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Hassan Blassim: leave Iraq to its freedom

War & Peace
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Hassan Blasim will be at the Reel Iraq festival Reel Iraq

Hassan Blasim is a poet, filmmaker and short-story writer. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he moved to Finland in 2004 to escape the war. The Arabic edition of his first book, The Madman of Freedom Square, was banned in Jordan. Blasim’s second book, The Iraqi Christ, was published in English on 14 March by Comma Press. Blasim is the winner of the 2009 and 2012 English PEN Writers in Translation Award.

You started your career as filmmaker; how did you start writing stories for books?

I started writing early; as a teenager I wrote poems. One day I asked my friend which college I should go to if I wanted to be a writer. He told me, ‘go and study film and you’ll learn a lot.’ So it was kind of by accident.

Is writing films similar to writing books?

For me it’s similar in every form; it’s about the writing. Sometimes some of my friends say, ‘OK, Hassan, what’s your choice? Maybe you want to write just short stories?’ But for me every form is different but the same in the end.

How much do you base your writing on your own experience?

It’s a question asked of many writers. I don’t know – it’s me and life, it’s me and fiction, it’s me and other things, I can’t say how much. People say to me: ‘When we read your books we see the real Iraq.’ I say that’s wrong; it’s not like that, because I can’t see one film about England and say it’s ‘real England’, or I can’t read one book and say that’s real England. I’m a writer and it’s just fiction.

I’ve seen a hard life – violence and war, like many Iraqi people – so the difference may be that I can tell a story and that some other people are not writers, or artists.

Iraqi Christ cover
The Iraqi Christ has won an English PEN award

Do you find writing therapeutic?

I don’t know. Since I’ve lived in the West, in Finland, some people think because of the experiences I have had that it’s like therapy for me. But when I started young I loved literature, I’m interested in different artists, I’m interested in writing. Of course it has helped, but I don’t know how much.

The Reel Iraq festival coincides with the anniversary of the invasion of 2003. Overall, would you say things are better or worse now for people in Iraq than a decade ago?

Since the US came into Iraq it has been getting worse all the time. OK, the details may be different, better, but general life, what’s happening around our country, with Iran, Syria and civil war is worse. So I don’t see Iraq as better.

While you’re in Britain what is the one thing you would want to tell people about Iraq that they may not have heard in the news?

Please help us and ask your government to leave us alone to our freedom and our democracy. We must build the country. Through history we’ve always had these people – all the time we want to change our culture and make a revolution from inside, and all the time there’s a problem because we are not alone. We fight not just the dictator or some radical Muslim. The West is playing with our country.

Every year I want to come to Britain, but it’s so difficult because I am Iraqi and I need a visa. But now I have an invitation, I have my book. A British soldier, on the other hand, can go to Iraq without a visa, without an invitation and then kill people and leave. So what I say is, let us do our own democracy. Of course, it’s not going to be the same, it won’t be a copy of the democracy in Britain or the US.

Saddam Hussein, the dictator – he was best friends with the West. They gave him all the power. And after the economy became an issue they started a dirty war about oil.

During the festival you’re taking part in a discussion about the book. Do you enjoy these kinds of events?

I do many literature festivals round Europe but I don’t like it when there are so many questions about politics. I’m a writer. Of course, it’s my country and I can talk like any citizen about my country, but I’m not really an academic. I’m a writer and I write about the war, but I don’t like it when people just ask about politics.

Hassan Blasim is appearing at the Reel Iraq festival on 24 March in Edinburgh and 25 March in Glasgow. Find out more at the Reel Festivals website.

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