Death frequently rears its ugly head throughout Sinan Antoon's novels. "If death is a postman," says Jawad, the eponymous hero of Antoon's blistering second novel from 2013, The Corpse Washer, "then I receive his letters every day." In Antoon's latest novel, The Baghdad Eucharist, one of the main characters, Maha, despairs that Iraq has become one big, blood-soaked dissection lab, a place where "Deathology is the new science".
But although death stalks this novel’s pages it does not entirely colour the proceedings. The narrative comprises two perspectives, that of Maha bewailing the carnage of the present, and the more sanguine Uncle Youssef, who casts back to a more peaceful past.
It is worth adding a second disclaimer: The Baghdad Eucharist is new only insofar as translation and title. It was originally published as Ya Maryam (Ave Maria) in 2012, and went on to be shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Maia Tabet’s skilled translation gives Anglophone readers access to a brutal yet beautiful novel which offers two striking takes on one city from members of an Iraqi Christian family. The book is set in 2010 but features multiple flashbacks.
It begins with Maha accusing Youssef of living in the past and then storming out his living room. She and her husband Luay are guests in her elderly relative’s “vast, stiff-jointed house” in Baghdad and tensions have been brewing. A previous argument about the most suitable means of punishment for Saddam’s stooges created sparks but no flashpoint. This time, though, Maha could not contain her anger. “Churches are being torched, we’re being killed right, left and centre and we are slowly but surely being driven out.”
Youssef’s counterattacks are a series of calm rebuttals. Far more mosques have been burned to the ground and tens of thousands of Muslims have perished. The violence will burn itself out and Iraq will move on: “That’s the cycle of history.”
But, as Maha distances herself from him, Youssef is given time to stew in his own thoughts. With the present being no more than “a booby-trapped snare full of car bombs, brutality and horror”, why shouldn’t he seek refuge in the past? He goes on to do just that by immersing himself in old family photographs, each of which triggers either a personal self-contained memory – his First Communion, first job, first love – or a potted biography and divergent life-path of a sibling.
Youssef starts off as the narrator but, as he goes to church to remember his sister Hinna on the seventh anniversary of her death, his account breaks off. Antoon switches to Maha’s point of view, which, in terms of tone and content, lies at a stark remove to that of her relative. When she looks back and indeed looks around, she sees only scenes of sorrow and revulsion. Sick of being labelled a “minority” and eyeballed for not wearing a hijab, unable to forget a murdered uncle or forgive her enemies, Maha is forced to look to the future, to her impending new start in Canada. But before leaving Iraq, she too makes her way to church – the setting for Antoon’s explosive denouement.
The Baghdad Eucharist is a short read but one that lingers long in the mind due to its characters' candid testimonies. Antoon entrances with both his lavish set-pieces and tight thumbnail sketches. Maha's miscarriage, together with Youssef's doomed love affair with a Muslim girl 20 years his junior, show suffering of a different kind. Antoon also manages to convey Youssef's anguish at the felling and burning of Baghdad's date palms – "so that the Americans can see the snipers and the snipers can see them".
Punctuating the gloom and tempering the foreboding are moments of supreme tenderness, such as Youssef comforting Maha as a little girl in a makeshift air-raid shelter in 1991, passing off Allied bombs – or “American fireworks” – as heavy rain. Complementing this, Youssef’s visit to see his old friend Saadoun is a heartwarming portrait of two indefatigable survivors who refuse to be beaten by war and terror.
Antoon has crafted a novel of rare brilliance which highlights the divisions within a family and their struggles within their city. Through two pairs of eyes we see how the past is a different country, and learn that in the present only resilience and reconciliation can keep families together. By the last dramatic act we’re cheering Youssef and Maha on, and applauding their creator for his depiction of, if not triumph over adversity, then courage under fire.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.