I'Jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody
By Sinan Antoon
Translated from Arabic by Rebecca C. Johnson
City Lights Publishers, 2007
I’jaam is the story of Furat, a prisoner in an Iraq reminiscent of the Ba’athi era. As an apparent gesture of mercy after a brutal regimen of torture, his captors provide him with a pen and paper to record his memoirs. The novel opens years after Furat’s captivity, when his manuscript has been unearthed during a general inventory. A classified directive has been issued by the Ministry of Interior’s office in Baghdad: the text must be deciphered — for it’s been written in an Arabic script devoid of dots or diacritical marks.
The bulk of the book presents Furat’s prison diaries as transcribed and “dotted” by the officer charged with implementing the ministry’s decree. “I’jaam” refers to this act of dotting the Arabic alphabet, half of whose characters can form two or three letters that share the same skeletal shape. Traditionally, the difference among these letters was established through context; the dotting system was later devised to eliminate ambiguity from the language.
The first of Furat’s entries describes how he was summoned to the security complex where he was held, beaten, and tortured (and where he was eventually killed). His accounts then progressively dispose of any linear notion of time, shifting back and forth between his life before imprisonment and his life within its confines — between discoveries of adolescent love and the experience of being raped and abused, between the brutality of regime henchmen and the loving reproaches of a worried grandmother. He punctuates these episodes with a single line: “I woke up to find myself t(here).” This refrain serves as an intermission between each disorienting change of scene, as if fading in and out of consciousness, between sanity and incarceration.
This melee of memories creates an unsettled mood. Readers are led into an intensely personal realm, delving into a journal that records the gradual breakdown of its author. Prior to his incarceration, Furat would subvert language in his head. A verse from a political anthem about citizens getting tucked in at night by their leader is transformed to: “House by house/Our leader calls on us/ and fucks us into bed.” In prison, however, Furat is aware that his writing will likely be monitored; he obscures the content in a bid to protect himself. “What could happen?” he says. “They’ll think that I have gone mad. And even if they find the papers, they won’t be able to read them.”
The restoration of the dots yields a series of convenient and clever verbal slippages. The agent in charge of the “translation” process marks such passages throughout the book, with an asterisk and a speculative explanatory footnote: “The Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation* (Culture and Information?)”; “Accompanying him was another of his feces* (species?)”; “National hemorrhage lecture* (heritage?)”; “The National Regress* (Congress?)”; etcetera. Furat first speaks of the shedding of dots after having witnessed an absurd government drive for eye donations to support the country’s war efforts against Iran. Flipping through the pages of the newspaper, he finds only eyeless faces, and headlines that have lost all their dots. As if the conventions of language are unable to comprehend violence, the loss of eyes, of dots, and of meaning becomes inter-changeable. Furat’s psyche disintegrates.
Despite its gritty subject, though, the novel regularly slips into flowery, overwrought language, as the protagonist is an adept of classical Arabic, fussha. Given the premise of the book, however, this style has its limitations. Furat’s account of his humiliation at the hands of his rapist, for example, falls flat, evoking pat cinematic formulas for portraying sexual abuse in prisons. It’s when Antoon employs the physicality of words that he’s able to create the most powerful imagery. Furat transmits his abuse with much more immediacy, for example, when he speaks of state propaganda anthems: “They penetrate my ears and eyes,” he says, “and seep out of my anus, only to invade again through my mouth.”
Although Furat’s defiance begins with simple jabs at state rhetoric, the concrete poetic potential of the script itself becomes his only real option for fighting back. The realization that dots can be shed, that letters can be turned on their heads, flattened, stretched and curved into other letters, enables Furat to turn them into “legendary beings digging a tunnel to the outside.”
By fragmenting memory and language in this way, Furat’s journal becomes essentially unarchivable, untranslatable, inherently ambiguous and unstable. The transcribing officer’s conclusion that the journal is a series of “unrelated and illogical recollections of a pris- oner” underlines the shortcomings of traditional forms of history telling. In the end, Furat’s hysterical language makes for a beautiful- ly disjointed text, which, through its cracks, may harbor the smallest, yet most effective, forms of resistance.