I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody Paperback – Jun 1 2007
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I'jaam denotes the practice of adding dots to letters of the Arabic alphabet to alter phonetic value. If dots are omitted, words can become ambiguous or inappropriate for their contexts. The young man who wrote the found manuscript whose transcription is this chilling short novel omitted dots, and so a song about the "great Leader" concludes with a phrase that translates one letter differently from "tucks us into bed." In his own eyes, the author has a right to be wry. He wanted an education, but the exigencies of war and the mounting tyranny of the Leader blasted his hopes. At the time of writing, although he has evaded conscription, he is a prisoner, as abused as any 15 years later in another jail in the same city, Baghdad. The Iran-Iraq War winds down, but Saddam Hussein's Ba'athism grows ever more repressive. The prisoner intersperses terse reports of his ordeal among memories of literary rebellion, friendship, and love. When at the end he is released, it is apparently into a deserted city, but where is he really? How has he been released? Olson, Ray
About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
The book describes the suffering of young man during Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and what happen in prisons of such a dictatorship.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I'jaam is a novel, but Sinan Antoon insightfully writes this masterpiece as a manuscript that was found in the an inventory of the general security headquarters located in Central Baghdad. The writings are of the life of a young man and an educated prisoner all in one. His thoughts are so segmented that you see the disjointedness he must feel, which is in every way spawned through fear, heartless acts, and a lack of freedom. He goes back and forth between what happened, what is happening and what is in every bit too horrible to ever imagine happening to any human being.The novel is set in a time where The Leader (Saddam) is in power, a time when life is full of fear and complete inconsistency. Even though suffering and fear are the themes throughout, there is also love, family, education and life to show that all dreams are not lost, even if they are extremely hidden, and held close to oneself. The will to live life is the hardest to snuff, when there is even an ounce of hope and Antoon shows hope in this novel again and again, in a real way that is never false and always just right. Feel the outcry of humanity and read this novel, I'jaam by Sinan Antoon. I am changed, and my outlook is forever different because of this one all too short novel.
Below are some quotes that were just craziness to leave off, wet your tongue on this and get your hands on the book!
" We have been taught to call these frequent events "revolutions," when they are actually scars on our history. A bunch of sadists get sunstroke and declare themselves saviors. Then they begin to torture people and ride them like mules, especially after they discover that this is easier, and perhaps more pleasurable, than fulfilling their promises. Later, another group will come along to dispose the first, brining with them longer whips and chains of a more economic metal. A sadistic circle forever strangling us" (p. 11).
"Hey! What are you doing here? It's forbidden!"
"Forbidden" was the most often-used word in the country, especially among those who enjoyed a bit of power, or imagined that they did" (p. 56).
"The family, as an institution, is stronger than all the armies of the world" (p. 57).
" A simple idea came to me at that moment: isn't freedom the most beautiful feeling in the whole world? Simple, trivial, everyday freedom. I didn't even allow the "No Walking" sign stabbing the grass to spoil my mood" (p.93).
The central character, an aspiring young poet, finds that his efforts to write anything remotely critical of the regime land him in prison, where he is subject to physical and psychological abuse, humiliated, and dehumanized. The book is a manuscript he has left behind, recording his memories, dreams, hallucinations, and experiences as a prisoner. Among his memories is a budding love affair with a young woman. There are a few moments of pleasure seized from that relationship, but his story is that of countless young people whose hopes have been crushed by totalitarian regimes. The "rhapsody" of the title is ironic. The intense feelings portrayed are of anger, frustration, and despair.
What is truly unique about the novel are the implications of the title, and how the novella has been translated (it helps to be familiar with Arabic, and it must be a real joy to be fluent English/ Arabic to fully understand the puns, and the quality of the translation). One aspect of the Arabic alphabet is the use of "dots" above and below the lines and curves, and it is these dots that determine a difference in the letters. This mechanism is used in approximately half the letters. "I'jaam" refers to this practice, as the author explains. When the dots are omitted, obviously a given line or curve could be two or more letters, and it is this ambiguity that is delightfully played upon. It must have been a real effort for the translator, Rebecca Johnson, to determine suitable English equivalents that corresponded to the Arabic. For example, is it "revulsion" or "Revolution"; is it "National Hemorrhage," or "National Heritage"?
The protagonist is a secular Christian, and a Chaldean to boot (and I thought that term only applied to people 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.) He is also somewhat deformed, with a withered left arm which exempts him from military service, but is apparently not a liability in seeking relations with the opposite sex. Antoon authentically portrays the flirtatious interactions of two somewhat rebellious college students, which includes some first rate eroticism.
Saddam Hussein's Iraq or George Bush's America? Concerning military service, Antoon has the protagonist say: "...but I still could not imagine relatives of important officials fighting on the frontlines, even if they were found to be fit. They would most likely be assigned to an administrative unit in their hometown and struggle to show up once a month in order to avoid embarrassing their commanding officer." As we know, in America, Bush could not manage to show up for an entire year. And how about this as a poke at Western "experts" on the Middle East: "At night, footage of these crowds of students rallying around their leadership were distributed and sent out to the world, where experts and analysts would compete to explain to their honorable audiences the mystery of our love for tyranny." The scene were the Professor goes "ballistic" with a student who is wearing a red rose resonated strongly with me. The reasons were different however, between the Professor, and his fear of the meaning of the red rose, and the religious police in Riyadh, who feared the same beautiful and innocuous flower for a different reason. And there is even some very good poetry tucked into the story, that the protagonist is writing. Concerning a suicide from a high-rise building, he concludes with the line: "...the sidewalk accepted my resignation from life."
It is amazing how much Sinan Antoon has packed into a novella of under 100 pages. The author indisputably has much talent, and it is a shame that he does not publish more books. 5-stars.