Writers and the City: Sinan Antoon & Baghdad

from I’jaam

Two clouds kissed silently in the Baghdad sky. I watched them flee westward, perhaps out of shyness, leaving me alone on the bench beneath the French palm tree (so called because it stood in the courtyard in front of the French department) to wait for Areej. I looked for something worth reading in that morning’s al-Jumhwiyya, and found a good translation of a Neruda poem in the culture section, (1)besieged on all sides by doggerel barking praises of the Party and the Revolution. The breeze nudged the palm fronds above my head to applaud. It was April, “the month of fecundity, the birth of the Ba’th and the Leader,” as one of the posters on the college walls announced.

“Good morning.”

I longed to hear the warm, milky voice of Areej, but this was not hers. It was the voice of Abu `Umar, the security officer enrolled as a student in the English department. He wore gray pants and an open-collared shirt. Accompanying him was another of his (2)feces—short, long-faced, with a thick mustache. This one wore a blue safari suit, the fashion of choice for all mukhabarat, the secret police, regardless of season or occasion.

“Comrade Salah,” said Abu `Umar, introducing the short man, elongating the final “a” of his Samarra’i accent to make it sound closer to its Tikriti variation. Abu Dinar’s reddish mustache reminded me of the cockroaches that invaded our bathroom at night, thwarting our every eradication campaign. Like most of his colleagues, Abu `Umar never made any effort to conceal his occupation. He rarely attended classes, and his age (he was in his late thirties) was a clear sign that he wasn’t an ordinary college student. In times of war, graduates were immediately conscripted, and except for graduate students who had secured special permission to continue their studies, no one could linger in college to change disciplines or get a second degree. Abu ‘Umar, however, transferred to the English department halfway through the academic year, after he had spent three years in the Arabic department.

“Comrade Salah would like to ask you a few questions,” he said. I couldn’t hide my anxiety, but I answered with an unhesitant, “Of course.” Salah smiled viciously and asked me to come with him.

“Where?”

“To the office. It won’t take more than half an hour”

I had thought a great deal about this moment, but could never seem to summon discretion enough to avoid it. Abu ‘Umar gathered the books stacked on the bench beside me and put them in my hands. We walked toward the main gate. I had always complained about the distance between the gate and the lecture halls, but that morning as we crossed the nearly empty courtyard the walk seemed mercilessly short. It was early still—I liked to arrive before most students to avoid Baghdad’s morning crowds and traffic. I looked around for a familiar face, perhaps someone to record my absence, but found none. I thought of Areej and her incessant murmurs of caution. I thought of my grandmother with her endless praying and the candles she lit in church after church for my safety.

We crossed the courtyard that separated the English department from the dean’s offices, passed by the Student Union, and turned left toward the main entrance. Through the iron gate I could see a Mitsubishi with tinted windows. It was parked beneath the mural erected in honor of the Leader’s honorary doctorate in (3)disorder. He wore a university gown and held a degree in his hand. The inscription read, “The pen and the gun have one (4)barrel.”

(5)The Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation would daily bombard us with slogans and chants, and I retained my sanity by rearranging their words and images to better suit my mood. I began with some political songs, which could be improved with a simple stroke. In the name of the People and the Nation, I unsheathed my invisible pen and began to improve my superior’s verses:

House by house

Our leader calls on us

And (6)fucks us into bed . . .

When we reached the car a man emerged from the drivers side and opened the back door. Salah motioned for me to get in. I gave Abu ‘Vmar a contemptuous look and climbed onto the seat. It was clear that he would not be coming with us. Salah slammed the door shut and sat down next to me, while another man, bald with sunglasses, sat beside the driver.

The car left the college in the direction of al-Waziriyya. We passed a bookstore where I sometimes shopped, turned right at the Muhammad al-Qasim expressway, and south toward the People’s Stadium. On the radio, the announcer read the morning news. A drop of sweat fell from my forehead onto the right lens of my glasses, mocking my attempt at composure. It was the first time I had felt real fear since the first days of the war, when Iranian jets thundered above Baghdad and dropped their bombs by the hundreds. The expressway ran over an old cemetery where it is said the grave of Zubayda, wife of Harun al-Rashid, lies—or perhaps another Zubayda of more recent demise. The image of the Syrian actress who played Zubayda in the television series about Harun al-Rashid imposed itself on my mind, along with the lyrics of Nazim al-Ghazali, also buried in that cemetery: “Those who threw me / those that tortured me / on a distant bridge have left me.” What lies ahead for me? Sarmad was right to warn me. Did someone write a report? Did they hear me doing my impression of Him? My grandmother was right.

Please be careful, my son. For my sake. What would I do if anything happened to you? I’d die. They’ll cut out your tongue. These people don’t fear God. They fear nothing . . .

Footnotes:

1. Beside?
2. Species?
3. Law?
4. A saying of our great Leader, may God preserve him.
5. Could this be the Ministry of Culture and Information?
6. The original lyrics read, “tucks.”

———————————-

Excerpted from:

An inventory of the General Security headquarters in central Baghdad reveals an obscure manuscript. Written by a young man in detention, the prose moves from prison life, to adolescent memories, to frightening hallucinations, and what emerges is a portrait of life in Saddam’s Iraq.

In the tradition of Kafka’s The Trial, or Orwell’s 1984, I’jaam offers an insight into life under an oppressive political regime and how that oppression works. This is a stunning debut by a major young Iraqi writer-in-exile.

Sinan Antoon was born in Baghdad in 1967. He is a poet, novelist, and filmmaker. Antoon studied English Literature at Baghdad University before moving to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War, and did his graduate studies at Georgetown and Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in Arabic Literature in 2006. His poems and essays ( in Arabic and English) have been published in leading national and international journals. In 2003, Antoon returned to his native Baghdad as a member of InCounter productions to co-direct/produce About Baghdad, an acclaimed documentary about the lives of the Iraqis in post-Saddam occupied Iraq. He is currently an Assistant Professor at New York University, where he teaches Arabic literature and culture.


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