BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Iraqi civilian death count is still an abstraction of round numbers, ranging from half a million to twice that, but the truth is we’ll never know. Iraqis will never know, with any precision, with any closure.
In Sinan Antoon’s novel, The Corpse Washer, set in 2003, a young Iraqi is forced back into the family business, the Muslim ritual of washing the body before burial. There’s just too much need for the profession. In his words, “If death is a postman, then I receive his letters every day.” Antoon is an American citizen now. He’s lived here for more than 20 years. But last week, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times with the headline, “Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country.” He said the American government and media misread Iraq in so many ways, by boiling down the complexities of Iraqi concerns to merely sectarian divisions, what he called a toxic misrepresentation, here skewered by Jon Stewart.
JON STEWART: Of course, Shiites grow down from the roof of the cave.
And Sunnis grow up from the ground.
SINAN ANTOON: As if there is no class and there are no ideologies and no other types of differences. So, to my mind, the rampant sectarianism that exists today was exacerbated after 2003, and a defining factor was the United States trying to organize Iraqis politically according to sect. When Paul Bremer establishes the so-called “Governing Council,” people are plugged into that governing council according to their sect and their ethnicities. One example that shows how ridiculous this is is that the Governing Council had to include the Secretary-General of the Iraqi Communist Party because the Iraqi Communist Party had a history of resisting dictatorship and Saddam. But he was included in the Governing Council as a Shiite. So that shows you.
Another important example to remember is that the US came up with this idea of the Deck of 52, 52 important pillars of the Saddam regime that had to be apprehended and put in prison. And we often heard and still hear that the Saddam regime was a Sunni regime, yet, the majority of the figures in that deck of cards were Shiites. Again, so thinking of Iraq as Sunni and Shiite and Kurd, that erases ideology and erases history and simplifies things. And let’s think, do we look at other places and divide people according to their sect or their religious belonging? No, we do not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Except the Middle East.
SINAN ANTOON: Except the Islamic world, exactly. So we have to ask ourselves why is it that that part of the world then requires a different, more simplistic tool for understanding?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re saying that what was an American construct --
SINAN ANTOON: Largely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- largely -- imposed on the Iraqis gradually took up residence in the minds of many Iraqis.
SINAN ANTOON: I'll give you a concrete example, if I may.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
SINAN ANTOON: When I was filming in Baghdad in the book market, I met a man, a bookseller, who was also a teacher, and he was talking to me about Gramsci and Marx and Foucault. And then when he saw that we were filming a documentary, he said, why don’t you come tomorrow and visit the headquarters of our party, Christian Chaldean Party? And I told him, you were just talking about Gramsci and Foucault, you have an ethno-sectarian party? And he said, my friend, this is the only game in town. So what I want to emphasize is that it's that creating a certain political currency, whereby that becomes the way to establish a political identity and have resonance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about About Baghdad, your film.
SINAN ANTOON: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you want to see and what did you want to show?
SINAN ANTOON: We wanted to go to Baghdad and interview different Iraqis from different classes and different backgrounds to have them speak for themselves, as opposed to being spoken about and for in the US media where in the months preceding the war we rarely heard from Iraqis or Iraqi Americans. We often heard from one or two Iraqi Americans who, surprise, were pro-war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when you showed the film in the US, what was the response?
SINAN ANTOON: Well, three or four times when we showed the film around the country in community centers and colleges, citizens come up to us and say, what can we do now? And my response would be, you know, the next time the US government tells you there is a country across the ocean that is dangerous to us and we have to go and destroy it, just remember, remember what happened with Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you imagine the American conversation about the war would be like for the 15th anniversary of the invasion? Did you anticipate that there would be more reflection than there's been?
SINAN ANTOON: Yeah, I was foolish enough to have expected that there would be a little bit more, especially with the recent developments and with Trump and with the drums of war are rolling again, not so strongly but they are when it comes to Iran. So although I never have high expectations but I expected a little bit more. The massive death and the billions of dollars, and yet, no one was held accountable and no one was held responsible. And when no one is held accountable or responsible, they or someone else will do it again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re in the process of reckoning. I mentioned The Corpse Washer in the introduction. It’s one of several novels you've written about postwar Iraq, and it was inspired by a real story, right?
SINAN ANTOON: Yes. I mean, in the Islamic tradition, which is very close to the Jewish tradition, before being buried there are intricate rituals for washing and purifying the body and then shrouding it. And I was reading the newspaper in 2005 or 6, I think, and I came across a story about an actual corpse washer in Iraq who was making so much money because there was so much death, but he was going to quit the job so that his son would not inherit this profession and he was going to leave the country.
And I thought, this is one of the few professions where one confronts the daily toll of war and of death. My narrator would be someone who grows up in such a family but wants to become an artist, and he does study at the Academy of Fine Arts, but the economic situation in Iraq during dictatorship and sanctions forces him to go back to the very same profession he was running away from. How does an artist who dreamed of making life ends up sculpting death and accompanying corpses to the grave?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are plenty of people, who are living in the US, from the Iraqi diaspora who don't spend so much of their creativity and their passion on a disaster so far away, that you were able to --
SINAN ANTOON: Escape. Well, a friend of mine, an Iraqi friend, tells me that I have survivor's guilt. Yes. Honestly, what has been really haunting me since 1991 is this concept of collateral damage. It makes human suffering abstract. So not only because I come from Iraq but because now I am a US citizen, every US citizen is implicated in what the US does abroad. So to me, reading about the thousands and thousands of bodies that were eviscerated and destroyed because of this war, who remain nameless and faceless, writing the novel is one way of dealing with all of that human loss, creating a space where others can, you know, vicariously be there and confront this catastrophe.
But it’s not only about that. The novel has some beautiful moments because I also wanted to highlight that Iraqis, like others, go on every day because they have to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that mourning, as in sorrow and loss, is one of the themes in your writing. Has that mourning changed or is it the same?
SINAN ANTOON: Well, I think it's become more melancholic, in a way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean by melancholic?
SINAN ANTOON: We do not know the extent of the destruction and the loss. We cannot measure what has been lost. You mourn and then somehow you resolve. There is closure. But politically, I might say closure is not good, whereas melancholy, in a way, keeps the wounds open. Closure is oftentimes appropriated and exploited by the state or the powers that be to then silence any talk about history and about the aftereffects of history. Closure is oftentimes used to end the conversation that should not end.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
SINAN ANTOON: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sinan Antoon is a novelist, poet and translator. He is the author most recently of the novel, The Baghdad Eucharist.
Coming up, how we normalize the worst excesses of our past by insisting that the present isn't normal. This is On the Media.