March 30, 2016
The Point Magazine offers a beautiful analysis of Iraqi literature, featuring Sinan Antoon

The Point Magazine offers a beautiful analysis of Iraqi literature, featuring Sinan Antoon

Betty Rosen for The Point Magazine, March 2016.
Below a few excerpts. VisitThe Point Magazine‘s website for the full article.


Of the abundant works of fiction produced by Iraqi writers in the past ten years, Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition are two of the comparatively few to have appeared in English translation. Antoon published his novel The Corpse Washer in Arabic in 2010 and his own English translation in 2013. The Corpse Exhibition, published in English in 2014 in a translation by Jonathan Wright, contains short stories from two recent collections of Blasim’s work.

It’s tempting to see the existence of these two works as proof of a preoccupation with corpses on the part of Iraqi writers, but the two are paired in this way only in English translation. The Arabic title of The Corpse Washer is Wahdaha shajarat al-rumman (“the pomegranate tree alone”), in reference to a pomegranate tree that is nourished by the water used in the corpse washing ritual. And though Blasim’s story “The Corpse Exhibition,” which appears in the middle of The Madman of Freedom Square, does have the same title in Arabic (Ma’rad al-juthath, literally, “the exhibition of corpses”), the eponymous compilation exists only in English.

Whether this consonance is a conscious marketing tactic or a coincidence, these titles play on English readers’ association of Iraq with corpses. The word “corpse” on the cover of an Iraqi novel confirms expectations that Iraqi literature will be little more than an expanded New York Times article, a tally of the faceless dead. After all, how could a novel hope to bring human beings to life in the midst of the ISIS apocalypse?


It is no coincidence that the present vanishes in both The Corpse Washer and “The Corpse Exhibition.” In The Corpse Washer, the narrator, an aspiring artist who takes up his father’s occupation of ritual corpse washing as conditions in Baghdad deteriorate, speaks in the past tense with only two exceptions: the short chapters that narrate nightmares and the narrator’s closing statement at the end of the book. The present is either unreal or poised in mute tension, awaiting an unpredictable future. “The Corpse Exhibition” is a monologue directed toward an unnamed “you,” a prep course in how to be a member of an organization that murders and mutilates in order to transform corpses into an art, and ends with the addressee’s murder by the speaker.

This disorienting and terrifying absence of the “now” is what makes these novels more than footnotes to a news article. In The Corpse Washer, “now” is ripped away from its place between “thens.” We see it only in nightmares, where Jawad’s memories are deracinated from the narrative and made into vivid, timeless art objects, and in the description of the pomegranate tree, which is similarly set apart and aestheticized. Abstraction is no longer an escapist safe haven: it is a bubble of uncertain terror.

Death is always the future in The Corpse Washer, but it also stains the past. The statues commemorating Iraq’s greatness that protagonist Jawad studies in art school are bronze corpses, suggesting that greatness itself is little more than a monument. Iraq is a form, and to Jawad, death seems now to have always been its only content. The only thing to do is survive to see the “now” anneal into the “then.”

Sinan Antoon’s novel limns a recent Iraqi past that looks different than the one American readers might expect. Although the Hussein years bring Jawad the economic hardships that drive him to abandon his artistic aspirations, it is the Americans—and the sectarian violence the invasion inspires—who litter the streets of Baghdad with corpses and, eventually, break his spirit. An Iraqi who left Baghdad in 1991 and now teaches at NYU, Antoon is well acquainted with American perspectives on Iraqis and the invasion. In English, the book occasions a reimagining of brutality, a revitalizing by way of memory that reanimates the corpses we should always have known as humans.


As a child in the 1980s, Jawad is apprenticed to his father, a Shi’ite ritual corpse washer, but as he ages, he is irresistibly drawn to sculpture. To his father’s displeasure, he studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and falls in love with Reem, a beautiful drama student. But his plans to become an artist are derailed—first by the economic hardships under Saddam, then Reem’s emigration, then the upsurge of violence accompanying the American occupation. After his father’s death, Jawad returns to corpse washing. Dwelling with the dead ravages his spirit, and after a failed attempt to emigrate he can only conclude, “I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shriveled pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.”

Washing and wrapping corpses—at first with tender reverence, later with anemic misery—Jawad has become a corpse. Communing with the dead, the futureless, he has lost his own future. The Corpse Washer is a sculpture garden as much as a novel. Jawad’s artistic passion is sparked by Giacometti, whose statement that he wanted to sculpt “not man but the shadows he leaves behind,” which Jawad quotes, could serve as a paraphrase of the book. The past-tense narration freezes every character as an ossified shadow set against a foreground of pain, free only in Jawad’s nightmares, and then only free to be tortured over and over again. Even Reem’s body, Jawad’s ideal of beauty, is ravaged by cancer. To move on from a rotten, hopeless past is impossible.