Iraq Journey as Poetic Dream, Tyrannical Nightmare

By Zaid Shlah

I’jaam, An Iraqi Rhapsody
By Sinan Antoon
City Lights, 2007

 Sinan Antoon’s “I’jaam, An Iraqi Rhapsody” is at once a poetic dream and a tyrannical nightmare, relating the human story of one man’s journey. The reader follows him into and through the labyrinthine prison system under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship near the end of the Iran-Iraq War.

Antoon reveals the private experience of the young, agitator-hero poet, Furat, whose memory and creative force struggle to unshackle the bonds of tyranny. At the same time, one can see it as the public story of the mosaic of Iraqis living under Hussein’s fortress: from the archetypical wise but devoted Grandmother, to the spirit of the intelligent and independent Iraqi women, and sadly, of those who would be corrupted by the promise of power:

Then they begin to torture people… they discover that this is easier, and perhaps more pleasurable, than fulfilling their promises.

 Perhaps more importantly, “I’jaam”speaks of the darkly humored, generous and sensitive Iraqi people. They would give publicly only what must be given so as to avoid death or prosecution, but still carry privately in their hearts that which no dictatorship (dare we say occupation from time immemorial until now) could extinguish: “… his name [famed Iraqi poet Al-Jawahiri] had not been uttered publicly since he left the country in 1980…. Some of his poems were smuggled… secretly in school.”

Antoon’s precise poetic-prose style, his masterful use of conceit, and lush, imaginative language all help to lure the reader into the uglier domain of Hussein’s prison. He succeeds at making revelations about places no person would want to experience for himself:

       Many small things shattered inside of me every time, things

I cannot name or identify. But their shards still wound me.

       But their shards still wound me.

Perhaps Antoon’s most striking achievement in this brilliant exposé of “memory and nightmare” demonstrates how dictatorships operate under the guise of doublespeak and the entrusted and protective “Father-Leader,” but always at the expense of human and civil rights. Antoon reveals this process through an accurate portrayal of events and state propaganda:

 His heroism was used to embolden the spirit of victory and to establish the icon of a new citizen—one who puts country before all else, even his own blood.

These revelations into the machinations of the police-state make Antoon’s book one of the more important novels to emerge from Iraq in recent years. He shows that humanity can triumph even under brutality and oppression, but the novel also serves as a lesson in history – we should heed its warning.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63

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