Friday, January 22, 2010

Reason to Read Sinan Antoon

The latest issue of The New Yorker contains a lengthy discussion and review of literature from the Arab speaking parts of the Middle East translated into English. Why do we need to pay attention? As Claudia Roth Pierpont, the author of the piece, writes, “There is insight as well as information in these books. And then, considering the reduced size and the volatility of the world we share, we might recall the essential lesson of a very old Arabic book that everyone knows, “The Thousand and One Nights”—that stories can have the power to save your life.” The ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions is the stuff of novels (and of poetry), and it is the reason we need these books.

Of the authors mentioned, perhaps the one I am most familiar with is Sinan Antoon. When I was studying at Bennington a couple of years ago, Antoon gave a lecture on translation and read some of his work. As is standard in such settings, he was asked not about the conflicts he knew best—in Iraq and between Iraq and its neighbors—but about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I was struck by the generousness of his response, not blaming either side, but recognizing the common desire for home and peace.

He writes both fiction and poetry. I have both his short novel, “I’jaam, An Iraqi Rhapsody,” and a book of his poems, “The Baghdad Blues.” In both, his work displays a desire to see behind the closed door of propaganda and dogma, and find the human emotion. Of course there are poems that portray human suffering, but even in those it is the mother, the child, though whose mother, whose child, remains mystery (see the short poem I included below and which is one of the two he reads in the clip above). His writing, particularly I’jaam (FYI, I’jaam denotes the practice of adding dots to letters of the Arabic alphabet to alter meaning), illuminates how we are all drawn into war, unwittingly, the trickery of language, how it can be turned against us even, and, how, it can save us.

When I was torn by war

I took a breath
Immersed in death
And drew a window
On war’s wall
I opened it
For something
I saw another war
And a mother
Weaving a shroud
For the dead man
Still in her womb

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