Letter Imperfect


The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, half of which are multiples of letters that share “the same skeleton,” writes Sinan Antoon in the author’s note to his brief novel I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody. The letters are distinguished from one another by dots, which weren’t originally used in Arabic script. They were later added in order to “eliminate ambiguous readings.” It’s an explanation more ominous than it may seem.

Ambiguity is an enemy of the state, or so it was in Saddam’s Iraq of the 1980s and ’90s, the era in which Antoon’s book is loosely set. He evokes a Baghdad heavy with Orwellian overtones, “the Leader” subbing in for Big Brother. At the outset of I’jaam, an internal government memo informs us that a manuscript was discovered in a prison’s files. Because its author, a detained student-poet named Furat, handwrote the pages in his cell, the words lack those ambiguity-defusing dots. The memo asks that someone elucidate the text’s meaning by adding them, a process called I’jaam, and then report back on its contents.

What follows is the “clarified” version of Furat’s manuscript, which chronicles his time in detention. Much of it is a kaleidoscope of Furat’s memories and dreams, intermittently grounded by scenes from his imprisonment. There are flashes of crowds at a mandatory student rally for the Leader, of teenage lust ripening under the midday sun, followed by descriptions of Furat’s rape and harassment by prison guards.

Antoon’s dialogue and wordplay sometimes feel heavy-handed, but more often he strikes the right chord, to haunting effect. A hallucination in which the figures of Arabic letters scatter their dots as they dance and couple “in forbidden positions” is especially strange, and beautiful. Stripped down to the skeletons that Antoon describes in his author’s note, the letters are liberated, reveling in their ambiguity.