[The events of Ave Maria take place in a single day. Two characters from an Iraqi Christian family who are drawn together by the situation in the country under the same roof in Baghdad narrate these events. Youssef is an elderly man in his seventies. He refuses to emigrate and leave the house he himself built and where he has lived for half a century. He still clings to hope and memories of a happier past. Maha is a young woman whose life has been torn apart by sectarian violence. Her family is displaced in the north. She is living temporarily in Youssef`s house until she finishes her studies. Maha feels that she has become a refugee in her own country. She and her husband are waiting to emigrate and escape. Hope collides with destiny and violence changes the lives of the two narrators forever. The novel raises bold and difficult questions about the plight of Christians in Iraq in recent years. One character searches for an Iraq which was, while the other attempts to escape from the Iraq of today. This excerpt is from the English translation of the novel by Maia Tabet.
Ya Maryam was first published in Arabic in 2012 by Dar al-Jamal (Beirut/Baghdad). It was critically acclaimed and celebrated in Iraq and the Arab world. It was shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (The Arabic Booker). A Spanish translation by Mari Luz Comendador was pubished By Turner Libros earlier this year in Madrid under the title Fragmentos de Bagdad.]
An Excerpt from Ave Maria by Sinan Antoon
Translated by Maia Tabet
I sat at the kitchen table sipping my tea and thinking about the best way to ease the tense atmosphere and the bitter taste left by the previous night’s argument. I chuckled to myself when it hit me that even from the gloom of their prisons, the Baathists could still cause trouble. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about the fact that this was the second time that Tariq Aziz had provoked family friction. The first time was in the late 1980s when Hinnah and I had had a similarly heated argument after she`d told me that she’d seen Aziz`s wife crying in church on Sunday. She attended regularly, my sister said, and she cried throughout the service. It was no doubt because she knew what her husband was up to, I had retorted. To which she objected virulently by saying that he was a God-fearing man who had nothing to do with what the rest of the government were up to. He made generous donations to the church, and had footed the bill for the magnificent new chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. I could see for myself, she chided, if only I would deign to set foot in church. His contributions did not absolve him of responsibility for his history and his actions, I told her, adding that they were paltry in light of the brutal treatment being meted out. And, anyhow, why didn’t he go to church to pray and do penance for his sins, I asked? I told her that this was a confirmation of the widely circulated rumor that he had converted to Islam, along with Michel Aflaq.
“Oh, really? So why don’t you go to church and atone for your sins?” she protested indignantly.
“Because I don’t have any ... At least not ones that cause people any harm.”
“What are you saying? That not harming people is enough? What about your religious duties?”
I went to church only on special occasions and on holidays. Over the decades, Hinnah had given up hope that I would do as enjoined by the Ten Commandments and observe the day of the Lord, and she took advantage of every opportunity to remind me that I was a renegade. I couldn’t plead or convince her, albeit in jest, that she was my church-going proxy. You`re praying enough for seven people by going to church every day, I would tell her, so why not pick another six on whose behalf you could consider yourself to have prayed? Whenever I spoke like that, she’d look at me sideways, shake her head and just clam up.
Tariq Aziz, along with several others, had been sentenced to death five days earlier for his role in executions, purges, and forced displacements. The airwaves and newspaper columns were full of loud and fierce arguments about the merits of the judgment, given the man’s frailty and advanced age, and his self-proclaimed innocence. Aziz denied any involvement in the massacres of Kurds and Shiites, and claimed he was a diplomat whose sole responsibility was the conduct of foreign affairs.
The first time I had an argument with Maha and Lu’ayy, it hadn`t led to a confrontation. She had derided the trial as a mockery of justice—instead of busying themselves with sentencing innocent old men to death, she`d said, they should be giving redress to ordinary people for all the problems they faced. Lu’ayy had asked for my opinion, and I`d said that besides the procedural flaws, the courts involved were unconstitutional since they had been set up under the occupation; it would’ve been better to wait and not act so hastily, I added. Even Saddam shouldn’t have been executed and been left to rot in prison for the rest of his days, I told him. And Tariq Aziz was complicit insofar as he knew what the Baathists were up to.
“But aren`t they sentencing him to death because he’s a Christian?” Maha had shot back, her tone petulant.
“My dear, it’s a more complicated than who’s a Christian and who’s a Muslim. The issue is a political one, it has to do with powerful interests, not with religion,” I`d replied.
Maha hadn`t said anything more, but she`d clearly indicated that she didn’t like what she`d heard when she slapped her own cheek and covered her mouth as if to suggest that she`d had to stop herself from speaking.
Yesterday, however, she had shown no such restraint. We had revisited the subject after hearing a new development in the story, as we were having tea. The announcer had said that President Jalal Talabani had issued a statement announcing that he would not approve the death sentence and that he respected Tariq Aziz as a Christian. The Vatican had stepped in and was trying to intervene to have him released, added the announcer.
“But isn’t it the exact same Dawa Party people who carried out the grenade attack and tried to assassinate him in Mustansariyyah in 1979 that are trying to kill him now because he’s a Christian?” Maha responded, shaking her head. “Aren’t they terrorists too? Which criminals should be condemned to death, him or them? Under the pretext of the rule of law, mere terrorists can now sit in judgment of a public figure of his stature!”
“What rule of law, my dear? They’re of a piece, all of them, just criminals and thieves! The rule of straw is what they should call it, not the rule of law.”
Then we heard the voice of Tariq Aziz’s son in conversation with the announcer over the phone. He said the death sentence was politically motivated and he called for the intervention of the international community to free his father who was innocent and in poor health.
Listening to him, I remembered Aziz’s haughty demeanor during press conferences when he’d blow on a Cuban cigar in emulation of his master and leader; I recalled too how he had once threatened a British journalist with death. But I didn’t say anything in order to keep the peace; it was enough, I thought, that the man would spend the rest of his days in jail. But Maha had escalated the argument.
“If he were one of them, they’d never have handed down a death sentence. But the blood of Christians is cheap!” she exclaimed.
I answered her calmly. “And what about those that were condemned to death before him? Weren’t they Muslims? He’s the first and the last Christian to get a death sentence.”
“Don’t you see how they’re killing us everywhere, without due process, or a word of protest...? Churches are being torched, we’re being killed right, left and center, and we are slowly but surely being driven out.”
“Maha dear, it’s not only churches … Far more mosques have been burned to the ground, and Muslims have perished in their tens of thousands.”
“Yeah ... May they go on killing each other ‘til kingdom come, and leave us alone! What have we done to them?”
“It’s not a matter of guilt or innocence. It’s about the state, don’t you see? Minorities can only be protected if there is a strong state. We have neither parties nor militias—or much else to show for ourselves.”
Maha was obdurate. Or maybe she just didn’t want to abandon the argument on my terms.
“It’s not as if it’s just here, in Iraq. Look at Egypt. There’s a strong state there—and they’re still killing Christians and burning down churches! They’re going to keep at it until we all leave, just like they did with the Jews. Why did the Jews leave? Who made them go?”
“Honey, what happened with the Jews is entirely different, and it’s complicated. Israel had come into the picture, and the Jews were stripped of their nationality with the collusion of the old regime. After that, it just became one huge tangled mess.”
Lu`ayy had said nothing until now, but not because he had no feelings about the subject.
"It`s not just us, Yusif Uncle," he said, breaking his silence. "What about the poor Mandaeans and the Yazidis up north? Look at what happened to them. The Muslims aren’t going to leave anyone be.”
“It’s a religion which was spread by the sword. What do you expect?” Maha chimed in.
“And can you tell me how the Christian faith was spread?” I asked her. “By making nice and whispering sweet nothings into people’s ears? If it weren’t for that Roman emperor who converted—his name escapes me right now—Christianity wouldn`t have spread at the pace it did. Wasn`t it the practice of conquering Christian armies to behead people for no other reason than their refusal to convert? And how about the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas which, with the blessing of the church, involved the slaughter of an estimated 20 million people?”
“Well, I don’t know anything about those details, Uncle. And that was all in the past. Our problems are right now, in the present. The Muslims want to get rid of us, quite simply, so that the country can become theirs alone.”
“What do you mean ‘theirs’? The country belongs to everybody, and if it’s anyone’s it’s ours, before anyone else, all the way back to the time of the Chaldeans and from there on down to the Abbasids, the Ottomans and the creation of the modern nation-state. The evidence is there, in all of our museums. We’ve been here from the very beginning. If it isn’t our country, I’d like to know whose it is! Can you tell me?”
She sighed, and sounded pained as she answered.
“Yeah, I guess that’s where we’ll end up, in museums ... It may have been our country once, Uncle, a long time ago ... in the past. But that’s all over. Today, we are all infidels and second-class citizens.”
“Infidels, shminfidels! As soon as things settle down, life will be good again ... it’s just a matter of time. Things are far better now than they were three or four years ago.”
“How so, Uncle? What is it that`s going to be better after all the killing, the slaughter, and displacement?”
“Maha, my dear, many countries and peoples have gone through far worse, and then things settled down. That’s the cycle of history.”
“Please, Uncle, what kind of talk is this? Go outside and see how they’re treating people in the streets, and at their jobs, and then come and tell me that it’ll all go back to normal. No way!”
She was red-hot with anger and waved her right hand in the air for emphasis, and although her husband placed his left hand on her arm to get her to tone down, she carried right on.
“I’d like to know when you think our situation, I mean the situation of Iraqi Christians, was unimpeachable. When was it that there was no discrimination or racism?”
“With all due respect, honey, you’re still very young. What’s going on now is out of the ordinary. In the old days...”
“Uncle, I know nothing about the old days! Nor do I want to know... All I want is to live with dignity and be treated like a human being!”
“Yes, that is your right ... but history...”
She interrupted me again. “What history, for God’s sake...! You’re just living in the past,
[Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet]