The Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim is a refugee. He found asylum in Finland approximately a decade ago, having to flee his homeland after stirring the anger of the regime by shooting a film in the Kurdish area of Iraq. The narrator of the story presented here is also an Iraqi refugee. Once his world comes crashing down, perhaps in the most chaotic moment in which we can imagine a human being, the refugee stands before the law, and must once again tie together the facts of reality — in order to obtain asylum he must tell a story to the immigration officer at the gates of the West. Blasim chooses the moment in which the story is a matter of life and death, and in that moment the narrator sets sail on the powerful waves of literature—in which reality and imagination “merge and it becomes impossible to distinguish them.” Everything that can soar in the human spirit comes to life in the story told by the narrator—imagination and humor, dread and anxiety, longing and hope, wisdom and belief, violence. The deceptive distance between art and history demands its rightful place here, and reminds us that both are ultimately the creation of people attempting to rule their own destiny, and not of law.
Everyone staying in the refugee reception centre has two stories – the real one and the one for the record. The stories for the record are the ones the 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. Two days ago a new Iraqi refugee arrived in Malmö in southern Sweden. He was in his late thirties. They took him to the reception centre and did some medical tests on him. Then they gave him a room, a bed, a towel, a bedsheet, a bar of soap, a knife, fork and spoon, and a cooking pot. Today the man is sitting in front of the immigration officer telling his story at amazing speed, while the immigration officer asks him to slow down as much as possible.
They told me they had sold me to another group and they were very cheerful. They stayed up all night drinking whiskey and laughing. They even invited me to join them in a drink but I declined and told them I was a religious man. They bought me new clothes, and that night they cooked me a chicken and served me fruit and sweets. It seems I fetched a good price. The leader of the group even shed real tears when he said goodbye. He embraced me like a brother.
‘You’re a very good man. I wish you all the best, and good luck in your life,’ said the man with one eye.
I think I stayed with the first group just three months. They had kidnapped me on that cold accursed night. That was in the early winter of 2006. We had orders to go to the Tigris and it was the first time we had received instructions directly from the head of the Emergency Department in the hospital. At the bank of the river the policemen were standing around six headless bodies. The heads had been put in an empty flour sack in front of the bodies. The police guessed they were the bodies of some clerics. We had arrived late because of the heavy rain. The police piled the bodies onto the ambulance driven by my colleague Abu Salim and I carried the sack of heads to my ambulance. The streets were empty and the only sounds to break the forlorn silence of the Baghdad night were some gunshots in the distance and the noise of an American helicopter patrolling over the Green Zone. We set off along Abu Nawas Street towards Rashid Street, driving at medium speed because of the rain. I remembered the words the director of the Emergency Department in the hospital often used to say: ‘When you’re carrying an injured person or a patient close to death, the speed of the ambulance shows how humane and responsible you are. But when you are carrying severed heads in an ambulance, you needn’t go faster than a hearse drawn by mules in a dark mediaeval forest.’ The director saw himself as a philosopher and an artist, but ‘born in the wrong country,’ as he would say. He took his work seriously nonetheless and considered it a sacred duty, because to him running the ambulance section of the Emergency Department meant managing the dividing line between life and death. We called him the Professor and my other colleagues hated him and called him mad. I know why they hated him, because the enigmatic and aggressive way he spoke made him seem screwed up in the eyes of others. But I retained much respect and affection for him because of the beautiful and fascinating things he said. Once he said to me: ‘Spilt blood and superstition are the basis of the world. Man is not the only creature who kills for bread, or love, or power, because animals in the jungle do that in various ways, but he is the only creature who kills because of faith.’ He would usually wrap up his speeches by pointing to the sky and declaiming theatrically: ‘The question of humanity can be solved only by constant dread.’ My colleague Abu Salim had a notion that the Professor had links with the terrorist groups because of the violent language he used, but I would loyally defend the man, because they did not understand that he was a philosopher who refused to make foolish jokes, as the stupid ambulance drivers did all day. I remembered every sentence and every word he said, for I was captivated by my affection and admiration for him.
Let me get back to that wretched night. When we turned towards the Martyrs Bridge I noticed that the ambulance driven by Abu Salim had disappeared. Then in the side mirror I caught sight of a police car gaining on us at high speed. I pulled over to the side in the middle of the bridge. Four young men in masks and special police uniforms got out of the police car. The leader of the group pointed his pistol in my face and told me to get out of the vehicle, while his colleagues unloaded the sack of heads from the ambulance.
‘I’ve been kidnapped and they are going to cut off my head.’ That was my first thought when they tied me up and stuffed me in the boot of the police car. It took me only 10 minutes to realise what was awaiting me. I recited the Throne Verse from the Quran three times in the darkness of the boot and I felt that my skin was starting to peel off. For some reason in those dark moments I thought about my body weight, maybe 70 kilos. The slower the car went, or the more it turned, the more frightened I was, and when it picked up speed again a strange blend of tranquility and anxiety would pulse through me. Perhaps I thought at those moments of what the Professor had said about the correlation between speed and the imminence of death. I didn’t understand exactly what he meant, but he would say that someone about to die in the forest would be more afraid than someone about to die in a speeding ambulance, because the first one feels that fate has singled him out, while the second imagines there are others sticking with him. I also remember that he once announced with a smile: ‘I would like to have my death in a spaceship travelling at the speed of light.’
I imagined that all the unidentified and mutilated bodies I had carried in the ambulance since the fall of Baghdad lay before me, and that in the darkness surrounding me I then saw the Professor picking my severed head from a pile of rubbish, while my colleagues made dirty jokes about my liking for the Professor. I don’t think the police car drove very far before it came to a halt. At least they did not leave the city. I tried to remember the Rahman Verse of the Quran but they got me out of the car and escorted me into a house which smelt of grilled fish. I could hear a child crying. They undid my blindfold and I found myself in a cold, unfurnished room. Then three madmen laid into me and beat me to a pulp, until a darkness again descended.
I thought I heard a cock crow at first. I shut my eyes but I couldn’t sleep. I felt a sharp pain in my left ear. With difficulty I turned over onto my back and pushed myself towards the window, which had recently been blocked up. I was very thirsty. It was easy to work out that I was in a house in one of Baghdad’s old neighbourhoods. That was clear from the nature of the walls and particularly the old wooden door. In fact I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you, for me to get the right of asylum in your country. I find it very hard to describe those days of terror, but I want to mention also some of the things which matter to me. I felt that God, and behind him the Professor, would never abandon me throughout my ordeal. I felt the presence of God intensely in my heart, nurturing my peace of mind and calling me to patience. The Professor kept my mind busy and alleviated the loneliness of my captivity. He was my solace and my comfort. Throughout those arduous months I would recall what the Professor had said about his friend, Dawoud the engineer. What did he mean by saying that the world is all interconnected? And where do the power and the will of God stand in such matters? We were drinking tea at the hospital door when the Professor said: ‘While my friend Dawoud was driving the family car through the streets of Baghdad, an Iraqi poet in London was writing a fiery article in praise of the resistance, with a bottle of whiskey on the table in front of him to help harden his heart. Because the world is all interconnected, through feelings, words, nightmares, and other secret channels, out of the poet’s article jumped three masked men. They stopped the family car and killed Dawoud, his wife, his child and his father. His mother was waiting for them at home. Dawoud’s mother doesn’t know the Iraqi poet nor the masked men. She knows how to cook the fish which was awaiting them. The Iraqi poet fell asleep on the sofa in London in a drunken stupor, while Dawoud’s mother’s fish went cold and the sun set in Baghdad.’
The wooden door of the room opened and a young man, tall with a pale and haggard face, came in carrying breakfast. He smiled at me as he put the food down in front of me. At first I was uncertain what I could say or do. But then I threw myself at his feet and implored him tearfully: ‘I am the father of three children… I’m a religious man who fears God… I have nothing to do with politics or religious denominations… God protect you… I’m just an ambulance driver… before the invasion, and since the invasion… I swear by God and his noble Prophet.’ The young man put a finger to his lips and rushed out. I felt that my end had come.
I drank the cup of tea and performed my prayers in the hope that God would forgive my sins. At the second prostration I felt that a layer of ice was forming across my body and I almost cried out in fear, but the young man opened the door, carrying a small lighting device attached to a stand, and accompanied by a boy carrying a Kalashnikov rifle. The boy stood next to me, pointing the gun at my head, and from then on he did not leave his place. A fat man in his forties came in, taking no notice of me. On the wall he hung a black cloth banner inscribed with a Quranic verse urging Muslims to fight jihad. Then a masked man came in with a video camera and a small computer. Then a boy came in with a small wooden table. The masked man joked with the boy, tweaked his nose and thanked him, then put the computer on the table and busied himself with setting up the camera in front of the black banner. The thin young man tried out the lighting system three times and then left.
‘Abu Jihad, Abu Jihad,’ the fat man shouted.
The young man’s voice came from outside the room: ‘Wait a minute. Right you are, Abu Arkan.’
This time the young man came back carrying the sack of heads which they had taken from the ambulance. Everyone blocked their nose because of the stink from the sack. The fat man asked me to sit in front of the black banner. I felt that my legs were paralysed, but the fat man pulled me roughly by my shirt collar. At that point another man came in, thick-set with one eye, and ordered the fat man to let me be. This man had in his hand an army uniform. The man with one eye sat close to me, with his arm across my shoulders like a friend, and asked me to calm down. He told me they wouldn’t slaughter me if I was cooperative and kind-hearted. I didn’t understand fully what he meant by this ‘kind-hearted’. He told me it would only take a few minutes. The one-eyed man took a small piece of paper from his pocket and asked me to read it. Meanwhile the fat man was taking the decomposing heads out of the sack and lining them up in front of me. It said on the piece of paper that I was an officer in the Iraqi army and these were the heads of other officers, and that accompanied by my fellow officers I had raided houses, raped women and tortured innocent civilians, that we had received orders to kill from a senior officer in the U.S. Army, in return for large financial rewards. The man with one eye asked me to put on the army uniform and the cameraman asked everyone to pull back behind the camera. Then he came up to me and started adjusting my head, as a hairdresser does. After that he adjusted the line of heads, then went back behind the camera and called out: ‘Off you go.’
The cameraman’s voice was very familiar. Perhaps it resembled the voice of a famous actor, or it might have been like the voice of the Professor when he was making an exaggerated effort to talk softly. After they filmed the videotape, I didn’t meet the members of the group again, other than the young man who brought me food, and he prevented me from asking any questions. Every time he brought food he would tell me a new joke about politicians and men of religion. My only wish was that he would let me contact my wife, because I had hidden some money for a rainy day in a place where even the jinn would never think of looking, but they vehemently rejected my request. The one-eyed leader of the group told me that everything depended on the success of the videotape, and in fact the tape was such a success so quickly that everyone was surprised. Al Jazeera broadcast the videotape. They allowed me to watch television and on that day they were jumping for joy, so much so that the fat man kissed me on the head and said I was a great actor. What made me angry was the Al Jazeera newsreader, who assured viewers that the channel had established through reliable sources that the tape was authentic and that the Ministry of Defence had admitted that the officers had gone missing. After the success of the broadcast they started treating me in a manner which was better than good. They took trouble over my food and bedding and allowed me to have a bath. Their kindness culminated on the night they sold me to the second group. Then three masked men from that group came into the room and, after the man with one eye had given me a warm farewell, the new men laid into me with their fists, tied me up and gagged me, then shoved me into the boot of a car which drove off at terrifying speed.
The second group’s car travelled far this time. Perhaps we reached the outskirts of Baghdad. They took me out in a desolate village where dogs roamed and barked all over the place. They held me in a cattle pen and there were two men who took turns guarding the pen night and day. I don’t know why, but they proceeded to starve me and humiliate me. They were completely different from the first group. They wore their masks all the time and never spoke a word with me. They would communicate with each other through gestures. In fact there was not a human voice to be heard from the village, just the barking of dogs the whole month I spent in the cow pen. The hours passed with oppressive tedium. I would hope that anything would happen, rather than this life sentence with three cows. I gave up thinking about these people, or what religious group or party they belonged to. I no longer bemoaned my fate but felt I had already lived through what happened to me at some time, and that time was a period that would not last long. But my sense of this time made it seem slow and confused. It no longer occurred to me to try to escape or to ask them what they wanted from me. I felt that I was carrying out some mission, a binding duty which I had to perform until my last breath. Perhaps there was a secret power working in league with a human power to play a secret game for purposes too grand for a simple man like me to grasp. ‘Every man has both a poetic obligation and a human obligation,’ as the Professor used to say. But if that was true, how could I tell the difference, and easily, between the limits of the human obligation and those of the poetic obligation? Because my understanding is that, for example, looking after my wife and children is one of my human obligations, and refusing to hate is a poetic obligation. But why did the Professor say that we confuse the two obligations and do not recognize the diabolical element that drives them both? Because the diabolical obligations imply the capacity to stand in the face of a man when he is pushing his own humanity towards the abyss, and this is too much for the mind of a simple man like me, who barely completed his intermediate education, at least I think so.
What I’m saying has nothing to do with my asylum request. What matters to you is the horror. If the Professor was here, he would say that the horror lies in the simplest of puzzles which shine in a cold star in the sky over this city. In the end they came into the cow pen after midnight one night. One of the masked men spread one corner of the pen with fine carpets. Then his companion hung a black banner inscribed: The Islamic Jihad Group, Iraq Branch. Then the cameraman came in with his camera, and it struck me that he was the same cameraman as the one with the first group. His hand gestures were the same as those of the first cameraman. The only difference was that he was now communicating with the others through gestures alone. They asked me to put on a white dishdasha and sit in front of the black banner. They gave me a piece of paper and told me to read out what was written on it: that I belonged to the Mehdi Army and I was a famous killer, I had cut off the heads of hundreds of Sunni men, and I had support from Iran. Before I’d finished reading, one of the cows gave a loud moo, so the cameraman asked me to read it again. One of the men took the three cows away so that we could finish off the cow pen scene.
I later realised that everyone who bought me was moving me across the same bridge. I don’t know why. One group would take me across the Martyrs Bridge towards Karkh on the west bank of the Tigris, then the next group would take me back across the same bridge to Rasafa on the east bank. If I go on like this, I think my story will never end, and I’m worried you’ll say what others have said about my story. So I think it would be best if I summarise the story for you, rather than have you accuse me of making it up. They sold me to a third group. The car drove at speed across the Martyrs Bridge once again. I was moved to a luxurious house and this time my prison was a bedroom with a lovely comfortable bed, the kind in which you see film stars having sex. My fear evaporated and I began to grasp the concept of the secret mission for which they had chosen me. I carried out the mission so as not to lose my head, but I also thought I would test their reaction in certain matters. After filming a new video in which I spoke about how I belonged to Sunni Islamist groups and about my work blowing up Shi’ite mosques and public markets, I asked them for some money as payment for making the tape. Their decisive response was a beating I will never forget. Throughout the year and a half of my kidnapping experience, I was moved from one hiding place to another. They shot video of me talking about how I was a treacherous Kurd, an infidel Christian, a Saudi terrorist, a Syrian Baathist intelligence agent, or a Revolutionary Guard from Zoroastrian Iran. On these videotapes I murdered, raped, started fires, planted bombs and carried out crimes that no sane person would even imagine. All these tapes were broadcast on satellite channels around the world. Experts, journalists and politicians sat there discussing what I said and did. The only bad luck we ran into was when we made a video in which I appeared as a Spanish soldier, with a resistance fighter holding a knife to my neck, demanding Spanish forces withdraw from Iraq. All the satellite stations refused to broadcast the tape because Spanish forces had left the country a year earlier. I almost paid a heavy price for this mistake when the group holding me wanted to kill me in revenge for what had happened, but the cameraman saved me by suggesting another wonderful idea, the last of my videotape roles. They dressed me in the costume of an Afghan fighter, trimmed my beard and put a black turban on my head. Five men stood behind me and they brought in six men screaming and crying out for help from God, his Prophet and the Prophet’s family. They slaughtered the men in front of me like sheep as I announced that I was the new leader of the al Qaida organization in Mesopotamia and made threats against everyone in creation.
Late one night the cameraman brought me my old clothes and took me to the ambulance, which was standing at the door. They put those six heads in a sack and threw it into the vehicle. At that moment I noticed the cameraman’s gestures and I thought that surely he was the cameraman for all the groups and maybe the mastermind of this dreadful game. I sat behind the steering wheel with trembling hands. Then the cameraman gave the order from behind his mask: ‘You know the way. Cross the Martyrs Bridge, to the hospital.’
I am asking for asylum in your country because of everyone. They are all killers and schemers – my wife, my children, my neighbours, my colleagues, God, his Prophet, the government, the newspapers, even the Professor whom I thought an angel, and now I have suspicions that the cameraman with the terrorist groups was the Professor himself. His enigmatic language was merely proof of his connivance and his vile nature. They all told me I hadn’t been away for a year and half, because I came back the morning after working that rainy night, and on that very morning the Professor said to me: ‘The world is just a bloody and hypothetical story, and we are all killers and heroes.’ And those six heads cannot be proof of what I’m saying, just as they are not proof that the night will not spread across the sky.
Three days after this story was filed away in the records of the immigration department, they took the man who told it to the psychiatric hospital. Before the doctor could start asking him about his childhood memories, the ambulance driver summed up his real story in four words: ‘I want to sleep.’
It was a humble entreaty.