Dead Man Talking — Hassan Blasim’s short stories

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim
Penguin
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

 

What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?

A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even the 18114111-_uy475_ss475_ones living know death to be staring them in the face. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.

I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

Read the rest of the review here.

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Immigrant’s Postcard: The March, the masks, the meal

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada

It’s only Tuesday, but the collective spirits of myself and the husband included are already sagging. We decide to give in to the trite solution of an impromptu eating-out outing. I suggest the Chinese restaurant located at a stone’s throw from our apartment.

Winter is setting in, and it’s dark by the time we walk towards the place. It remains dark even when we arrive at its doors–no glowing OPEN sign beckoning us. That’s when I read the restaurant’s hours, painted in red and yellow on the wall. Closed on Tuesdays, it says.

The spirit lurches further, but  we continue to walk on. B suggests we check out a shawarma place, about half a kilometre away, in the opposite direction. So we turn back, the chilly November breeze blasting on our faces. We pass by the shawarma joint, suddenly enthused to explore a bit more–maybe another Chinese restaurant? Down a few more paces, suavely-dressed people look out at us from the swanky and unaffordable Che resto-bar, even as I ponder on the incongruity of its name.

McDonalds and Jambalya–a Thai-Caribbean restaurant get a miss from us too. We are looking for cheap food, yet give an elitist ignore to McD. As we cross the road, I realize agitated hunger bugs are good agents for fighting a drooping spirit. I feel the bugs chorusing in my belly.  We walk by another expensive Thai restaurant and veto a “Vietnamese and Pizza” place before walking into a corner store that also sells Caribbean take-out. The words Goat Curry on the menu light up our faces, but the shine is erased a moment later, when the kitchen manager–a sturdy black lady–emerges from the kitchen with a broom in her hand and informs us they are about to close the doors.

The hunger bugs align with the spirit and heave in my belly.

As we wait for the walking signal to cross the street, something silky-soft kisses my head, then my face. I turn around astonished even as a young man pulls a huge flag away from me, saying, “I am sorry, didn’t mean to flag you.” With him are a few more young men, some of them in white Guy Fawkes masks. We cross the street together.

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A sudden craving for burritos seizes the husband, although there are no Mexican eateries anywhere within our walking range. We have already covered a couple of kilometres on foot, so I turn down the idea of going back home, getting out the car to go to his favourite Mexican grill. He remains relentless in his burrito demand, yet makes a turn–as abrupt as the heroine of Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” when she spurns her letter-writing lover–towards a shawarma shop.

A chubby-cheeked young man greets us from behind the counter. He’s cooking up a storm with chicken shawarma and hands us nibbles to taste as we place our orders. He makes two chicken shawarmas for us, and every time he receives our nod for adding a condiment (Tzatziki, hot sauce, pickled turnips, red onions), he says “Shukriya” with a self-assured smile. With the selfsame cordiality, he asks us to sit and eat and not do a take-out. Our tired feet agree, and we become the only two patrons in the big restaurant, its walls punctuated with prints of Babylonian structures. As he sits down with his own shawarma for dinner, our young host tells us he’s from Iraq but had lived mostly in Syria before moving to Canada.

In one evening, B and I unwittingly become participants of the Million Mask March and receivers of delicious Middle Eastern hospitality.

Shukriya/shukran, for both.

Read all Immigrant’s postcards here.