Baghdad, Utopia

The problem of exile: the real rupture happens when you return

For many who remained in Iraq over the past four decades, exile has almost become synonymous with betrayal. As if exile chooses its victims, or had been chosen by them; as if leaving your life behind was desirable. Of course, some of those who left Iraq did want to erase their past. They were exhausted by living in a dictatorship. For others, life in Iraq would have been a death sentence. They had opposed the state, experienced censorship, torture, and the constant threat of imprisonment. Escape was often only the bitter coda to a political life in Iraq. But even if you make it out, exile isn’t a break with the old life – you carry your country with you. The person in exile keeps on leaving forever.

The prospect of escape often came unexpectedly. During the Iran-Iraq war, leaving Iraq was a privilege reserved for members of the Baath party. But by the end of the war in 1991, state borders and institutions were significantly weakened. Years of rebel movement in the Kurdish north and the marshlands in the south had had their effects too. And so if you were wealthy enough, or managed to conjure the help of friends, ’91 offered a window to escape the dictatorship, if only a small one. My family slipped through it.

Life far from Iraq came with its own trauma. I remember a visit to my aunt’s apartment in the south of Germany in the late 90s, long before the second American invasion. There was a documentary on TV about people who had been tortured under Saddam. They were revealing their mutilated bodies, their scarred chests and lashed backs. A woman pulled up her shirt: Acid had eaten and molded her skin unrecognizably. At five years old, I felt as if it was my fault. My mother kept yelling at me, telling me to leave the room, while my aunt insisted that I needed to see “what goes on there”, why we had left Iraq. My aunt had spent years underground, and they had lost a sister to one of the many mass graves. For her, to look away from the screen was to look away from the atrocities of Saddam’s reign. To watch the documentary was to remain vigilant. And so I sat through the program, branding the haunting images and voices of torture into my memory, resisting the comfort of easy distractions.

Describing the way they rupture the ocean, Deleuze writes that “oceanic islands” serve as a reminder “that the earth is still there, under the sea, gathering its strength to punch through to the surface. We can assume that these elements are in constant strife, displaying a repulsion for one another.” Writing from exile, Baghdad appears to me like an oceanic island. It enters my life forcefully through images, stories, music, and the physical presence of those people who bear its marks. As I grew up, Baghdad was in the kitchen, in huge jars filled with baharat or spices, lemons that look like nuts, saboon raggi (“watermelon soap”, though it’s made of olive oil) and old maqqamat (mournful songs) in between the Carpenters and Beatles. Today Baghdad is more cerebral and sober, arriving through the screen, in the news channels running in the back as we eat, through old and recent images, cynical jokes on WhatsApp groups and email lists, and the myriad of books and newspapers constantly arriving in our living room. It’s only when visitors are around that I am conscious of the city’s looming presence in my life.

corpse washer thumbThe Corpse Washer 
Sinan Antoon
Yale Press

In the preface to his self-translated novel The Corpse Washer, poet and novelist Sinan Antoon takes the apocryphal quotation of Valéry as an epigraph: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Exile too is an ongoing elegy. Antoon, who was born to an Iraqi father and an American mother, also moved away with his family in 1991. His work seems convincing and familiar to me in other ways. In The Corpse Washer, he sets out to continue the poem he had once abandoned and to remind himself that he has never in fact left Iraq.

Originally published in Arabic under the title The Pomegranate Alone, The Corpse Washer tells the story of Jawad, a boy who is born to a family of corpse washers. Jawad’s father hides the profession from him throughout his childhood. As in the West, the undertaking is neither highly visible nor commonly discussed. In Iraq, the corpse washer remains a unfamiliar but respected figure, handling the bodies of the dead that have for the past decades been mangled and butchered before they are laid to rest beneath the turbulent Iraqi soil. Jawad’s young life is set against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He studies sculpture at the Academy of Fine Art, but is forced to put his ambitions aside when he is drafted into the army during the Iran-Iraq War. By the time the war ends in 1989, Saddam has tightened his grip on the population, strict international sanctions prevail, and the country is left in disarray.

When the Americans announce their invasion in 2003, Jawad’s father dies of shock, silently, while praying. War turns the city into a graveyard, and the dead bodies are fished out of the rivers in masses, piling up across the cityscape. Jawad asks himself: who takes care of the dead, when death abandons the corpses to the living? And so he sees himself forced to continue his father’s profession. Nowhere is life’s continuity a given, but certainly not in Baghdad where without warning one may end up on Jawad’s family bench. Each time, just when the narrative turns more hopeful, life is torn apart again by dictatorship, war, and the occupation.

Antoon writes from exile — he’s a professor at NYU — and it’s hard not to detect a note of guilt in his text. It is a guilt at being amongst the living, at writing from a safe place about those who have died and continue to die. Perhaps all writing about the dead carries with it the danger of aestheticizing real suffering and real struggle. But writing Jawad’s life is a way of negotiating and gradually overcoming that guilt. The first section of the novel seems to be written from memory, but in the second half Jawad’s life turns into a canvas for multiple experiences and narratives that circulate anecdotally within the Iraqi diaspora. The stories are not simply stills, anecdotes which contain a cheap moral lesson, or images of dead bodies that we’re meant to sympathize with. The anecdotes are offered to Jawad as testimonies of the suffering of those who have left. They are full of torment and anger, reminding that exile is not always a place of safety, but of continuous struggle and impasse.

Onlookers might see the exile as exotic, as if displacement were a charming aesthetic effect. As if all the exile wants is for memory to be satisfied by its physical object, home. But in exile you never just remember Baghdad, you think with Baghdad. Your multiple lives, here and there, negotiate with and challenge one another. It isn’t the geographic “here” that determines your life, but neither is it the “there” of memory. Exile reveals the map to be the real fantasy. The multiple and concurrent places you’re in — the here, the liminal in-between, the feeling of “elsewhere” — all battle for supremacy. You’re a mirage, or a horizon.

The promise of return complicates this. Your decisions are always somehow geared towards a life beyond the life here, for another life in another Baghdad. In this sense exile is always temporary, a period of waiting, only to be replaced by the final return home. Throughout my childhood, half-packed faux-leather suitcases ornamented the top of our cupboards. Who knew what the following day would bring? Later in life, that anticipated moment of return would mature into a political desire to reclaim the utopian political dreams and aspirations of multiple generations. But until then, you pile up whatever hope and rage you can and hold onto it.

A few weeks ago my mother told me that if she died, she would be a casualty of the invasion. Her last visit back was in 2004, but she expects a heart attack caused by the effects of having lived with Baghdad all these years. The Corpse Washer dramatizes this paradox. It undermines the neat categories required for the spatial idea of exile, and shows that the distinction between “here” and “there” is useless in explaining the cosmologies that people continue to inhabit. Most of my childhood was spent in the elsewhere of Iraq, but despite the spatial rift, Baghdad was highly present, always in sight, close at hand. Geographical distance means little when your whereabouts are always conditioned by the circumstances and histories of where you came from.

I recently had an encounter with someone who asked what had led me to be so “infatuated and obsessed with a sort of Arabness,” in his words. It took me a few moments to figure out what he meant and why. It’s true, to an extent, but it is not some fantasy of race or a political pan-Arab idea I want to reclaim or return to. Quite the contrary. Whenever I speak about Baghdad, I’m thinking of the late 1950s and 60s. The Golden Years, my grandmother insists, for their revolutionary potential, though in fact they should be called the Red Years, when leftists and especially communist parties and organisations experienced their peak. If the potential for revolutionary politics in Iraq or the wider region ever existed it was in that time-frame. But the years are also red because 1963 marked the year of the Baathi coup staged against the left monarch Qassim, his execution and the subsequent massacres of his followers.

Antoon shares these reference points of family and communist revolution. He swamps the reader with allusions to this political climate in a chapter narrating the return of Jawad’s uncle for a visit. Jawad recalls the whispers and hushed voices in his family whenever his uncle’s political convictions surfaced:

“What does it mean, being a Communist?”

“None of your business, son.”

“Uncle Sabri’s a Communist?”

He shushed me. “Stop asking questions. I told you it’s none of your business.”

Threatened with torture and death, the uncle’s fate takes him on a path into exile for his political convictions. This was in 1979 — a year that followed the brutal end of the National Front of Iraq, a short-lived political alliance between the Baath party and the Iraqi Communist party. The alliance was a tactical gambit by the Baath party that allowed them to identify communists who had previously operated in secret, and subsequently prosecute them. Those who had survived the massacres and managed to get hold of a passport eventually fled to the Soviet Union or socialist Eastern Europe. There, until the late 80s, the Iraqi Communist Party provided education and specialized training, equipping students with the necessary gear to fight against the Saddam regime.

Many communists fled north to fight along the Kurdish militias against the regime and escaped via Turkey into political exile. Others would go into hiding in the south and fight in the marshland rebellions, leading Saddam to punish the people there by draining the ancient waterways. From southern Iraq, communists such as Jawad’s uncle Sabri would join those from across the region and head for communist South Yemen. And when South Yemen fell, their journeys would take them via Lebanon and Syria eventually out into the wider Iraqi diaspora, the prism through which Antoon tells his story.

Countless Iraqis sacrificed their lives for their revolutionary convictions, well before three consecutive wars took their toll on the country. When the uncle returns for a visit in 2004, Jawad takes him across the city. The dictatorship, sanctions, and wars have changed Baghdad. From the now-abandoned booksellers’ street Shara’ Al-Mutanabbi, to formerly buzzing cafés and neighbourhoods, the uncle’s beloved Baghdad is one he struggles to recognize. In anessay describing his own first visit back to the city, Antoon recalls, “I thought I was lost at first.” In the novel, he dwells on that estrangement, speaking through Jawad’s uncle: “My heart was broken. I used to follow the news about Iraq day by day on the radio, newspapers, TV, and recently the Internet. I never missed a piece of news, I knew the embargo had destroyed the country, but it’s very different when you see it with your own eyes. Even the poor palm trees are tired and no one takes care of them.”

Of the entire book, perhaps this paragraph is the most shattering. It awakens you to the contradictions of what it means to be living elsewhere. It reveals the disjuncture of the Baghdad that had been present throughout life in exile. Of course it’s impossible to know precisely what it’s like to be situated geographically there when you simply aren’t. By contrast, you habitually renew the Baghdad that you left with, supplementing and overlaying it with all kinds of imagery. But the real rupture happens when you return. Confronted by that geographically fixed Baghdad, “you know the embargo had destroyed the country, but it’s very different when you see it with your own eyes.”

Commitment to both Baghdads — the one that was exiled with the diaspora, and the one that remained in Iraq — is the difficult political question. Commitment is characterized by an unremitting renewal of its values, otherwise it’s nothing but an ideal of pleasure. Is it fair to speak of the betrayal and abandonment of Baghdad when all — that is, everyone who lives in and outside of Iraq — have been betrayed? Antoon provides an answer in his novel. When we all feel betrayed, there is nothing to do but bring back to mind a moment of potential. In The Corpse Washer Antoon overcomes the guilt of exile by proving to the narrator Jawad that he has never been safe and that he has never ended the relationship to Baghdad. He tries to stop the bombsite from spreading, sealing the multiple ruptures of war by picking up and nurturing the revolutionary spirit engraved into his exiled heart. The novel is equally a response to the challenge that politics in Iraq poses to life in exile. Despite a universal betrayal, a commitment to political convictions is still in question — meaning it has not yet been abandoned. The ideas inscribed into this Baghdad utopia from exile still hold sway. Turning the last page of The Corpse Washer makes the answer to this question seem closer.