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I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody

By Sinan Antoon. City Lights.


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In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a prisoner is given pen and paper to write. A guard turns his musings in to the secret police. This fictitious “document” is the novel I'jaam. I'jaam are the dots that indicate vowels in the Arabic script. Arabic is often written without dots, the meaning is inferred from the context. Not only is I'jaam written without dots, the narrative itself leaves much open to interpretation. The novel ends during one of the prisoner's dreams. We never know who, if anyone, betrayed the prisoner, which acts resulted in his imprisonment, nor the circumstances of his fate.

The novel is set during the Iran-Iraq War, when Hussein was an ally of the U.S. Areej, the protagonist's girlfriend, ironically describes the times thus: “[N]ow the time of the British has passed. It's the age of America, and it's not like they'll occupy us.”

Fortunately, the narrative leaves the claustrophobic confines of the prison, showing us the life of a poet student named Furat in Baghdad. We see university life, lectures, political rallies and soccer games. The narrative follows the relationship with his girlfriend from its flirtatious beginnings and explores his relationship with the grandmother who raised him. These two relationships are perhaps better developed than the main character himself.

Furat is a member of the Chaldean Christian minority, a group that has been in Iraq since long before the arrival of the Arabs. His grandmother is no dissident. She perpetually worries about him, telling him to learn to keep his opinions to himself. Yet she embodies an older morality, one in which family and God have primacy over the Party. In Hussein's Iraq this conservatism has subtly subversive qualities. While the grandmother embodies a morality rooted in times far before the advent of the Ba'ath Party, the girlfriend is rooted in a future time. She, like Furat, is reckless, but her motivations seem more personal, less political. When she lures him into her own parents bedroom for sex after listening to a forbidden tape of a poet, her rebellion is at once aimed at her parents and the state -- it is at once literary, political and sexual.

The novel succeeds in creating a haunting atmosphere, both in detention and on the streets. It does not succeed, however, in building a well-developed main character. Perhaps this is intentional. In the Orwellian tradition, Antoon has chosen to portray Furat as amorphous and non-descript; though rebellious, he is just one of the masses, ultimately just another ward of the state.

Though open to interpretation, this text is not imbued with ambiguity in the ordinary sense. Like Orwellian revisionist history, each version has an incontrovertible effect on people's lives. One thing is clear -- there is only one valid interpreter of the text. It is the Party who will decide what is true and thus determine the fate of our protagonist. The reader is left to simply wonder.



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