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The Baghdad Eucharist (Hoopoe Fiction) Paperback – Import, 30 Mar 2017
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"[Antoon] faithfully reproduces the difficult conversations between an Iraqi Christian family housed in Baghdad while the daily scenes of carnage are painfully recounted."--The Guardian"A beautiful text, a testimony of the time of mud and blood that besieges Iraq and the Arab East ... in very moving language, this Iraqi novelist writes his country with the ink of pain."--Elias Khoury, author of Gate of the Sun"A novel about Iraqi agony. Iraq's history is condensed and elegantly portrayed."--Al-Jazeera"Shines a valuable light on conflict that has been triggered from wrongheaded political decisions"--The National"[A] panoramic view of Iraq, its history, its iconography and its bitter present... Antoon is fast becoming not only the voice of disaffection of modern Iraq, but one of the most acclaimed authors of the Arab world."--Al-Ahram Weekly"The first novel to broach the tragedy of Iraqi Christians... narrating Iraq's wounds in a beautiful language."--as-Safir
About the Author
Sinan Antoon is an award-winning poet, novelist, and translator. He was born in Iraq, and moved to the US in 1991 after the Gulf War. He received his PhD from Harvard University and is currently associate professor of Arabic literature at New York University. He is a co-founder and co-editor of Jadaliyya. Maia Tabet is a literary translator, journalist, and editor, who has translated prominent authors such as Elias Khoury. She was born in Beirut and is currently based in Baltimore in the US.
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I first read and reviewed Sinan Antoon’s I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody in 2011, and was impressed, so I thought I tried his latest novel, published in 2017. He writes in Arabic, and Maia Tabet, who translates authors such as Elias Khoury, provides an excellent rendition into English.
“You’re just living in the past, Uncle!” Antoon commences his novel with that sentence, from Maha to Yousef, who is now in his ‘70’s. Yousef had indeed seen a bit of Iraqi history. Was there a “golden age”? Not really, though amid the car bombs and sectarian violence, it is not difficult to understand that many Iraqis saw life under Saddam as preferable. Before that, there were various periods whose transition to the next one was usually marked by violence and brutality. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958, and the Army leader who led that coup, Abd al-Karim Qasim, was murdered in the next coup, that occurred in 1963. And on and on, until the Baathists and Saddam provided some “stability.”
Chaldea lives! Prior to reading this novel, I considered the term “Chaldea” as a reference to one of the various Mesopotamian civilizations of millenniums ago. Yet that term is used to denote the form of Catholicism widely practiced in modern day Iraq. It does not recognize “Rome” as its spiritual leader. The prayers and rituals of this form of Catholicism are also woven throughout the novel. I even learned that the spokesperson for Saddam, Tariq Aziz, was Christian.
Survival. The core aspect of this novel are the interpersonal relationships among this extended family, and how they managed to live (or not) among this background of turmoil. Emigration was a seemingly inevitable option, with a diaspora scattered to Australia, Sweden, England and America. One of the grandsons is a student at UCLA and helps bring in supplies to his family during the boycott period (the ‘90’s, remember that?). One of the daughters graduates as a nurse, lands a well-paying job in Sulaymaniyah, in the northern (Kurdish) part of Iraq. She cannot live there alone as a single woman, so the entire family moves there. Hinnah is the family’s “matriarch,” strongly religious, who ensured the family was raised with both love and discipline.
Yousef’s life is mainly behind him, hence the living in the past, and the reluctance to start over in a new country. Maha, on the other hand, simply wants to finish her education so that she does not have to start over at the bottom of the heap in a new country, educationally. As a Christian, she suffers the slights from some of her classmates. The tensions of life in Iraq weigh heavily on her marriage.
Love, memory, and piles upon piles of anguish. Antoon has packed a lot into this short novel and shined a light on the plight of yet one more Iraqi minority that I was only dimly aware of. 5-stars.
Highly, highly recommended for anyone who loves a great story about what it means to be human in this messed-up world.