Book Review: A testament to creativity and imagination

Science fiction is not common in the Arab world and that is exactly what makes this Iraqi book so special.
Updated 12 September 2017

Book Review: A testament to creativity and imagination

“Iraq + 100: Stories from a century after the invasion” is a collection of short science fiction stories by 10 Iraqi authors. The authors, some of whom live in Iraq and some of whom live abroad, imagine what the country will be like in the year 2103.
Edited by Hassan Blasim and originally suggested by Blasim’s publisher, Ra Page, the idea first came up in 2003 as a way to deal with the US invasion of Iraq. Considering science fiction stories are not common in the Arab world, Blasim wrote to many authors to convince them to write a futuristic story based on his belief that “writing about the future would give them the space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality.”
Blasim received a multitude of stories, in both Arabic and English, which he compiled to create this book.
Many stories stem from oppression, religious fanaticism and capitalist nightmares. Most of the tales are heartbreaking in their own way, as they lay bare the injustice that has riddled Iraq. One such story is titled “Kahramana” by an author called Anoud. The story is set in Sulaymaniyah and centers on Kahramana, who has been coerced into a forced marriage but flees to an international court in the hope that she will be allowed asylum elsewhere. Crowds rally behind her, but as her case takes years, and goes through its own ups and downs, the crowds begin to dwindle and the attention she once received disappears. The story exposes the futility of support and highlights the notion that crowds will rally until time and patience run out, leaving the victims to be forgotten.
This experience is not limited to one country, it is a worldwide tragedy and sadly repeats itself when humans become desensitized to the loss of life.
Creativity and imagination play an important role in the collection as authors such as Blasim, Hassan Abdulrazzak, Mortada Gzar and Khalid Kaki delve into advanced technological visions of Iraq. In “The Gardens of Babylon,” written by Blasim and translated by Johnathon Wright, Babylon is a playground for “virus architects and software artists.” Water is scarce but the Chinese have established a system to counter environmental shortcomings. In Kaki’s story, “Operation Daniel,” translated by Adam Talib, the past is frowned upon and ancient languages and literature are prohibited. Powerful overlords such as Gao Dong, who renames Kirkuk “Gao’s Flame,” believe that citizens are their beneficiaries and must “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” In Abdulrazzak’s story, “Kuszib,” life has changed entirely and no semblance of the old world exists.
The authors in this book do not shy away from bleak visions of the future, visions that have arisen from the destructive political and environmental policies of current-day Iraq. Climate change, depleting natural resources and rampant poverty cause the characters to yearn for a time before political struggle tainted the lives of Iraq’s inhabitants. “The Corporal,” written by Ali Bader and translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, is one such story. A fallen Iraqi soldier comes back to the world to tell future Iraqis who he was. He tells whoever will listen that he was born in 1960, served in the Iraqi army for 22 years, faced war for most of his time on earth and died for reasons misunderstood. It highlights the limited opportunities people ravaged by war have when it comes to choosing their own destiny.
Diaa Jubaili, Zhraa Al-Haboby, Jalal Hassan and Ibrahim Al-Marashi focus on futures in which citizens speak of the past and refuse to forget it. There is a particular longing for peace and tranquility in their stories, especially in “The Here and Now Prison,” written by Hassan and translated by Max Weiss. This theme is also prevalent in “Baghdad Syndrome,” written by Al-Haboby and translated by Emre Bennett, in which the older characters still refer to streets by their old names, still dream of Baghdad and revel in a beautiful past.
Each author touches upon Iraq’s tragic history and its bleak future. The destruction of the environment plays as important a role as the destruction of the country. Powerful overlords, authoritarian regimes and the continued limitation of life and freedom are presented in nearly every story, revealing powerful insight into the visions these creative talents have of Iraq’s future. However, a longing for the past keeps hope alive in the stories and allows the reader to revel in a past unknown to them, one that is not forgotten and one that will be carried through time, despite war and invasion. The memories of human life and history cannot be taken away as long as they are written about and remembered and this compilation is a testament to the hope that resides in remembrance, creativity and imagination.

Book review: The story of a trader who made it big in the scramble for Africa

Updated 19 September 2018

Book review: The story of a trader who made it big in the scramble for Africa

  • A must-read for anyone interested in real-life adventure
  • This biography transports the reader into his extraordinary world with its exotic cast of characters

BEIRUT: There was a time when, before the advent of a synthetic substitute, piano keys, billiard balls, combs and handles for cutlery were all made of ivory. Arab traders were interested in the lucrative trade to cater to the huge demand for ivory in Europe, America and the Far East.

Enter Tippu Tip whose first journey took place in 1855 and went on to establish him as a highly- successful ivory merchant.

His name is not easy to forget — it has an inner rhythm, a musical sound that stays with you and yet few know the truth about the iconic Omani trader whose life story turned into the stuff of legends.

Born in Zanzibar as Hamed bin Mohammed Al-Murjabi, Tippu Tip’s father, Mohammed bin Juma Al-Murjabi, was originally from Muscat and particularly proud of his mother’s ancestry.

Author Stuart Laing came across Tippu Tip while doing research for a dissertation on the abolition of the slave trade in East Africa and the Indian Ocean during the 19th century. “The aim of this book is to introduce the reader, through the life of Tippu Tip, to the extraordinary world of East Africa in the second half of the 19th century,” Laing wrote.

During that period, known as “The Race for Africa” and the “Scramble for Africa,” Europeans and Arabs opened up vast tracts of territory for trade in the East and Central part of Africa. Laing says us that these journeys were huge enterprises, with Arab trading caravans boasting porters and soldiers in huge numbers. Tippu Tip’s caravan itself had 2,400 men.

Besides being a smart trader, Tippu Tip had remarkable leadership qualities that would help him during his third journey lasting 12 years. During that trip, Tippu Tip made a decisive encounter with Henry Morton Stanley who acknowledged his unique qualities in his book, “Through the Dark Continent.” “After regarding him for a few minutes, I came to the conclusion that this Arab was a remarkable man, the most remarkable man I had met among the Arabs…”

The fascinating players outlined in this book make it a must-read for anyone interested in real-life adventure.