The Corpse Washer

The Corpse Washer

SINAN ANTOON
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 200
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm2sk
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  • Book Info
    The Corpse Washer
    Book Description:

    Young Jawad, born to a traditional Shi'ite family of corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad, decides to abandon the family tradition, choosing instead to become a sculptor, to celebrate life rather than tend to death. He enters Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s, in defiance of his father's wishes and determined to forge his own path. But the circumstances of history dictate otherwise. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and the economic sanctions of the 1990s destroy the socioeconomic fabric of society. The 2003 invasion and military occupation unleash sectarian violence. Corpses pile up, and Jawad returns to the inevitable washing and shrouding. Trained as an artist to shape materials to represent life aesthetically, he now must contemplate how death shapes daily life and the bodies of Baghdad's inhabitants.

    Through the struggles of a single desperate family, Sinan Antoon's novel shows us the heart of Iraq's complex and violent recent history. Descending into the underworld where the borders between life and death are blurred and where there is no refuge from unending nightmares, Antoon limns a world of great sorrows, a world where the winds wail.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19505-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. ONE
    (pp. 1-4)

    She is lying naked on her back on a marble bench in an open place with no walls or ceilings. There is no one around and nothing in sight except the sand. I, too, am naked, barefoot, dumbfounded by everything around me. I can feel the sand under my feet and a cool wind. I move slowly toward the bench. When and why has she come back after all these years? Her long black hair is piled about her head. A few locks cover her right cheek, as if guarding her face, which has not changed with the years. Her...

  5. TWO
    (pp. 5-7)

    I stood next to my mother on the steps in front of the big wooden door. Her right hand firmly clasped my right hand, as if I were about to run or fly away. Her left hand carried thesufurtasin which she packed my father’s lunch—three small copper pots, each stacked on top of the other in a metal skeleton resembling a little metal building. The top pot was filled with rice. The middle one with okra stew and two pieces of meat. The lower pot usually had some fruit. That day she’d put in a tiny bunch...

  6. THREE
    (pp. 8-13)

    The only time I ever saw my father cry was many years later when he heard that my brother Ameer, whom we called Ammoury, had died. Ameer, who was five years my senior, was transformed from “Doctor” into “Martyr.” His framed black-and-white photograph occupied the heart of the main wall in our living room and even a bigger part of my father’s heart, which Ammoury had already monopolized. Ameer, you see, was the ideal son who had always made my father proud. He always excelled and was the top of his class. At the national baccalaureate exams, his score was...

  7. FOUR
    (pp. 14-23)

    Like all children I was very curious and would pester Father with questions about his work, but he said he’d tell me all about it later when the time was right. I would accompany him when I was old enough. “It’s too early, focus on school.” Ammoury had started helping Father when he was fifteen and started to wash at eighteen, but my father never allowed me to go inside his workplace. He wanted to keep work and home separate. When I used to ask Ammoury about work, he never gave me satisfying answers; these were matters for grown-ups and...

  8. FIVE
    (pp. 24-25)

    “What are you writing?” Father asked when he saw me jotting down notes in a small notebook.

    “I’m writing down notes about washing so as not to forget anything.”

    He laughed: “You think this is school? Don’t worry. No exams here.”

    He said that he’d mastered his profession through practice and without writing a single letter down, as had Hammoudy and all those who had worked with him before. His notebooks were all in his head, written down by the years. But he was quite patient with my many questions and I think was happy to see how serious I...

  9. SIX
    (pp. 26-26)

    An old man with long white hair and a long white beard wakes me up and says in a voice that seems to come from afar:Wake up, Jawad, and write down all the names!I think it very odd that he knows my name. I look at his eyes. They are a strange sky-blue color, set deep into his eye sockets. His face is laced with wrinkles as if he were hundreds of years old. I ask him flatly:Who are you? What names?He smiles:You don’t recognize me? Get a pen and paper and write down all...

  10. SEVEN
    (pp. 27-28)

    I said nothing to Father about the slight boredom I was experiencing by the end of the first summer. But I told Ammoury, who chastised me for acting like a spoiled baby. “This is not a game,” he said. I should grow up and recognize the importance of what Father was doing and why we needed to help him out.

    I had gotten used to seeing the dead up close, but hadn’t touched a single body throughout that first summer. In the beginning of my second summer, I went back to help out my father. Those hot days passed very...

  11. EIGHT
    (pp. 29-35)

    He stepped into the classroom confidently, carrying a leather bag out of which he took a stack of drawing pads and a sack full of pencils that he put on the table. He went to the board and wrote in a nice script and big letters:FAN, art. Then he wrote his name in smaller letters: Raid Ismael. He was in his early twenties, with curly black hair and a thick beard. His light green shirt lit up his dark face. When he turned toward us and smiled, most of the students were still in recess mode and hadn’t noticed...

  12. NINE
    (pp. 36-38)

    She was all in black. I was late for my art history class that morning because I had decided to sleep an extra fifteen minutes past the alarm. The professor was strict about attendance and wouldn’t allow anyone who was more than ten minutes late to enter. Students called him “The Englishman” because of his obsession with time and because of the fluency and excessive—and somewhat pretentious—accuracy with which he pronounced various English terms. I was panting when I quietly opened the door to the lecture hall. I thought maybe he’d forgive me, but he shook his index...

  13. TEN
    (pp. 39-39)

    I remembered how my father shook his head when he was certain that I wanted to make the Academy of Fine Arts my first choice. My average score in the countrywide baccalaureate exam was 87.7 percent. That would probably guarantee acceptance in the engineering departments at al-Mustansiriyya University and other universities in the provinces, or in fields such as literature or the sciences if I made these my top choices.

    He asked me sarcastically: “So what will you be after you finish? An arts teacher?”

    I answered: “Maybe. What’s wrong with that, anyway? Is teaching shameful? There are other types...

  14. ELEVEN
    (pp. 40-42)

    “Pythagoras says that there is music in stone.”

    So began Professor Isam al-Janabi’s first lecture on the history of sculpture. I still remember the details clearly. He added that Goethe appropriated this idea and used it in a remark about architecture as frozen music. Professor Isam al-Janabi’s style in his lectures about art and life seemed like poetry to me. He was adept at using quotations to crystallize the subjects of his lectures or illustrate the ideas he was explaining to us. He once quoted Picasso: “Art is the lie that represents truth.” The images and slides he used gave...

  15. TWELVE
    (pp. 43-43)

    The first week of my fourth year at the academy I saw Reem sitting on a bench near the theater department all in black and wearing sunglasses. I approached her and said hello. She greeted me amicably but apologized for not recognizing or remembering me. I reminded her of my name and my silly joke about trying to save her from drowning after that exercise and of our short conversation at the cafeteria. I asked her about the black she was wearing. She said that her ex-husband had died two months before. I offered my condolences. She thanked me and...

  16. THIRTEEN
    (pp. 44-47)

    One morning I surprised Reem with a question I’d been meaning to ask but had hesitated to pose: “Did you love him a lot?”

    “Who?”

    I found it strange that she didn’t realize I meant her ex-husband. “The deceased.”

    She turned to me and looked at me with her magic eyes. We were sitting next to each other under the palm tree she loved. Then she looked straight ahead without saying a word. I feared that I’d hurt her feelings or reopened wounds that had yet to heal, so I said “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to …”

    She smiled and...

  17. FOURTEEN
    (pp. 48-53)

    She was cautious with me at the outset of our friendship. More than once she made me feel that I had to slow down. I learned to be patient, to crawl into her heart instead of storming it impulsively.

    With time, friendship turned into something more intense. We didn’t talk about what we felt precisely, but our silent gazes meeting for a few seconds were eloquent. When we walked or sat together, I felt the air between us grow moist. Often I drew her and gave her my sketches. She would thank me shyly and say, “Is there no one...

  18. FIFTEEN
    (pp. 54-54)

    I’m sitting alone, watching TV and flipping the channels, but they are all blank. No sound or image. Whiteness, silent whiteness, covers everything. I punch the TV with my fist a few times to no avail. I keep flipping through the channels in search of something that might relieve my insomnia and entertain me a bit. I find only one channel working.

    There, five hooded men stand around a sixth, who kneels and wears an orange work suit. A black bag shrouds his head. Four men hold their weapons while their leader reads the execution verdict to the kneeling prisoner....

  19. SIXTEEN
    (pp. 55-60)

    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 features, high 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 about to shake hands.But, I said to myself,I’ve already seen him dead in my own arms once before. The name on the paper was Muhsin. The distinguishing mark that this person, who looked...

  20. SEVENTEEN
    (pp. 61-61)

    In the winter of 2003 it seemed that, once again, war was coming. My mother asked Father, “What are we going to do? Are we staying in Baghdad?”

    He said: “Where else would we go? If God wants to end our lives, he will do so here. This is not the first war, but I sure hope it will be the last one. Enough.”

    She asked me more than once, as if I had the answer, “What are we going to do, Jawad?”

    I would tell her: “We’ll just wait things out.”

    But we got ready for wars as if...

  21. EIGHTEEN
    (pp. 62-70)

    My father used to pray in the small guest room next to the living room. The 2003 war was ten days old and I was in the throes of my perennial struggle with insomnia when I heard his footsteps going down the stairs to say his dawn prayer two minutes after the muezzin’s call. Then I heard water splashing in the bathroom and figured he was performing his ritual ablutions. Minutes later the bombing started and I heard a terrible explosion that shook the entire house, nearly uprooting it. Two minutes of quiet followed, then the roar of airplanes and...

  22. NINETEEN
    (pp. 71-74)

    After Baghdad fell and the Americans occupied it there was mayhem for days. There was no electricity so we couldn’t see anything on TV. It crouched there with a blind screen unable to show what was taking place. But the news on the radio spoke of mobs looting public property, ministries, the national library, and the national museum. It also said that Saddam had vanished. A few weeks before the war, the regime had released thousands of thieves and criminals from prison, but I was surprised that the Americans made no effort to protect public institutions since even occupiers were...

  23. TWENTY
    (pp. 75-75)

    I’m standing next to a washing bench. It isn’t in themghaysil, but rather in some other place I’ve never visited. There are high ceilings, but no windows. There are neon lights, some of which blink. The bench is very long. It extends for tens of meters and has a white conveyor belt. Bodies are stacked on it. The belt moves toward the right and leads to a huge opening, and outside men wearing blue overalls and white gloves carry the bodies and throw them into a huge truck. Scores of water faucets protrude from the wall, each with an...

  24. TWENTY-ONE
    (pp. 76-79)

    The beginning of the summer break after my first year at the academy had been a pivotal point in my confrontations with Father. I’d agreed that I wouldn’t work with him during the school year in order to focus on my studies, but that I would be by his side during my summer breaks. But after my first year of studies, I became convinced that I should channel all my energies on art and not go back to the suffocating atmosphere of themghaysil—no matter what. I’d heard from one of my colleagues about the possibility of getting work...

  25. TWENTY-TWO
    (pp. 80-98)

    Father rarely mentioned my uncle Sabri, who was eight years his junior. The few times the topic of Communists and their clashes with Ba’thists came up, he would say: “Sabri’s people.” Uncle Sabri used to visit us every now and then when I was a kid and would sleep on the floor of the guest room. He was a jovial man who always filled my pockets with sweets and played soccer with Ammoury and me in the street in front of our house. He was obsessed with the al-Zawra’ team and he told me that I, too, would one day...

  26. TWENTY-THREE
    (pp. 99-99)

    Every evening, I would sit in front of the computer screen for three or four hours, oblivious to the passage of time. I was enchanted by this world—this universe—to which we had had no access during the embargo. Getting the Internet at home was still too expensive, and I didn’t even have a desktop computer, but the fees at the Internet café were reasonable. I would usually start with a quick tour of local and Arab newspaper sites to read what the world was saying about our ongoing disasters. I discovered an Iraqi site called Uruk. It resembled...

  27. TWENTY-FOUR
    (pp. 100-102)

    He knocked at the door about a month after Father had passed away. He was in his late forties and short. His gray beard was neatly trimmed and edged with white. He wore round glasses with a silver frame. The bridge of his big nose left a space between his honey-colored eyes. The eyes sat under thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows. He was wearing a flowing black robe and a white turban. After greeting me, he extended his hand and offered his condolences. “May you have a long life, son. I am Sayyid Jamal al-Fartusi. Forgive me, but I heard only yesterday.”...

  28. TWENTY-FIVE
    (pp. 103-103)

    “So you think painting or making statues is better than my honorable and rewarding profession?”

    Father had often wounded me with this question when I told him of my desire to become a sculptor. I was burning to tell him now. They are stealing statues these days, Father. They stole Abdilmuhsin al-Sa’doun’s statue, melted it, and sold it. Those who don’t steal statues pull them down because they want to rewrite history. Ironically, they are imitating their sworn enemy, who himself tried to rewrite history from a Ba’thist perspective, destroying many statues and putting up new ones in their place....

  29. TWENTY-SIX
    (pp. 104-108)

    I thought I had succeeded in distancing myself from death and its rituals during the two years following Father’s death. But I discovered that even though I wasn’t dealing directly with it with my own hands, death’s fingers were crawling everywhere around me. I couldn’t shake the notion that death was providing my sustenance. For a time I leaned on a rationalization:What has really changed? Weren’t things the same when my father was the provider? Didn’t I eat and drink what death earned for us, one way or another? I used to contribute a bit to the household expenses....

  30. TWENTY-SEVEN
    (pp. 109-109)

    Hammoudy went to the Shorja market one Thursday at the end of August. He was rapidly running out of camphor and ground lotus leaves for themghaysil. He had told me that he now needed to restock once a month instead of every six months as he used to do before the war.

    Hammoudy did not come back home that day, nor the following day. His cell phone was turned off and he didn’t respond to the text messages that his wife and his brother, who worked at an electronics store, had sent him. There had not been any bombs...

  31. TWENTY-EIGHT
    (pp. 110-115)

    Reem, too, disappeared all of a sudden, just as Hammoudy did. It was seven years ago, but unlike Hammoudy’s, her kidnapper was not human or nameless. I called her at home one morning in August. The phone kept ringing. There were no cell phones back then. I called again in the evening and no one picked up. Our secret sign before was to have the phone ring once and then hang up and she would call me back. But after our engagement we could speak freely in front of her father and stepmother. She had convinced me to ask for...

  32. TWENTY-NINE
    (pp. 116-119)

    A few days after Hammoudy disappeared, Sayyid al-Fartusi visited me again. He said his heart sank when Hammoudy didn’t pick up on his cell for five days and when he saw that themghaysilwas closed. He had stopped at Hammoudy’s house and heard the news from his family. I invited him to come in.

    He was visibly sad and looked worried as he drank the glass of water I brought him. He said he was willing to pay the ransom, no matter how much the figure was, if it turned out that Hammoudy had been kidnapped. What he added...

  33. THIRTY
    (pp. 120-120)

    I’m walking in a public garden in Baghdad. I think I must have visited it a long time ago, since I recognize the path which goes through it and circles around the fountain. The fountain stands in the middle like a huge flower with petals of water. But I don’t recall ever seeing so many white statues on the lawn: men, women, and children standing, sitting, or lying on the ground. The sky is ink blue and every now and then the moon hides behind flocks of clouds driven by the wind to an unknown fate. The wind appears to...

  34. THIRTY-ONE
    (pp. 121-122)

    Nine months before Hammoudy’s disappearance, my mother started feeling severe pain in her stomach and was throwing up all the time. I took her to the doctor, who ordered numerous tests and prescribed some medicine. Her situation only got worse so I took her to a different doctor, who repeated the tests and then said she should have a colonoscopy. It turned out that she had a growth, but the biopsy determined that it wasn’t malignant. It had to be removed, and the surgery went well. She was almost fully recovered when she got a severe infection and had to...

  35. THIRTY-TWO
    (pp. 123-123)

    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 much 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...

  36. THIRTY-THREE
    (pp. 124-130)

    “If your father were alive, he would be very happy.”

    My mother chattered excitedly as she prepared thesufurtaswhich she insisted I take to work with me, even though I had told her the night before that I would buy my lunch from one of the shops and that she shouldn’t bother.

    “Why would you want to eat outside food, son? Is there anything better than your mother’s homemade food? I packed some chicken stew with potatoes and rice for you.”

    She was very pleased that I was going back to Father’s work. I didn’t tell her that the...

  37. THIRTY-FOUR
    (pp. 131-131)

    I cannot wake up from this endless nightmare of wakefulness. Some people go to work behind a desk on which papers are piled. Others operate machinery all day. My desk is the bench of death. The Angel of Death is working overtime, as if hoping for a promotion, perhaps to become a god. I walk down the street and look at people’s faces and thinkWho among them will end up on the bench next for me to wash?

    Every day of the week was difficult, but Thursday was the day al-Fartusi’s refrigerated truck arrived with the weekly harvest of...

  38. THIRTY-FIVE
    (pp. 132-134)

    On a February morning in 2006, I was getting dressed to go to work when I heard my mother wailing downstairs. I ran down barefoot and saw her sitting in front of the TV beating herself and crying, “O God, O God.”

    “What’s wrong, mother? What happened?” I asked as I held her hands and begged her to stop. On the TV were images of a destroyed mosque.

    Through her tears she said, “They bombed the Askari shrine. I wish God had blinded me so I wouldn’t see it like that.”

    I tried to calm her down. I, too, felt...

  39. THIRTY-SIX
    (pp. 135-135)

    A deep voice says: “Remove the blindfold.”

    At a desk in front of me sits a man whose features I can’t make out in the blinding light.

    He asks, “Is your name Jawad Kazim?”

    “Yes.”

    He looks at some papers in front of him and reads: “Graduated Academy of Fine Arts. Failed sculptor. Painter. Are you a believer?”

    Bewildered by his question, I say, “Excuse me?”

    He screams: “Motherfucker. Don’t try to be a smart ass with me. You understand the question very well. Are you a believer?”

    “Yes, thank God, I am.”

    He motions to the man standing next...

  40. THIRTY-SEVEN
    (pp. 136-137)

    Three months after the bombing of the al-Askari mosque I went home after work and found my mother and some relatives sitting in the guest room. I was tired and wanted just to say a quick hello. The door was ajar. I saw a familiar face—a female cousin whom I had seen a few years before at a wedding. A much younger and very beautiful girl who resembled her sat between her and a boy of about ten. When I knocked at the door, the woman covered her head with a black scarf, but the girl smiled at me...

  41. THIRTY-EIGHT
    (pp. 138-138)

    I am washing the corpse of a skinny old man with white hair and a wrinkly face and forehead. My mind wanders. The man opens his eyes, shakes his head, and tries to get up. The small bowl falls from my hand and I retreat from the bench in fear.

    He says in a hoarse voice, “I didn’t think that I would have to do this myself, but you can’t focus and keep thinking of silly shit.” He picks up the bowl, fills it with water, and pours it on his head. He reaches for the ground lotus. I try...

  42. THIRTY-NINE
    (pp. 139-140)

    The restaurant that Abu Ghayda’ had co-owned on the road to al-Taji military camp had been bombed by the Americans at the beginning of the war. He used to joke that the hot spices and pickled mango he used in his falafel sandwiches were at the top of the Pentagon’s list of weapons of mass destruction that threatened the world. He and his partner repaired the restaurant and reopened it four months later, but business was slow. That area had become a battleground for the Americans and the armed men who attacked them. Abu Ghayda’ lost everything and was forced...

  43. FORTY
    (pp. 141-141)

    One of Giacometti’s statues lies on the washing bench. I assume I am meant to wash it. As I pour water over its tiny head, the sculpture dissolves into tiny fragments. I put the bowl aside and try to pick up the pieces and repair the damage, but everything disintegrates in my hands....

  44. FORTY-ONE
    (pp. 142-143)

    One night I woke up from one of my nightmares around three in the morning. I couldn’t fall asleep and kept tossing and turning. I was thirsty so I went downstairs to get a glass of water. I noticed that the electricity was on so I tiptoed to the living room to watch TV. I kept the volume very low and started surfing the channels. Ten minutes later, I heard footsteps. Ghayda’s face appeared in the dark.

    “Is it OK if I watch with you?” she whispered.

    “Of course, come in.” I apologized for waking her, but she said she...

  45. FORTY-TWO
    (pp. 144-146)

    He was in his early fifties. He had burn scars on his forehead and right cheek. A bit chubby and bald except for a few scattered white hairs on the sides of his head and a white moustache. His hazel eyes stared at me through black-rimmed glasses. He said that the people at the morgue had sent him my way and that he had a corpse he wanted to wash and bury right away.

    “May God have mercy on his soul. Is he a relative of yours?”

    “No, I have no idea who he is.”

    I must have looked surprised,...

  46. FORTY-THREE
    (pp. 147-149)

    My eyes began to meet Ghayda’s quite often. Only her brother noticed the dialogue of our eyes when others were around, and he never said a word.

    I fulfilled my promise and chose a few novels to lend her. When I gave her the books, our hands touched, and I felt a surge of blood in my veins. She had started to help my mother with the housecleaning. I noticed that the desk in my room, which was usually covered with old newspapers, papers, and books, was neat and nice. So she was going into my room. She asked me...

  47. FORTY-FOUR
    (pp. 150-154)

    My desire for Ghayda’ increased every day. I felt that she was drawn to me, too, but I never mustered enough courage to make a move. I didn’t want to complicate my life and stir up family problems. My intense desire gave free rein to my imagination. My body would thirst for her and be watered by her. It would flow and drown, for her. All while I was asleep in my own bed, which I never thought I might share with her one day.

    I woke up one night from a nightmare feeling thirsty. As usual, there was no...

  48. FORTY-FIVE
    (pp. 155-158)

    Mahdi and I were sitting in the side room when we heard knocks. Mahdi went to open the door. A voice murmured, confirming that this was themghaysil. I got up and stood at the door. A man in his early fifties came in with two younger men who looked like him. He looked well to do and was carrying a black bag. I welcomed them.

    “We have a dead man we want to wash and shroud,” he said.

    “Sure. Where is the corpse?” I asked.

    One of the two young men lowered his head. The other looked at me....

  49. FORTY-SIX
    (pp. 159-159)

    I was standing in a long line at the passport office. I had been banned from traveling long before, because my uncle was a Communist, and I couldn’t believe that after all these years I was finally going to leave. I had finished everything, had paid the fees, and was waiting in front of the window to get the passport. There were scores of people ahead of me, but the pace was good. I felt guilty about leaving my mother alone and going off, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.

    I noticed that the young man standing in front...

  50. FORTY-SEVEN
    (pp. 160-160)

    I was just about ready to lock themghaysiland go home after a bloody day. I thought it was strange for Mahdi to have left without saying goodbye. Suddenly, five men carrying machine guns stormed the place and surrounded me. Two grabbed me, tied my wrists behind my back, and held me fast. The others began to search the entire place and scattered things on the floor. A hooded officer with stars on his shoulders appeared and ordered the two men holding me to force me on my knees. He stood right in front of me. His black boots...

  51. FORTY-EIGHT
    (pp. 161-164)

    I was at themghaysilmaking the most of a respite without bodies and reading a book about Mesopotamian creation myths when I heard on the radio that a suicide bomber had attacked al-Mutanabbi Street and the Shahbandar café, killing more than thirty people. I felt a pang in my heart. We had gotten used to car and suicide bombs, but I had a soft spot for al-Mutanabbi Street. I would often escape there to hunt for a book or two to keep me company. I had bought the book I was reading from a stall there the Friday before....

  52. FORTY-NINE
    (pp. 165-166)

    I saw you at themghaysil, Father.

    It was my first time at work with you. Hammoudy was not with us and it was pitch dark. You had a candle in your hand.

    I asked you, “Why don’t we wait until it’s morning and then start work?”

    You smiled and said, “There is nothing but night here.”

    I was surprised and asked, “Why?”

    You said, “Have you forgotten that we are in the underworld, my son, and the sun doesn’t rise here?”

    I felt a lump in my throat and a tear found its way to my cheek.

    You wiped...

  53. FIFTY
    (pp. 167-170)

    My mother put on her black abaya and said: “Jawad, I’m going to the shrine of al-Kazim. Today is the anniversary of his death, and Basim al-Karbala’i is coming to chant.”

    “Wait and we’ll go together.”

    “Really?”

    She was pleasantly surprised by my decision and her face lit up. She probably doesn’t remember, just as I don’t, the last time I visited the shrine. I used to go with her a lot when I was a child and would hold onto the window overlooking the tomb inside the shrine as the others did. Later I went often with my father,...

  54. FIFTY-ONE
    (pp. 171-172)

    “Alas,” al-Fartusi said with genuine sadness when I informed him that I was going to Jordan.

    “Why? Why are you going and leaving us?”

    “I can’t do it anymore. I’m suffocating. I’m not cut out for this job. I wasn’t planning on doing it for two years. I can’t sleep at night. Nightmares are driving me insane.”

    He patted me on the shoulder and said: “You think I’m any better? I’ve gotten diabetes and high blood pressure from everything I’ve seen all these years. And now these crooks want to fabricate charges against me.”

    “What charges?”

    “They want to implicate...

  55. FIFTY-TWO
    (pp. 173-181)

    The earth was a carpet of sleeping sand stretching from horizon to horizon, nothing disrupting it except the highway on which cars escaped from hell to the unknown. We were part of a convoy of four GMC station wagons. We started out early in the morning so as to avoid the desert darkness that might make us easy prey for the thieves and to make sure we reached the Jordanian border before sunset.

    Abu Hadi, our driver, was in his late thirties. He had short black hair and a neatly trimmed moustache. He was overdressed and wore his sunglasses even...

  56. FIFTY-THREE
    (pp. 182-182)

    One of the old Mesopotamian creation myths says that for a long time the gods used to do their work and fulfill their tasks. Some planted, some harvested, and others made things. But they were tired, so they complained to An-ki, the god of water and wisdom, and asked him to lighten their burden. But he was in the depths of the water and did not hear their complaints. So the gods resorted to his mother, Nammu.

    She went and called out to him, “Rise up, son, and create slaves for the gods.”

    An-ki thought about it, then summoned the...

  57. FIFTY-FOUR
    (pp. 183-184)

    We finished washing and shrouding a nine-year-old boy. He needed only wings to look like an angel. He was killed with his father in an explosion next to the National Theater. I felt my ribs stabbing me from within and strangling my every breath. I told Mahdi that I was going outside to sit next to the pomegranate tree. I’d been sitting the last few months on the chair I’d put in front of it to converse with it. It has become my only companion in the world. Its red blossoms had opened like wounds on the branches, breathing and...

  58. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 185-185)