February 18, 2024
Orient XXI reviews Antoon’s “Of loss and lavender” – casting a “sharp eye” on the myth of the acceptance of the Other

Orient XXI reviews Antoon’s “Of loss and lavender” – casting a “sharp eye” on the myth of the acceptance of the Other

Dalia Chams, for Orient XXI, 2024 

Iraq. The Memory of the Vanquished

In his new novel Khuzama, Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon tells the respective trajectories of two Iraqi exiles in the United States, retraced in fragments and in the form of intertwined destinies. Their parallel journeys and their relationships with their homeland contribute to a different depiction of the labyrinth of History.

Sinan Antoon continues his literary project aimed at reconstructing History from the perspective of the vanquished, in the vein of Walter Benjamin’s melancholic Marxism. He still gives voice to the “damned” of Iraq, who are left only with fragments of the past and family memories. Scattered memories of a scattered people, which enable the author to combat oblivion and resist erasure.

The two main characters of Khuzama (“lavender” in Arabic) live in the United States, like the writer himself — of American mother — who settled there in 1991, at the age of 23. They follow the news from their homeland on television or through social networks. Nothing unites them except their origin, and of course the fact of having suffered under the yoke of successive regimes and political vicissitudes in Iraq. They resemble those Iraqi exiles whom the novelist must have encountered along his path, or with whom he exchanges thoughts on the web, Iraq remaining the crucible of his imagination.

A “decapitated” past

Antoon, who teaches literature and contemporary Arab culture at New York University, has chosen to weave the stories of his characters in parallel, following a non-linear narrative structure, as is customary in this genre of novels where the two narratives overlap throughout the work and only converge towards the end. The plot jumps between timelines and alternates between protagonists, delivering to us the details of a “decapitated” past and a burdensome present to bear.

Sami, a retired doctor, left Iraq to live with his son in the United States after his wife was killed in a car bomb attack.

The music as well as the scent of lavender (his wife’s favorite perfume) exert a magical power over him. The fresh scent of these violet flowers soothes and stimulates him at the same time. As he confides in a nurse who has experienced a similar loss with her grandfather who went to war in Vietnam:

“[Music] can reduce the anger and embarrassment of patients by connecting them to their memories. And it temporarily dissipates the clouds of dementia (…), being our first language.”

The writer takes advantage of opportunities to allude to the similarities between the current context and the suffering caused by various armed conflicts, notably the Second World War. A comparison that Sinan Antoon often makes recurrently.

Undergoing amputation

While Sami often repeats “I want to go home, my home is in Baghdad,” Omar, the second main character of the novel, seeks to sever all ties with his country. He avoids gatherings of Iraqis and Arabs in general, to blend into his new American life, finding odd jobs on farms or in convenience stores. He needs money to undergo surgery on his ear, partially amputated by Saddam Hussein’s men for avoiding military service during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Moreover, Omar has reconstructed a new identity for himself, often telling people he meets that his parents are from Puerto Rico, and that he speaks Arabic because he grew up in a Gulf monarchy.

Is amnesia necessary to survive the deluge? What is the meaning of homeland? Each character responds in their own way, through their own trajectory, while taking stock of everything that has marked their lives over the past decades. The author condenses the very intense emotions that one feels with them: he is also a poet and has translated the verses of several great names from the Arab world, such as the Iraqi Sargon Boulos (1944-2007) and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), whose poetry is marked by abandonment, exile, and nostalgia. Being far from Iraq places him somewhere between immersion and withdrawal. Like members of his Christian family, he left his homeland and no longer harbors illusions. But he also casts a sharp eye on “the myth of acceptance of the Other” in liberal societies, and on civilian populations, invisible in news bulletins.

The cruelty of the homeland

At one point in the novel, Omar exclaims:

“But what homeland? The one where you own absolutely nothing? Even your own body, still in embryonic state, is disposed of by the government. It generously allows you to use it and live in it. And like any greedy landlord, it does with it as it pleases, when it pleases. It throws it, among thousands of others, into futile wars; it is insatiable and only seeks to enrich itself with a few of its fortunate children. And if you protest or disobey the rules, you will be bitten by one of its rabid dogs or have a limb amputated.”

At another moment, he recounts arriving in exile with only one suitcase in hand, because he simply wanted to flee that homeland. But he discovers that “the head is a suitcase, the heart too, and they carry within them what cannot be packed into hundreds of bags. We cannot empty them of their contents, nor easily rid ourselves of them.”

The destinies of the two characters intertwine at the climax of the novel with a twist related to lavender. Sami’s nurse takes him to the farm of purple flowers where Omar works. Omar then recognizes the doctor who had amputated his ear. What to do? All options are open. Sinan Antoon does not like conclusions or happy endings; he prefers complex and painful existences.