A manuscript found in Baghdad’s Directorate of General Security recalls life under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
I’jaam, explains Iraqi expatriate Antoon in a prefatory note, is the Arabic word used to describe the diacritical dots added to the basic alphabet to represent different phonetic characters. Since these dots can also clarify a word’s meaning, I’jaam has come to mean “elucidating” or “clarifying.” A manuscript written entirely without diacritics is clearly intended to be unintelligible, and that’s the premise of Antoon’s novel. It’s 1989; a manuscript without diacritics is unearthed in the dreaded security headquarters, where a request is made for “qualified personnel…to insert the diacritics and write a brief report of the manuscript’s contents.” The resulting document unfolds a series of vignettes of a government-regulated life. Furat, the manuscript’s author, is a poet and student of literature in Baghdad. A limp makes him unfit for service in the army, but he feels the restraints of Hussein’s oppressive dictatorship in countless other ways. His grandmother, who raised him after his parents were killed, and his girlfriend Areej plead with him to be compliant, but Furat finds it difficult to live and study under such conditions. Though his protests are minor—trying to write his senior thesis on 1984 (banned by the state) and using newspapers with pictures of the Leader as toilet paper—he is nonetheless carted off to prison by guards posing as students. Furat’s manuscript swings among an account of his past, flashes of life in prison and hopeful hallucinations envisioning reunions with his grandmother and Areej. His rantings become increasingly incomprehensible and end just as suddenly as they began. Marginal notes and an addendum by the state translator nervously cavil at Furat’s consistent disparagement of the government, dismissing the text as a “disgraceful transgression.” Antoon’s frenetic tone is very effective, and Furat’s unraveling feels heartbreakingly familiar. But the novel is choppy and unfinished, ending far too soon. What could have been well-developed, timely fiction reads like a character sketch.
Evocative but incomplete.
Judith Kazantzis reviews
I’jaam – An Iraqi Rhapsody
by Sinan Antoon
City Lights, 2007 ISBN 978-0-87286-457-3 pbk US$11.95
With an Introduction by Elias Khoury
Translated by Rebecca C Johnson and Sinan Antoon
In the heart of fear and absurdity
This is an imagined prison memoir, not, as far as we are told, the true story of any one Iraqi detained by Saddam’s apparatus. Yet the jerking contrasts between past ‘normality’ and the gathering nightmares of the isolation cell are done with such conviction that I’jaam reads as a miniature of Iraqi suffering from the Baathists to Bush.
An unknown prisoner, a student raped and left to rot, is suddenly given paper and pen by his gaolers. Mockingly he is told: We hear you are a writer, so write. But – wasn’t he slipped these same sheets of paper by a mysterious friend who calls himself ‘Ahmad’? Will ‘Ahmad’ come back to rescue him? Out of a ‘normal’ memory Antoon’s prisoner juggles with increasing chaos. Yet he writes out his past life so endearingly and with such verve that we are one with him in his final wishful nightmare, hoping against foreknowledge that he, and we too, have escaped from the present. For ‘Furat’ – apparently the prisoner’s name – uses these sheets to write for his life, to remake meaning through memory. Later on, we gather, a dusty manuscript is ‘discovered’; it is edited, then filed away by a bored security official.
The title I’jaam is deeply ironic. The unknown writer, says the official’s disdainful report, wrote his jumbled text in letters minus their ‘dotting’, they lacked ‘I’jaam’ – the changing dots to the characters which lend written Arabic its elucidation, its contexts, its ‘clarification’. So the bored official has added in the ‘dotting’, eg the State’s meaning, its final triumph over the writer. Yet we are the final ‘I’jaam’, we understand Furat’s writing. The State does not win. If writing is meaning, then ‘I’jaam’ is the metaphor as well as the method of meaning. Furat’s growing nightmares or daymares of dissolution provide a context of meaningless no-time to his wonderfully ‘present’ memoirs. If for him his nightmares are the terror of his undotting, his undoing, for the reader they are also the dotting: they bracket and sharpen his narratives of the everyday.
Furat describes a boy who wants to write, a mildly rebellious, sardonic young Baghdadi who regards the regime as a nasty absurdity. He starts with a comical and tender picture of one sort of passive resistance, that put up by the old Christian grandmother who is his only parent. Then we are in the university, following his efforts to interest the approved literary editors in his writing. One of his professors, lecturing on the Theatre of the Absurd, loses his entire audience of students to an abrupt summons to a staged demonstration. The chief speaker, a sycophantic dean, is a terrible versifier, and Furat, ‘nauseated’ by his unspeakable performance, refuses to clap; no more than he can write ‘positively’ about Iraq’s glorious war martyrs.
For the war with Iran hangs as a lethal threat over student life; which defends its space with the usual activities, from Furat’s cheeky sex experiments to his exams. Finally then, a true rhapsody in the heart of fear and absurdity: Furat finds the last and best love he will know, fellow student Areej. Their kisses and their streetwise chat slip backwards and forward increasingly out of sequence between the closing walls of his present. In the last memory he takes Areej to a great national football match. Despite the fact that the game is rigged to ensure the Father Leader’s team wins, these final pages are to be ‘Furat’s’ own epitaph, a lovely, confident, funny homage to youth, love and football. And so back to the present; gently ended, miserably ironic: when writing can no longer protect the writer.
Late in the book there is a vision of letters, characters, who throw away their dots, steal each other’s dots, eat the dots, making love illicitly . . . the writer has lost his meaning. But surely these rebellious nihilist letters are also there to refuse censorship, the meaning the State imposes on them. Madness is Furad’s revolt as well as his end. This is why the manuscript is undotted.
Can a character who doesn’t exist wring one’s heart? Antoon’s achievement is to tip us into real lives: those of all the real unknown prisoners, from Iraq to Guantanamo and its gulag, and on. If as Elias Khoury suggests, this account of prison hinges on the writer as witness to meaning and hope, then the simplest words and images remain the human cry for dignity, even where there can be no hope, or only for others. Robert Fisk saw the words scratched during 1990-1 on Iraqi prison cells by girls raped and waiting to be murdered. One wrote simply ‘This is my fate’. Another: ‘I am going to die. Tell the others.’ Under it the unknown girl had drawn a rose.
For more information about Sinan Antoon click here and for his own website click on www.sinaan.com
From Banipal 29 - Summer 2007
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