Thursday, December 4, 2014

December Arabic Authors Book Club - The Corpse Washer

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Tonight we had a lovely Arab authors book club where we discussed the book The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon.

We were fortunate enough to be only one degree away from Mr. Antoon, and despite a time difference, he was generous enough to accommodate us with a video question and answer session.

The Corpse Washer showcases the struggles of a single desperate family in contemporary Iraq.

It took me much longer to digest then other books because of the circumstances our protagonist, Jawad, has in his life.  He wanted nothing more then to be an artist yet the events of US invasion of his homeland changed his world and he had to give up his dream to return to his family business, washing the dead.

It was so sad. 

Yet so beautifully written that it did it with style and I would still highly recommend it. The description of the pomegranate tree alone is well worth the heart strings tugs.

Lest you think our evening was all talk of dead bodies and strife, it was also a good lesson in understanding other cultures.

As usual, we started with an amazing potluck dinner with spinach stew with lemon basrah & Iraqi meat loaf (a traditional dish from the authors' home town - The city of Mousel), batata bel syneh "potatoes and minced meat," Iraqi summac salad, and a few other dishes that were quite yummy.

As we all sat down to the table, we brought out the laptop and plugged away at reaching Mr. Antoon. He quickly came on and spent the next hour answer all our questions. Here are a few that struck a cord with me and I wanted to share.

Book Club - What did you want people to walk away learning from this book?

Sinan Antoon - Before I had the idea for this book, I was trying to figure out how I could portray people in a difficult war to the outside world. I needed them to see the Shi'ite in a different light, even thought I had to do a lot of research on the Shi'ite rituals, since I've never had contact with them. I came across an
article about a corpse washer in the paper, and how business for him was
too much right now, and I realized I needed to tell that story. My other books had never had this voice and I wanted people to hear it.

BC - Do you know the ending of a book before you start writing?

SA - Yes. Always.

BC - How do you translate poetry or other's writings from Arabic to English?

SA - First when I have a work, I translate it word for word, it is only when I go back that I start changing a few things, just to help with the flow. But the content needs to stay whole to still have the voice.

BC - Our book club is always struggling to find authors to read from the Arab world because so many countries are missing voices. What is being doing by the established authors to help these others find a way to share their stories?

SA - As you know, this is a difficult time for us, because of so many situations in different areas, but a few are trying to make a difference. Khaled Mattawa held a conference soon after the Libyan revolution to encourage writers and poets to record their history. But as you know, the country has once again become difficult to do anything right now. It is a struggle.

We ended the evening with a promise to Mr. Antoon to read more Arab authors and get their narratives heard.

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