Interview with Sinan Antoon
Using Irony to Tackle Trauma

According to the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon, the current events in Iraq can only be understood in conjunction with the effects on the Iraqi psyche of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship and the Iran-Iraq War. Ibtisam Azem talked to the author in Berlin

Sinan Antoon (photo: Linus Verlag)
"We can only understand today's Iraq if we look at the effects of dictatorship and war on the structure of Iraqi society," says the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon

​​ The original Arabic title of your book is 'I'jaam, meaning "with diacritical marks"*. This refers to the fact that one and the same word can have two completely different meanings – diacritics can be either explanatory or obscuring. Why did you choose this particular title? What was the idea behind it?

Sinan Antoon: I was looking for a title that sums up the novel's central theme: writing. Not writing under normal circumstances, but writing secretly in prison, where an inmate writes a manuscript with letters lacking the diacritics necessary for clear understanding in Arabic – to outwit the censors, the powers-that-be and the dominant discourse.

When the manuscript then falls into the hands of the authorities, they try to introduce clarity into the text by "putting marks on the letters", which is meant quite literally here. In Arabic, though, the phrase also means "getting down to brass tacks".

But they can't manage to find a single clear meaning. The meaning of the words keeps slipping away from them. The more intensely I worked on the idea for this book and looked at the diacritical system, the more I started to like the subject – diacritics can bring enlightenment, but they can also shed darkness and veil meaning.

A word can take on a certain meaning, but under other circumstances it can mean the exact opposite. But I only decided on the title 'I'jaam once I'd almost finished the novel, because I found it very fitting.

The novel portrays the joys and sorrows of a young Iraqi. Yet in the end, the reader doesn't know whether the text was actually written down as we see it before us, whether the secret service man deliberately falsified it, or whether it was simply distorted unintentionally by the diacritical marks.

Antoon: That's true. One of the basic issues that the novel raises is the fact that everything it tells initially passes through the hands of authorities and institutions, which filter and control it. That's not only the case in dictatorships, incidentally – it happens in so-called democracies too, but dictatorships do it in a much more offensive and open way.

photo: AP
Mass grave in Baghdad: The Iraqis have been living with war and dictatorship for decades. The situation became particularly dramatic with the Iran-Iraq War, and has still not settled down to this day

​​ But I also wanted to present two apparently contradictory ideas: firstly, that we can oppose the despotic discourse by co-opting it and distorting it by means of parody, and secondly that the voice of the marginalised and the oppressed doesn't even make it to the public in the first place, or when it does, then in commentated or fragmented form – a tragic reality.

Is this focus on language an attempt to call your quasi-holy character into question in various contexts – religious, political, social?

Antoon: Arabic readers will no doubt be reminded that the sacred scriptures handed down to us today were originally without diacritics. One of the consequences is that it is an institution, be it religious, political or of some other kind, that decides on the meaning.

And that in turn means we have to look back at the story of the scriptures' origin, something which reveals a great deal that shakes the foundations of dominant opinion. But my primary interest was in exposing a political discourse that places language on a pedestal, making it sacred.

The process takes place to very different degrees, of course. All societies attempt to preserve their language, after all. France, for example, has an academy that aims to keep the language "pure" and protect it from outside influence. Yet in dictatorial societies, these attempts take on dangerous dimensions through the many forms they adopt.

The novel is written from the one-dimensional perspective of the prisoner, who relates how the domineering official voices of the establishment repress and distort everything that escapes the prison walls. You use an almost Kafkaesque style. Why did you choose to write this way?

Antoon: Adorno once said something to the effect that all modern societies are a kind of open-air prison. That means it's hard to describe the sufferings of the individual in modern societies without at least something of the spirit of Kafka or Orwell coming through. And that's all the more the case in societies like ours.

Destroyed buildings in front of the Iraqi Ministry of Finanance (photo: AP)
War damages in Baghdad: "The more difficult things became, the more people needed irony and ridicule, not as a pleasant way to pass the time, but as a weapon to survive at all," says Sinan Antoon

​​ Aside from that, I consciously choose the sole dominance of the first-person narrator, the prisoner, to describe his pain and suffering, because it lends the work much more emotional and aesthetic concision. The reader becomes very intimate with this individual, his past, his dreams and nightmares, until the protagonist disappears unexpectedly. It's an attempt to render audible the lost voices we never otherwise hear.

The narrator has only scorn and ridicule for everything around him, as if this were his only remaining anchor in life. But the novel's bitter irony is also used to slaughter a few "sacred cows", so that the narrator can rethink himself anew. Do you think this kind of irony is necessary for Iraq itself?

Antoon: All we have to do is recall how the official Iraqi gazette published a law at the end of the 1980s, punishing jokes about the president with the death sentence – which indicates that many people were doing just that. They made fun of the regime when they felt they were unobserved, in the form of re-written lyrics to popular songs.

This irony is a perfectly normal phenomenon, so it crept into the text of its own accord. I certainly didn't try to inject it artificially. That's just the way our lives were. And the more difficult things became, the more people needed irony and ridicule, not as a pleasant way to pass the time, but as a weapon to survive at all. All I was trying to do was let it find its way into the story the way I actually experienced it in Iraq.

The reader almost has the feeling of waiting in vain without end, rather like in Waiting for Godot, while at the same time the constant expectation never lets up that something might happen at any moment, everything might be overturned and reversed. How do you see this aspect?

Antoon: The novel is set at the time of the war against Iran, which raged for longer than World War II and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. This war was forgotten fairly quickly because it was followed by others, but it left drastic traces on the Iraqi psyche. It accompanied us day and night, several generations fought in the army.

We lived in a constant state of waiting, to say nothing of all the usual waiting that's part of modern life in large cities like Baghdad.

At the same time, throughout the war we anticipated that something would happen, a coup, anything. But the desolation of the situation in general kept pushing us back into resignation. When the war ended on 8 August 1988, the Iraqis danced on the streets for three whole days – they simply couldn't believe the war was really over!

Cover of the novel 'I'jaam' (image: publisher)
"The novel 'I'jaam' is set during the war against Iran, which raged longer than World War II and cost hundreds of thousands of lives," Antoon explains

​​ At the time, we thought life would return to normal. Waiting was just part of the overall atmosphere in which we lived. The young men were haunted by the fear that they'd have to join the army at some point, with an uncertain outcome – death or survival? I think patience and stamina are simultaneously the best and the worst human qualities; when we wait and put up with everything without complaint, we also accept things we really shouldn't tolerate.

What is the situation in Iraq today? Have the Americans succeeded in drawing a line under Iraq's brutal history and starting a new chapter?

Antoon: The Americans have at least succeeded in clearly demarcating the time before Saddam Hussein was removed from what came afterwards – as if it had nothing at all to do with their own support of the regime and arms deliveries to Saddam over the years.

The opponents of the American occupation don't like talking about the past either. The problem is though, we can only understand today's Iraq if we look at the effects of dictatorship and war on the structure of Iraqi society. We must never forget this time, not out of mournful self-pity but so that we understand what is going on in Iraq today.

You've been in Berlin for nearly a year now, and you'll soon be returning to New York. What impressions have you gained of the city?

Antoon: My whole academic and private life takes place in the USA. As a visiting academic for a year in Berlin, I felt very much an outsider because I don't speak German, and I've been observing the city from outside – a very interesting experience.

When you take a close look at the banalities of everyday life you can gain a whole range of images and new ideas. And the freedom from the academic obligations I have in New York certainly gave me the opportunity to look around me in peace much more.

I had more scope. In this city with its very own character and its complex history with all its ramifications, I rediscovered elements of what I write about, what I feel – about Iraq, about violence, war, dictatorship, barbarism in the world.

All this runs through this city's history, in concentrated form. When you see the "stumbling stones" in the sidewalks calling to mind the history of a building and commemorating the people who were once deported from there, or when you read a sign saying: "Trains left from here for the concentration camps", you're suddenly transported to this complex time.

And Berlin is also rich in culture and architectural jewels, which helped me a great deal towards finding myself. The city enabled me to make contact with myself again.

Interview by Ibtisam Azem

© 2009

Translation Katy Derbyshire

*Note: Diacritical marks are small marks such as dots, lines, hooks or circles, which form part of individual letters. In Arabic script, there are fourteen letters that are only distinguished by the number of points above of below them. This means a text without diacritics can allow many different interpretations.

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