Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Iraq: I'jaam, by Sinan Antoon

This is a slim book, but a fascinating one. There is a preface which explains the meaning of the title. Arabic script is written with dots which elucidate the meaning of the phonetic characters. Without dots, the meaning has to be deciphered from context and syntax. The dots were added to eliminate ambiguity. For instance, the word which undotted reads bayt (house) can also be read as bint (girl), banat (she built), nabt (plant), thabt (brave), and so on, by placing dots in different ways.

The text of the novel is supposedly written by an unnamed narrator, being held in prison and tortured for political reasons. It has been written without dots, and has been given by officials to a "qualified personnel" to add the dots and report on the manuscript's content.

The book is both grim and lyrical, as the narrator slips alternately between dream and reality, between nightmare, hallucination and the actuality of his current circumstances. Footnotes which give alternate readings of some words and phrases add extra layers of meaning, and allow for barbed satire at the expense of the regime depicted.

I found far fewer books from Iraq than from neighbouring Iran, but this one seemed a very good place to start. Sinan Antoon was born in Baghdad in 1967. He studied English literature at Baghdad University and moved to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. He teaches Arabic literature and culture at New York University.

I'jaam was published in Arabic by Dar al-Adab in Beirut in 2004. It was translated into English by Rebecca Johnson and Sinan Antoon and published by City Lights Books in 2007.

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