Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Eucharist. Maia Tabet, trans. (Hoopoe Fiction, 2017)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sinan Antoon (SA): I’d wanted to explore the relationship to home/homeland. The context I had in mind was my own hometown, Baghdad. I was interested in the ways in which history disfigures and devastates selves and material and imaginary spaces. And how one resists, copes, and survives (if and when one does). I was haunted by a story I’d heard about an Iraqi man, from Baghdad, who refused to leave the city despite the death and destruction caused by the sectarian civil war that followed, and was unleashed by the Anglo-American invasion. His entire family had left the country and he insisted on staying alone in his house in Baghdad. This was the seed around which I started writing the novel. Yusif, the main character in the novel, is a retired septuagenarian who refuses to leave the house he himself built. His entire family is in the vast Iraqi diaspora and he lives alone. He is unfazed by the violence of sectarianism and holds on to his identity as a secular Christian Iraqi. He refuses to internalize political sectarianism or to abandon his homeland.
As I was writing, an event took place and complicated the trajectory of the narrative. On 31 October 2010, The Islamic State of Iraq attacked the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, held the congregants attending Sunday mass hostage for a few hours, and killed fifty-eight of them. That was not the first attack on a church in the post-invasion chaos, but it was the most devastating and shocking. I knew that church very well and had attended it many times for funerals and weddings of relatives back in the 1970s and 1980s. Both the attack itself and the reactions by Christian Iraqis, especially in the diaspora, compelled me to add another character/narrator (and layer) to the novel. Maha is a young woman who grew up in the 1990s, during the terrible years of the genocidal embargo (1990-2003). The sectarian violence forces her family to leave Baghdad to `Ainkawa in Iraqi Kurdistan. She stays behind to finish her studies and moves in with Yusif, who is her distant cousin. Like many of her generation, her lived experience and memories of Iraq are at odds with Yusif’s, whom she deems to be a hostage to nostalgia and living in the past. She is hell-bent on leaving an Iraq that is no longer a homeland.
J: What particular topics, issues, and ideas does it address?
SA: The primary subject of the novel is sectarianism and the formation of sectarian identities in Iraq in the last few decades. Although the main events of the novel take place over one day, the lives and memories of two generations of a Christian Iraq family are enveloped within that single day. Through them we get competing memories and narratives about Iraq’s recent history, from the monarchy until today, and the status and fate of its Christian citizens. Individual and collective memories intersect and suggest conflicting interpretations. Was there a time when Christian Iraqis felt at home in Iraq and had no qualms or doubts about their status and belonging? Or did they always live as second-class citizens and destined to be hunted and chased out of Iraq? Yusif and Maha live under one roof, but don’t see eye to eye. How and why did Iraq’s social fabric disintegrate?
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SA: The thread connecting all of my novels is that they deal with the visceral reality of life in Iraq. The first one, I`jam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, was about a college student who ends up in prison for ridiculing the Ba`th regime’s discourse. It portrayed daily life under a totalitarian regime during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) and then in one of its prisons. The narrator resists insanity and psychological breakdown by writing, parodying the regime’s discourse, and reconstructing his shattered memory. My second novel, The Corpse Washer, centers on a young man who is born to a family of corpse washers. He refuses to inherit his father’s profession and studies art to become a sculptor. But economic hardships in the 1990s derail his plans. After the 2003 invasion, his only means for making ends meet is to take on his deceased father’s profession. The occupation and the sectarian civil war deliver plenty of corpses and a handsome income on a daily basis. But Jawad’s extensive exposure to death takes a toll on his psyche. His lack of faith and non-sectarianism in an increasingly sectarian society compound his alienation.
While The Corpse Washer focused on a Shi`ite family, the world of The Baghdad Eucharist (Ya Maryam is the original Arabic title) is that of a middle class Christian family. The latter book is also different structurally. I used three narrative voices and had an entire section in the novel devoted to family photographs. Also, unlike with the previous novels, I did not translate this novel myself.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SA: Ideally, everyone! But I live in the real world. I want its readers to be moved and challenged. In its Arabic version, the novel has had a very life and is still widely read in the Arab world (it’s in its seventh edition now). It received critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was translated into Spanish by Mari Luz Comendador and published by Turner Kitab in 2016. Philippe Vigreax is almost done translating it to French and it is forthcoming from Actes Sud this summer. A Persian translation is also in progress.
Quite often, translated literature from the global south has to go through invisible checkpoints and gates before arriving in Anglophone reading spaces. It arrives bearing “marks” and “labels” that over determine the way it is read. It might even be forced by publishers to surrender its original title for a more marketable one. I hope it is read as a novel, first and foremost, and not a “document.” One can never control such matters of course, but I hope that Islamphobes and voyeurs stay away from it.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SA: I am putting the final touches on a collection of the poems (in Arabic, entitled كما في السماء) I have written in the past seven years. Dar al-Jamal will publish it in Beirut later this year. My own translation of these poems to English is currently under consideration. In terms of research, I have been working on a book about the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus (1944-2007), which I hope to finish by the end of the year. I have also started writing my fifth novel.
Excerpt from The Baghdad Eucharist
On my way back, I passed by a house whose owners were obviously neglecting the date palm in their courtyard, neither pollinating it nor pruning it. I was reminded of Brisam, the saa'ud who'd pruned and pollinated our trees for more than thirty years. He would have been hopping mad at the sight. Brisam would wander along the streets of residential neighborhoods and ring the doorbell whenever he came across a date palm that looked neglected. He'd ring until someone answered the door and would then give them a piece of his mind, berating them for being heartless and mean. In his last years, when he was almost deaf, he went around declaiming at the top of his lungs: “All I have are God and the date palms … only God and the date palms!” Sometimes, you'd hear him shouting, “This one is a Barhi.” God loved him for sure: he took Brisam to his eternal rest one day around noon after the saa'ud had shimmied up a tree to pollinate it. Brisam's arms were wrapped around the tree trunk and his body was held aloft in a brace when his heart simply came to a stop.
He died caring for a tree to which he spoke as if it were a human being. According to Jasim, who looked after our two trees after Brisam died, he had become a legend among the sawaeed, the date palm climbers. Jasim wasn't much of a talker. Whenever I asked how the trees were doing, he gave me a vague and terse reply. “Thanks be to God, sir! Everything is going as it should.” The only time he ever let loose was three years ago when he rang the bell and told me that he'd decided not to work as a saa'ud that season because he was going back to his village. I asked him why.
“I’m going back home, mister,” he said. “These days, when I knock, people I’ve never seen before in my life come to the door. Some of them say they’re relatives of the owners, that they’re looking out for the house, but that’s baloney. When I ask them where the owners have gone, they don't have an answer. Anyhow, it’s none of my business. Did you know that twelve of us sawaeed have been killed? Better for me to go home and work in the orchards down south. It’s safer over there.”
People had stopped giving him keys to let himself into their courtyards and tend to the trees while they slept, or when no one was home. Now, when the women and girls of the household were there alone, he couldn’t come in, and they would tell him to come back when one of the men was home.
“Honestly, I was better off before the Americans came... I could go and come as I pleased. I could sleep under a tree or in a corner anywhere and no one bothered me. Now I have to get a room in a hostel or else get killed. And the massive concrete blast walls are suffocating us. I swear to God, mister, even the date palms are Sunni and Shiite now. I have to leave my bicycle at the checkpoint and I can’t take it in with me — and on top of it all, my bike was stolen. The dates are wilted and dying of thirst. Do you know how many trees have been cut and burned so that the Americans can see the snipers and the snipers can see them? That is what it has come to. Ya haram!”
I was pained by his words, but not surprised—I'd always maintained that the date palm was the weathervane for human affairs. The fortunes of the two were inextricably linked. What befell humans was a reflection of the tree's condition, and war didn't differentiate between the heads of men and the crowns of the tree: it decapitated them both. Had the owners of the house I had just passed fled? Were the current occupants indifferent to the trees? Was there such a thing as an Iraqi who didn’t love the date palm? I was certain that those who had no love for the date palm had no love for life or their fellow men.
In that they are created male and female, humans resemble palm trees. Only after it is pollinated by her male counterpart does the female tree become fertile and hang heavy with fruit that is clustered in large and heavy bunches. Like an infant, a palm sapling must be protected from the cold and the rain in order for it to grow strong.
From a distance, the fronds of the two date palms towering above the garden seemed to me to be protecting the house — and I, too, was guarding it along with all the memories it contained. The house was more than a mere shelter, it was like a palm tree, which isn't a mere tree but a living being unto itself, joined with the earth beneath it, the sky above it, and the air around it which it breathed. So too the house, which wasn't merely a combination of bricks, mortar, and paint, but the assemblage of an entire lifetime.
“It would be best to sell the house and leave,” Amal had said through her tears, when she called after Hinnah died. “Things are going to go from bad to worse. Why remain alone? You can come here or go and live with Salima in Sweden. Please Yusif, I beg you, leave.”
I responded the way I always had.
“I'm not leaving,” I told her. “I'm not going anywhere at my age—I'm too old for such humiliation.”
Many a real estate broker had been knocking on my door lately, to ask if I was thinking of selling. And my answer was always no. Our neighborhood was considered one of the safer and calmer areas in the city and prices were going up. A few upscale restaurants had opened and the nouveaux riches had begun buying up old houses that they tore down and replaced with ostentatious mansions.
One evening, as we were watching TV, Lu'ayy asked me if I'd ever considered leaving.
“At my age? Better suffer here than experience the humiliations of being a refugee. If I were young, I would consider it. It's different for you and Maha—your lives are ahead of you, you can go and start over in a new place. I'm not going anywhere. I built this house, and I've lived in it for more than half a century. How could I leave it and go?”
“Have you ever had the opportunity or the desire to leave?”
“I did once or twice. I got an offer from Abu Dhabi in the late '70s, and another one from Dubai in 1989. I turned them both down.”
“Do you ever regret it?”
“No. D'you know what al-Gubbanchi says?”
Do not think that in leaving there is comfort
I see nothing in it but grief and weariness,
All sleep was robbed from my eyes.
I never thought and no one knew
That it would be like this.
. . .
After translating the book, which the agency then published, I got a promotion and received a hefty raise. I dedicated myself completely to work and within three years, I had saved enough money to buy a good piece of land near Karrada where I wanted to build a new home for the family. Habiba had returned from Suleimaniyya to work in Baghdad and was betrothed to her first cousin on our mother's side. She moved in with him at his parents' in al-Sinnaq, and then they got a place of their own. She offered to contribute to the costs of building the new house as a gift to our father—she wanted him to be comfortable in his old age and to be surrounded by his sons and daughters, and any grandchildren that were on the way. Although we both agreed that his name should be on the deed, he objected vehemently, and so we registered the house in Hinnah's name.
Just as I recall the day I planted the palm saplings at opposite ends of the backyard, I also remember that there was nothing but the foundations back in 1955. I would come by every week to check on the progress of the work and Khalaf, the foreman in charge, would brief me. On one of my visits some months into the work, I was surprised to see that they had used palm fronds to build the arch that the architect had designed for the reception room. When Khalaf assured me that it was an old and time-tested technique, I remembered seeing pictures in the book about date palms that the inhabitants of the marshes built similar structures in their guest quarters and their houses.
The house was on a lovely quiet street near the Opera Gardens that was later named after Jaafar Ali Tayyar, a prominent man who lived in the very first house to be built on the street. The main thoroughfare it branched onto became known as Street 42. This was because people called the next street over from the main thoroughfare Street 52, after the bus which plied that route, and that is the roundabout way in which the streets in the vicinity were numbered.
I entrusted the design of the house to a friend from Baghdad College who'd gone abroad to study architecture and had come back and started his own firm. My main instruction was that the house had to be spacious enough to accommodate the entire family. Thus, we had six bedrooms, three on each of the two floors, a large reception lounge for entertaining guests and an everyday living room. The architect suggested having a fireplace in the reception room and I agreed enthusiastically. There was a small yard at the front of the house, and a very large one at the back.
The blooms on the bougainvillea whose branches scaled the façade of the house came into view. Besides its heat hardiness and its ability to bloom year-round, I had chosen the bougainvillea for the beauty of its flowers, which looked like so many vermilion tongues licking at a fire. From the distance, I could also see the crowns of the three Seville orange trees that I had planted in the garden at the front. How I love the smell of those oranges! There's really nothing like it! Whenever the harvest season came around, I'd pick and juice the oranges in the kitchen, and Hinnah would freeze the juice to use in her cooking. I did this every year, even after she was gone. I would offer a container of frozen bitter orange juice to any visitors that dropped by. Nothing else flavors food like the juice of bitter oranges, I'd tell them, and I had no use for it.
I looked up toward the upstairs bedroom windows. The curtains were drawn which meant Maha wasn't home. I noticed that the metal plaque hanging on the pillar to the right of the gate that had my name on it was so dusty that the Y was hardly visible. I wiped my finger across the plaque—it really needed polishing. I opened the gate and bent down to turn on the water spigot close by. I took out a pack of tissues from my pocket, pulled three out, wetted them with a few drops of water and stepped back out to clean the plaque. Although my lower back hurt, I was pleased that I had cleaned my name, and I cursed at the proliferation of dust and soot in recent years. I remembered that the myrtle tree between the garage and the garden needed pruning. I would ask Lu'ayy to do it when he could. Once inside the house, I realized how tired I felt and that I needed to make up for the previous night's broken sleep. I got undressed and went to bed.
[Excerpted from The Baghdad Eucharist (c) 2017. Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet.]