Sinan Antoon: “I think of myself as a global citizen”

Sinan Antoon

Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born poet, novelist, filmmaker and assistant professor at New York University. His novel I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody and his collection of poems The Baghdad Blues are written with great sophistication and a haunting sense of irony. Similarly, his 2003 documentary About Baghdad captured the terror and exhilaration of Iraqis after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the early months of the US occupation. The Electronic Intifada contributor Dina Omar interviewed Sinan Antoon about his work and experiences.

Dina Omar: Who is the main character of your first novel, I’jaam? And why is he aware of and in opposition to the controlling people and structures around him while everyone else seems to embrace them?

Sinan Antoon: Furat is a young man, a student in the time of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and happens to be against dictatorship and oppression, like most young people were in Iraq at the time and, dare I say, like many young people and students are and should be. Here I should contradict myself, because while there are many students who are against the war here in the US, I am horrified by the apathy. I always think that if the youth are not radical, then who will be?

I guess with Furat the opposition to dictatorship doesn’t only or necessarily come from his readings, but is more of a visceral response that humans have against injustice. I guess I should add that I thought of him as a character as someone who is in opposition to authority in all of its forms, starting with traditional social structures, but in his milieu, the most oppressive is the police state.

DO: You chose to not write in a linear form; each scene wraps around another and the reader does not know when the story is happening. We do not know if Furat is making it up during the time of writing or if they are memories, or if the story is created while being interpreted or translated into English. What role does time play in the novel and in your poems as well? Is it that you do not think linearly or are you using time as a literary tool?

SA: In terms of non-linearity it is a political and philosophical choice. It is an attempt to disrupt what I take to be the hegemonic discourse and the truth of the regime and of Big Brother. The only way to disrupt is to write in an interpretive way. Also, and equally important, the novel is the product of the secret police’s attempt to make sense of a fragmented text … pieces of paper collated and collected. Additionally, a tortured and traumatized prisoner cannot always think and remember in a linear fashion. He is writing to maintain his sanity and is not necessarily always thinking of an audience. So he is expressing himself spontaneously in nightmares and scattered memories.

I also thought this approach would be especially productive, because one of the ideas of the novel is the impossibility of fully knowing what became of the victims and of their thought and memories. We can never fully recover what was lost through them. We can never come to terms, fully, with their plight and suffering. Something is forever lost and we will never know!

Time is very significant, because Furat is trying to find his own imaginary space, to invoke the past in order to fight his nightmarish present. In poetry, what I love is the ability to fuse the tenses and various modes of time in one sentence. But it’s something that I notice after writing and not something I plan. Linearity breeds boredom and monotony. One last thing: it is a common myth. We don’t even think of our lives or remember them in a linear fashion. Linearity is the mind’s attempt to impose some logic and order on this random and senseless existence!

DO: Your book The Baghdad Blues is reminiscent of Semezdin Mehmedinovi’s 1998 collection of poetry Sarajevo Blues; were you inspired by him? What parallels do you make between what happened in Bosnia and what happened and is still happening in Iraq today?

SA: I like Semezdin a great deal, but no. The Baghdad Blues is a translation of poems I wrote between 1989 and 2003. I happen to love the blues and there is also a fascinating genre of Iraqi music called the maqam — very rich and visceral and the best way to translate it is “blues” — lovely poignant songs about separation, longing and lost love. So that is why I called it The Baghdad Blues.

There are many parallels with Bosnia and Serbia — the misunderstanding of history, the wholesale projection and imposition of reductive ethno-religious identities by the “west” and then the unfortunate embrace by the victims and subjects of those identities, the transformation of ethnic and other identities into hardened nationalist identities. All of these happened in both Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. A disastrous civil war and the erasure of cultures, all aided by the so-called new world order and western violence … not to absolve the local thugs.

DO: When did you come to the US and why?

SA: I always wanted to leave Iraq, because it was stifling to live under Saddam. I left in 1991, three months after the now forgotten 1991 Gulf War which destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and drove hundreds of thousands to live outside. I had plans to go to grad school so I came to Washington, DC, worked for a year and then did an Master of Arts in Arab Studies, worked for another year and then went back to do a Ph.D in Arabic literature, first at Indiana, than I transferred to Harvard. I taught at Dartmouth for two years and then moved to New York University four years ago.

DO: Do you think and dream in English or in Arabic?

SA: Arabic — I dream in Arabic and think mostly in Arabic, but sometimes and in recent years I’ve been thinking and talking to myself in both languages and cursing out loud in both!

DO: What do you think your role is as a writer and a poet, now transplanted to America surrounded by English? Has your position changed from when you wrote in the Arab world?

SA: Well, I try to be aware of the privileges I have. I don’t live under dictatorship and thus, in theory, I can say and write whatever I want to, but we know that there are other institutions and powers here that also constrain what can be published. Here it’s corporate hegemony. The role of the writer is to write well and to write beautifully, but also to be responsible and write what is relevant to his or her society and the world. I don’t think my position has changed that much. I think of myself as a global citizen; wherever I happen to be I will try to be critical and maintain a distance, a critical distance, but to go back to writing well. Mahmoud Darwish, my favorite poet, said that “every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.” So it’s no use having the right politics, but not satisfying the aesthetic challenge.

DO: As a fan of, and someone who has translated, Mahmoud Darwish’s work, how do you respond to critics who claim Darwish was a womanizer, reclusive and elitist rather than a “man of the people” and should not be held in such high regard?

SA: I mean if we stop appreciating writers and artists who were racist, sexist, elitist, etc., we will stop reading. He was not a perfect human, or a saint. Better have an asshole who writes beautiful poetry than have an upright person who produces half-ass shit. I think about that a lot, especially with Darwish, but he is a tragic figure. He came to represent so much that people’s expectations of him are mythical. He was very shy and fragile; being reclusive is good for writing poetry! Mark Twain said that “society and family are the enemies of the artist”!

DO: You write in The Baghdad Blues: “your bra / strangles / my metaphors.” Arabic literature was filled with highly sexualized images and scenes; however, pre-modern and modern Arabic literature seems to shy away from the subject. Your book is very open about sexuality, desire and even sexual violence, and like Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, is one of the few from the Arab world that deals with homosexuality. Can you explain your decision to include sexual violence? Also, how does it fit into the greater body of Arabic literature in translation? Do you think that you might be part of starting a new trend of normalizing sexuality again alongside emerging Arab-American authors?

SA: There is a cultural amnesia in the Arab and Muslim world. The encounter with the west during the colonial period produced a tortured dynamic and Arab culture tended to forget its vibrant and lively and healthy past in terms of its attitude towards sexuality. But Arabic poetry, pre-modern and modern has never shied away from sexuality. Sexuality and sex are part and parcel of lived experience and should always be there. The problem, especially in translation, is that there is a tendency to exoticize the Arab/Muslim other, so writers sometimes either fall into this trap or play into western fantasies which are already thirsty for the hypersexual Arab or Muslim and tend to favor representations of minorities, sexual minorities or religious minorities. Choukri is important and well-known, but there are plenty of representations of sexuality and homosexuality and androgyny.

DO: Can you describe the novel you are currently working on, and the poetry you have been writing? What can we expect in the near future?

SA: The novel is about the son of a traditional body-washer and shrouder in Baghdad who rebels against his father and wants to be an artist and to move away from death, so he studies art at the academy and tries to forge his own path. In the 1990s and under the sanctions, he can only work painting houses and there isn’t much space for art amid all the destruction. In this last war his father dies and to make money he is forced to do the very same work he tried to run away from his whole life. He washes and shrouds so many corpses every day that he is traumatized and starts to have nightmares and is totally drained. So much of the novel is ruminations about life and death and how one and if one can ever come to terms with all this death. He tries to leave to Jordan, but is denied entry and has to keep on washing the dead. The new poems are all about the underworld and severed heads.

DO: You said that the first Gulf War is now “forgotten.” What do you think people should remember about it? After the first Gulf War Saddam Hussein’s government became more stifling and militant in monitoring Iraqi citizens, meaning that the US’s intervention only aided in restricting the rights of people they were trying to liberate.

SA: The way most people, especially in the US, approach Iraq is truncated and reductive. So they only look at 2003 and what took place since. There is no sense of history. To understand what is taking place now and the changes in Iraqi society, one needs to understand the effects of dictatorship and Saddam’s brutality, but also the effects of the 1991 war. [Then commander of the US’s Central Command and Coalition forces General H. Norman] Schwarzkopf said “We bombed them back to the pre-industrial age.” So, one needs to remember that bombing a vibrant society with a large secular middle class back to the pre-industrial age and then imposing barbaric sanctions on it will produce pretty horrific circumstances. Then bomb them again in 2003 and dismantle what had remained of their society and its institutions and what does one expect? Yes, the wars and sanctions, designed supposedly to weaken Saddam, made the lives of Iraqis, his victims, more horrific.

DO: How is it that you do not fall into polarizing categories by being both critical of Saddam Hussein’s regime and critical of the US occupation of Iraq? Are you aware of the categories while you are writing?

SA: I always joke to my friends and say that I can have a bestseller and be on Oprah in seven months. All I need to do is write a novel about a little Iraqi Christian boy who gets molested by his Muslim neighbor, or better yet, by an imam, but then leaves Iraq and comes to the United States and finds freedom and solace! But I won’t do that! They will be cutting our benefits here at New York University to make up for the financial loss, so maybe I will compromise 10 years from now! Actually, this is delaying my writing a novel about an Iraqi woman who is raped by her uncle and then becomes a prostitute in Syria. It’s a real story, but I want to write it without falling into these traps.

DO: Isn’t that the tension for writers to be doubly critical of authoritarian rule in our countries of birth or origin but also being critical of US and Western occupation and hegemony? The double edge?

SA: By being doubly critical and being oppositional always and everywhere. It’s not easy, but it has to be done. Not to be seduced by power. Edward Said says that intellectuals (and I apply this to writers and artists) have to disturb and cause discomfort! I know it’s easier said than done, being doubly critical. You know, “check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Also, to write about anything and everything I try and write about the experiences which are unique as a writer, for example, were it not for alcohol and cigarettes there would have been so many revolutions and riots all around the world.

DO: Are you saying that alcohol and cigarettes encourage riots or stop them?

SA: Stop them. [One] of the most memorable sights to me was that during the 1991 war and bombing in Baghdad everything stopped, but there were still people selling and buying cigarettes and booze. [At the] al-Sadoun Street bars, after one of the raids this guy was cleaning the broken glass outside the bar and getting ready for customers. Vendors on the sidewalk [and] we were drinking, people in the shelter as well. I thought, “I’d rather die with a buzz.”

Dina Omar is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, a poet and member of Students for Justice in Palestine. She currently works as the Membership Coordinator for the Arab Resource and Organizing Center. For more information, including a review of Antoon’s I’jaam, visit her website, “www.dinaomar.com.