Sinan Antoon: ‘Novels Can Narrate an Alternative History’

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Iraqi author Sinan Antoon was in France last week to present Philippe Vigreux’s French translation of his book Ave Maria, published in English in 2017 as The Baghdad Eucharist, translated by Maia Tabet:

By Olivia Snaije

sinan antoon: ‘novels can narrate an alternative history’

Photo credit: Olivia Snaije.

Originally titled Ya Maryam, Antoon’s third novel was shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Antoon was at the lovely Parisian bookshop, l’Arbre à Lettres for one of his events, and answered questions for readers. In an aside, he mentioned that the titles of his two novels available in French were the same as his titles in Arabic, whereas in English they had been changed. Antoon’s second novel, The Pomegranate Alone, is indeed called Seul le Grenadier in French, whereas in English it became The Corpse Washer.

“History is inescapable,” said Antoon, in answer to the first question about the theme of history told through the story of a family in both The Corpse Washer and The Baghdad Eucharist. “I am personally very concerned with history but not in a traditional sense. Novels can narrate an alternative history, not the official one.”

Referring to G. Spivak’s term, “epistemic violence,” or the elimination of knowledge in marginalized populations, Antoon continued: “I’m interested in recounting the history of the oppressed, of telling the story that has not been told. In Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, because of destructive wars and dismantling of states there is a loss of collective memory.”

In both novels there is a similar theme of family, but also discord within the family, whether it’s Jawad, in The Corpse Washer, who doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, or Maha, in The Baghdad Eucharist, whose vision of Iraq is entirely different from her uncle Youssef’s.

“Believe it or not, the ideas of my novels start with an image or a character and then things move spontaneously. But in times of war the interior becomes more important, family becomes more important as societies become more sectarian. A family is a microcosm for larger structures and situations. At the same time, conflict in families is universal and generational and shows socio-economic changes in a society and issues of national identity and history,” said Antoon. “These questions are common in Iraq. The younger generations have no memory and don’t care about the past, and the present is very violent. With Maha and Youssef it’s how two people living in the same house see things differently. The same reality can have completely different meanings to people.”

In answer to a question about the importance of trees in his novels—whether the pomegranate tree, or the palm tree in The Baghdad Eucharist—Antoon responded:

“In Iraq pomegranate and palm trees are everywhere. Every house has a palm tree. There used to be 30 million palm trees in Iraq, now there are far fewer because of the war. In The Corpse Washer I put the pomegranate tree inside the washhouse and it became a metaphor for a larger theme, how life and death intersect. [In The Baghdad Eucharist] Youssef’s character is modeled on a relative of mine who actually worked with palm trees. I also love them. In Iraq the tree is used for so many things; the fronds are used to build houses, the fruit is an important staple and wine is made from it. When we celebrated Palm Sunday in Baghdad we would hold palm leaves. And in the Koran Jesus was supposedly born under a palm tree.”

Antoon added that he had received an email from a man in southern Iraq who told him he had three palm trees and was taking good care of them and sent him a photograph. “Things take on an iconic importance during war and destruction.”

What of the use of dreams and nightmares in his novels?

“We spend one third of our lives sleeping but our brain doesn’t stop. It’s about the unconscious, fears, trauma. I think there should be more focus on our dreams and nightmares because it structures how we are when we are awake. The irrational is very important.”

Also, he added, “in a novel, with nightmares and dreams you have more freedom to be poetic.”

A Syrian member of the audience who read Antoon’s novels in Arabic remarked on the use of Iraqi dialects in the dialogues and asked if Antoon was afraid that other Arabic readers might lose the meaning of these dialogues.

“I think it’s very bizarre that so many Arabic authors write in Modern Standard Arabic,” responded Antoon. “People don’t speak like that. When you use Modern Standard, it flattens everything. It’s not easy to write in these dialects because you have to know them well. I’ve actually received correspondence from people in Morocco for example, who particularly enjoy the Arabic. So I think if you make a bit of effort, you can understand the meaning.”

Towards the end, a remark was made on the sensitive balance between destruction and beauty in his books.

“I am interested in how we always think of barbarism as something that is far away. But it is in our civilization; it’s part of humanity. Yet human beings also find beauty in simple daily things.”

Antoon quoted Mahmoud Darwish: “We love life when we find a way to it.”

Antoon’s newest novel, Fihris (working title, Index) about a bookseller on Al-Mutanabbi Street and the emotional life of objects will be published in English next year. He is currently working on a new novel “about two Iraqis in the US, two refugees from different periods of time who have two different experiences of what it is like to be a refugee in the US.”

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels.

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