‘Write, Even If It’s Imaginary’

In between other books, I have been browsing my way through the collection Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, ed. Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi. There are dozens of moments that have pricked me:

One that particularly drove under my skin was a brief memoir written by former al-Mutanabbi Street bookshop owner Muhammad al-Hamrani, called “Escape from al-Mutanabbi Street.”

In the early 1990s, al-Hamrani writes, he went around “buying the libraries of writers who were besieged by hunger because of the sanctions” and, bit by bit, he was able to put together enough money to open a bookstore in the middle of Baghdad’s traditional bookselling street, al-Mutanabbi.

However, with Saddam’s fall and the spread of the death squads, few people were buying books and more booksellers were being killed. “So as not to join my friends who had been murdered for unknown reasons, I sold my bookstore and started working at al-Nur newspaper,” al-Hamrani wrote, “which was owned by a liberal who had returned to Iraq after the war.” This was yet before the street’s tragic bombing on March 5, 2007.

Although an arrest warrant was issued for al-Hamrani after he wrote (factually) about police abuses, his editor encouraged him to keep writing these sorts of stories, which “make the newspapers sell.” Al-Hamrani’s editor continued: “‘Write, even if it’s imaginary'” and said “that what is taking place in our country is so unbelievable that you could make things up. Anything you invent will have its equivalent in reality.”

This struck me with particular force because I’ve been reading a number of Iraqi fictions of late, each one more difficult than the last: Hadiya Hussein’s beautiful Beyond Love was followed by a half-dozen brilliant stories by Muna Fadhil, followed by a terrifying story by Mahmoud Saeed (nominated for the Pushcart by World Literature Today). Throw in a few of Hassan Blasim’s short works and you might never sleep again.

At times, while reading through these works of fiction, my brain refused them.

It’s a well-worn truth that, with works labeled nonfiction, we are compelled to believe nearly anything (after all, they promised to tell the truth) and sometimes, for that reason, we believe the most absurd made-up stuff. Really, I don’t doubt that al-Hamrani’s editor really did say “Write, even if it’s imaginary”; I believe his arrest warrant; I believe his chance kidnapping; I believe the awful torture; I believe his story of how he was finally set free. He says it’s true, and I have no reason not to believe him.

As you hear in any creative-writing class, there is a higher bar for fiction, a requirement that you “make” the reader believe it, rather than just slide on through on “hey, it really happened.” This is particularly hard when you’re dealing in stories at which the brain wants to shut down, wants to say, That isn’t possible, it’s too much and, as is the case sometimes with fiction from Iraq, we couldn’t have done that.

At times, I feel an exhaustion with this awful (fictional) violence. But then I take up the stories again. Perhaps it’s good that fiction makes us more critically minded, makes us more willing to doubt, although we also have a responsibility to believe.

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