If much of the modern geopolitical landscape is defined in its earliest inflections by Iraq—Bush’s decision to invade, Obama’s decision to oppose, and all the ramifications that followed (Syria, Russia’s myriad interventions there and elsewhere – with China providing humanitarian support to Assad’s regime, too)—then a collection of science fiction imagining a gasp of fresh air in the form of an Iraq one hundred years into the future is potential light flooding into our vision after history bursts through its escape hatch. (If history can do such a thing.) It’s why the anthology Iraq +100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion published by Comma Press caught my attention.
And what is offered here by way of an escape hatch? In ‘The Gardens of Babylon’, a tiger-droid is hacked and circles “pointlessly in the air, above everyone’s heads.” In ‘The Day By Day Mosque’, the Tigris River has disappeared, which “some theologians”—per Mortada Gzar, the author—“have speculated never existed and was in fact dreamed up by sinners, rakes and watermelon-juice drinkers.” In ‘Baghdad Syndrome’, “Old names and surnames became dangerous things to hold onto.”
At the level of line, there are numerous instances that attract the attention: “Faint moustache,” reads one, “like a sparrow’s tail feathers.” “The Americans would give me back the ear that fell into my pocket,” reads another. “They’d fix my ribs and intestines, they’d remove the shrapnel still lodged in my body, and they’d tell me, ‘You’re just great, Mister Sobhan.’”
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While these stories are well written—often pleasantly written, even—and I’m glad that the book exists and that the authors took the time to contribute to the anthology, something struck me while reading it: it wasn’t the fact that the stories were blunt warnings hovering over outright precision, editorials clamouring for human space in the middle of a growing digital landscape where the reading habits don’t seem as well tuned to the idea of human space as they otherwise could be (where is the ‘Mr. Rogers of the Internet’ for instance?). It wasn’t the fact that fear of loss of memory rang out through story after story (let alone the love of memory) or the fear of the past being unable to carry its own into the future (whether it took the form of someone being crushed into a diamond for singing a song, the memory of the past itself being reclassified as a ‘syndrome’, or a student showing up for class dressed up as Gilgamesh.) It was the fact that each author looking into the future left me with the impulse to urge them further, in the hopes that they could wrest a jangle of ideas out of the future and drag them back to the present.
And I’m feeling that for obvious reasons.
On November 8th, I went off to vote in a small snow-globe of a town singing Woody Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose’ with ironic playfulness. The sun was out, and—finally sensing the end of the worst Presidential campaign I could ever recall, not only for what was being implicitly proposed, but for its complete lack of substance, too—I was starting to enjoy myself. We were so close to being rid of the nonsense. I voted and called my mother on point of principle: the day was just as much hers as it was anyone else’s.
Hours later, I was walking down a dark, nearly deserted road. A woman in her pyjamas with a cigarette in her mouth swung an American flag she was carrying, letting it hit the top of the Clinton-Kaine yard sign. “Damn it!” she said, quietly. A few minutes down the road, a car sped by and someone shouted, “Make America Great Again!” I would later joke to friends that it felt like the entire country had entered The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, and we could still see the door hanging open, the outside still visible.
As an American who cares about his country, the world order, and the future of the planet; as someone who had a friend in high school head off to the war in Iraq and tell my grandfather who was a POW in World War II with great enthusiasm about the prospect of it; as someone who watched his grandfather tilt his head and face down a bit with a fraction of “Oh, I see” disappointment; as someone who has been mistaken for being Jewish and Arabic more than once in the aftermath of September 11; as someone who’s friend was in Tahrir Square during the throes of Egypt’s first hopeful flush, and who once knew a stateless poet who came to this country from Kuwait; and finally, as someone who has heard time and time again of the effects multiple tours of duty have had on soldiers, even at the level of those tellingly dark, small, sarcastic comments, I wonder about their future and whether or not they’ll be okay. I wonder how Iraqis will feel in thirty or forty years, and whether or not they’ll still be okay, as well as what feelings art like this must by dint of necessity hide. I wonder how many Americans thought like this in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, and I wonder how well a country tilting itself towards the idea of ‘good’ can account for itself to a future iteration of Iraq given what could happen with the incoming administration.
It’s yet to be seen whether or not this moment and this election will be a geopolitical inflection point the size of Iraq, or whether or not it will be able to be contained or transformed for the better. It’s yet to be seen whether or not we follow the path outlined in ‘The Corporal’, the third story in the anthology, where a dead Iraq soldier returns to earth 100 years into the future only to ask, “What has this man said, about Iraq saving the American people from dictatorship, and bringing them back their freedom … and then the whole thing about American refugees in Iraq, could that be right?” It’s yet to be seen who will march, who will sing, and who will Rainbow Coalition themselves over the hills up ahead like a pack of Hannibal elephants coming to the rescue.
Evan Fleischer is a writer-at-large. In addition to The Lifted Brow, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and numerous other publications.