Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer. Translated from the Arabic by the author. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What led you to write this novel?
Sinan Antoon (SA): In March 2004, a year after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, I was reading the New York Times one morning and came across a story about men and women who made their living by washing the dead. Thanks to the military occupation and the violence it unleashed, corpses were piling up every day in record numbers. It was taking a heavy toll even on those already accustomed to confronting and dealing with death so often. One of the men interviewed indicated that he was going to leave the country because he could not bear it anymore and did not want his son to inherit his profession. When I read that part I knew that I was going to write a novel about the subject. I was haunted by that man and the main character began to crystallize right away with a narrative trajectory. I was also fascinated by the intricate rituals of washing the dead according to Islamic (in this case, Shi`i) tradition.
I abandoned a novel I had already started and began to read voraciously about corpse washing and collected whatever I could find. The subject seemed to me, at the time, the only way to confront Iraq’s tragedy and its recent history.
J: Can you tell us a bit about the novel?
SA: Jawad, the narrator, is born in to a traditional Shi`i family of corpse washers and shrouders near the Kazimayn Shrine in Baghdad, but he decides to abandon the family tradition to become a sculptor and to celebrate life rather than tend to death. He studies art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad in the late 1980s, during the height of Saddam’s power and his war against Iran (1980-1988). When he graduates, he is drafted into the army. Iraq’s economy is in shambles following the 1991 Gulf War and the sanctions 1990-2003. Jawad is forced to paint the houses of the nouveau riche and war merchants and put his artistic aspirations on hold.
During the 2003 US bombing, his father dies and chaos and unemployment reign. To earn a living, he is forced to go back to the very profession he tried to escape his entire life. As corpses pile up every day, waiting to be washed and shrouded, he takes home a lot of money, but also has nightmares and doubts about his ability to survive. The civil war and sectarian violence turn the bodies of citizens into sites of competing barbarism. Jawad, who was trained to shape various materials to represent life aesthetically, is now forced to contemplate how death shapes daily life and the bodies of Baghdad’s inhabitants.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous writing?
SA: My first novel, I`jaam, was about an undotted manuscript, written by a prisoner, and found in an Iraqi prison complex in the late 1980s. The editor appointed by the security services deduces that these are hallucinations and rants written by a young college student during the last years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). The focus in that novel is on the 1980s, and on the power of language and the language of power in this Orwellian atmosphere. The narrator happened to be a middle class Iraqi from a Christian family (like myself). So I was viscerally familiar with the subject and context I was writing about. Unfortunately, some critics made too much of that.
This novel, The Corpse Washer, is about a young (failed) artist who is from a Shi`i family. The social world the characters inhabit has nothing whatsoever to do with my own background and life in Iraq. It was a challenge of course, but always a pleasure as well to inhabit other lives and spaces. I was hoping that this would put to rest the religious background I was born into and inherited and would discourage critics from lazily linking the author to the narrator, or confusing and conflating the two. However, it was very disappointing that some of the reviewers started their (glowing reviews) by marveling that a “Christian” author could write about Shi`is and their rituals and beliefs with such intimacy.
Both novels address the plight of individuals in times of war and the impact of violence on the psyche and the social fabric. But The Corpse Washer is one of the first Iraqi novels about the sectarian civil war in Iraq.
J: Who do you hope will read this novel (in Arabic and in English), and what sort of impact would you like it to have upon your readers?
SA: Ideally, everyone who reads novels! But am assuming we are speaking of the “real” here. The novel has been widely read and critically acclaimed in the Arab world and the feedback from readers is quite rewarding. I do not have an ideal response in mind, but I just hope that its English version is read as a novel and nothing more, as is the case so often with “other” literature, especially from the Arab world.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SA: I have three projects in progress: a book about Mahmoud Darwish’s late poetry; translating a collection of Sargon Boulus’s poetry spanning his entire oeuvre; and a fourth novel on collateral damage. The latter is the one I had started before being overwhelmed and writing The Corpse Washer and then my third novel, Ya Maryam.
J: What was the process of translating this novel? Was it a matter of transposing it from Arabic into English, or did the novel change in the process? Were you envisioning different audiences as you worked on the different versions of the book?
SA: The novel did not “change” in any significant way. As I wrote in the preface, when both the author and the translator inhabit the same subject, one gives oneself more latitude than usual. The title should have been The Pomegranate Alone, but the publisher insisted on The Corpse Washer. The French version, forthcoming early next year from Actes Sud, will retain the original title.
Translating the novel forced me to re-enter this world I had created, but now all its inhabitants spoke and thought in English. There were a few sentences they didn’t say in English, very few. But that’s about it.
Excerpt from The Corpse Washer
I stood next to my mother on the steps in front of the big wooden door. Her right hand firmly clasped my right hand, as if I were about to run or fly away. Her left hand carried the sufurtas in which she packed my father’s lunch—three small copper pots, each stacked on top of the other in a metal skeleton resembling a little metal building. The top pot was filled with rice. The middle one with okra stew and two pieces of meat. The lower pot usually had some fruit. That day she’d put in a tiny bunch of white grapes, the kind we call ‘‘goat nipples,’’ that my father liked. There was a warm loaf of homemade bread in the nylon sack dangling from her left wrist. She put her left foot on the steps and temporarily released my hand to knock four times. Her strong knocks pushed the door open.
She pretended not to see the young man squatting a few steps away from the door with his back to the wall. He was wearing black. His head was buried in his hands and he looked like he was wailing.
Smoke rose from the cigarette in his left hand. That was the first time I’d seen a grown man cry. I looked into my mother’s coffee-colored eyes. In a hushed voice, I asked, ‘‘Why is this man crying?’’
She put her index finger on her lips to shush me and whispered, ‘‘Don’t be rude, Jawad!’’
I craned to the left, curious to see what was happening inside. It was the first time my mother had taken me to my father’s place of work. He usually took the sufurtas with him in the morning, but that day he had forgotten to bring it along.
The narrow walkway led to a wide room with a high ceiling.
Three or four men were standing at its entrance with their backs blocking the scene. Were they watching my father as he worked?
The street was quiet and although the walkway was long, I could hear the sound of water being spilled, with my father’s voice muttering phrases I couldn’t understand, except for the word ‘‘God.’’
My mother knocked at the open door with more force and determination this time and then called out ‘‘Hammoudy.’’ None of the men turned around. Then the one standing to the far left moved aside and Hammoudy’s face appeared. He limped to the door. Hammoudy, my father’s assistant, looked older than his actual age. He had black hair and eyelashes as thick as a paintbrush. He wore blue shorts and a white T-shirt which was wet in many spots. After exchanging a quick hello, my mother gave him the sufurtas and the bread saying: ‘‘Here, Hammoudy, this is Abu Ammoury’s lunch. He forgot to take it.’’
He thanked her and rushed back inside after shutting the door. She held my hand again and we started to make our way back home. I turned back to look at the squatting man. His head was still in his hands. My mother shook me and said, ‘‘Mind where you’re going. You’re going to trip and fall.’’
At that age I didn’t know much about my father’s work. All I knew was that he was a mghassilchi, a body-washer, but this word was obscure to me. I was afraid that day and asked my mother: ‘‘Does Father hurt people?’’
‘‘No son, not at all. It’s quite the opposite. Why do you ask?’’
‘‘But wasn’t that man there crying?’’
‘‘Yes, but not because of your father. He’s just sad.’’
‘‘Why is he sad? What are they doing inside?’’
‘‘Your dad washes the bodies of the dead. It’s a very honorable profession and those who do it are rewarded by God.’’
‘‘Why does he wash them? Are they dirty?’’
‘‘No, but they must be purified.’’
‘‘And where do the dead go after they die?’’
‘‘To God. Your father tends to them before they are buried.’’
‘‘How can they go to God if they are buried?’’
‘‘The soul rises to the sky, but the body remains in the earth it came from. It is said that we are come from Adam and Adam is of dust.’’
I looked up to the sky. There were five clouds huddled together and I wondered: Which one will carry the dead man’s soul? Where will it take it?
[Excerpted from Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2013 Yale University Press. For more information, or to buy this book, click here.]