By Hend Saeed
In The Index, Sinan Antoon describes the tragedy of a country still going through war, destruction, and death for humans, animals, and objects. In his powerful poetic language, we hear the stories of pain, hope, and even the death of hope. The novel’s Iraqi dialect gives it authenticity and keeps the culture alive through the day-to-day language used in Baghdad.
In the opening scene, a bird, who is remembering the day he learned to fly with his mother and father in a clear sky, is now flying toward the warm country. The last scene sees the bird reaching the warm country with his family. But he finds it hard to fly in a sky full of huge metal birds and black smoke, and then he loses his family.
Namir is an Iraqi living in New York and teaching Arabic. He travels to Baghdad as a translator with a group of people filming a documentary. While visiting Al Mutannabbi Street, looking for books to buy, he meets Wadoud, who owns a bookshop on Baghdad’s famous bookselling street. While they are bonding over books, Wadoud tells Namir about his work on a writing project, an index that details the losses of war: not the military losses but the losses of people, animals, and objects. Details of every minute, what happened in that minute, the pain and suffering of people, animals, and objects.
Namir is interested in the index, and he offers to translate it. At first, Wadoud refuses. Wadoud eventually starts sending part of the index to Namir to read and give an opinion, and a correspondence springs up between the two.
From the indexes Wadoud sends, the author tells us stories. These powerful voices unfold the tragedies and the untold stories of ordinary people, who once had simple dreams of living a normal life, but these were taken from them for the simple reason that they were there.
Namir returns to the US, a place he still can’t call home, and he has an unstable feeling, a meshing of past and present. When a student asks him to abandon his lesson and teach him how to say “on your knees, put up your hands, go back” in Arabic, so he can use it when he joins the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, he decides to stop teaching Arabic. From here, he takes in an internal journey to the past and his childhood, and through his troubled sleep and therapy sessions we know that he is struggling, although it’s a struggle different from Wadood’s, who is still living in the middle of the tortured country.
Wadood believes that objects can talk and he can hear them. In one of his letters he says, “Human (people) say goodbye to loved ones and people they know, while objects say goodbye to each other and to humans (people), but we hardly hear their voices and their whispers or see their smiles. Yes, objects have faces, but we don’t see them, and he who sees them, or talks to them, is considered insane by your logic.”
He avoids talking about his own life, but we slowly learn about the tragedies in his life and we wonder how he survived all of it, perhaps by choosing to live in a small room surrounded by books and his writing, the only things that keep him sane. But will he survive to the end?
The novel feels as though it’s telling us: Events in Iraq aren’t only effecting humans, but everything else, and by using the voice of the objects, he is telling the readers about the Iraqi history , heritage and culture. It’s as though he is trying to stop all the destruction and keep the memories alive by telling these stories.
With Namir, Wadoud, and the objects’ voices, he manages to tell a common Iraqi story. It starts from their childhood of the birds, when the sky was clear, when life was good and beautiful, and ends in the current era, when the sky is full of smoke. Wadoud’s letters bring to life both the child recording his family’s voices on a tape recorder, which became his only memory of his parents after their house was destroyed, to the woman who didn’t give up her tanoor (traditional oven) because it provided income to her family, till she died with the tanoor.
In the end, the author gives us two possible endings. Do we choose to save Wadoud and send him outside Iraq to have a new life and a new chance outside Iraq, where he will publish his index? Or will Namir publish the index after Wadoud’s life ends?
Although the ending is difficult, the book manages to keep memories of Iraq alive, helping us feel the loss beyond people’s lives, the loss of everything we had that represents us.
Hend Saeed is Arabic Programming Coordinator for the Emirates LitFest.