The Corpse Washer – Sinan Antoon (translated from the Arabic by the author) – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

The world of translated literature allows you to transform your thinking, learn about other cultures, expand your horizons and more. It is a magical place where the cost of an airfare need not be sought as for a few dollars you can be in Poland one day and Israel the next. My latest journey took me to Iraq through the stunning tale of a young Shi’ite who would studies to become a sculptor but also works with his father as a mghassilchi, a body washer, the ritual of cleansing and shrouding the Shi’ite corpses that about in Bagdhad.

We follow our narrator Jawad through his first experiences at the mghaysil (the washing temple), to university to study fine arts, his loves and the catastrophic changes that he must undergo as a citizen of Iraq whilst the regime of Saddam Hussein is toppled. This is a horrific tale, one that takes you to places where you never thought you’d have to go. A short history of the occupation:
We were in front of the main gate. American soldiers were stationed at the monument and had turned it into a barracks. Concrete blocks and barbed wire barricaded the gate and soldiers with machine guns stood guard. Armoured vehicles and Humvees were parked inside along the path that led to the monument itself.
Their country is no longer theirs, the memories of beautiful places, alleys where you can buy books, markets and monuments all a living hell. But through all of this Jawad manages to find love, he explores the beauty in the squalor:
The lake’s beauty was gripping. Its balmy blue was therapeutic, especially for a soul thirsting in the harshness of the desert day and night. Its shore was covered with calcifications that looked like cauliflowers with cavities carved by the salts the filled the lake’s waters forming a wall on all sides.
But the predominant character here is death. A corpse washer looking into death’s face each and every day. The recurring horrific nightmares, the severed bodies, the young, the innocent all meeting a brutal end.
“I called the police and told them a man’s corpse was out there on the street, that they had to pick it up before dogs ate it. The said, ‘We can’t do it. We don’t have enough personnel.’ Can you believe it? But I should’ve known. If we, the living, are worthless, then what are the dead worth?”
Or:
I put a swab of cotton into the hole the bullet had bored in the man’s forehead and another swab into his nostrils. I had already put swabs between his buttocks and inside his anus. I prepared to shroud him.
So matter of fact. The work of the mghassilchi slowly encroaches upon Jawad, taking away his drawing and sculpture, taking away his dream of leaving Iraq for Syria or Jordan or even better somewhere in Europe. The violence rips apart his family, his assistance at the mghaysil. His life is predominately death. Suicide bombers, chemical weapons, torched oil wells in Kuwait, hidden weapons of mass destruction?, the ordinary citizens caught up in such devastation:
The restaurant that Abu Ghayda’ had co-owned on the road to al-Taji military camp had been bombed by the Amricans at the beginning of the war. He used to joke that the hot spices and pickled mango he used in his falafel sandwiches were at the top of the Pentagon’s list of weapons of mass destruction that threatened the world. He and his partner repaired the restaurant and reopened it four months later, but business was slow. That area had become a battleground for the Americans and the armed men who attacked them. Abu Ghada’ lost everything and was forced to close shop.
After spending a year unemployed, he read ads for well-paying jobs at the Ministry of Interior. He went to Nusoor Square early one morning and stood in line to register his name. A suicide bomber standing in line with all the others blew himself up. By the time Um Ghayda’ got to the hospital, Abu Ghayda’ had shut his eyes forever.
This is a disturbing and moving work, to humanise the horrors of the Iraqi wars, to plot a nation’s history and turmoil through the eyes of a dealer in death is a masterful stroke. The politics is also played out throughout and it is seemingly done with little bias by being so poetic, but at the same time matter of fact (however I’m sure someone will point out that I’ve missed some persecution in there).
A very worthy novel on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Long List and, for mine, one that surely makes it through to the next cut.

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