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The City and the Writer: In Baghdad with Sinan Antoon

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Baghdad as you feel/see it?

I don’t live (t)here, but it lives in me still. Melancholic. There are many Baghdad(s), all versions of an ideal(ized) Baghdad that seems to have existed in an inaccessible past, whether modern or premodern. The gap between the lived experience of these Baghdads and their representations in visual archives or collective memory keeps growing and inviting melancholy. History has been rather cruel to Baghdad in recent decades. When I lived there in my teens and twenties, it was a city shackled and disfigured by dictatorship and a long war with Iran (1980–88). History’s cruelties would multiply during the 1991 Gulf War, the debilitating sanctions (1990–2003), and the invasion, all courtesy of the country I live in now, the United States. The shackles of dictatorship were removed in 2003, but the US installed a sectarian regime of militias and opened the gates of terrorism and corruption. Baghdad had to endure more war, occupation, and sectarian violence. All this melancholy cultivates nostalgia for a future that resembles an imagined distant past. The only antidote recently has been the October 2019 uprising, spearheaded by a new generation of Baghdadis and other Iraqis who are fighting for a new Iraq. 


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

During the 1991 war I used to go with a friend in the daytime to survey the damage inflicted by the bombing of the previous night. The US had bombed one of the city’s bridges across the Tigris. It was my favorite bridge. I stood on the bank with tens of Baghdad’s inhabitants looking at the bridge. It looked like a broken smile.


What writers from here should we read?

The list is very long. Baghdad was founded in 762 and was the largest city in the world—the center of an empire—in its heyday. It attracted hundreds of poets and writers and was always a cultural magnet. Read Abu Nuwas, Bashshar b. Burd, Abu ‘l-Atahiya, al-Tawhidi, Ibn al-Hajjaj. In the modern period: Samir Naqqash, Gha’ib Tu’ma Farman, Nazik al-Mala’ika, and Muzaffar al-Nawwab, to name just a few.


Is there a place you return to often?

One of my favorite places in the city is Kahramana Square in al-Karrada. It’s one of the city’s landmarks. I love the statue of Kahramana, the ingenuous character from The Arabian Nights who saves the day, outwitting the forty thieves to save Ali Baba. In Muhammad Ghani Hikmat’s rendition, Kahramana is pouring water, not oil, into the forty jars and forming a web of fountains. Kahramana is the starting point for my walks through al-Karrada. I make sure to visit Kahramana every time I return to Baghdad.

“The city inhabits me. Its river runs through my soul.”

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Al-Mutanabbi Street, the booksellers’ market, is the place many are familiar with nowadays. A car bomb killed twenty and destroyed many of the stores, but it was rebuilt. My favorite iconic literary place is al-Baraziliyya Café on al-Rashid Street. It was established in the mid-1940s and named after the Brazilian coffee it sold. It was an important space where many of Iraq’s pioneering poets, artists, and intellectuals congregated to read, write, and argue. Students used to frequent the place. We used to go there when we were college students and aspiring poets in the 1980s. It was quite elegant and had a unique aura. I inquired about it when I returned in 2003 and was told that it had gone out of business and the block had been converted to storehouses in 1995.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

“Old” Baghdad has always intrigued me. I used to skip classes in high school and roam the old streets and markets. I still do that whenever I visit.


Where does passion live here?

In the hearts of the city’s denizens. In their voices as they hum an old song. But I must say that since October of last year and until this very moment, what moves me and brings tears to my eyes is the passion of the women and men who are protesting against injustice and trying to save their city and country from the dragon’s mouth. One of those who were killed was a dear friend.


What is the title of one of your works about Baghdad and what inspired it exactly?

My fourth novel, The Book of Collateral Damage, is about a bookseller in Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street who takes it upon himself to write a history of war, minute by minute, but privileging the voices and narratives of nonhuman objects, flora, and fauna. As for the “tributaries” to the novel, in the years that followed the 2003 invasion I was grappling with the perennial question of how to write about Iraq, a place that had suffered so much destruction. And where to begin? The concept of collateral damage had been haunting me since 1991. The seed of the novel was the idea of writing the history of one minute of war. I put it aside for years and wrote two other novels before returning to it.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Baghdad does an outside exist?

I have already crossed the halfway mark. I have lived more years “outside” Baghdad and Iraq than inside. But, paradoxically, I feel I am closer now. The city inhabits me. Its river runs through my soul. One of the most rewarding reactions I receive from Iraqi readers is, “It is as if you never left.”


Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born poet, novelist, scholar, and translator. He studied at Baghdad, Georgetown, and Harvard. He has published two collections of poetry and four novels. His most recent work is The Book of Collateral Damage (Yale University Press, 2019). His literary works have been translated into fourteen languages. His translations include In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish, which won the American Literary Translators Association Prize. Antoon’s translation of his own novel, The Corpse Washer, won the 2014 Saif Ghobash Prize for Literary Translation. His scholarly works include The Poetics of the Obscene: Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf (Palgrave, 2014) and articles on the poetry of Mahmoud, Darwish, Sargon Boulus, and Saadi Youssef. His op-eds have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, and many pan-Arab newspapers and journals. In 2003 Antoon returned to his native Baghdad to coproduce About Baghdad, a documentary about the lives of Iraqis under occupation. He is cofounder and coeditor of Jadaliyya and associate professor at New York University.


Related Reading:

"A Butterfly in New York," written and translated by Sinan Antoon

"Beyond the Trauma of War: Iraqi Literature Today" by Yasmeen Hanoosh

"The Last Six Days of Baghdad" by Mustapha Benfodil, translated by Lulu Norman


Published Jun 28, 2021   Copyright 2021 Nathalie Handal

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