Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born novelist, poet, translator, filmmaker, and professor. His 2003 widely translated novel I’jaam is a fictional prison memoir. The book is ironic and haunting as it reflects the absurdities of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, futile attempts to escape censorship, and prisoners going mad as a final act of revolt.
Antoon returned to Baghdad in 2003 and filmed About Baghdad, documenting the exhilaration and despair of Iraqis experiencing the fall of the Baathist regime and then the US occupation. He produced two collections of Arabic poetry, which have also been translated into English.
His most recent project is a translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence (2011). Antoon has been at home in the US for decades, so when once asked about the distinction of being an Arab-American writer, he replied, “It’s not easy being a barbarian in Rome. The Romans rarely listen, but the barbarian has to keep it real.”
In this interview, Antoon discusses the distinction of being a barbarian, “an outsider, a stranger,” in the US, as well as the trope of closure that frames the recent US withdrawal from Iraq, sectarianism discourse, and the unique quality of spatial fragmentation and division that now characterizes Baghdad – once Antoon’s home.
Nahrain al-Mousawi: When and how did you leave Iraq? Can you talk about that experience a little bit?
Sinan Antoon: I was supposed to leave Iraq in August 1990 to continue my studies abroad, but Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2 and there was a travel ban. I survived the war and left in April 1991 after the war was over and the travel ban was lifted. I had always wanted to leave. Living under an authoritarian regime isn’t fun, especially for an aspiring writer who wasn’t willing to write in praise of the leader and his wars. (Some of those who made their names praising Saddam and his wars are running around now posing as patriotic anti-imperialists).So I took the bus from Baghdad to Amman like thousands of Iraqis did and would do throughout the 1990s and later. I was happy to escape, but I shed a few tears as the bus drove away. I knew that I was leaving some irretrievable parts of my self and my life behind. I stayed in Amman for a few months and then was able to come to the US to do my graduate studies. I worked and did an MA in Arab Studies at Georgetown, then went on to get a doctorate in Arabic literature at Harvard.
NM: You have discussed the US withdrawal in terms of the productive political trope of closure. Can you discuss what effects the US withdrawal has had, if any?
SA: I have been stunned by the way Iraq has almost disappeared from public discourse in the US. The way in which the withdrawal narrative was packaged and sold to the American public sealed that fictitious “closure.” The discursive curtain is down (not that it was ever fully up anyway) and there isn’t much to discuss or bother about. The simplistic narrative goes as follows: “We” went there and tried to help build a democracy, but it didn’t work out for x reason. The x, of course, is usually some variation on an Orientalist myth. There is no serious debate about the war and no realization of the extent of its tragic effects on Iraqis and their future. Most importantly, there is no reckoning or recognition of the crime. The collective amnesia is horrendous. The architects of the war publish books and appear on TV shows as if nothing had happened.
As for the effects in Iraq, the damage is already done. The country has one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional regimes in the world. The US Embassy in Baghdad is the biggest in the world and the US is still a major player in Iraq.
NM: When did you last visit Iraq? How was it to go back?
SA: I visited Baghdad in July 2003, three months after the invasion. I was part of a team to produce and direct a documentary about post-Saddam Iraq (About Baghdad). Throughout the years I had kept abreast of Iraq’s news on a daily basis and was in contact with friends and relatives who had stayed. So I thought I had a good idea of what the genocidal sanctions had done to every aspect of life in Iraq. I knew that the country would be different after all those years, but I was still shocked and saddened. Baghdad was shabby and exhausted. To quote one of the Baghdadis we interviewed: “dictatorship and occupation had killed its soul.”
The trip was devoted to filming, as I said, so we spent everyday going around Baghdad and interviewing Iraqis from various backgrounds. There was still some hope back then. The massive sectarian violence and the suicide bombings had not started, so many people were still optimistic that Iraqis could perhaps clinch a new life despite everything, but history went in a different direction, as it usually does!
NM: What do you think of the state of academia in Iraq, particularly since so many academics have been targeted?
SA: The Iraqi educational system was already devastated by the genocidal embargo imposed by the US and the UN between 1990 and 2003. Many academics left the country in the 1990s due to economic hardship. The violent chaos unleashed and caused by the occupation has been equally devastating. Hundreds of academics have been assassinated and the sectarian parties hold sway over student unions and interfere in all matters. Two facts crystallize the situation in Iraq: There are almost 20,000 fake degrees/diplomas in the country now and some of the most prominent members of the political elite have fake degrees. None of this is to belittle how destructive the legacy of Saddam’s regime was, but the corruption and ignorance of the current regime is stunning and the US is responsible, primarily, because it created the post-Saddam political arena and populated it with its allies.
NM: Discussions of sectarianism usually pose it as a given, an absolute that is unaffected by history and politics. It has become a “scare” word in itself. What do you think of discussions of sectarianism in Iraq?
SA: I think it’s important to understand how we arrived at this point. Reactions to the subject range from total denial that sectarianism ever existed and attributing it solely to the 2003 war and invasion, to claiming that the Iraqi state was born with sectarianism as one of its many congenital defects. And there are of course those who subscribe to ahistorical narratives and project current sectarian identities back onto pre-modern history. Any discussion within this space will not do justice to the subject. The important question is how and when did sect become a primary political identity. The 1991 uprising against Saddam’s regime and the way it was portrayed in the regime’s propaganda in coded sectarian language and by international media at the time was an important moment. The regime’s tactics and policies during the 1990s further eroded and weakened the sectarian layers in society. The exodus of the middle class during the 1990’s is an important factor too. But I do think that the political system created by the US occupation in 2003 and the institutionalization of sectarian identities, particularly in that infamous Governing Council, populated by diaspora parties who nurtured their sectarianism in exile, was a turning point. The head of the Iraqi Communist Party was included in that council as a Shia.
There is sectarianism in Iraq today, of course, but there is also a growing sense of disgust in many Iraqis at sectarian discourse and sectarian attitudes and how it has been deployed by political parties and the regime itself. It will take some time and much effort to uproot sectarianism, but Iraqis have symbols and moments in their collective past that can be deployed to re-imagine and build a non-sectarian Iraq.
NM: How has literature been influenced by the series of uprisings in the Arab and African-Arab world, the so-called Arab Spring?
SA: I think it is still too early to see the effects of these uprising on literature. Works written hastily in response are probably not going to be of high literary value. But these dramatic events have and will inspire every citizen, and writers will try to narrate and represent these times. I think certain genres will dominate for obvious reasons, such as memoirs.
NM: How have the uprisings affected you and your work?
SA: Despite recent setbacks, what the “people” achieved already is monumental. I am in awe of the courage and resilience of men and women in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere as they face death to make and change history. I have written a few poems inspired by the revolts, but most of the time it is too monumental and visceral to grasp and represent. Moreover, they are ongoing processes and we still need time to comprehend and understand their effects. Like millions around the world, I am inspired.
NM: You have discussed the effect of spatial fragmentation on Iraq and its cities in your short piece “A Barbarian in Rome.” You write at one point about the speed of this spatial fragmentation, “Children will not know their city.” What effect do you think this urban prism will have on the memories and orientation of its residents? Enforcing this sense of always being “out of place,” perhaps?
SA: I think the material and spatial destruction brought about by the occupation and its political regime has yet to be grasped and understood. The Baghdad that once existed, in which its inhabitants could move around and experience the city relatively freely no longer exists. It is a thicket of concrete walls and one’s movement is always punctuated and blocked by checkpoints. More importantly, there has been an ethnic-sectarian redistribution of the population because of the sectarian civil war. There is mixing and overlap, of course, but those growing up in the city now will experience Baghdad in fragments and their interaction with other Baghdadis is relatively overdetermined by this new spacial division. Yes, many people express this heightened feeling of alienation in their hometown.
NM: Apart from the history of Europe’s barbarians, and their centuries of contact with Rome, can you explain the title of your short piece A Barbarian in Rome, a war-time fictional diary, and how it applies to you as author?
SA: When living in a big city in the US in the age of its permanent wars, it is hard not to think of Rome. Being from Iraq and living in the US while it was occupying Iraq, together with the way most of the population deals with the wars its army and country is conducting abroad, i.e. total oblivion, the figure I found myself inhabiting was that of a barbarian in Rome. To me, it was the most meaningful way of filtering the torrent of the imperial discourse and the ignorant and racist questions and comments one confronts. The barbarian is the one who always feels like an outsider, a stranger, and who has to observe the Romans obliterating his original home, his people, and plundering what remains of his culture.
NM: Where do you imagine yourself living?
SA: I wish I were a cloud. I mean that. Or a bird, so I could opt out of all of this, this history of our species.
NM: If you could live anywhere, where would you live?
NM: Is there a novel or other project in the works?
SA: I am putting the final touches on a third novel entitled Ya Maryam in Arabic. It is about two generations of an Iraqi family in Baghdad and how dictatorships, wars, and sectarian violence tears the family apart in so many ways and obliterates their sense of belonging, especially for minorities. To leave or not to leave Iraq, that is the central question of the novel. I plan to return to Iraq next year to film another documentary about life 10 years after [the] 2003 [invasion].