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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Sinan Antoon

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To purchase I'jaam

Title: I'jaam
Author: Sinan Antoon
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 97 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: I'jaam - US
I'jaam - UK
I'jaam - Canada
Irakische Rhapsodie - Deutschland
Rapsodia irachena - Italia
  • An Iraqi Rhapsody
  • Arabic title: إعجام
  • Translated by Rebecca C. Johnson and the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative glimpse of life in 1980s Iraq

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 17/6/2007 Susan Salter Reynolds
The Nation . 3/1/2008 Laila Lalami
San Francisco Chronicle . 2/9/2007 Ann Marlowe
The Village Voice . 13/6/2007 Emily Weinstein

  From the Reviews:
  • "In his slim but powerful book I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, the novelist Sinan Antoon takes advantage of the orthographic ambiguities of Arabic to explore themes of love, loss, identity and resistance in the face of political oppression. (...) Structurally, too, this novel is a gem (.....) Despite its political overtones, however, I'jaam works on an aesthetic level as well." - Laila Lalami, The Nation

  • "A dreamy abstraction is about the only common ground between Outcast and I'jaam, which pulls out all the well-worn tropes of the dissident novel, reading like the effort of a precocious high school student infatuated with 1984. (...) I'jaam is a novel, and should stand on its own not-very-sturdy feet, but it's difficult to square the dedication, and the implication that Antoon's narrator is a stand-in for Antoon himself, with Antoon's politics." - Ann Marlowe, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Antoon's dialogue and wordplay sometimes feel heavy-handed, but more often he strikes the right chord, to haunting effect. A hallucination in which the figures of Arabic letters scatter their dots as they dance and couple "in forbidden positions" is especially strange, and beautiful. Stripped down to the skeletons that Antoon describes in his author's note, the letters are liberated, reveling in their ambiguity." - Emily Weinstein, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       I'jaam is presented as a manuscript found in 1989 by the Iraqi authorities in one of their prison complexes. As a prefatory 'Note about I'jaam' explains, the title means "dotting", referring to the diacritical marks (dots) used in Arabic writing: if a text is missing the dots there is a lot of potential ambiguity. So, for example:

undotted, the word bayt (house), could be dotted in a variety of ways to be read as bint (girl), banat (she built), nabt (plant), thabt (brave), and more.
       Antoon's clever premise is that the manuscript consists entirely of an undotted text; the book begins with the authorities sending it to someone to fill in the dots, as it were, rendering it comprehensible. The text the reader is presented with is that 'dotted' text -- though Antoon leaves in some of the ambiguities (suggesting the (more obvious) alternative in footnotes). One imagines this worked much better in the Arabic original, but at least some this is also in the English version, from the relatively benign -- "To live here means to piss* away three quarters of your life waiting", the alternative given as 'pass' -- to the considerably more subversive (student council elections described as: "this simulation* of Democracy", the footnoted alternative -- 'celebration' -- the wishful-thinking preferable choice). Indeed, there would have been room for a lot more of this in the English version .....
       The manuscript is written by a student and would-be poet named Furat who is arrested by the authorities. While in prison he is given pen and paper by a sympathetic guard; even then, the decision to write anything is a difficult one: he wonders whether it's a trick and anything he writes will simply be used against him. After all, it seems likely to him that he aroused the suspicions of the authorities with his presumably too abstract writing (mainly because it does not simply sing the praises of the great leader ...). Still:
     They wrote me in here, or I wrote myself here, and I will write my pain* out.

* way
       Furat describes some of what happens to him in prison -- bits of the interrogations as well as the abuse -- but more of his account is devoted to his life before he was arrested: university, with class so often interrupted by official events that everyone was required to attend, being called before the draft-board again (it is the time of the Iran-Iraq war), a budding romance. It gives a good impression of at least a part of Iraqi life under Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, with a great deal of pointless waiting, a ruthless government that allowed for no dissent -- and yet where there was still a certain amount of freedom of movement and the ability to lead an independent life (at least privately). The official line is so obviously a lie -- especially about the war -- but everyone is a part of this system: Antoon leaves room for only small shows of opposition, even as everyone realises the absurdity of much that is being said and done. The student-poet manages to write and find love -- but the system catches up with him.
       The account veers between straightforward narrative and a few flights of poetic fancy, but on the whole it's a very approachable text and gives a good sense of what life was like under Saddam Hussein's regime. There aren't that many textual ambiguities, and one almost wishes that Antoon had done more with them, but it's still a pretty good story, and a creative approach to describing that era.

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I'jaam: Reviews: Sinan Antoon: Other books by Sinan Antoon under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Iraqi author Sinan Antoon (سنان أنطون) was born in 1967. He left Iraq in 1991 and currently teaches at NYU.

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