A Chronicle of the Death of a Civilization

Mar 2014

Issue 6 Book Review

Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) | Click through here to buy it today! Your click-through will also support Tanqeed.

In the preface to his novel, Sinan Antoon presents the reader with an intriguing observation: “when the translator inhabits the body and being of the author, s/he is given unique privileges that are otherwise denied or frowned upon.” Antoon here is referring to the fact that he is the author of the book in both Arabic and English as well as its translator from English to Arabic. The statement hints at many possibilities; the “unique privileges” that Antoon mentions are arguably sufficient to warrant an academic conference of their own. In inaugurating this review essay, I want to draw attention, however, to the themes of translation and the body in the statement, for it is Antoon’s virtuoso treatment of these themes that in significant measure give this remarkable work its devastating, haunting power.

The Corpse Washer is, in essence, a tale about the destruction of a society. It is a chronicle of the visceral, material obliteration of every aspect of the being of that society, from its infrastructure to its cultural institutions, from the relationships that form the basis of its communal life to its sense of itself as a body politic. It is simultaneously the story of a man, Jawad, born into a family of corpse washers and eventually compelled by circumstance to reluctantly take up that profession, whose life is bled dry of all possibilities as a result of Iraq’s history.  The book is a savage indictment of the relatively immediate as well as deep-rooted causes of the carnage that have reduced both Iraq and Iraqis to corpses: the tragic and foolish US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, the relentless sectarian violence unleashed in the wake of the occupation, and the travails of life under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.

It is through Jawad’s consciousness that we experience the unfolding story of these deaths and others. We meet death first, though, in a manner that is paradoxically life-affirming. Jawad tells us of his introduction to the rituals of corpse washing alongside his father and his father’s assistant, Hammoudy, in the only corpse-washing house, or mghaysil,for Shiites in Bahghdad. The finely etched descriptions of the treatment of the dead, the texture of the space of the mghaysil,  and the care and gravity with which Jawad’s father and Hammoudy follow the procedures of preparing the corpses for burial amount to a powerful statement about a way of life—indeed, what is a society or people if not a way of life?—that is being annihilated.  For the mghaysil, later, also becomes a barometer of the violence spreading through Iraq, the bodies piling up in the wave of violence unleased by and after the occupation, arriving unimaginably desecrated in a “weekly harvest of death” (131).

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Against his father’s wishes, Jawad chooses not to follow the family’s traditional occupation but to pursue his interest in art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad, joining it in 1980 shortly after the start of the Iran-Iraq war. It is here that he spends his time discussing Borges and Latin American literature and nurturing an interest in Giacometti. Years later, in the immediate aftermath of the occupation of Bahgdad in 2003, Jawad learns that the Americans have bombed the Academy and rushes to see for himself. In a poignant moment, he stares upon the rubble to which the library of the academy has been reduced:

I remembered the hours I had spent reading and leafing through glossy art books here. This is where I had been captured by the works of Degas, Renoir, Rembrandt, Kandinsky, Miró, Modigliani, and Chagall, de Kooning, Bacon, Monet, and Picasso. This is where I spent hours poring over images of statues by Rodin and Giacometti, my beloved Giacometti (73).

And as Jawad walks toward another building, he sees “the face of Picasso, which occupied the wall of the department of plastic arts to the right. His features looked sterner that day” (73). It is in these scenes that the book articulates an oblique but definite judgment of the American invasion of Iraq as a consummate act of Orientalist ignorance, an exercise in wilful mistranslation that was carried out, with cruel irony, in the name of those universal values over which the West claims guardianship. For the passage unsettles the idea of Iraq as some utterly unknowable and absolutely alien other.  What the US has bombed, in its destruction of the Academy of Art, is a seat of ‘universal’ values, and its own Western heritage. The reference to Picasso’s stern face serves as a reminder of the message of his masterpiece “Guernica” about the futility and barbarity of war.

As Antoon shows us in another telling scene, the gulf between the invaders and invaded remains unsurmountable. Taking a coffin to Najaf in a car, Jawad and others are waylaid by an American platoon, and made to kneel with their hands behind their head while the soldiers check the vehicle. “Shut the fuck up” screams an American soldier, as Jawad translates what the Americans are saying for Hammoudy. The moment captures a central truth about colonialism. For all the professedly universalist sentiment about liberating fellow human beings in the name of rights that characterizes justifications of colonialism, the logic of shared humanity never overcomes the logic of colonial difference in the colonial encounter. As Hammoudy observes, “these liberators want to humiliate us” (68). The American soldiers’ fears of those they are meant to liberate resonates with a passage in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s seminal tract on anti-colonial resistance, in which Gandhi suggests that India’s colonial rulers, the English, are scared of sleeping on the farms where those Indians who work the fields sleep without fear (44).

Lack of success in his vocation as an artist and the changing situation in Iraq force Jawad to become involved with the mghaysil again. As Iraq crumbles around him, death firms its grip on his life, and his personal and professional aspirations are quashed. His father dies; Hammoudy vanishes; his love stays unrequited. Sick of Iraq, Jawad attempts to cross the border into Jordan but is turned away. The book ends without the possibility of hope and with the weight of an unbearable sadness, as Jawad, in the mghaysil, reflects on the confluence of life and death.

It is no accident that Antoon is an acclaimed poet, translator, and academic. The prose and structure of the The Corpse Washer  are marked by the precision of poetry and references to literary, artistic, and religious works are seamlessly woven into the story. The homage to, and conversation with, various literary traditions and authors is rendered lightly, in Antoon’s own unmistakable idiom. Antoon uses a particularly effective technique of punctuating longer chapters in the novel by short accounts of dreams or memories, fragments that recall the spare, compressed wrtings of Borges and the late work of Nagib Mahfouz. In its lack of sentimentality and refusal to spare neither Iraq’s colonial overlords nor Iraqis themselves, The Corpse Washer stands alongside Achebe’s classic work, Things Fall Apart.

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Conventional wisdom has it that the past can help us understand the present better. The present, as described in Antoon’s novel, might perhaps help us more effectively grasp the complexities of the colonial pasts of the world, the reach and scope of the devastation caused by colonialism, and the process of what one character in The Corpse Washer describes as the “erasure” of a society (85). An entire industrial complex of forgetting and apology has emerged around those colonial pasts and Iraq’s present, refusing to acknowledge the violence of colonialism and the moral responsibility of colonizers toward those whose lives they have uprooted. For the last decade, from the date of the invasion of Iraq till the present, this surreal performance of amnesia and abdication of ethical responsibility has repeated itself endlessly in American (and to an extent, global) media, politics, and policy discussions. These conversations have relentlessly centered on the motives and interests of Americans, the anguish that Americans experienced at having had to go to war, the dramatic, if feeble, mea culpas of the New York Times and others at having been led to war over a lie, the heroism of US troops in Iraq,  and the good intentions of Americans to help their fellow Iraqi humans. As only a great work of art can, Antoon’s novel, speaking truth to power, provides a counter-narrative by making the Iraqis the focus of this story and by drawing attention to the immense suffering unnecessarily wrought upon a people. Through the quiet, disconcerting, power of great fiction, The Corpse Washer refuses to let us forget the claims of Iraq’s innumerable unwashed corpses on our collective human conscience.

Work cited

M. K. Gandhi. ‘Hind Swaraj’ and Other Writings, edited by Anthony J. Parel. Centenary edition.

Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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Rohit Chopra is assistant professor of communication at Santa Clara University.

Slideshow Photo Credit: Christian Briggs | Wikimedia Commons | Euphrates River before forming Shat Al-Arab at confluence near Basrah.

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4 Responses to A Chronicle of the Death of a Civilization

  1. Issue 6: Mobs and Movements | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 10:34 AM

    […] his review of The Corpse Washer, Rohit Chopra unpacks the beauty of this novel by Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon who refuses the erasure of Iraqi suffering […]

  2. TQ Chāt | # 5 | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 9:26 PM

    […] and the great teeming multitude. We brought you reviews of The Scatter Here Is Too Great and The Corpse Washer, and essays on communal riots in India, labor organization in the Gulf, the history of Golden Dawn, […]

  3. […] Rohit Chopra: Conventional wisdom has it that the past can help us understand the present better. The present, as described in Antoon’s novel, might perhaps help us more effectively grasp the complexities of the colonial pasts of the world, the reach and scope of the devastation caused by colonialism, and the process of what one character in The Corpse Washer describes as the “erasure” of a society (85). An entire industrial complex of forgetting and apology has emerged around those colonial pasts and Iraq’s present, refusing to acknowledge the violence of colonialism and the moral responsibility of colonizers toward those whose lives they have uprooted. For the last decade, from the date of the invasion of Iraq till the present, this surreal performance of amnesia and abdication of ethical responsibility has repeated itself endlessly in American (and to an extent, global) media, politics, and policy discussions. These conversations have relentlessly centered on the motives and interests of Americans, the anguish that Americans experienced at having had to go to war, the dramatic, if feeble, mea culpas of the New York Times and others at having been led to war over a lie, the heroism of US troops in Iraq, and the good intentions of Americans to help their fellow Iraqi humans. As only a great work of art can, Antoon’s novel, speaking truth to power, provides a counter-narrative by making the Iraqis the focus of this story and by drawing attention to the immense suffering unnecessarily wrought upon a people. Through the quiet, disconcerting, power of great fiction, The Corpse Washer refuses to let us forget the claims of Iraq’s innumerable unwashed corpses on our collective human conscience. More here. […]

  4. karem on Jul 2014 at 5:24 PM

    I am a researcher in the literature of modern Iraqi, I would like a comparative research between the novels of U.S. and Iraqi forces have been written on the subject of the war in Iraq, we have in Iraq, more than 450 novel written after the events of 2003, I talked about the war in all its aspects, and I chose three axes of the search; first is life translators working with the U.S. military, and the second is the theft of Iraqi antiquities from the Iraqi Museum, and the third is the return of Iraqi expatriates to their homeland after the change, these topics I wrote about the Iraqi novels, I want to help choose an American novels written about the same topics , One hundred and one nighits – Fobbit – Baghdad central – Cannonball …. Please help me in this matter, and if someone can join me in the writing of this study, and will be a partner with me in the research or writing a book that I hope

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