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Tale Of The Corpse Washer In Sinan Antoon’s Words

‘The Corpse Washer’ is authored by an Iraqi poet, novelist, scholar and literary translator, Sinan Antoon. His novel, Corpse washer, is originally written in Arabic language and has been translated into English by the author himself.  

Sinan Antoon, a Baghdad-born writer, is known as one of the most acclaimed authors of the Arab world. He left Iraq and moved to the United States in 1991 after the onset of the Gulf War. He completed his Master’s in Arab studies and then secured his Ph.D in Arabic and Islamic studies from Harvard University. He was one of a coteries of dissident diasporic Iraqi intellectuals who opposed the 2003 US occupation of his homeland that led to the current post-colonial quagmire. It can be observed after reading Corpse Washer.

Antoon has published two collections of poetry in Arabic and has published a collection in English entitled the ‘Baghdad Blues’. He has published 4 novels. His Novel ‘Corpse washer’ is a work of historical fiction published in July 2013 and received Arab American book award in 2014.

In his novel, Antoon provides us the insight of every Iraqi man who has lived, survived and been traumatised by the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti Invasion and then the 2003 war with the US and then the fall of Iraq when Americans occupied it.

Each chapter of Corpse Washer is short and to the point. Antoon has written every scene in a realistic, simple and yet poetic manner. The book has graphic portrayal that involves the dead men, the relatives who bring them, the corpse washer, and the corpse washing ritual that is described in such a mastered art of writing by the author that gives the real impression of a well-rehearsed ritual and gains the sympathy of the readers.

The book opens up with the concept of ‘Mghaysil’ – a place for Muslims to be ritually washed and shrouded before being buried. And the main character of the novel, Jawad is born to a traditional Shi’ite family of corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad. Everyone in Baghdad knew where Mghyasil was as it was the only place for Shi’ites in Baghdad.

The Mghyasil was more than six decades old, and many generations of Jawad had worked in it, including his grandfather and then his father and his elder brother (a doctor in making) accompanying his father till his martyrdom in the Iraq-Iran war. And then his father expects Jawad to help him to lessen his burdens by helping him in his work – washing the corpses. Jawad was in 9th grade when for the first time father took him to the Mghyasil to let him watch and learn the basics of the trade. And Jawad’s father is a master of the art, and for decades he had been preparing the ritual wash of the dead in a sacred and peaceful manner. As Jawad narrates, “I was astonished by father’s ability to return to the normal rhythm of life so easily each time after he washed as if nothing had happened. As if he were merely moving from one room to another and leaving death behind. As if death had exited with the coffin and proceeded to the cemetery and life had returned to this place.”

However, Jawad has other ideas. Instead of following the family tradition of being an honored corpse washer, he is inspired by his teacher to become an artist. He longs to be an artist and a sculptor. He abandons his father, to become a sculptor — to celebrate life rather than tend to death. As the dialog between him and his father can be seen: “Father’s disappointment was visible on his face.”

“So that’s what it comes down to? A painter? I’ve been waiting all these years for someone to help me out on the job and ease my burden.”

“It’s just for the summer. And I’ll help out with expenses here at home.” He repeated the word “painter” as if it were a disgrace.

But Jawad manages to earn a degree from Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts but his dream is crushed with the outbreak and aftermath of the second Gulf War when Baghdad is invaded by American troops that further unleash sectarian violence, and when his father dies and the economic realities of war when economic sanctions of the 1990s destroy the socioeconomic fabric of the society. Puddles of blood, human remains scattered and burnt, and piles of bodies. Thus his sense of duty brings him back to the Mghyasil – his family business.

Corpse Washer depicts the pictorial view of the Iraq-Iran War, Saddam Hussain’s dictatorship, and the American occupation. When Jawad’s uncle returns from Europe for a visit, he’s shocked by what he sees: “The entire country and everyone in it is tired. I mean even right here in Karrada. Wasn’t this the most beautiful neighborhood? Look at it now. Then you have all this garbage, dust, barbed wires, and tanks. There aren’t any women walking down the street anymore! This is not the Baghdad I’d imagined. Not just in terms of the people. Even the poor palm trees are tired and no one takes care of them. Believe me, these Americans, with their ignorance and racism, will make people long for Saddam’s days.”

Despite all his escape and attempts to not work around the dead, at the end of the novel, Jawad is destined to return to Mghyasil and accepts his place as a corpse washer. The crucial moment comes when he is turned away at the border with Jordan; single men are not allowed to cross. While waiting for his turn at the border he sees a TV show of yet another bombing and the scene of dead bodies. He wonders, with all the conflicted realities with which he struggles, who might tend the bodies.

Thus, the novel concludes with Jawad sitting beneath the tree, listening to a nightingale sing until it is scared away by the arrival of another corpse; Mahdi, his assistant, breaks this silence:

“It started singing with a gentle sweetness — as if it knew I had complained that paradise was far away, so it had brought its sound right here . . .”

The living dies or departs, and the dead always comes. I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other. My father knew that, and the pomegranate tree knows it as well.

Mahdi opened the door and said, “Jawad, they brought one.”

The nightingale fled. I sighed and said, “Okay, I’m coming. Just give me another minute.”

I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shrunken pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.

But no one knows. No one. The pomegranate alone knows.

Towards the end, the pomegranate is emphasised by the author in an attempt to show that life prevails in Baghdad despite the brutal continuous wars.

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