In the myth, Isis gathers the limbs of her murdered husband, Osiris, and uses magic to return him to life.
Isis is an artist. She has found Osiris’s right arm, bluing brown, socket scab-webbed, scarab-hairs arrested mid-scuttle. Her first touch leaves purple finger marks. She wraps her hand in cotton. She can’t quite imagine where Osiris is, or what he is. The limbs—which once leaned and locked, soldered together with sinew and nerve—are a vocabulary of Osiris, but the grammar has been extracted. The arm is surprisingly heavy. To pick it up, she has to imagine it’s something else; every second, it becomes less Osiris. She imagines herself as bigger, braver, more solid than this varnished ulna that must have nothing to do with Osiris. Her hand picks up the arm.
Back in her studio, she prepares a palette of resins, amber grayed with grief. She’s making art. She’s making a corpse. Being a goddess, she knows that with magic, she can make the corpse move and speak again. Being a woman, she knows that from now on, her husband will never again cohere. She’ll look at his face and see an arm. She’ll look at his arm and see a thing. Once a corpse, always a corpse.
Of the abundant works of fiction produced by Iraqi writers in the past ten years, Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition are two of the comparatively few to have appeared in English translation. Antoon published his novel The Corpse Washer in Arabic in 2010 and his own English translation in 2013. The Corpse Exhibition, published in English in 2014 in a translation by Jonathan Wright, contains short stories from two recent collections of Blasim’s work.
It’s tempting to see the existence of these two works as proof of a preoccupation with corpses on the part of Iraqi writers, but the two are paired in this way only in English translation. The Arabic title of The Corpse Washer is Wahdaha shajarat al-rumman (“the pomegranate tree alone”), in reference to a pomegranate tree that is nourished by the water used in the corpse washing ritual. And though Blasim’s story “The Corpse Exhibition,” which appears in the middle of The Madman of Freedom Square, does have the same title in Arabic (Ma’rad al-juthath, literally, “the exhibition of corpses”), the eponymous compilation exists only in English.
Whether this consonance is a conscious marketing tactic or a coincidence, these titles play on English readers’ association of Iraq with corpses. The word “corpse” on the cover of an Iraqi novel confirms expectations that Iraqi literature will be little more than an expanded New York Times article, a tally of the faceless dead. After all, how could a novel hope to bring human beings to life in the midst of the ISIS apocalypse?
When I first read The Corpse Washer and The Corpse Exhibition, in Arabic and in English, ISIS was not yet a household name. The violent “now” of these texts is not the “now” of ISIS. But we can read them now to understand two things: first, an emotional continuity (of betrayal, uncertainty, anger, and terror) that runs from Saddam-era Iraq to the present and illuminates the more cut-and-dry chronology of events we find in news coverage; and second, how to read, and seek to empathize with, people facing a present reality—disjointed from a crumbled past and a seemingly impossible future—that is pure fear and pain.
In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq, and a Jordanian jihadi named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi began to build a movement that eclipsed al-Qaeda in brutality. In 2014, Zarqawi’s second successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself leader of a caliphate called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a state organized on harshly literalist interpretations of the Qur’an and sharʿiyya law. Since then, ISIS has raged across northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, taking the cities of Mosul and Raqqa (among others), destroying ancient Syrian sites, slaughtering the Yazidis on the Iraq-Syria border, and executing anyone it considers guilty of takfir (apostasy).
American and British news sources have become increasingly eager to run stories “explaining ISIS” by detailing its policies and priorities or by elucidating the medieval caliphate model on which it is based. There is a compulsion to seek a form for ISIS in its past, whether classical Islamic or more recent, and in the apocalyptic vision of the future it zealously pursues. These interpretations are important, but their sweeping, overhead view of ISIS as a historically situated phenomenon leaves no room for human faces. Iraqis are generalized as victims, refugees, or, in the worst case, corpses.
In 2008, shortly before Zarqawi’s Islamic State of Iraq began publicly taking credit for bombings, I went to a first year Arabic class “just for fun.” Eight years later, I am a doctoral student in Arabic literature. Learning and loving Arabic required not only a linguistic translation, but also a second one, between worlds. I felt my mind stretched and molded by the marvelous possibilities opened by this new grammar, and later by the luminous beauty and originality of the Lebanese and Iraqi fiction I studied. But I came to realize that the second translation required me to bring the world of Baghdad to Boston, which meant grappling with what it means to live and write in a region where instability, uncertainty and violence have been the norm for generations.
What exactly is a corpse? In English, the final “e” was added only in the nineteenth century, as a way of distinguishing the word from the French corps (“body”). In the English pronunciation, the plosive “p” seals off the word, forecloses its possibilities of continuation, and the hissed “s” steams it shut. Corps typically refers to a living body: mutable, pilose, unpredictable, resilient. “Corpse” neatly snaps the body into an everlasting stasis. Its only possibility is decay.
The Arabic word for corpse is jutha, plural juthath. It comes from a verb that means “to tear out, uproot, cut off.” A pre-Islamic meaning is “the body or corporeal form or figure of a man, lying down or sleeping or reclining or sitting [in a horse or camel’s saddle].” Jutha, then, was essentially an artistic term, a label for a certain image of the body as visual form cut off from its corporeality. Its use to refer to a dead body appears to date from the Qur’an. The jutha is a thing detached from everything that might once have made it a body.
In both languages, a corpse is a body cleansed of specificity. In order to be a corpse, it must have most of the parts of a living body. The line isn’t clear; is a head a corpse? (Sinan Antoon poses this question in The Corpse Washer.) The English word is decisive, metallic, emotionless. The array of its consonants blocks the tongue at every path; the sounds burst forward and the mouth gags them out. Likewise the concept. A body becomes a corpse only in a rupture that pushes past life, past identity, and creates a definable object from an inconceivable idea. In Arabic, the stressed “th” (as in “thin”) is a threshold between the j that might have started jasad (living body), but didn’t. The forceful exhaled vowel at the end is a breath that marks the contrast between the speaker’s life and the corpse, a lifeless object.
The word’s matter-of-factness is appalling. It’s impossible to say without sounding callous; it callouses language. It scabs over the incisions from which might bleed a living, inexpressible pain. Elaine Scarry rightly characterizes pain as the ultimate incommunicable experience, and so jutha requires a second act of translation after the transport from one dictionary to another: a transport out of a world of shelling, sniper fire, daily car bombs, bloodied sidewalks, and a decayed border between realistic and unrealistic brutality.
Journalism’s overhead view shows us only a past-like present, a moment that is already structured into a sealed, coherent historical horror story. There is always a time lag, if only a short one, before non-Iraqis see and read about events unfolding in Iraq. The Corpse Washer spans three consecutive periods of terror in Iraq: the Hussein regime in the 1990s, the 2003 American invasion and the subsequent period of sectarian violence. Blasim’s stories are set during a period of violence that, though unspecified, is most reminiscent of the post-invasion early 2000s.
It is no coincidence that the present vanishes in both The Corpse Washer and “The Corpse Exhibition.” In The Corpse Washer, the narrator, an aspiring artist who takes up his father’s occupation of ritual corpse washing as conditions in Baghdad deteriorate, speaks in the past tense with only two exceptions: the short chapters that narrate nightmares and the narrator’s closing statement at the end of the book. The present is either unreal or poised in mute tension, awaiting an unpredictable future. “The Corpse Exhibition” is a monologue directed toward an unnamed “you,” a prep course in how to be a member of an organization that murders and mutilates in order to transform corpses into an art, and ends with the addressee’s murder by the speaker.
This disorienting and terrifying absence of the “now” is what makes these novels more than footnotes to a news article. In The Corpse Washer, “now” is ripped away from its place between “thens.” We see it only in nightmares, where Jawad’s memories are deracinated from the narrative and made into vivid, timeless art objects, and in the description of the pomegranate tree, which is similarly set apart and aestheticized. Abstraction is no longer an escapist safe haven: it is a bubble of uncertain terror.
Death is always the future in The Corpse Washer, but it also stains the past. The statues commemorating Iraq’s greatness that protagonist Jawad studies in art school are bronze corpses, suggesting that greatness itself is little more than a monument. Iraq is a form, and to Jawad, death seems now to have always been its only content. The only thing to do is survive to see the “now” anneal into the “then.”
Sinan Antoon’s novel limns a recent Iraqi past that looks different than the one American readers might expect. Although the Hussein years bring Jawad the economic hardships that drive him to abandon his artistic aspirations, it is the Americans—and the sectarian violence the invasion inspires—who litter the streets of Baghdad with corpses and, eventually, break his spirit. An Iraqi who left Baghdad in 1991 and now teaches at NYU, Antoon is well acquainted with American perspectives on Iraqis and the invasion. In English, the book occasions a reimagining of brutality, a revitalizing by way of memory that reanimates the corpses we should always have known as humans.
As a child in the 1980s, Jawad is apprenticed to his father, a Shi’ite ritual corpse washer, but as he ages, he is irresistibly drawn to sculpture. To his father’s displeasure, he studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and falls in love with Reem, a beautiful drama student. But his plans to become an artist are derailed—first by the economic hardships under Saddam, then Reem’s emigration, then the upsurge of violence accompanying the American occupation. After his father’s death, Jawad returns to corpse washing. Dwelling with the dead ravages his spirit, and after a failed attempt to emigrate he can only conclude, “I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shriveled pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.”
Washing and wrapping corpses—at first with tender reverence, later with anemic misery—Jawad has become a corpse. Communing with the dead, the futureless, he has lost his own future. The Corpse Washer is a sculpture garden as much as a novel. Jawad’s artistic passion is sparked by Giacometti, whose statement that he wanted to sculpt “not man but the shadows he leaves behind,” which Jawad quotes, could serve as a paraphrase of the book. The past-tense narration freezes every character as an ossified shadow set against a foreground of pain, free only in Jawad’s nightmares, and then only free to be tortured over and over again. Even Reem’s body, Jawad’s ideal of beauty, is ravaged by cancer. To move on from a rotten, hopeless past is impossible.
Yet beauty continues to exist, in the form of the pomegranate tree—resilient, green with dangling red fruit, lit by crooning birds. The tree is a crystalline masterwork of pain. Although its roots are “here in the depths of hell,” Jawad cannot help but marvel that it is “wondrous… drinking the water of death for decades now, but always budding, blossoming, and bearing fruit every spring.” The nightingale that alights on a branch at the end of the novel sings what seem to be the world’s last notes of compassion “with a gentle sweetness—as if it knew I had complained that paradise was far away, so it had brought its sound right here.” Again, it’s important neither to condemn nor to idealize the transformation of death into art, but rather to learn from it the importance—if also the impossibility—of dwelling with Jawad in the dislocated nightmare that is his present.
These books bring us close to feeling the “now,” its murk of anxiety and incomprehension. The past and future rot off the page, and what remains, what only literature can preserve, can be an incubator for empathy.
A few years ago, the future of Iraq became something of a fixation for the American media. But it was Jenna Krajeski’s September 2014 postcard in Harper’s (“Marooned at the Mall”) that came closest to the very particular—and particularly chilling—type of prophesying found in Hassan Blasim’s “The Corpse Exhibition.” Writing of Christian Iraqi exiles in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, Krajeski explained that “with the Islamic State on the border, construction has come to a halt, and the malls and other developments—the future offices, apartments, and shops of the hyper-developed oil state that Kurdish leaders and investors like to envision—are being used to house the nearly 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have poured into Kurdistan.” The future here is one that has already been foreclosed. The Kurdish state envisioned—stable, flourishing, wealthy—was once a foreseeable possibility, but is no longer. Krajeski’s article, like Blasim’s story, reveals the cruelty of demolished hopes.
“Our work may not last long. As soon as the situation stabilizes we’ll have to move on to another country,” the speaker states in “The Corpse Exhibition.” Now, in 2016, layers of uncertainty—the spread of ISIS, conflict between competing Kurdish factions that might preclude peace even in recaptured territory—have made a stable near future in Iraq nearly unimaginable. We can narrate a series of current events or explain political factors that have led to this juncture, but no chain of historical causes and effects alone can describe what it feels like to find oneself there. In his story Blasim reveals the inadequacy of words, but also pushes us toward what takes place between and beneath them.
Blasim transforms a man into a corpse by preparing him for a future he will never see. The story begins with “before taking out his knife he said,” after which the rest is a monologue. The speaker, an executive in a professional organization of murderers and corpse sculptors, instructs his new employee in how to devise imaginative killings, submit paperwork to attain his supervisors’ approval, and carry out these works of slaughter-as-performance-art. The speaker’s matter-of-fact tone remains constant, whether he is instructing the addressee to submit his questions in writing or describing one artist’s plan for “exhibiting [a child’s] body in a restaurant and putting the eyes of the other family members on the table, served in bowls of blood.” He only becomes emotional when describing his disgust at a killer called The Nail who used a found corpse rather than committing the murder himself; The Nail’s punishment was to have his skin removed by a mortician and publicly displayed. But at the end of the story, it becomes clear that the speaker is the mortician, and the addressee, whom he stabs, is his newest victim.
We see nothing of the addressee. He exists entirely outside of factual language; his only characteristic is fear (the speaker comments, “When I tell you some of the details I see that puzzled look in your eyes,” and, while stabbing him, sneers, “You’re shaking”). The story’s “now” has no visible past; it cannot be contextualized. In the language of summary and explanation, cause and effect, the addressee is the paralyzed, futureless subject of a performance art piece: how to turn a man into a corpse first psychologically and then, as a finishing touch, physically. The story challenges us to try to feel the addressee’s mounting fear with him, in that moment, and we can only do this by trying to feel what is beyond Blasim’s words, what they do not contain.
In The Corpse Washer, violence has corroded the past and present into a series of corpses. In “The Corpse Exhibition,” the mortician transforms the listener into a corpse by ruthlessly determining his future as such. Both authors compel us to seek an elusive present where a radical empathy might be possible. But a third recent Iraqi novel forces us to confront the limitations of our empathy and to resist complacency. That novel is Ahmad Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction; it has yet to be translated.
In her New Yorker piece about the novel, Ursula Lindsey writes, “for Western audiences, Arabic literature in translation is an invaluable counterpoint to media reports and sweeping politico-cultural theories, exposing us to the breadth of the region’s creativity and the depth of individual experiences.” While her sentiment is laudable, the most important function of Saadawi’s novel is to show us that it is not enough to take Iraqi fiction as a way station of empathy, a temporary flash on the edge of a comfortable factual panorama.
The protagonist, a scroungy forager named Hadi al-Attag, decides to assemble a full corpse from human limbs he finds in the streets. His aim is to give this pastiched body a proper burial. But when the body is complete, it comes to life and begins killing, initially seeking out and punishing criminals, but later slaughtering indiscriminately in order to replace its decaying limbs. When Hadi—who spends much of the novel plagued by moral ambivalence about the creature’s actions—finally recognizes that they are unconscionable, he cravenly denies the existence of the creature, declaring it once more only a corpse. His empathy, like ours, has a limit and marks a privileged position: we can feel with others for as long as it suits us, then re-designate them “corpses”—or “characters”—and turn away.
In Arabic, “empathy” is in’itaf, from a root with meanings such as “to be favorably inclined toward one another” or “to bend.” Saadawi’s novel shows us that although Lindsey is correct in encouraging American readers to read translated Arabic fiction as a supplement to news coverage of Iraq, fiction can do more. It bends our attention beyond its normal boundaries, toward what might appear from a distance to be mutilated, lifeless forms. Fiction challenges us to celebrate that stretch but recognize, and actively and continually resist, its limitations.
My Isis is also a writer; in revitalizing Osiris, she has to discover a way to fit his parts together. She tries different grammars, lovingly and patiently curates the limbs she knows can live again. Osiris’s potential forms, his potential futures, are boundless. The only one Isis won’t accept is the jutha, the corpse. She knows there are possibilities that have never been imagined by history, and she won’t rule those out. She knows her assemblage falls short. She knows only Osiris will truly know if he is Osiris once again.
By reading I cannot reanimate corpses, but I can orient myself toward imagining possibilities, tempering my mind for compassionate agility, caring for individual victims of violence. I can also recognize that reading, seeing, sympathizing—while valuable in and of themselves—are not up to the task of translating suffering, but I can reject complacency and refuse to accept that they will always be the best I can do.
I can fight to lean in closer.