BEIRUT: Sinan Antoon is nearly finished with a draft of his first novel. He is writing the manuscript in two notebooks he carries around with him everywhere - old school, pen to paper, Arabic script. The year is 1998, and Antoon is a graduate student at Harvard University. He has been away from Baghdad for seven years. He left the city of his birth after the Gulf War, when economic sanctions made life unbearable under Saddam Hussein's regime. One night he throws his backpack into the truck of his car, which is parked on a street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The notebooks are in there, too.
"There was a massive rainstorm," recalls Antoon, "and when I opened the trunk the next day, everything was wet, including the backpack and the two notebooks." The pages of Antoon's novel in progress are reduced to waterlogged pulp. About 75 percent of the text is lost in the illegible drip of rain-diluted ink.
Skip ahead to the summer of 2007. Antoon is living in New York, where he teaches courses on Arabic poetry and the postcolonial novel, among others, at New York University. He has been back to Baghdad once. In the wake of the US-led invasion, before it morphed into a full-scale occupation mired in sectarian strife, he and the film collective InCounter Productions made a critically acclaimed documentary about the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis. He had hope in 2003, but he has lost it since: "It will take two generations, at best, for Iraq to resemble some normalcy. What is happening in Iraq [now] is beyond devastating."
Antoon has just published a collection of his poems in English entitled "The Baghdad Blues." The slim volume, true to its title, slides through a series of sad and lusty verses he wrote in and about Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo and New York between 1989 and 2006.
In the same season but a good nine years after the deluge, Antoon's debut novel, "I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody," has arrived in English translation. Initial reviews are positive, as they were when Beirut's Dar al-Adab published the book in Arabic back in 2004. Abdo Wazin, a Lebanese poet and literary critic for the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, called "I'jaam" one of the most important Arabic novels in recent memory.
Named for the Arabic word whose triliteral root - ayn, jeem, meem - holds such antithetical meanings as to clarify and elucidate and to make ambiguous and foreign, "I'jaam" follows the prison diaries of Furat, a young poet who keeps a record of his dreams and nightmares during his incarceration in Baghdad. Already jailed for writing off the official script, Furat takes precautions: He obscures the meaning of his words by leaving off the diacritical dots that distinguish about half of the letters in the Arabic alphabet from one another.
Two memos bracket the narrative: One acknowledges the discovery of Furat's manuscript and assigns the task of deciphering it; the other reports back on the task's completion. Whether by accident or design, the second memo leaves readers to puzzle over the liberties taken in the translation and interpretation of the text that lies before it. Meaning in "I'jaam" is forcefully unstable, and the recuperation of Furat's writing is deliberately, creatively left open to question.
It is all the more fitting, then, that a novel framed as a restored manuscript endured its own, rather painful act of restoration in the process of being written. In a sense, "I'jaam" came full circle around that flooded trunk in a New England rainstorm, a manuscript lost in a turn of events less dramatic than Furat's possible death or disappearance, but more romantic than your average hack's stolen laptop or busted hard drive.
"I'm sure there are a few sentences that are gone forever," says Antoon. "But by then I had thought about the narrative and its every detail for years and it [had become] very vivid and visual ... As devastating as it was to lose most of the manuscript ... rewriting [gave] me a chance to fine tune the text ... Plus, many of the events were ones I had witnessed myself and I am plagued with a photographic memory."
"I'jaam" doesn't adhere to Antoon's autobiography exactly. He was never jailed, for example. But he did come of age under a despot, and he gives Furat a caustic sense of humor when it comes to skewering Baathist slogans from the 1980s. Doctors removed a benign tumor from the right side of his brain when Furat was a child, so he walks with a limp and dangles a weak left arm. As such, he is deemed unfit for military service and spared the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, from which wooden boxes are arriving by the truckload.
Furat's condition leaves him free to rebel and fall in love, to discover sex, to experiment with language and to test its political powers and literary possibilities. What makes "I'jaam" such a compelling read is that Antoon conveys the mounting hysteria of Baath Party rule not as an overwrought tragedy in the foreground but rather as a backdrop to Furat's memories. He traces the shape of Furat's story in episodic fragments, interspersing the narrative of how he became a man with that of how he became a prisoner. Furat remembers a jubilant soccer match in one moment and records a brutal act of sodomy in another.
"I'jaam" builds up to two, nearly simultaneous climaxes - one sexual in the recollection of Furat's encounter with Areej, the other psychological as he documents the breaking of his mind, peaking in a hallucinatory passage in which the letters of the Arabic alphabet arrive in his cell to dance, fight, devour one another and copulate in a visceral intimation of madness.
Antoon was born in Baghdad in 1967. He grew up in a house full of books and began reading when he was quite young. "I started writing poems and short texts when I was a teenager and would show them to friends," he remembers. "I fantasized about being a writer. I used to ghostwrite love letters for my friends in high school and my best friend encouraged me to take it more seriously. I used to also compose lewd parodies of political songs and poems and got a kick out of toying with language."
Furat's prison journals also play with language, and probe its potential as resistance and destruction alike. A mysterious man named Ahmad encourages him to write and provides him with paper. Perhaps he later springs Furat from jail in an orchestrated coup. Or perhaps he fools him. Or perhaps he is the official who interprets Furat's texts and declares them the ramblings of a deviant and a madman.
"Meaning is never fully restored," says Antoon. "That there is an 'original' meaning to texts is a comforting myth. Producing meaning is a dynamic, even if mostly unconscious, act. Social institutions try to monopolize meaning and control interpretations and this is universal. In totalitarian societies, the situation is more blatant and dangerous and less subtle. The instability of meaning is threatening to power. Thus, those who have the desire to challenge power or take a jab at it will play with meaning and revel in ambiguity and disorder. This is where the text and the narrator find their only freedom: to play with meaning and discourse and to deface it."
In addition to dissecting a political discourse, "I'jaam" also digs into a literary and artistic history. When Furat goes to Areej's house for the first time, he finds rooms full of paintings by Iraqi modernists and a library teeming with books on Islamic architecture and classical Arabic poetry, from Al-Mutanabbi to Abu Nawas. The young would-be couple watches a video of the late 20th-century poet Al-Jawahiri speaking in exile. Antoon thus buries the relics of a culture in his text. In 2007, these relics beg to be restored - dynamically, critically - just as their history begs to be retrieved. The need to repair these links between past and present cultural production is crucial both within the Arab world and across the gulf of understanding between the Arab world and the West.
"There is cultural amnesia in the Arab world and it is tragic," says Antoon. "In general, the attitude toward the cultural past is dysfunctional. The cultural past is abused, both by conservatives who deify select moments and by some neo-liberals who misread it as the source of the Arab world's woes.
"The discourse about the culture of the Arab world in the US is horrendous. One can make a career and become an expert without mastering the region's language or even quoting its own intellectuals, except for the token native ... The situation after 9/11 is that there is interest in Arab culture for what I like to call forensic reasons. Texts are read only [to unlock] the mysteries of the Arab mind. It is disastrous ... Readers in the West need to realize that despite everything, there is significant cultural production and a discourse around it ... Had the American public known that Iraq had a dynamic secular society and a vibrant culture with poetry, visual arts and theater, perhaps they wouldn't have been herded to war so quickly."
As for his personal experience with salvaging text, Antoon admits: "I was very foolish ... I learned my lesson after that and typed all my notes." To this day, he adds, "I still keep multiple copies of every text I write."
Sinan Antoon's first novel "I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody" is out now in English translation from City Lights. His latest collection of poems, "The Baghdad Blues," is out now from Harbor Mountain Press