Comma’s newest anthology Iraq + 100 was officially released this week, and to mark the occasion we decided to ask Diaa Jubaili, author of the ‘The Worker’, some questions about his story, the short story form, and life in Basra at the moment. Part 2 of this interview can be read here.
How did you get the idea for the “The Worker” – did it come from any specific personal experience of your life in Basra?
The story is a speculation on what might lie in store for the city of Basra, in the future, given its current situation and the way it’s been drained continuously since the 2003 invasion.
The city currently has the largest oil reserve in the country (with Iraq being the 5th largest national reserve in the world). But what will Basra look like after decades of these reserves being depleted, by foreign, private corporations that have indefinite contracts to pump it out of the country?
The bleak future imagined by the story is a vision of what a century of private deals with unaccountable foreign corporations will do to the city. It imagines Basra as a city-state, which, after the initial post-2003 occupation, was handed over to corrupt political and religious powers that appear to have control, but which do little but protect these foreign interests, while ordinary people slip into greater and greater despair.
Do you think that the short story form works particularly well when writing speculative fiction, and if so, why?
The short story is an art that will not die – it might be neglected or pass by a period of inactivity, but it will stay fixed at all times. During the time of talking about the death of the novel, the short story continues in its progress quietly and with tranquillity, and this is why I think that the short story functions well and accomplishes what is required of it as an original and well-founded representative for narrative literature. I write very short stories or one page stories and it is the best form to reach an essence of something by using few words, and when I say using the least words, I mean the least loss. This is because when writing a novel, we lose a lot of time, effort and words, and sometimes it becomes over complicated and we go away from the aim. But in the short story we increase life and here likes the difficulty in fiction.
We hear that there is a good literary scene in Basra at the moment. Why do you think that is the case?
Yes, fiction in Basra, as compared to other cities, is good not only now but from the 1960s, which was a golden period. Basra is a pioneer in writing fiction and this is probably because Basra is a multi-ethnic and –nationality city, or used to be, until it was depopulated of these many ethnic and national citizens with the passage of time, such as the Jews, Armenians, Christians and some other foreign residents. Secondly, because Basra is open to the sea and the desert at the same time – it is the only beach city in Iraq – it has always been influenced by those who came to it, and influenced them in turn, leading to the mixture of cultures, traditions and norms. In addition, Basra has a language and fiction heritage and it is one of the two most famous schools of Arabic language (where grammatical rules were increasingly developed in the late 8th Century): Basra and Kufa. From it linguistics emerged and from it Sindbad first sailed his legendary sea journey.
There are also historical, environmental and social factors and events that have happened in Basra and shaped its fiction, such as the invasion in the age of Islamic fights, the rebellion of Zanj in the Abbasid, and the Farsi, Turkish, and other invasions until 1914, when the British occupied Iraq and, lastly, the British and American occupation in 2003. All these historical, environmental and social factors made Basra filled with tales and stories told by narrators and story tellers. In spite of the existence of all these stories, many of them are not narrated until now.
In terms of short stories, do you mainly read Arabic writers or do you read writers from other languages?
In fact, I am a bad reader of Arabic literature, not because of its lack of aesthetics but because of my old tendency to read international literature. Early in my life, I was affected by Dino Buzzati, Italo Calvino, Anton Chekhov. I read with interest Lolio Luis Borges and Henry Marquez. I like contemporary writers such as Monro and I like the genre of the realist novel. This is why I love Edward Galeano very much.
Part 2 of this interview can be read here.