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I’JAAM by Sinan Antoon


An Iraqi Rhapsody

by Sinan Antoon & translated by Sinan Antoon & Rebecca Johnson

Pub Date: June 15th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-87286-457-3
Publisher: City Lights

A manuscript found in Baghdad’s Directorate of General Security recalls life under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

I’jaam, explains Iraqi expatriate Antoon in a prefatory note, is the Arabic word used to describe the diacritical dots added to the basic alphabet to represent different phonetic characters. Since these dots can also clarify a word’s meaning, I’jaam has come to mean “elucidating” or “clarifying.” A manuscript written entirely without diacritics is clearly intended to be unintelligible, and that’s the premise of Antoon’s novel. It’s 1989; a manuscript without diacritics is unearthed in the dreaded security headquarters, where a request is made for “qualified personnel…to insert the diacritics and write a brief report of the manuscript’s contents.” The resulting document unfolds a series of vignettes of a government-regulated life. Furat, the manuscript’s author, is a poet and student of literature in Baghdad. A limp makes him unfit for service in the army, but he feels the restraints of Hussein’s oppressive dictatorship in countless other ways. His grandmother, who raised him after his parents were killed, and his girlfriend Areej plead with him to be compliant, but Furat finds it difficult to live and study under such conditions. Though his protests are minor—trying to write his senior thesis on 1984 (banned by the state) and using newspapers with pictures of the Leader as toilet paper—he is nonetheless carted off to prison by guards posing as students. Furat’s manuscript swings among an account of his past, flashes of life in prison and hopeful hallucinations envisioning reunions with his grandmother and Areej. His rantings become increasingly incomprehensible and end just as suddenly as they began. Marginal notes and an addendum by the state translator nervously cavil at Furat’s consistent disparagement of the government, dismissing the text as a “disgraceful transgression.” Antoon’s frenetic tone is very effective, and Furat’s unraveling feels heartbreakingly familiar. But the novel is choppy and unfinished, ending far too soon. What could have been well-developed, timely fiction reads like a character sketch.

Evocative but incomplete.