The Corpse Washer
Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.
Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.
The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.
In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.
Interestingly, Antoon brings in the reality of war, often in a matter-of-fact way, as background and context. He neither dwells on it, nor ignores it. This isn’t a novel centered on brutalities, battles, and direct conflicts between the occupied and their occupiers. The same approach applies to the corpses, with the exception of two toward the end of the book; one might expect graphic detail that would personalize all involved—the dead men, the relatives who brought them, the corpse washer, and by extension, the reader. Again, this is not a novel of outrage against the depredations and horrors of war in a visceral manner. Instead, the personal lives of Jawad, his family, his friends, and community members are warped by the unrelenting backdrop of conflict after conflict.
Antoon writes in two different, alternating styles. One is grounded in realistic portrayals in a time of distortion:
I was startled as I uncovered the face of one of the men I washed yesterday. He looked exactly like a dear friend of mine who’d died years ago. The same rectangular cheek bones, and long nose. The skin and eyes were coffee brown. His eyes were shut, of course. Their sockets were somewhat hollow. The thick eyebrows looked as if they were going to shake hands. But, I said to myself, I’ve already seen him dead in my arms once before. The name on the paper was Muhsin. The distinguishing mark that this person, who looked so much like my friend, had acquired was a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. It looked like a period which had put an end to the sentence of his life. One of the men who brought him to me said he was a shop owner and was killed in a robbery. Thank God, I thought. It’s not a sectarian killing. But does it matter to the dead how and why they die? Theft, greed, hatred or sectarianism? We, who are waiting in line for our turn, keep mulling over death, but the dead person just dies and is indifferent.
The short declarative sentences even when describing the horrific have a certain flatness of tone. Note how Antoon brings by economy of detail into one paragraph the role of corpse washer, the personal (a dead friend), violence, art-making that is life (the period at the end of a sentence), the everyday—a shop owner with friends, sectarian divisions, the finality of death.
The other mode is poetic leading to the surreal. Jawad’s first love, Reem, has just written from Amman revealing that she and her family had left Baghdad because she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has had a mastectomy:
I see Reem standing in an orchard full of blossoming pomegranate trees the wind moves the branches and the red blossoms appear to be waving from afar. Reem waves as well and her hands say Come close! I walk toward her and call out her name, but I can hear neither my own voice nor the sound of my footsteps. All I hear is the wind rustling Reem smiles without saying anything. I am closer and I see two pomegranates on her chest instead of her breasts. She notices that I am looking at them and smiles as she cups them with her hands from below. Her fingernails and lips are painted pomegranate red. I rush toward her, and when I reach her and hug her, the left pomegranate falls to the ground. When I bend down to pick it up I see red stains bathing my arm. I turn back and see Reem crying as she tries to stop the fountain of blood gushing from the wound.
Antoon does quite an interesting thing as the novel progresses, as he removes the boundaries between the surreal and real-world encounters. An example: when male relatives bring just the decapitated head of a loved one for burial. The routine of washing comes up against the ghastly. Conversely, what seems real becomes revealed as dream: a description of Jawad waiting in line to get his visa to travel to Amman—a plausible step in the progression of the plot—when a suicide bomber ahead in line detonates, and Jawad is covered in blood, and then awakens. Dream and reality, the mundane and the surreal, blur.
This merger of reality and dream comes together in the second love affair Jawad has, with his cousin who has come with her family to live with Jawad and his mother. Over a succession of nights the two insomniacs grow closer and eventually become lovers. When it is time for her family to leave and for Jawad to step forward in one last opportunity to ask for her in marriage, he balks. This is a night-time relationship and cannot be sustained in something like ordinary life, the light of day. Death and Jawad’s duties toward the dead have overtaken him.
Significant roles and symbols interweave to tie the novel tighter together: an uncle in self imposed exile because of Communist sympathies and the impotence of political parties; statues in many roles and anecdotes; normal human institutions such as universities contending with the not-normal.
Pomegranates, like those referenced in the Reem dream sequence already cited, are part of Islamic religious symbolism. One must eat all the small pieces, the arils, of the pomegranate because one will always be from a tree in paradise. Beside the building where the corpses are washed is a small garden watered by the run-off from the washing ceremony. At the center of this garden is a pomegranate tree, beloved by Jawad’s father and eventually by Jawad, who sometimes rests beside it and talks to it. Two twigs from the tree go into each coffin as a symbolic way of easing the journey of the dead.
At the end of the novel Jawad has accepted his place as a corpse washer. The crucial moment comes when he is turned away at the border with Jordan; single men are not allowed to cross. While waiting for his turn at the border he sees a TV showing yet another bombing and the scene of dead bodies. He wonders, with all the conflicted realities with which he struggles, who might tend the bodies. While his sense of vocational call in the moment might be muted, and is a call always caught up in the troubling reality of death, here, however, is a moment where Jawad sees his place in his world.
The novel concludes with Jawad sitting beneath the tree, listening to a nightingale sing, until it is scared away by the arrival of another corpse; Mahdi, his assistant, breaks this silence:
It started singing with a gentle sweetness—as if it knew I had complained that paradise was far away, so it had brought its sound right here . . .
The living die or depart, and the dead always come. I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other. My father knew that, and the pomegranate tree knows it as well.
Mahdi opened the door and said, “Jawad, they brought one.”
The nightingale fled. I sighed and said, “Okay, I’m coming. Just give me another minute.”
I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shrunken pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.
But no one knows. No one. The pomegranate alone knows.