In two of his novels, The Corpse Washer and Hail Mary, Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon has touched on the growing sectarianization of Iraq. In an interview published on Ahram Online and Jadaliyya, he says “it may be too late to save Iraq’s Christians”:
In The Corpse Washer, the narrator, Jawad, follows in his father’s footsteps, not because he ever wanted to wash corpses, but such is the business of post-2003 Iraq. It’s also a time when sectarianism becomes newly entrenched. Jawad’s Uncle Sabri visits briefly from Berlin, after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Sabri is our kind of guy, and he straightaway visits is the al-Mutanabbi book market, where he buys “first editions of some of al-Jawahiri’s poetry collections and one of Sa’di Yusif’s, togheter with some Jurji Zaydan novels and Neruda’s autobiography.”
Uncle Sabri is also there when the electricity flips back on and Paul Bremer announces a new ruling council for the country:
“The council was a hodgepodge of names supposedly representing the spectrum of Iraqi society, but we had never heard of most of them. What they had in common was that each name was preceded by its sect: Sunni, Shia, Christian … We were not accustomed to such a thing. My uncle was furious when he saw the secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Party sitting with the other members. …
“He waved his hand and said, ‘Look at him, for God’s sake. They put him there as a Shiite, and not because he represents an ideological trend or a party with its own history of political struggle. What a shame that this is what it all comes down to. Now an entire history of resisting dictatorship and rejecting war is being trashed. Communists will be like all these other fuckers and crooks. Look at them. Each has a belly weighing a ton.”
In Hail Mary, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the two main characters — the older Youssef and the younger Maha — have ongoing discussions about the chances of Christians have in Iraq. In the end, the elder is killed during a mass.
From Ahram Online:
“It is a sad scene; very true; it is the death of this Iraqi who believed in himself as an Iraqi and whose national sentiments co-existed with his religious belief,” Antoon said.
Would this be the “fate” of all those remaining “Youssefs”? Maybe and maybe not, Antoon suggested.
It all depends, he argued, on whether the ruling regime in Iraq wants to end the sectarianism “or at least start to end it” that has been “institutionalised” since the US invasion.
Antoon has written three books that grapple philosophically and aesthetically with post-2003 Iraq: His poetry collection, Baghdad Blues, his second novel, The Corpse Washer, and his third novel, Hail Mary. The first two are among the very Arabic few books available in English translation set in post-2003 Iraq. The third has been translated by Maia Tabet, and insha’allah will be forthcoming soon.