Young Jawad, born to a traditional Shi'ite family of corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad, decides to abandon the family tradition, choosing instead to become a sculptor, to celebrate life rather than tend to death. He enters Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s, in defiance of his father’s wishes and determined to forge his own path. But the circumstances of history dictate otherwise. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the economic sanctions of the 1990s destroy the socioeconomic fabric of society. The 2003 invasion and military occupation unleash sectarian violence. Corpses pile up, and Jawad returns to the inevitable washing and shrouding. Trained as an artist to shape materials to represent life aesthetically, he now must contemplate how death shapes daily life and the bodies of Baghdad’s inhabitants.
Through the struggles of a single desperate family, Sinan Antoon’s novel shows us the heart of Iraq’s complex and violent recent history. Descending into the underworld where the borders between life and death are blurred and where there is no refuge from unending nightmares, Antoon limns a world of great sorrows, a world where the winds wail.
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The Corpse Washer
By SINAN ANTOON, THE AUTHOR
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Sinan Antoon
All rights reserved.
She is lying naked on her back on a marble bench in an open place with no walls or ceilings. There is no one around and nothing in sight except the sand. I, too, am naked, barefoot, dumbfounded by everything around me. I can feel the sand under my feet and a cool wind. I move slowly toward the bench. When and why has she come back after all these years? Her long black hair is piled about her head. A few locks cover her right cheek, as if guarding her face, which has not changed with the years. Her eyebrows are carefully plucked, and her eyelids, which end in thick eyelashes, are shut. Her nose guards her lips, which bear pink lipstick as if she were still alive. Her nipples are erect; there is no trace of the surgery. Her hands are clasped over her navel; her fingernails and toenails are painted the same pink as her lipstick. Her pubic hair is shaved.
I wonder whether she is asleep or dead. I am afraid to touch her. I look into her face and whisper her name, "Reem." She smiles, her eyes still shut at first. Then she opens them, and the blackness in her pupils smiles as well. I can't grasp what is going on. I ask in a loud voice, "Reem, what are you doing here?"
I am about to hug and kiss her, but she warns me: "Don't kiss me.
Wash me first so we can be together and then ..."
"What? You are still alive?"
"Wash me so we can be together. I missed you so much."
"But you are not dead!"
"Wash me, darling ... Wash me so we can be together."
"With what? There is nothing here."
"Wash me, darling."
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.
I feel a sharp pain, then the cold blade of the knife penetrating my neck. Hot blood spills over my chest and back. My head falls to the ground and rolls like a ball on the sand. I hear footsteps. One of the men takes off my blindfold and shoves it into his pocket. He spits in my face and goes away. I see my body to the left of the bench, kneeling in a puddle of blood.
The other men return to the Humvee, two of them dragging Reem by her arms. She tries to turn her head back in my direction, but one of them slaps her. I cry out her name but can't hear my voice. They put her in the back seat and shut the door. The engine starts. The Humvee speeds away and disappears over the horizon. The rain keeps falling on the empty bench.
I woke up panting and sweating. I wiped my forehead and face. The same nightmare had been recurring for weeks, with minor changes. Sometimes I saw Reem's severed head on the bench and heard her voice saying, "Wash me, darling," but this was the first time there was rain. It must have slipped into my dream from outdoors. I could hear drops on the window next to my bed.
I looked at my watch. It was already 3:30 a.m.
I've slept only three hours after a long and grueling day. I am worn out.
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?
I stood next to my mother on the steps in front of the big wooden door. Her right hand firmly clasped my right hand, as if I were about to run or fly away. Her left hand carried the sufurtas in which she packed my father's lunch—three small copper pots, each stacked on top of the other in a metal skeleton resembling a little metal building. The top pot was filled with rice. The middle one with okra stew and two pieces of meat. The lower pot usually had some fruit. That day she'd put in a tiny bunch of white grapes, the kind we call "goat nipples," that my father liked. There was a warm loaf of homemade bread in the nylon sack dangling from her left wrist. She put her left foot on the steps and temporarily released my hand to knock four times. Her strong knocks pushed the door open. She pretended not to see the young man squatting a few steps away from the door with his back to the wall. He was wearing black. His head was buried in his hands and he looked like he was wailing. Smoke rose from the cigarette in his left hand. That was the first time I'd seen a grown man cry.
I looked into my mother's coffee-colored eyes. In a hushed voice, I asked, "Why is this man crying?"
She put her index finger on her lips to shush me and whispered, "Don't be rude, Jawad!"
I craned to the left, curious to see what was happening inside. It was the first time my mother had taken me to my father's place of work. He usually took the sufurtas with him in the morning, but that day he had forgotten to bring it along.
The narrow walkway led to a wide room with a high ceiling. Three or four men were standing at its entrance with their backs blocking the scene. Were they watching my father as he worked? The street was quiet and although the walkway was long, I could hear the sound of water being spilled, with my father's voice muttering phrases I couldn't understand, except for the word "God."
My mother knocked at the open door with more force and determination this time and then called out "Hammoudy." None of the men turned around. Then the one standing to the far left moved aside and Hammoudy's face appeared. He limped to the door. Hammoudy, my father's assistant, looked older than his actual age. He had black hair and eyelashes as thick as a paint brush. He wore blue shorts and a white T-shirt which was wet in many spots. After exchanging a quick hello, my mother gave him the sufurtas and the bread saying: "Here, Hammoudy, this is Abu Ammoury's lunch. He forgot to take it."
He thanked her and rushed back inside after shutting the door. She held my hand again and we started to make our way back home. I turned back to look at the squatting man. His head was still in his hands. My mother shook me and said, "Mind where you're going. You're going to trip and fall."
At that age I didn't know much about my father's work. All I knew was that he was a mghassilchi, a body-washer, but this word was obscure to me. I was afraid that day and asked my mother: "Does Father hurt people?"
"No son, not at all. It's quite the opposite. Why do you ask?"
"But wasn't that man there crying?"
"Yes, but not because of your father. He's just sad."
"Why is he sad? What are they doing inside?"
"Your dad washes the bodies of the dead. It's a very honorable profession and those who do it are rewarded by God."
"Why does he wash them? Are they dirty?"
"No, but they must be purified."
"And where do the dead go after they die?"
"To God. Your father tends to them before they are buried."
"How can they go to God if they are buried?"
"The soul rises to the sky, but the body remains in the earth it came from. It is said that we are come from Adam and Adam is of dust."
I looked up to the sky. There were five clouds huddled together and I wondered: Which one will carry the dead man's soul? Where will it take it?
The only time I ever saw my father cry was many years later when he heard that my brother Ameer, whom we called Ammoury, had died. Ameer, who was five years my senior, was transformed from "Doctor" into "Martyr." His framed black-and-white photograph occupied the heart of the main wall in our living room and even a bigger part of my father's heart, which Ammoury had already monopolized. Ameer, you see, was the ideal son who had always made my father proud. He always excelled and was the top of his class. At the national baccalaureate exams, his score was 95 percent, which enabled him to go to medical school to study to become a surgeon. Ameer wanted to fulfill his dream of opening a clinic so he could allow Father to retire. Father insisted that he would keep working until he died. Ameer insisted on helping Father at work even on his short leaves from the army during the years of war with Iran. This was before he was killed in the al-Faw battles.
I was reading in my room on the second floor when I heard a car stop in front of the house and doors being slammed shut. Seconds later, I heard the new doorbell ringing—the doorbell Ameer had bought and installed after the old one had stopped working and I had procrastinated about fixing it. I drew the curtain open and saw a taxi with a flag-draped coffin on top of it. My heart sunk into an abyss.
Whenever I saw a taxi driving down the street with a flag-draped coffin on it, the thought would cross my mind that Ammoury might one day return like this, but I would quickly cast the vision aside. I rushed down the stairs barefoot. When I reached the front door my mother was already out in the street in her nightgown without her abaya. She stood next to the taxi, beating her head, staring at the coffin and screaming "Oh my ... Ammoury ... Ammoury ... Ammoury's gone ... My son is gone."
A uniformed man stood there observing the scene. He asked me to sign the papers confirming receipt of the body. Without so much as a glance at the papers, I signed two copies with the ballpoint pen he gave me. I handed back the papers and the pen. He returned the pen to his pocket and said, "May God have mercy on him. My condolences." He gave me a sheet of paper which I folded and put in my shirt pocket.
The neighbors had come out of their houses after hearing my mother's wailing. Some of them stood around the taxi and a number of women rushed to console my mother and join in her wailing. The bald taxi driver had untied the ropes which secured the coffin on top of the metal rack. He put them in his trunk and stood waiting. I went up to my mother to hug her, but she was hysterical and surrounded by women who had started beating their heads as well. I wondered how my father's weak heart would take the news.
The driver started moving the coffin around, as if to hint that we were to help him. I heard a voice saying "Go to Abu Ammoury's place and inform him." I yelled out that I would tell him myself after we brought down the coffin. The driver and I and some of the young neighborhood men lifted the coffin and brought it inside the house, placing it in the living room.
A silent tear fell on my cheek as I rushed to deliver the news of Ammoury's death to my father. Ammoury, who used to play soccer with me on the street. Ammoury, who one summer had taught me how to make a paper kite using twigs from palm trees and who had climbed the neighbor's palm tree to retrieve my kite when it got stuck there. Ammoury, with whom I shared a room for twenty years and who used to snore sometimes. Ammoury, who had caught me masturbating in the bathroom once when I forgot to lock the door and who had apologized, smiled, and quickly closed the door. He told me later that it was a natural desire, but said I shouldn't overdo it. Ammoury, who gave me his blue twenty-four-inch bike when he became taller and bought a twenty-six. Ammoury, who used to race me and would always let me win at the end. Ammoury, who had kept my secret and agreed to go to the high school headmaster instead of my father to persuade him to allow me back to classes after I had been absent too many times. Ammoury, who had genuinely tried to understand my artistic tendencies and my decision to study sculpture and who truly respected art even though it was really not his thing. Ammoury, who had wanted me to be an engineer or a doctor like him and who couldn't hide his disappointment when I scored 87.7 percent on the baccalaureate exams. It was enough to enter the Academy of Fine Arts, but that wasn't his hope for his little brother. Ammoury, who used to stand by me at home, defending my point of view against my parents' criticisms and who would tell them I was talented and had to choose my own path and take responsibility for my decisions. Ammoury, who had visited the exhibition we had during our second year at the academy to encourage me and who had asked me to explain the idea behind my piece and expressed his admiration, listening attentively. Ammoury, who used to joke with me thinking he was encouraging me, but who actually annoyed me, by saying that my statues would one day populate the squares of Baghdad.
Dr. Ammoury, the handsome, shy one but who nonetheless succeeded in charming Wasan, our neighbor, and made her fall in love with him. My mother rushed to ask for her hand so they would be engaged before his graduation. He was drafted into the army after graduation, but died before they got married. Wasan, with her long black hair and lovely legs, a student of architecture at the University of Baghdad. I felt guilty when I couldn't drive her away from my sexual fantasies. Ammoury, of whom I was greatly jealous, because he was the favorite, pampered—an ideal I could never approach. I felt guilty because I couldn't stop myself, even in this moment, from wondering so selfishly: Would the news of my own death in this seemingly endless war leave a quarter of the pain and sorrow that Ammoury's departure will have left behind? I wiped my tears and scolded myself for this utter narcissism.
I got to the mghaysil, the washhouse. The door was ajar. I crossed the walkway and saw the Qur'anic verse "Every soul shall taste death" in beautiful Diwani script hanging over the door. The yellowish paint on the wall was peeling away because of the humidity from the washing. Father was sitting in the left corner of the side room on a wooden chair listening to the radio. Death's traces—its scents and memories—were present in every inch of that place. As if death were the real owner and Father merely an employee working for it and not for God, as he liked to think.
Excerpted from The Corpse Washer by SINAN ANTOON. Copyright © 2013 by Sinan Antoon. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
The Corpse Washer.................... 1