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I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody Paperback – June 1, 2007

4.8 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

I'jaam denotes the practice of adding dots to letters of the Arabic alphabet to alter phonetic value. If dots are omitted, words can become ambiguous or inappropriate for their contexts. The young man who wrote the found manuscript whose transcription is this chilling short novel omitted dots, and so a song about the "great Leader" concludes with a phrase that translates one letter differently from "tucks us into bed." In his own eyes, the author has a right to be wry. He wanted an education, but the exigencies of war and the mounting tyranny of the Leader blasted his hopes. At the time of writing, although he has evaded conscription, he is a prisoner, as abused as any 15 years later in another jail in the same city, Baghdad. The Iran-Iraq War winds down, but Saddam Hussein's Ba'athism grows ever more repressive. The prisoner intersperses terse reports of his ordeal among memories of literary rebellion, friendship, and love. When at the end he is released, it is apparently into a deserted city, but where is he really? How has he been released? Olson, Ray

Review

" . . . a fictional memoir -- of a student/poet in solitary detention for having ridiculed Saddam Hussein. . . . The student's dreams, memories and fantasies are eerily beautiful . . ." -- The Los Angeles Times

" The prisoner intersperses terse reports of his ordeal among memories of a literary rebellion, friendship and love. . . . chilling short novel . . ." -- Booklist, June 1, 2007

"He evokes a Baghdad heavy with Orwellian overtones . . . often he strikes the right chord, to haunting effect." -- The Village Voice

"In less than a hundred pages, Antoon provides a moving portrait of life in Saddam's Iraq. " -- Poets and Writers Magazine

"This book arrives at a crucial moment in our history as the decision is being made whether to expand or terminate the U.S.-led war in Iraq." -- Library Journal

"a searing look at life under Saddam Hussein's regime, related in the form of diary entries written by a prisoner" -- Kirkus Reviews
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: City Lights Publishers (June 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 087286457X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0872864573
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 7.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #286,925 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
I'jaam is completely different than anything I've ever read. I rarely give books, even good books such a large number of snaps. Several times throughout the book I was horrified, others I was drawn into love, and throughout the entire book a common theme of fear and terror is dreadfully looming. If I'jaam doesn't smack you in the face to say wake up! it is already too late for you, blood has left your veins cold. I had to try my hardest and not underline the entire text! It was that good.

I'jaam is a novel, but Sinan Antoon insightfully writes this masterpiece as a manuscript that was found in the an inventory of the general security headquarters located in Central Baghdad. The writings are of the life of a young man and an educated prisoner all in one. His thoughts are so segmented that you see the disjointedness he must feel, which is in every way spawned through fear, heartless acts, and a lack of freedom. He goes back and forth between what happened, what is happening and what is in every bit too horrible to ever imagine happening to any human being.The novel is set in a time where The Leader (Saddam) is in power, a time when life is full of fear and complete inconsistency. Even though suffering and fear are the themes throughout, there is also love, family, education and life to show that all dreams are not lost, even if they are extremely hidden, and held close to oneself. The will to live life is the hardest to snuff, when there is even an ounce of hope and Antoon shows hope in this novel again and again, in a real way that is never false and always just right. Feel the outcry of humanity and read this novel, I'jaam by Sinan Antoon. I am changed, and my outlook is forever different because of this one all too short novel.
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Format: Paperback
Antoon's novel is an incredibly well wrought study of imprisonment, empathy and the experience and power of writing; its construction is very clever indeed, and one puts it down (reluctantly) feeling shaken and bewildered, impelled to act and desirous of leading a life more immediate and brave.
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Format: Paperback
I'jaam's lucid flashbacks and hallucinatory passages written during narrator Furat's Iraqi imprisonment reminds me of similar political or existential novels The Stranger and The Plague. There is even something about I'jaam to recall the less mature Stephen King novella, The Long Walk, and the more artificially constructed, e-less novel from Georges Perec, A Void. But while those books had much looser ties - if any - to a kind of truth, it is not difficult to find the reality that motives the surreality of I'jaam: the Orwellian-like regime of Saddam Hussein. As a novel, I'jaam is beautifully done: believable in its premise; effective as a written artifice; reluctant to use heavy-handedness and anger when its portrayal of soft tragedies, and a lost romance, bring Furat's imprisonment a readier display of human endurance, justification, and regret. This novel, like the era it captures, needs to be elevated into broader view.
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Format: Paperback
It is no coincidence that the central character of this 99-page novella is a university student in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad, who wants to write a thesis on George Orwell's "I984" only to discover that the book has been banned. Though set in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, the action of the novel takes place in a world that is notably Orwellian. Crowds are forcefully gathered to show support for the "Father-Leader" and his ongoing military efforts against "the enemy." The slightest deviations from strictly enforced rules of conduct are harshly dealt with by the police, and freedom of expression is severely limited. Meanwhile, the government spies on its own citizens, the leader's cronies are appointed to high-level positions, and his son acquires his own football team with hand-picked players from all the other teams in the country.

The central character, an aspiring young poet, finds that his efforts to write anything remotely critical of the regime land him in prison, where he is subject to physical and psychological abuse, humiliated, and dehumanized. The book is a manuscript he has left behind, recording his memories, dreams, hallucinations, and experiences as a prisoner. Among his memories is a budding love affair with a young woman. There are a few moments of pleasure seized from that relationship, but his story is that of countless young people whose hopes have been crushed by totalitarian regimes. The "rhapsody" of the title is ironic. The intense feelings portrayed are of anger, frustration, and despair.
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As one other reviewer, Ronald Scheer has noted, one of the dominant themes in this novella is the Orwellian nature of life in Iraq, familiar to any reader of Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four There is the ubiquitous Father figures of the Great Leader plastered everywhere; the compulsory attendance at political rallies where enthusiasm must be feigned; the omnipresent "secret" police sniffing for any sign of independent and/or "deviant" thought. The protagonist wanted to complete a thesis on Orwell, and perhaps it is no surprise that he finds the author's books banned in the country. And to complete the theme, and Antoon does it subtly, the year itself must be 1984 (three years into the Iranian-Iraq war of the 1980's which is another dominant theme in the book.) Readers of Kafka's The Trial or Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading will also note numerous other resonances. But Antoon's voice is amazingly authentic, and he mixes his Orwellian themes with several others.

What is truly unique about the novel are the implications of the title, and how the novella has been translated (it helps to be familiar with Arabic, and it must be a real joy to be fluent English/ Arabic to fully understand the puns, and the quality of the translation). One aspect of the Arabic alphabet is the use of "dots" above and below the lines and curves, and it is these dots that determine a difference in the letters. This mechanism is used in approximately half the letters.
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