"The Corpse Washer" by Sinan Antoon

The Corpse Washer Sinan Antoon

The Margellos World Republic of Letters
Publication date:
29 Jul 2014
Yale University Press
200 pages: 197 x 127mm
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Acclaimed and celebrated in the Arab world for its vivid portrait of Iraq, this heartbreaking novel confronts the war-torn nation’s horrifying recent history

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.

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, and translator. He is associate professor at the Gallatin School, New York University, and cofounder and coeditor of the cultural page of Jadaliyya. The Corpse Washer is his second novel. He lives in New York City.

Longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

Winner of the 2014 Arab American Book Award in the fiction category, given by the Arab American National Museum

Winner of the 2014 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

"Sinan Antoon has written a Kafkaesque fable about the fate of the body in war-torn Bagdhad, narrated by a young Shi’ite whose day-to-day job involves the ritual cleansing and shrouding of corpses in preparation for religious burial. Originally written in Arabic and translated by the author into English, the novel powerfully fuses the literality of personal fact with the allegory of communal catastrophe."—Richard Sieburth, NYU

"Unsparing, memorable and humane, The Corpse Washer evokes ritual in the midst of contemporaneity, moves from dream / nightmare to Iraqis’ daily lives made surreal and perilous by war upon war."—Marilyn Hacker, author of Names

"This is the Iraqi novel par excellence. . . . I have always wondered how anyone could write the Iraqi panorama of pain in its totality—a daunting task. One must find the perfect approach. Washing the dead is a difficult profession, but it puts us face to face with all of Iraq’s traumas. This is the best novel about the Iraqi tragedy."—al-Hayat (London)

"With his second novel Antoon has emerged as the chronicler of the Iraqi nightmare. . . . Death is the central metaphor in this beautiful and haunting work . . . faithful to the demands of weaving a good narrative, yet attentive to the brutality and pain of Iraq’s reality. . . . The first Arab novel to tackle the subject of washing and shrouding the dead and through it the genealogy of massive death in Iraq, from dictatorship to occupation and civil war . . . It narrates death and the struggle to survive, but celebrates the human spirit as well."—al-Akhbar (Beirut)