Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2007, page 72

Books

I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody

By Sinan Antoon, City Lights Publishers, 2007, 97 pp. List: $11.95; AET: $9.50.

Reviewed by Sara Powell

 

AUTHOR, EDUCATOR, filmmaker, poet and translator Sinan Antoon is a bright new star in the rich stratosphere of Arab adab, or belles lettres. His novel I`jaam, originally published in 2004 and newly available in English, illuminates the atmosphere of fear and corruption under Saddam Hussain’s cruel control.

As Iraq continues its descent into ever-lower levels of hell under the ongoing U.S. occupation and a chaotic, murderous resistance—which has grown even worse since the book’s original publication—Antoon reminds the world that pre-invasion Iraq also was hell.

I`jaam is a story told through a series of remembrances and prison writings of a young dissident intellectual imprisoned and tortured by a dictatorial “leader.” The undotted manuscript—missing the Arabic diacritical marks, or i`jaam, necessary for clarity—tells an ambiguous story. While the words and phrases are open to interpretation, however, the chronicle itself is not.

Elements of mysticism—a common stylistic device of adab—and a Kafkaesque surrealism light the reader’s path a step at a time through the unforeseen twists and turns of the prisoner’s encounter with the psychotic system. Antoon eschews orientalist imagery, yet invokes the Arab in the book’s sense of the labyrinthine.

In creating a new postmodern genre of Arabic literature, Antoon transcends classic adab. He successfully incorporates such adab devices as mysticism, dreams, letters and travel writing with a postmodern use of irony and nuance in addressing such diverse topics as feminism, pan-Arabism, elitism and internationalism within the context of a complex story of human relations.

Antoon’s ease with both Iraqi and U.S. society, as well as his melding of past and present understandings, inform his (and thus the reader’s) view of current society. I`jaam’s astute social and political commentary make it an important book, as does its moving and disturbing beauty. Sinan Antoon is indeed a worthy successor to the tradition of Arab humanist described by the late Edward Said as “scholar-activists.”

Sara Powell is the former director of the AET Book Club.

Scar of David: A Novel

By Susan Abulhawa, Journey Publications, 2006, 332 pp. List: $28.95; AET: $23.

Reviewed by Dan McGowan

 

BEHIND THE creation of Israel is a wound that, six decades later, continues to fester and refuses to heal. It is a wound that mocks the myths of “making the desert bloom,” of a “land without people for a people without land,” of a “purity of arms,” and other lies on which “the Jewish state” was founded. That wound and the horrible scar it continues to leave behind are the Palestinian people and the history of their dispossession.

Of all the books on the market today, most of which are ignored by the mainstream media, The Scar of David is the finest piece of historical fiction to meticulously and artistically describe the Palestinian narrative. Even a reader who has never been to Palestine can see the spring flowers on the hills, smell the honey-apple tobacco, and drift with the haunting rhythms of Abu-Hayyan and Khalil Gibran.

The story, which begins in 2002, covers three generations, moving back and forth from one time period to another. The reader is aided by a family tree and a glossary.

Abulhawa, who grew up in Palestine and who now is an American, does not hesitate to call a Jew a Yahood. “They had bombed and burned, killed and maimed, plundered and looted. Now they came to claim the land.” But she is by no means anti-Semitic. Her story carefully contrasts the “noble traditions of Judaism” with the perfidy of Zionism and the racism of Jews and non-Jews “determined that this land will become a Jewish state.”

The scar remains. After a century of struggling to build a Jewish state, over half the people living within the land controlled by Israel are not Jews. Most are Palestinians “overwhelmed, exhausted, beaten, and broken” and still relying on Allah and on family and on a love for the land. “Nationalism was (and still is) inconsequential.”

There is immense pressure in Western educational systems to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. Most American students are required or encouraged to read the novel Night, by Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel. Yet Holocaust lessons are rarely applied to the continued dehumanization of the Palestinian people. Perhaps one day The Scar of David will be read, not as an antidote, but as a supplement to Night. Although it is not likely to be included in Oprah’s Book Club, The Scar of David is a far more accurate novel—and a far better read.

Dan McGowan is the executive director of Deir Yassin Remembered.