The “Corpse Washer” is acclaimed Iraqi novelist and poet Sinan Antoon’s second novel. The main character, Jawad, is from a Shia Muslim family. He is a sculptor in a ruined Baghdad but will have to take over his father’s job as a corpse washer which will trap him into the horrors of war: “If death is a mailman, I get mail every single day,” says Jawad.
Iraq has been ruined by internal religious wars fueled by Western countries. In this insanity that is war Jawad performs funeral rites while unintentionally watering the pomegranate tree in his garden with the surplus water. Jawad refuses to eat the fruit this tree bears for there’s nothing in his life he can truly enjoy, neither his lovers nor his country, whilst they are being watered by all the blood that has been shed.
Jawad has nightmares about corpses, a constant reminder that death is now everywhere in Iraq. Through Jawad’s eyes we witness the slow death of a country. The “Corpse Washer” is a fierce and fiery book – a blood-red novel, like the pomegranate fruit.
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The “Corpse Washer” emphasises how chaos has taken over the country and how death never ends. Antoon wearlily agrees: “There is so much death in my country, like in Syria now. How to deal with mortality is one of the oldest questions in literature. The complexity of Jawad is that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. So everything for him is senseless.”
“There is artistry, craft in this job,” Antoon continues, commenting on Jawad’s profession. “It was very important for the father [that he] follow these traditions. There’s a certain poetry in the rituals also. The beauty of doing something right, respecting the body, making sure the body is clean. I intended to show how brutal the war is with all the new type of killings… today some corpses are missing body parts… in the past a body washer didn’t have to deal with this.”
The pomegranate tree becomes the tree of life and death and Jawad constantly refuses to taste its sweet fruits. This tree is an ongoing metaphor throughout the novel: “For someone like Jawad living in an occupied Baghdad there’s no separation between life and death. This tree symbolises his problem with that, just like the idea that the fruits come from a tree watered by water used to wash corpses,” says Antoon.
Iraq is the main theme of the book – an idealised version of the country Antoon left in 1991 has been obsessing him ever since. More broadly he talks about the Middle East and all the wars that have been happening there, which have brought “the wind of death” upon its inhabitants: “There is so much militarisation of everyday life. We see death on a daily basis; instant and constant images of death. This must affect the psyche of every citizen.”
Antoon describes his country as “a traumatised society,” adding: “one of my friends says we leave the house and we don’t know if we’ll get back.”
One of the characters in the novel is Jawad’s communist uncle who used to be a political opponent of Saddam Hussein and sought exile in Germany, returning after 20 years. Antoon also voices his point of view through this character:
“The US intention was to occupy the country and to assure the US power. It wasn’t to bring democracy. That was bullshit. They never go to the third world to bring democracy it was always the opposite way. We know that they put dictators in place anyway. The Iraqis knew that the US didn’t come with democracy. They wanted power, that’s it. I don’t believe any state has good intentions. I believe the US is an imperial power, a corporate power, a military-industrial complex and intentions of individuals don’t really matter.”
According to Antoon the war in Iraq is a colonial war: “In 2003, like all colonial operations, you had the eradication of the indigenous culture. The US dismantled the Iraqi state. But this state was 85 years old it wasn’t built by Saddam Hussein. They dismissed the [army], got rid of the police, and of all the ministries, and they didn’t replace them with better working institutions. The US allowed chaos and the destruction of our culture. According to international law when a country invades another it has to guarantee civilians protection. The US allowed people to loot museums. A lot of archaeological pieces got stolen and now are outside the country.”
Antoon is particularly angry that the US has divided society based on different religious beliefs, which has led to an ongoing civil war. He was one of 200 Iraqi writers and academics who warned against the invasion:
“They [installed] a government based on sects, institutionalising sectarianism. That means destroying national Iraqi identity. I remember when I was a child, there was tension between Muslims and Christians, or Shias and Sunnis, however, these tensions were not translated into political meaning. What mattered were classes and ideology. Now it’s only about sect and religion. And now with Daesh, the sectarianism became international. If there was no US invasion, there would have been no Daesh.”“We know that most of the leaders of Daesh were formed in the American prisons in Iraq,” he continues. “It’s a mistake that repeats itself. All of this happened in Afghanistan before. This country has been the theatre of a global war [since] the Soviet invasion. The US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia exported these jihadists. And then Afghanistan collapsed. In Iraq there’s no a police, no army, no state to protect its borders, so no wonder there’s terrorism. How could it be avoided? We didn’t know what terrorism meant before 2003 for there was no Daesh before 2003. I’m not saying that I loved Saddam Hussein. It’s the same process of not recognising the mistakes. The same thing happened in Libya. Everybody was ok with bombing this country, sending young men to fight Gaddafi – like the recent suicide bomb attack in Manchester. When you turn men into soldiers, they will look for other wars to fight. So there is a price to be paid.”
The “Corpse Washer” draws attention to how the intervention of a Western country into a Middle Eastern state brought catastrophe: “Where in history have we ever seen that the invasion of a country by another brought something better to the country invaded? Never. The US needs to achieve real justice and democracy in its own country, for black people for instance. You have not perfected something for yourself and you want to go abroad and sell it? They approached Iraq with this orientalist mentality. They think Iraqis are all alike, Sunnis or Shias, they don’t think that they are complex human beings. This mentality [has been in place since] the 19th century. Everything they did was wrong, it was a complete disaster.”
Nevertheless, Antoon remains optimistic even though he does not describe himself as an optimistic person. His hopes now are with the Iraqi youth who have attempted to bridge the sectarian divide through campaigns such as ‘I am Iraqi first’. The Arab Spring has also shown that Arab populations are willing and eager to be free:
“We forget that years before the revolutions most of the experts were telling us there would never be a revolution because of the culture, the religion and the society, saying that Arabs love dictatorships and strong powers… still, the revolutions did happen, like a miracle. We proved that Arabs are dynamic and love freedom. But the world is very complicated. Global and regional powers don’t want these revolutions to succeed. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and all of these monarchies don’t want to see democracies flourishing. We forget that there is something called a counter-revolution. The revolutions planted the seeds of something else – now we know that dictators can be toppled.”