| Ya Maryam
Manshourat al jamal, Lebanon , Beirut , 2012 , 157 pages
Ave Maria was on the shortlist of the International Prize of Arabic Fiction (or Arab Booker), 2013.
Antoon tackles the difficult topic of sectarianism in Iraq.
Set in Baghdad in 2010, Ave Maria is 24 hours in Baghdad, in the lives of Yusef and Maha. Yusef is an old man who owns a large old house in Baghdad. With no family left, he hosts a young couple in the house’s second floor, Maha, and her husband Lu’ay.
The novel sets off on a heated discussion between Maha and Yusef, both from the Christian minority. Having known better days in Baghdad, Yusef refuses to read current events through the prism of sectarianism. Maha, on the other hand, is a young woman who directly suffered from sectarian strife. She experiences the country’s violence as a persecution. The heated discussion is quite unusual, as Maha, grateful to be hosted by Yusef, and respectful of his old age, has in the past expressed her disagreement so violently.
Hurt, Yusef nevertheless understands the young woman’s anger and pain. Early the next morning, he hopes to see Maha, to give her a chance to apologize, and mend things between them. But they do not meet, as Yusef leaves home before her.
That day is the anniversary of the death of Hinnah, Yusef’s sister. A fervent believer, Maha intends to come to mass. Regretful of her behavior the night before, she goes over the reasons of her anger. She would have liked to see Yusef in the morning, but their timings did not coincide. She plans to go early to church to see him and talk to him, but she ends up being a few minutes late, and sits at the back of the church, instead of sitting next to him.
Maha will never have a chance to apologize to Yusef. That day, during mass, the church was attacked by Islamists, and many died, among them Yusef.
With this novel Antoon tackles the difficult topic of sectarianism. Avoiding clichés, Antoon explores communautarian strife with a lot of sensitivity, delicacy and intelligence. Describing the phenomenon itself, Antoon also offers the perspectives different people have of events. The same religious tension can be read through the lens of a broader understanding of geopolitics. The brutality to which people are exposed to however, seems to prevent them of thinking beyond communitarian lines, especially in the new generation.
This very dignified and moving book was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2013.
[More details available upon request]
I decided it was time for my monthly visit with Saadoun. I’d been missing him recently, and he was the last of my friends who remained alive. We’d met at a soccer match decades earlier, during the 1979 game between Zawraa’ and Minaa’ at al-Shaab stadium. We were seated next to each other in the covered section during the unfortunate match when Zawraa’s star, Falah Hassan, was injured and broke his leg. In the middle of the second half, Falah was alone in the penalty area when Minaa’s goalie ran toward him to cut him off. To avoid hitting the goalie’s head with his foot, Falah leapt into the air in a half-twist and fell to the ground, immobilized. When Thamer Yusif, his offense teammate, approached and saw his mangled leg, he buried his head in his hands and wept. Players from both teams gathered around the injured star. The entire crowd stood up on the bleachers and a stunned silence descended over the stadium. Many people cried that day, as Falah was a star of international repute and Iraq’s most famous player. They laid him on a stretcher, carried him to the ambulance that had driven onto the field from a side entrance, and whisked him away to Medical City Hospital.
Our passion for Zawraa’ and our distress over Abu Tayseer, as Falah was known, brought us together, and during our first conversation we commiserated about the fate of his career and the future of the club without his offensive skills. Even though Zawraa’ ended up winning that match by one goal, Saadoun was somber. Speaking loud enough for all the spectators around to hear, “This is cause for grief. Tonight, I’m getting drunk!” I agreed with him. “It really merits a bender.”
At the end of the game, we headed out together, walking alongside the large crowd of spectators spilling out toward Andalus Square as we commiserated. We went into the first bar we found and spent the next three hours there, drinking and talking. We went over every one of Falah’s offensive plays and all his best goals; we bemoaned his misfortune and Zarwaa’s bad luck—his injury was obviously serious and we were sure he would never again return to the field even though he was at the height of his form. In spite of it all, I was determined that we should part on an optimistic note.
“To Abu Tayseer’s health—may he recover and come back stronger!” I exclaimed, raising my glass in one last toast. Fully agreeing with my sentiment, Saadoun began repeating the words like an incantation to the wine gods. Falah Hassan went to Britain for treatment and the al-Watan’s sports magazine ran a photo spread of him exercising with the British physiotherapy team helping with his rehab. He was back six months later, and at the first match he played at al-Shaab stadium he got down on his knees and kissed the ground before the start of play. Saadoun and I went to the game together, having become fast friends in the intervening months. That day, Saadoun teared up as he yelled at the top of his lungs, “I’ll lay my life down for that golden orb,” referring to Falah’s bald head. Was I recalling this now because I had been reading that after twenty years in America, Falah had just returned to Iraq for good and was running for president of the country’s soccer association?
[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]
Translated by: Maia Tabet
RAYA has world rights to this title, except for Spanish.
World rights available, except for Spanish.