Every migrant has two stories: the one she carries with her like a hair locket, relationships and experiences foregone, memories that can never be washed off; the second is the one she embarks on creating anew. How conscious we are of these two stories, of the contradictions they can bear upon us, determines how deeply we can engage with others and the place we live in.
“I feel torn about my relationship with the West,” said Iraqi writer, Hassan Blasim, on Wednesday, February 14th at Bozar Centre for Fine Arts. “The US for instance, they supported Saddam Hussein for so many years, they created havoc after the invasion in 2003, and then they bombed ISIS. This creates a contradiction of feelings within me. Can you imagine that, seeing someone as both perpetrator and saviour at the same time?”
“In Finland, it’s the same,” he went on. “I went there because I wanted to survive, and they were kind; they let me stay. But then I hear the way some people behave towards refugees, and I think, Do they really understand Iraq, or do they just watch the news for five minutes and think the worst about refugees? This is the kind of contradiction I was talking about. Perhaps the kind of contradiction an artist needs to explore and try to reveal to the reader.”
The event was organized by Bozar in conjunction with the Finnish Cultural Institute in Brussels, City Books DeBuren, the Mahmoud Darwish Chair, and the Jurgen Maas Publishers. Blasim was interviewed by fiction writer and journalist Annelies Verbeke, and one of the topics discussed was the power of literature, how a writer can unearth the pain, the ecstasy and grief, the joy of someone living miles away. It travels beyond walls and borders. A question that he is often asked is: What is the difference between Finland and Iraq?
“It’s very simple, I tell them. In Iraq I feel depressed, bored and scared. In Finland I feel depressed, bored and angry. That’s it, that’s the difference. Two shared emotions, one different. And so a fundamental question I ask myself, and that we should all ask is: Why do people like me, a refugee, feel angry in Finland? If politicians took the time to try understand that, then we would have a different outlook in Europe.”
After trying to make a film ―The Wounded Camera― in the Kurdish region of Iraq, he faced danger and was forced to flee the country. It took him four years to walk from Bagdad to Helsinki. Blasim talked about the trauma refugees experience in their home countries, the hardships that force them to leave, and of the difficulties they experience upon arrival in Europe. “My case is different,” he said. “I studied film, I read a lot about European history and art so I’m no stranger to the culture here. But imagine someone who comes from the country side. They suffer a lot.”
Over the years, Blasim has received dozens and dozens of hate letters from Arab countries. You have become like everyone there, they write. Your mind has become wicked like theirs. But after living for more than ten years in Finland, the hate mail has started to arrive from a different place altogether. “’Go back to your country. What are you doing here if you don’t like it?‘ These are the kinds of things I get. But my child was born in Finland, I worry about the future here and so I have a stake, a responsibility. Nobody wants his or her child to suffer from racism. That’s why I feel it’s my duty to be observant, to question what’s going on. If receiving hate mail is the cost for being critical, I’m willing to bear the brunt of it.”