Kevin Alexander Davis

“So, we, too, are statues, but we never stop crushing one another in the name of the one who made us. We are statues whose permanent exhibition is dust.”
          The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon 

In his most recent novel, The Corpse Washer, Sinan Antoon poetically explores the human conditions of war and violence and of love and loss in Baghdad after the

2003 American invasion of Iraq. Through his narrative, Antoon challenges notions of death, violence, occupation and sectarianism by situating his character, Jawad, in the midst of these entwined phenomena. Antoon’s novel addresses the persistence of death in a wartime scenario and also provides deeply humanizing perspectives on common notions about the violent aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq.

Jawad, a sculptor and intellectual, describes his world of Baghdad as an “exhibition of dust.” He struggles to live in this mystical terrain that hovers somewhere between life and death. Born into a lower class family in a Baghdad suburb like his father before him, he cleans and shrouds the bodies of the deceased in preparation for their afterlife. Jawad is confronted by this reality in a strikingly visual way through his profession. However, Jawad has no intention of continuing his father’s profession, and instead pursues his interest in art and sculpture at the Art Institute of Baghdad. 

From a very early point in the book, death is a constant motif in Jawad’s life and becomes something to which he is accustomed. During his youth, he shadows his father at work in order to learn the trade of a corpse washer. After his first day, Jawad exclaims, “I was astonished by my father’s ability to return to the normal rhythm of life so easily each time after he washed as if nothing had happened. As if he were merely moving from one room to another and leaving death behind. As if death had exited with the coffin and proceeded to the cemetery and life had returned to this place.” As time passes, the personification of death continues and becomes increasingly present after the 2003 invasion. 

Jawad internalizes death through his daily encounters with it but never becomes comfortable with it. He observes, “I imagined that death had followed me home. I couldn’t stop thinking that everything that Father had bought for us was paid for by death. Even what we ate was paid for by death.” Apart from encountering death in mundane daily life, Jawad also confronts death in other, more dramatic ways. His brother is sent off to fight during the Iran-Iraq war and never returns. This devastates his father and also increases the pressure on Jawad to take on the family business in the absence of another heir. 

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq by American forces, Jawad’s story becomes one of greater death and loss. Antoon masterfully captures the confusion of the war by blurring memories and dreams. Each chapter takes place in a different time period but continually returns to the present, while the corpses build up little by little. As the war grows in intensity, the pressure builds on Jawad to return to his father’s business. He completes art school but slowly stops producing art in the chaos of war. He loses his father to a heart attack during an aerial bombardment. Then he loses his lover from art school, Reem, who disappears to Amman after developing breast cancer. Perhaps most frightening of all, he loses Hamoudy, his father’s assistant, who simply disappears one day without explanation, never to return. This uncertainty of life weighs heavily on Jawad’s shoulders and dominates his everyday life. He is unable to fulfill his dreams of becoming a sculptor. Toward the end of the story, he decides to escape to Amman, but throughout the long desert ride to the border he dwells not only on leaving his family and friends, but of the many corpses who will need washing and preparation. “Who will wash them?” he asks. 

The notion of suffering within the Iraqi community is one that Antoon emphasizes throughout the novel. Antoon depicts suffering as communal and Jawad as the embodiment of that spirit of community. This “ethics of being with” is reflected in the obligation that Jawad has to care for his suffering widowed mother, his desire to ensure the well-being of Hammoudy, and most of all in his sense of obligation to the members of his community dying around him and his wish that they are properly prepared for the afterlife – a notion further complicated by the fact that Jawad himself is not religious. Nonetheless, his connection to his community and the overwhelming connection he has to death pull him along the path of a corpse washer. Suffering is not his to bear alone, but the communal suffering of the whole of Baghdad. 

Antoon is also keen to complicate conventional notions of life in Baghdad after 2003. Many foreign narratives of post-war Iraq emphasize ethnic and sectarian divisions as essential groups of categorization by the Iraqi people. By following Jawad’s story, which begins long before the invasion, we can see that Antoon addresses sectarianism, but in ways that counter common sectarian narratives. One example is that of Jawad’s work. In a jarring scene, two Sunni men come into Jawad’s business. Jawad is a Shia and generally washes other Shia men. Death rituals differ slightly between sects. The two men present Jawad with a burned corpse of a Shia man who had been killed in a car bomb. For days his body sat outside the wreckage, so the men decided to collect the corpse for washing. “God bless you. There are still good people in this world,” is all that Jawad replies. This emotional sense of togetherness, despite the admission that the car bomb was an act of sectarian violence, shows that in chaotic times such lines are not as clear as they are made out to be.

Jawad also laments the rise of sectarian politics but creates a sense of distance between sectarian political groups and the population as a whole, who are all victims of violence. He historicizes this development by pointing out “the embargo, which had destroyed the social fabric, and now the void created by the occupation was being filled by these sectarian parties because they knew how to exploit the political climate. But, my uncle added, the history of secularism in Iraq runs deep.” For Jawad, secularism was always more powerful than sectarianism, and this new violence was political manipulation by certain groups rather than a reflection of Iraq’s sectarian society. 

The physical space of Baghdad, and the war that transforms it, is an integral aspect of Jawad’s experience. The displacement of people, reorganization of neighborhoods, destruction of buildings, and constant loss of people make Jawad feel hopelessly uncomfortable and lost in a city where we saw him grow up. Jawad says,“...I felt for the hundredth time what a stranger I’d become in my hometown and how my alienation had intensified in these last years. I recalled the lines of a verse I liked: ‘One is not a stranger in Syria or in Yemen, but is truly a stranger in his shroud and grave.’ But the stranger today was whoever lived in Rusafah and Karkh, Baghdad’s two halves. Everyone in Baghdad felt like a stranger in his own country. Most people were drained, and the fatigue was clearly drawn on their faces.” 

His occupation alienates him, his inability to fulfill his love life alienates him, his inability to pursue his passions alienates him, and he increasingly feels like a stranger. After hearing of an attack on the Art Institute, he goes to see the damage, lamenting the stench of the flooded sewers on his way and the American blockades. He is forced to find new routes to complete his daily routines. This physical and emotional alienation grows as the novel progresses and the reader is sympathetic with Jawad’s growing admission that his fate lies in his father’s corpse washing business.

The strength of the novel is its rendering of a complex and human narrative of war and violence. Readers gain emotional attachment to characters and can relate to their everyday problems and the way that they are affected by war. Jawad’s story is one of deep sadness, chaos and confusion. The constant changes in time, the disconnected snippets of Jawad’s life, the constant loss and disappearance of characters and the haunting dream sequences make Jawad a very real character and his experiences understandable. The Corpse Washer is a powerful companion for anyone trying to understand the drama of post-2003 Iraq or of war in general. 

“I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shriveled pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.”

Kevin Alexander Davis is an M.A. Candidate at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. His focus is on contemporary Yemeni culture and politics.