I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody


An inventory of the General Security headquarters in central Baghdad reveals an obscure manuscript. Written by a young man in detention, the prose moves from prison life, to adolescent memories, to frightening hallucinations, and what emerges is a portrait of life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In the tradition of Kafka’s The Trial or Orwell’s 1984, I’jaam offers insight into life under an oppressive political regime and how that oppression works. ...

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An inventory of the General Security headquarters in central Baghdad reveals an obscure manuscript. Written by a young man in detention, the prose moves from prison life, to adolescent memories, to frightening hallucinations, and what emerges is a portrait of life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In the tradition of Kafka’s The Trial or Orwell’s 1984, I’jaam offers insight into life under an oppressive political regime and how that oppression works. This is a stunning debut by a major young Iraqi writer-in-exile.

Sinan Antoon has been published in leading international journals and has co-directed About Baghdad, an acclaimed documentary about Iraq under US occupation.

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Editorial Reviews

The Village Voice
He evokes a Baghdad heavy with Orwellian overtones . . . often he strikes the right chord, to haunting effect.
Los Angeles Times
. . . a fictional memoir - of a student/poet in solitary detention for having ridiculed Saddam Hussein. . . . The student's dreams, memories and fantasies are eerily beautiful - he enters a reality far preferable to the one he has lived in for most of his life.
I'jaam denotes the practice of adding dots to letters of the Arabic alphabet to alter phonetic value. If dots are omitted, words can become ambiguous or inappropriate for their contexts. The young man who wrote the manuscript whose transcription is this chilling short novel omitted dots, and so a song about the "great Leader" concludes with a phrase that translates one letter differently from "tucks us into bed. . . . The prisoner intersperses terse reports of his ordeal among memories of a literary rebellion, friendship and love.
Poets and Writers Magazine
In less than a hundred pages, Antoon provides a moving portrait of life in Saddam's Iraq. When asked in a 2005 interview if he categorizes himself as an exile or a refugee, Antoon replied, 'Categories . . . are ill-suited for encompassing the complexities of our world. They are akin to lines on shores that are incessantly erased by the ebb and flow of reality.
Library Journal

This book arrives at a crucial moment in our history as the decision is being made whether to expand or terminate the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Allowing for some past perspective, the narrative attempts to shed light on the terrorized life of certain Iraqi citizens under Saddam Hussein's rule. Unfortunately, this light is muted by a story that is thoroughly confusing and difficult to follow. At only 112 pages, the book feels rushed, with plotlines and characters receiving short shrift. Even as Antoon chronicles his protagonist's chilling imprisonment and torture, he focuses on certain tangential details at the expense of larger themes, which leaves readers frustrated. Antoon, who left Iraq for this country in 1991, has written a novel that may be historically and culturally important but, unlike works by contemporaries Orhan Pamuk and Tayeb Salih, for example, is not of such literary importance that it will endure beyond the current moment. Suitable for academic libraries only.
—Christopher Bussmann

Kirkus Reviews
A manuscript found in Baghdad's Directorate of General Security recalls life under Saddam Hussein's regime. I'jaam, explains Iraqi expatriate Antoon in a prefatory note, is the Arabic word used to describe the diacritical dots added to the basic alphabet to represent different phonetic characters. Since these dots can also clarify a word's meaning, I'jaam has come to mean "elucidating" or "clarifying." A manuscript written entirely without diacritics is clearly intended to be unintelligible, and that's the premise of Antoon's novel. It's 1989; a manuscript without diacritics is unearthed in the dreaded security headquarters, where a request is made for "qualified personnel . . . to insert the diacritics and write a brief report of the manuscript's contents." The resulting document unfolds a series of vignettes of a government-regulated life. Furat, the manuscript's author, is a poet and student of literature in Baghdad. A limp makes him unfit for service in the army, but he feels the restraints of Hussein's oppressive dictatorship in countless other ways. His grandmother, who raised him after his parents were killed, and his girlfriend Areej plead with him to be compliant, but Furat finds it difficult to live and study under such conditions. Though his protests are minor-trying to write his senior thesis on 1984 (banned by the state) and using newspapers with pictures of the Leader as toilet paper-he is nonetheless carted off to prison by guards posing as students. Furat's manuscript swings among an account of his past, flashes of life in prison and hopeful hallucinations envisioning reunions with his grandmother and Areej. His rantings become increasingly incomprehensible and end just assuddenly as they began. Marginal notes and an addendum by the state translator nervously cavil at Furat's consistent disparagement of the government, dismissing the text as a "disgraceful transgression." Antoon's frenetic tone is very effective, and Furat's unraveling feels heartbreakingly familiar. But the novel is choppy and unfinished, ending far too soon. What could have been well-developed, timely fiction reads like a character sketch. Evocative but incomplete.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780872864573
  • Publisher: City Lights Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/2007
  • Pages: 168
  • Sales rank: 305,640
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.30 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Sinan Antoon was born in Baghdad, Iraq. After the 1991 Gulf War, he left Iraq and settled in the US where he studied Arabic Literature at Georgetown and Harvard. His poems and essays (Arabic and English) have been published in leading journals and newspapers in the Arab world, as well as The Nation, al-Ahram Weekly and Middle East Report.
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