The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated from Arabic by the author

Man’s reaction to his own mortality is a topic that’s been showing up on my personal radar quite a bit lately. Zadie Smith’s recent essay Man vs. Corpse (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2014); Drew Gilpin Faust’s National Book Award winning This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (which, admittedly, has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time) and Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer – a novel I finished weeks ago but have had difficulty articulating my opinions on – have me considering how war and death shapes a generation in both large and small ways. Faust opens her book with the sentence “Mortality defines the human condition.” She continues…

‘ “We all have our dead – we all have our Graves,” a Confederate Episcopal bishop observed in an 1862 sermon. Every era, he explained, must confront “like miseries”; every age must search for “like consolation.” Yet death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women approach death in ways shaped by history, by culture, by conditions that vary over time and across space. Even though “we all have our dead,” and even though we all die, we do so differently from generation to generation and from place to place.’

This Republic of Suffering specifically discusses how the huge number of casualties during the American Civil War – 620,000 killed – on both sides of the battlefield changed how the dead were prepared and mourned in this country. The expediency of identifying the remains, returning them to their families and allowing those left behind the opportunity to find closure (to use a modern term) took precedence over the traditional religious rituals. “Civil War death narrowed theological and denominational differences. The shared crisis of battle yielded a common effort to make the notion of a Good Death available to all.” Dying in the U.S. became a much more secular business, and one could argue that it remains so to this day.

In the Muslim world this does not seem to be the case, but Faust’s words concerning how “men and women approach death” remain equally applicable. There’s a moment in The Corpse Washer when the Shiite protagonist asks his father why they wash the dead.

… He said that every dead person will meet with the angels and the people of the afterlife and God Almighty and therefore must be pure and clean. Decomposition must not show on the body, and its odor should be made pleasant. It should be covered so that the hearts of the living be not hardened. I also asked him about the differences between us and the Sunnis in washing. He said they were very minor indeed. Certain details involving the mention of imams and the writing of supplications on the shroud, but nothing major. He said that Christians and Jews may also wash a Muslim if there are no Muslims at hand. The important thing, he added, was to be possessed of noble intentions.

The passage – which I found to be incredibly beautiful in its simplicity – goes on to explain the details of the ritual:  who is allowed to wash who and what to do when there is no water available to wash, or herbs to dress, the body.  Jawad, the young man who asks his father that important question (important to him and important to readers) is the youngest son from a family of mghassilchi – corpse washers in Baghdad.  His beloved elder brother, Ammoury, is a doctor who becomes a soldier in the first Gulf War. Jawad, showing no interest in medicine or engineering, is the son chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps. He spends his Summers apprenticed at the mghaysil, the washhouse, where he takes copious notes on how his father prepares the bodies. Eventually the notes are replaced by drawings and against his parent’s wishes, with only Ammoury’s support, he enrolls in art school – in effect turning his back on the family profession. But fate has different plans for Jawad. The first Gulf War, his brother’s death and their father’s subsequent embitterment shape his future in ways he never thought to anticipate. The art market dries up and Iraq is invaded a second time. His father dies, leaving Jawad responsible for the support of his mother.  Circumstances leave him with no option but to return to washing bodies in his father’ mghaysil.

Jawad narrates his experiences in the first person, from the position of a man reflecting on his life up until the present.  The prose is lovely. Simple, straight-forward, but capable of raw poetic flourishes – as when Jawad describes one of his many nightmares or compares death to a postman, crying out to his dead father that the letters are piling up (his anguish palpable).  Sinan Antoon translated his own novel from Arabic, and perhaps this explains the  intense intimacy that he establishes between Jawad and the reader.  Events feel immediate. We share in Jawad’s nightmares.  We act as witnesses to the volume and variety of carnage produced by war.  We better understand the subtleties of the political situation and their effects on our protagonist’s – and Iraq’s – prospects when we experience them through the eyes of the main character.

The next day the electricity was back on long enough to see on the TV the official announcement of the formation of the governing council under the aegis of Paul Bremer.  The council was a hodgepodge of names supposedly representing the spectrum of Iraqi society, but we had never heard of most of them.  What they had in common was that each name was preceded by its sect:  Sunni, Shia, Christian… We were not accustomed to such a thing.  My uncle was furious when he saw the secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Part sitting with the other members.  He’d heard at the headquarters that the party had polled its cadres and that they’d voted to be part of the council, but he still couldn’t believe his eyes.

He waved his hand and said, “Look at him, for God’s sake.  They put him there as a Shiite, and not because he represents an ideological trend or a party with its own history of political struggle…”

Antoon, in describing the course of Jawad’s life, has built a tragedy of Greek proportions. Again and again Jawad is forced back into that stone building he has spent his lifetime trying to escape. He’s plagued by terrible nightmares. Unable (or unwilling?) to marry, he is left alone. It’s hard not to see Jawad and the destruction of his dreams as representative of a generation of young Iraqi men. The women of the country leave or are sent away – including Jawad’s mother – to safety.  Single, particularly young, males are not allowed through the border crossings.  Antoon chose as his theme all the things war, and occupation, rip away:  lives, futures, choices, freedom.

So we can perhaps forgive Jawad when he fails to recognize that hope resides in the mghaysil.  If only because it endures.  As Iraq collapses into sectarian violence a good samaritan, a fellow Shiite, requests that Jawad wash the bodies of Sunnis left rotting in the street.  The samaritan delivers them to the washhouse and then arranges for them to be buried after Jawad prepares the bodies.  Whereas the process of preparing the dead was ritualistic, spiritual – beautiful even – in his father’s time, during the second Gulf war and its aftermath the bodies come too quickly. “The Angel of Death is working overtime as if hoping for a promotion, perhaps to become a god”.  And, still, an exhausted Jawad attempts to perform his duties with the same care his father did.  Though it pains him, though he gives every appearance to succumbing to despair, he continues to wash the dead with noble intentions.

The Corpse Washer is not an optimistic book, but then Antoon has chosen that defining characteristic of humanity – “we all have our dead” – as the bridge between his readers and subject.  He relies on this shared condition to build empathy.  Not the happiest of topics, admittedly, but a universal one (and probably the reason why the novel has done well with Western readers despite that not being the audience it was originally intended for).  While it seems unlikely at the end of the novel that things will work out for Jawad, his future is still left somewhat open-ended.  Something I appreciated.  The glass if far from half full, but we can choose to believe that Jawad will endure his “like miseries” and find his “like consolation”.  The desire for Grace, Antoon seems to understand, is also universal.

Publisher:  Yale University Press, New Haven & London (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 300 19060 1

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