An Interview: The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon

by Rachel Baker on April 3, 2014

I tend to think books about anything militarily or politically post-911 probably were written without enough research, reflection and understanding in the story being told, mostly because they are rarely inclusive of the “other side’s” perspective. However, this book seems like it may be different. Most importantly, its not written by an American who wasn’t there, or has never been there, and has a political and military statement they want to make that falls short because they are relying on their information from people who have not had enough time to truly process and understand what really happened and why.

That said, I think this may be an incredibly worthy book about the topic and time period. I think it may be enlightening to those of us who were armchair generals and really had no idea what we were talking about when we were spouting the rhetoric of the time in America (left or right leaning rhetoric is what I’m talking about, not just one side).

Books that show us the “other side” are incredibly important. I think its wonderful that the author, Sinan Antoon, translated this book so that Americans can read and see what it may have been like for people who lived in the place we invaded.

This book is on my bookstack for reading. Its relatively short (200 pages), probably one that we should all read. Because really, how can we understand what happened if we don’t try to understand the perspective of all sides?

In his latest novel, Iraqi author Sinan Antoon gives readers a stark portrait of contemporary Iraq. Originally written in Arabic and translated into English by Antoon himself, The Corpse Washer was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year.

The book’s protagonist is a young man named Jawad, an aspiring artist from a family of traditional Shiite corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad. Jawad breaks from the family business and attends art school, where he devotes himself to the celebration of life rather than the ritual surrounding death.

But, Antoon tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers, “Fate would have it otherwise, and he’s forced to go back and to practice the same profession that his ancestors did.”

In 2003, the U.S. invasion claims the life of Jawad’s father, and Iraq is engulfed in chaos. With his family broken, and civilian bodies piling up, Jawad returns to washing corpses. After years spent representing life aesthetically through art, Jawad now faces the tremendous power of death over life.

Read the article:

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist and translator. His poems and essays (in Arabic) have appeared in as-Safir, al-Adab, al-Akhbar, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, Masharef and (in English) in The Nation, Middle East Report, Al-Ahram Weekly, Banipal, Journal of Palestine Studies, The Massachusetts Review, World Literature Today, Ploughshares, Washington Square Journal, and the New York Times.

He has published two collections of poetry; Mawshur Muballal bil-Hurub (Cairo, 2003) and Laylun Wahidun fi Kull al-Mudun (One Night in All Cities) (Beirut/Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2010). His novels include I`jaam (2003), which has been translated into English as I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (City Lights, 2006) as well as Norwegian, German, Portuegese, and Italian, Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman (The Pomegranate Alone) (Beirut: al-Mu’assassa al-`Arabiyya, 2010), published by Yale University Press in Spring 2013 as The Corpse Washer, and Ya Maryam (Beirut: Dar al-Jamal, 2012). His translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s last prose book In the Presence of Absence, was published by Archipelago Books in 2011 and won the 2012 National Translation Award given by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). His co-translation (with Peter Money) of a selection of Saadi Youssef’s late poetry was published by Graywolf in November 2012.

Sinan is a member of the Editorial Review Board of the Arab Studies Journal. He is an associate professor at the Gallatin School, New York University and co-founder and co-editor of the cultural page of Jadaliyya.

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