The Corpse Washer, Sinan Antoon

Of late, the tendency of media pundits and so-called Middle East experts has been to explain developments in Iraq as being due to factors intrinsic to that country and the region as a whole. They are viewed as being rooted in history, either of recent vintage—that is, as a consequence of the artificial borders set down by the European powers at the end of the First World War—or of more ancient stock, as resulting from the split of the Muslim community into Sunnis and Shi’is during the early days of Islam. Sometimes the two explanations are combined, the argument being that Iraq is essentially an artificial country, one founded on a flimsily constructed secular nationalism unable to overcome centuries of Sunni-Shi’i sectarianism. Presented this way, Iraq never stood and chance, and its present unraveling was unavoidable.

Yet often lost is the fact that prior to the onset of the eight year Iran-Iraq War in 1980, and arguably even up until the American invasion of the country in 1991 (the First Gulf War), Iraq was actually a state that worked. Indeed, in many respects, it was a model to the region of a modern, functioning, secular state. Perhaps more importantly given current divisions, it saw the development of a secular Iraqi identity genuinely felt not only by Sunnis and Shiites, but Christians as well. Overlooked (or perhaps intentionally ignored, as such recognition would mean acknowledging the United States’ role in all of this) is the impact of subsequent developments—the decade long embargo on Iraq, the Second Gulf War, the seemingly never-ending American occupation of the country—all of which greatly destabilized the country. There was nothing inevitable about Iraq’s present situation; if the country is breaking apart, it is the consequence of a series of catastrophes that any country would be hard pressed to weather, or even survive.

The individual hoping to make sense of current developments in Iraq would do well to read the English translation (by the author no less) of the novella The Corpse Washer, by Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon, the story of a Baghdadi Shi’ite everyman named Jawad and his struggle to persevere or at the very least endure the endless calamities that have plagued his country, and brought about the sectarianism that has since come to define daily life in Iraq. Integral to the telling of this particular tale is the fact that Jawad is born to a family of corpse-washers, the profession of which is an apt one, both as reflective of a traditional way of life—one that Jawad desires to escape and later must come to terms with—and as the basis for a metaphorical depiction of the human toll the events over the last several decades have taken on Iraq.

This review does not speak to the original Arabic language version, though it is certainly worth noting that the author is presently considered one of the most distinguished and original new voices to emerge in recent years in the Arabic literary world, not only because of his mastery of that language, but also on account of his willingness to tackle in a sophisticated manner the vast number of issues currently confronting the Middle East. Not least among these is the growing sectarian violence that has come to define inter-communal relations in much of the region, with regards to which, Mr. Antoon provides his Arab readers a much-needed reminder regarding their shared humanity. This review is concerned with the English translation, which provides a compelling argument that Arabic is not the only language the author has mastered, and which I suspect he undertook in recognition that the above-noted reminder is equally needed in the English speaking world. Little if anything is lost in translation, neither with regard to the book’s message nor in a literary sense, and it is no surprise to learn that Mr. Antoon was awarded the 2014 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his English rendition of The Corpse Washer, a strong indication of the faithful manner in which he as rendered his novella from Arabic to English. The voice of the author remains entirely intact; that of the translator, invisible.

Mr. Antoon employs the English language with an almost Hemmingway-ish economy of words and an ease with English colloquialisms that effectively capture the essence of the original Arabic text—both linguistically and circumstantially—in a manner moreover that make the characters relatable to the average American reader. Helpful also in this respect is that Mr. Antoon avoids adopting a polemical tone, largely it would seem in deference to the common humanity that defines the main character and those around him. This is not to say that the characters never reflect on who is responsible for their situation; only that clearly their main concern is that the violence and turmoil should cease so that they can get on with their lives. Whatever his intention, this quality ends up making the book more accessible to the American reader, creating a safe space within which she or he might thoughtfully engage recent developments in Iraq with an eye to achieving a better understanding, not only as to why much of this has come to pass, but likewise of the full magnitude of the devastation that has been visited upon the Iraqi people.

The novella is structured as a series of vignettes framed by appositely situated dream sequences. Within this framework, Mr. Antoon achieves a remarkable synthesis of rootedness and universality. The events, characters and details related in the novella clearly belong to a particular time and place, yet at the same time, are entirely familiar and relatable. On the one hand, the story is unmistakably an Iraqi one: that of a country devastated by unending conflict, overcome with uncertainty and weighed down by a shattered confidence. The characters likewise are unmistakably Iraqi, the fact of which is made clear, however, not by stressing what makes them different from the reader—that is, by means of Orientalist clichés designed to evoke lurid images of the exotic East so as to create a feeling of otherness and incomprehensibility, so typical of Western depictions of the Middle East (not least in films these days)—but rather via the specific details that flesh them out as individuals living in a particular place at a particular time. It is these same details, however, that also make the characters recognizable and comprehensible to the reader for the reasons discussed above—that underscore the humanity they share with us, allowing the reader to identify with the universality of their dreams and aspirations, likewise to commiserate with them as they try their best to cope with the increasingly hopelessness of their situation and the consequent sense of despair and entrapment that threatens to overwhelm them.

Central to an understanding of the book is the motif of the corpse washer. That the figure of the corpse washer is metaphorical is hardly surprising, yet it is more than a mere personification of death a la the Grim Reaper in The Book Thief. Given the staggering number of Iraqis who lost their lives during the last three and a half decades, this would certainly have been sufficient, yet ultimately it is a metaphor that speaks to the manner in which death has since come to permeate the lives of those left behind, robbing them not only of what could have been, but arguably what should have been. It is a symbol of lives full of promise and potential robbed of purpose and meaning. It is in this respect that Jawad most appropriates the role of Iraqi everyman. Reading the book, one cannot escape the feeling that things should have turned out quite differently for him. It is not simply that Jawad aspires to be an artist—one with a cosmopolitan modernist sensibility, and with respect to which his sectarian identity is largely irrelevant—Jawad is an artist, one wretchedly deprived of both a means to express his vision and an audience capable of appreciating it. Jawad’s story ultimately is that of an individual trying to realize him or herself in a situation where such realization may no longer be possible.

Related to this, the book becomes suffused with a sense of weariness as Jawad begins to grasp that there may not be a light at the end of this very long and dark tunnel, one so palpable at times that it would threaten to make The Corpse Washer an unbearably disheartening read if not for the equally pervasive quality of humanity that counters it, most evident in Jawad’s ability in spite of his growing despondency to see those around him as fellow human beings, ultimately in defiance of the sectarian divisions that begin to emerge about halfway through the book. Indeed, the incredibly nuanced balance the novella achieves between these two tendencies—such as allows the reader to experience the full weight of the characters’ overwhelming sense of hopelessness, even while empathizing with them because of the genuine compassion evident in their interactions with one another—is perhaps its most remarkable achievements. It is the tension between the weariness that threatens to engulf Jawad and his fellow Iraqis and the humanity that allows them to cope that ultimately drives the story and which maintains the reader’s interest in the outcome. This tension is especially evident in Jawad’s attempt to come to terms with his own Shi’ite identity, which importantly is never demonized, neither by Jawad nor the author. Even while Jawad rejects sectarianism and has no desire to live a traditional Shi’ite life, neither to inherit his father’s profession of corpse washer, he never becomes bitter about his heritage, even demonstrating at times an ability to appreciate the beauty and transcendence of the traditions that defined his youth, something that extends even to the corpse washing rituals, which are portrayed in the novella with great sensitivity and almost loving detail.

I would conclude by reiterating the point made at the start of this review: that in addition to helping readers appreciate the full extent of the disaster visited upon Iraq—the tragedy of lives robbed, not only as reflected in the numbers killed, but in the tens of thousands of lives that will likely go unrealized—Mr. Antoon’s novella exposes the fact that sectarianism is ultimately not the cause of the violence and increasing fragmentation that Iraq has experienced over the last several decades, but rather a consequence of it. One can only hope that this thoroughly engaging and deeply thoughtful book helps Americans to arrive at a point of self reflection concerning the role of the United States in fostering what, in the end, was not an inevitable consequence of historical and religious factors, but rather a very much avoidable human-itarian disaster. Inshallah.


Erik Eliav Freas is an Assistant Professor of Modern Middle East History at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. He previously taught at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and earned his Doctorate in Modern Middle East History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1