Book Review: I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody February 22, 2015 15:30

By Sinan Antoon, City Lights Publishers, 2007, 97 pp. 

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Reviewed by Sara Powell


Author, educator, filmmaker, poet and translator Sinan Antoon is a bright new star in the rich stratosphere of Arab adab, or belles lettres. His novel I`jaam, originally published in 2004 and newly available in English, illuminates the atmosphere of fear and corruption under Saddam Hussain’s cruel control.

As Iraq continues its descent into ever-lower levels of hell under the ongoing U.S. occupation and a chaotic, murderous resistance—which has grown even worse since the book’s original publication—Antoon reminds the world that pre-invasion Iraq also was hell.

I`jaam is a story told through a series of remembrances and prison writings of a young dissident intellectual imprisoned and tortured by a dictatorial “leader.” The undotted manuscript—missing the Arabic diacritical marks, or i`jaam, necessary for clarity—tells an ambiguous story. While the words and phrases are open to interpretation, however, the chronicle itself is not.

Elements of mysticism—a common stylistic device of adab—and a Kafkaesque surrealism light the reader’s path a step at a time through the unforeseen twists and turns of the prisoner’s encounter with the psychotic system. Antoon eschews orientalist imagery, yet invokes the Arab in the book’s sense of the labyrinthine.

In creating a new postmodern genre of Arabic literature, Antoon transcends classic adab. He successfully incorporates such adab devices as mysticism, dreams, letters and travel writing with a postmodern use of irony and nuance in addressing such diverse topics as feminism, pan-Arabism, elitism and internationalism within the context of a complex story of human relations.

Antoon’s ease with both Iraqi and U.S. society, as well as his melding of past and present understandings, inform his (and thus the reader’s) view of current society. I`jaam’s astute social and political commentary make it an important book, as does its moving and disturbing beauty. Sinan Antoon is indeed a worthy successor to the tradition of Arab humanist described by the late Edward Said as “scholar-activists.”

Sara Powell is the former director of the AET Book Club.