understanding of The Refugee, as in all refugees. So, while I’m beginning to reach for larger scaled understandings of the refugee experience, I want to acknowledge that making statements about the emotional status of a refugee neither acknowledges the complexity of humanness that exists in every refugee nor can it ever be complete in its definition in the same way the human experience can itself never be completely explained.