Kahramana fascinates me. She is a character in the tale ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ from A Thousand And One Nights. Kahramana, Ali Baba’s slave girl, is the scheming one who protects Ali Baba from the band of 40 thieves and their leader. She moves the story along, takes action while life just happens to happy-go-lucky Ali Baba. It was Ali Baba’s luck that drew him to the treasure, it was luck that savvy Kahramana managed to hide his trace from the thieves and it was his luck again that Kahramana killed the 40 thieves and their leader in one night to save Ali Baba’s life. (I know, she’s cold blooded and brutal.)
What does Kahramana get in return for her loyalty? Well for starters the story is not called ‘Kahramana and the Forty Thieves’. As for her fate, Ali Baba rewards her for rescuing him by marrying her off to his son. Kahramana stays in Ali Baba’s household and so does the secret of the treasure.
So I’ve always viewed Kahramana a badass underdog. She’s smart, cruel and undermined.
When an immigration officer at Heathrow Airport waved a finger at me, called me a liar and told me I was to be deported, naturally I thought of Kahramana. I woke up the next morning in my room in London, after they released me with a throbbing headache, dry mouth, lump in my throat from holding back my tears all night. I was angry and humiliated when I wrote ‘Kahramana’. My Kahramana story was a sort of a ‘Fuck You’ to everyone. I had never been so angry in my life and I had never felt so small.
Comma Press had been waiting for over a year for me to contribute to the anthology but every time I sat down trying to write something I struggled. I’ve never written anything futuristic or science fiction, certainly not comedy. But that morning I got out of bed, sat to my laptop and feverishly typed away before I even got up to wash my face. When I was done with it I emailed it to Ra at Comma Press thinking ‘surely he’s going to hate it’, and ‘it’s going to offend him’. Ra was expecting Hitchcock and I gave him South Park. But for once in my life, I didn’t care. I was astonished when Ra wrote back telling me he loved ‘Kahramana’ and asked me to expand and tell him more.
In the story, I wanted to mock the way the humanitarian world handles migration. I’ve seen it often; the disillusioned European or American 20-something aid workers who are annoyed that refugees don’t appreciate the sacrifices they made to leave their ‘civilized’ homes and be in those camps and war zones; the aid workers who’ve become irreversibly desensitized to human suffering; the ones who think every Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan refugee – and even a non-refugee – is a saint, a victim who needs to be cuddled. ‘Kahramana’ exposes and exploits that.
I also wanted to joke about political propaganda, something every Iraqi was force-fed since infanthood. When I listen to ISIS babble on their radio station or when I follow their statements on social media, I am struck by the resemblance to war statements on Iraq’s national television station during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. By the end of the long stretches of pompous rhetoric, I could never tell if they were winning or losing. And as in all totalitarian systems, everything in Wadi Hashish, Kahramana’s birthplace, was mandatory. It’s mandatory to cheer in support of the government’s decision to wage wars, to march to your doom when you don’t understand or don’t believe in what you’re fighting for, and to sing and dance and throw rose petals at a dictator even if he’s sent your entire family to the gallows. Every Arab country, to some degree, has an element of this.
Human life and suffering was as insignificant a side-effect during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war as it is in Iraq and the region today – all for the greater cause, of course! Kahramana is casual about other people’s lives. To her they’re ants behind the T-walls, waves of migrants trying to get in on the sunny side. Mullah Hashish (the leader of the radical Wadi Hashish people), NATO (in trying to obliterate Wadi Hashish and its leader) and the aid workers (shaving heads and tagging the people fleeing Wadi Hashish) all have as little regard for human life as Kahramana. The only people who do care are the ‘Kuchan Sulemani’ activists – and they are burnt out and frazzled the whole time.
So to sum up, Kahramana is my way of giving people in the gutter a chance to laugh at their do-gooders, clergy and oppressors. Kahramana is evil and manipulative, and I just wanted to unleash her onto the UN employee who pointed at Syrian aid workers, asked them to stand up while we all sat down, and said ‘let’s clap for the refugees’; onto babbling buffoons who insist that if I am ‘good’, then poof! wars will end and there will be unicorns with wings. I wanted to unleash her as I sat there at Heathrow Airport, resenting people speeding away and resenting myself for being there, confined, stripped of my passport, angrily and anxiously waiting to be deported. Kahramana is all of my pent-up frustrations. If not for her I’d burst in anger all over my keyboard.
To the Kahramanas of the world: cheers!
Award-winning author and Iraq+100 editor Hassan Blasim and a number of the book’s contributors will appear at an event at Southbank Centre as part of the London Literature Festival on Saturday 15 October. Find out more and book tickets.
Photo: Kahramana Statue, Baghdad, UNAMI/Sarmad Al-Safy on the United Nations Information Centre Flickr stream, creative commons licence.