The pomegranate alone
| Wahdaha shajarat al rumman
Al mou’assassa al aarabiya, Lebanon , Beirut , 2010 , 255 pages
The pomegranate alone was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014 (UK), and was the Best Arab-American Novel 2014 (USA)
In the quietness of a corpse washer’s workshop, Antoon explores the multiple faces of violence in Iraq.
One does not choose to wash corpses. It is a work that needs to be done, for the world to go on as we know it, and for the deceased to be buried like we know how to bury. One inherits this profession from their father, or one becomes a corpse washer out of necessity.
Jawad did not want to wash corpses. He wanted to be an artist. A student of the faculty of art at the university of Baghdad, he was esteemed by his instructors, who had hope in his remarkable talent. Art proved to be a difficult way to earn a living, especially in a country torn by war. As a teen ager, Jawad was introduced to the tradition of washing corpses by his father. Washing corpses is a delicate, methodic, almost aesthetic practice, that brings peace to the dead, and to their family. Jawad’s father, a religious man, saw in this practice a noble task which contributed to maintain the worldly order. The corpses of Shiite believers are brought to him; he then stretches them on the stone table, washes them three times, using soap and camphor, following the washing ritual rigorously. The water used to wash the corpses is not disposed of like other used waters. Through a small canal, the water is led to the garden where it quenches a thirsty pomegranate tree.
For years, Jawad is haunted by the faces of the dead. For years, he resisted his father’s will. After his father’s death, in dire need of money, Jawad finally gives in. His practice, although rigorous, is however not aesthetic like his father’s was. For Jawad, beauty is in the stone and metal he sculpts, in the drawings he makes, not in the religious duty of washing of corpses. But art has failed Jawad, and so has the world. The war in Iraq is raging, and the corpses he is asked to wash are often nameless, or terribly disfigured. As a corpse washer, Jawad has an intimate and unique understanding of the war in Baghdad. Like the pomegranate tree, he stands alone, and lives off death.
The pomegranate alone is a powerful and beautifully written novel by Antoon. In the quietness of a corpse washer’s workshop, Antoon explores the multiple faces of violence. The violence in the street, made to the bodies of the victims, as well as the violence, less visible but perhaps even more devastating, in the minds and hearts of the Iraqis. As Jawad couldn’t bare eating the fruits of the pomegranate tree, he cannot bare his own existence.
[More details available upon request]
Raindrops begin to fall, and she closes her eyes. I wipe a drop off her nose with my index finger. Her skin is warm, which means she is alive. I start to caress her hair. I will wash her with the rain, I think. She smiles as if she’d heard my thought. Another drop settles above her left eyebrow. I wipe it off.
I think I hear a car approaching. I turn around and see a Humvee driving at an insane speed, leaving a trail of flying dust. It suddenly swerves to the right and comes to a stop a few meters away from us. Its doors open. Masked men wearing khaki uniforms and carrying machine guns rush toward us. I try to shield Reem with my right hand, but one of the men has already reached me. He hits me in the face with the stock of his machine gun. I fall to the ground. He kicks me in the stomach. Another starts dragging me away from the washing bench. None of them says a word. I am screaming and cursing them, but I can’t hear myself. Two men force me to get down on my knees and tie my wrists with a wire behind my back. One of them puts a knife to my neck; the other blindfolds me. I try to run away, but they hold me tightly. I scream again, but cannot hear my screams. I hear only Reem’s shrieks, the laughter and grunts of the men, the sound of the rain (…)
Death is not content with what it takes from me in my waking hours, it insists on haunting me even in my sleep. Isn’t it enough that I toil all day tending to its eternal guests, preparing them to sleep in its lap? Is death punishing me because I thought I could escape its clutches? If my father were still alive he would mock my silly thoughts. He would dismiss all this as infantile, unbecoming to a man. Didn’t he spend a lifetime doing his job day after day, never once complaining of death? But death back then was timid and more measured than today.
I can almost hear death saying: ‘‘I am what I am and haven’t changed at all. I am but a postman.’’
If death is a postman, then I receive his letters every day. I am the one who opens carefully the bloodied and torn envelopes. I am the one who washes them, who removes the stamps of death and dries and perfumes them, mumbling what I don’t entirely believe in. Then I wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their final reader—the grave.
But letters are piling up, Father! Tenfold more than what you used to see in the span of a week now pass before me in a day or two. If you were alive, Father, would you say that that is fate and God’s will? I wish you were here so I could leave Mother with you and escape without feeling guilty. You were heavily armed with faith, and that made your heart a castle. My heart, by contrast, is an abandoned house whose windows are shattered and doors unhinged. Ghosts play inside it, and the winds wail. As a child, I would cover my head with a second pillow to block out noise. I look for it now; it has fallen by the bed next to my slippers. I pick it up and bury my head under it in order to reclaim my share of the night. The image of Reem being dragged away by her hair keeps returning.
Reem hadn’t been at the heart of my nightmare until a few weeks ago. Where was she now? I heard a few years ago that she was in Amsterdam. I’ll Google her again tomorrow when I go to the Internet café after work. I’ll try a different spelling of her name in English and maybe I’ll find something. But can I just grab a bit of sleep for an hour or two?
[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]
The pomegranate alone (published under the title “The corpse washer”) | Yale University Press | 2013 | translated by: Sinan Antoon
| Alberto Manguel, 2013, “The Corpse Washer is one of the most extraordinary novels that I’ve read in a long time. Its setting is war-torn Iraq, but its theme is the ageless tension between persistence and resignation that defines our mysterious human condition.”
| The national, 2013, “A compact masterpiece, a taut, powerful and utterly absorbing tale that, with luck, will secure Antoon a wider, more international readership.”
| The Kenyon review, 2014, “Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer offers a moving literary elegy not only for the numberless Iraqi dead, but also for those who remain to bury them. It must be read.”
| NPR, 2014, “A stark portrait of contemporary Iraq.”
| Tanqeed, 2014, “Quiet, disconcerting, power of great fiction.”
| Warscapes, 2014, “The Corpse Washer is a powerful companion for anyone trying to understand the drama of post-2003 Iraq or of war in general.”
| Three percent, 2013, “Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman”
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