An Iraqi Rhapsody

Press Reviews

The Edinburgh Review

"This is an imagining not only of one writer's imprisonment in a specific country, but of the ways in which governments try to imprison thought itself. . . . The excellent translation, which copes even with the puns, can itself be understood as a work of a distinctive voice: sharp, grimly humorous, humane, a compelling spokesman for the silenced." —Michael Lister, The Edinburgh Review

carp(e) libris
"[I'jaam] is deeply human, and no matter what your race, religion, or ethnicity, you will walking away with more understanding and compassion."
—Diane Kidman

Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississsippi River Valley
“Antoon’s novel offers a unique presentation for an intimate portrait of Iraqi life…[I’jaam] is not a linear story but a swirling mosaic of poignant reality and horrifying madness, where the reader sometimes has difficulty seeing its boundaries.  Yet Antoon’s voice cuts through the confusion to mold a tale that is emotionally and intellectually compelling. …[T]he result is an intriguing postmodern account as the reader considers the power and ambiguity of language.  I’jaam is not memorable only for its linguistic originality, however.  Its significance lies in the tale’s empathy and universality.  The novel is not politically-centered or narrow-minded, but driven instead by the humanity of the tale and its relevance to any society. …Antoon’s novel is compelling as a well-constructed story and thought-provoking with the depth of multifaceted social commentary.  I’jaam is a refreshingly complex political account that confronts the ugliness and universality of human faults.”
—Karissa Scott

World Literature Today

"Much of the novel's power [lies in] its success in making the writing process a center of attention. . . . There is an impressive attempt here to create an English version that carries the same linguistic ironies found in the original. . . . the language, which at times descends to repulsive realism, is on other occasions alleviated by inspiringly lyrical bursts. . . "

—Saad A. Albazei, King Saud University, Riyadh

 "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 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. . . . The prisoner intersperses terse reports of his ordeal among memories of a literary rebellion, friendship and love."

Library Journal
"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. Allowing for some past perspective, the narrative attempts to shed light on the terrorized life of certain Iraqi citizens under Saddam Hussein's rule. "

Los Angeles Times
"SINAN ANTOON's novel too is a fictional memoir — of a student/poet in solitary detention for having ridiculed Saddam Hussein. A guard with literary aspirations gives him some paper and tells him to write. The student remembers his childhood and the young woman he loves. He writes, with contempt, of life under Hussein, concealing his sarcasm by omitting the dots, or diacritics, and thereby changing the meaning of words — "revolution" becomes "revulsion," "referendum" becomes "pudendum," "species" becomes "feces." (I'jaam, the author explains in a note, means "dotting," and thus "clarifying.") He refers repeatedly to "our great Leader" and the "National Regress" (instead of National Congress). Raped by his guards, he falls into surreal reverie. The student's dreams, memories and fantasies are eerily beautiful — he enters a reality far preferable to the one he has lived in for most of his life.

Antoon is an Iraqi author and filmmaker. In 2003, he co-directed "About Baghdad," a documentary of Iraq under American occupation."

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

Feminist Review
"The real brilliance of this novel comes from Antoon’s ability to illustrate the tense relationship between culture, history and oppression with subtlety and potency. The narrator struggles to keep his passion for poetry and literature alive as the government attempts to regulate which forms of expression are acceptable and which are not." Arwa Ibrahim, – Feminist Review

Rayyan Al-Shawaf, The Tennessean
". . . I'jaam nevertheless boasts a few deliciously surreal sequences depicting Baathist Iraq. In one scene, sadistic guards beat soccer spectators clamoring for seats at a stadium, with one screaming, 'You'll never be civilized! Never!' as he strikes the hapless fans with his baton."

KIrkus Reviews
"A native of Iraq, he conceived I'jaam -- a searing look at life under Saddam Hussein's regime, related in the form of diary entries written by a prisoner -- in the 1980s, when we he was still living there."
-- "First Fiction Spotlight -- Promising Debuts from Important New Voices"

Banipal UK
". . . reads as a miniature of Iraqi suffering from the Baathists to Bush. . . Antoon's achievement is to  tip us into real lives: those of all the real unknown prisoners, from Iraq to Guantanamo and its gulag, and on."
—Judith Kazantzis

Slug Magazine
"I’jaam personalizes the experience of an Iraqi prisoner under the reign of Saddam. It makes a story that we’ve read a million times a story that we can relate to on a human level. Antoon’s well-crafted prose gives light to an important story of human struggle that is often left untouched."—Jeanette Moses

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
"Author, educator, filmmaker, poet and translator Sinan Antoon is a bright new star in the rich stratosphere of Arab ‘adab, or belles lettres. . .Antoon’s ease with both Iraqi and U.S. society, as well as his melding of past and present understandings, inform his (and thus the reader’s) view of current society. I`jaam’s astute social and political commentary make it an important book, as does its moving and disturbing beauty. Sinan Antoon is indeed a worthy successor to the tradition of Arab humanist described by the late Edward Said as 'scholar-activists.'"
—Sara Powell

The Nation
"In his slim but powerful book I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, the novelist Sinan Antoon takes advantage of the orthographic ambiguities of Arabic to explore themes of love, loss, identity and resistance in the face of political oppression. . .An undotted text calls upon us to exercise our freedom in interpreting it and to discover its hidden meanings. . .For its experimental nature, its portrayal of ordinary human beings struggling with oppression and above all its attention to language, it will be remembered as one of the essential Arab novels of its time." –Laila Lalami

The Complete Review
"Antoon's clever premise is that the manuscript consists entirely of an undotted text; the book begins with the authorities sending it to someone to fill in the dots, as it were, rendering it comprehensible. . . The account veers between straightforward narrative and a few flights of poetic fancy, but on the whole it's a very approachable text and gives a good sense of what life was like under Saddam Hussein's regime."

"Antoon writes in a beautifully crafted style, with wit and irony. . . The diary, written on paper from a supposedly sympathetic guard, mixes Furat's observations with memories, dreams, and hallucinations, including memories of a love affair and visions of letters of the alphabet falling like leaves from trees, or fighting with each other."
—Susannah Tarbush


"Sinan Antoon writes with an assurance of voice, a clear redefinition of form and narrative, and compelling and beautiful language. Iraqi in origin, but global in its scope, this book is deeply human." -Chris Abani, author of The Virgin of Flames and GraceLand

"Sinan Antoon's I'Jaam is a stunning work, as it brings to the present a world of terror we know about, we have previously read about, but which usually seems remote, unreal. It takes a great talent to make it so specific, so Iraqi in this case, and so personal. This author shows the particular sadistic humor that goes with cruelty, a "cultural" slant that makes us identify it with the places where it happens. Evil becomes thus both general, universal, and particular. The nightmare gains familiarity, reality." -Etel Adnan, author of Sitt Marie Rose and In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country

“Sinan Antoon’s novel traces, across time, space and faces, how the life of a young generation under a barbaric regime becomes an existential minefield. Life is no more what it is. Everything is a trace of itself. Even daily language is cluttered with debris from the mines of hell. Incessantly targeted in a nightmarish atmosphere, the individual can only save him/herself with the stubbornness of an animal." -Saadi Youssef, author of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems

"In this beautiful and brilliant novel, Sinan Antoon expresses the voice of those whose voices were robbed by oppression, stressing the fact that literature can at times be the only framework to protect human experiences from falling into oblivion. I`jaam is an honest and exciting window onto Iraq, written with both love and bitter sarcasm, hope and despair. It does not only illuminate reality in Iraq prior to the American invasion, but also the human experience in its insistence on resisting oppression and injustice." -Elias Khoury, author of Gate of the SunElias Khoury, author of Gate of the Sun

"Brief, bitter and bracing, I‘jaam displays all the dangerous prismatic grace and light of shattered glass. Nuanced and direct, Antoon’s razor-sharp voice rises out of the prisons and mass graves of Iraq during the era when Saddam Hussein enjoyed U.S. government support and no one heard these voices silenced in their tens and hundreds of thousands. The hopeful tenderness of this voice goes on speaking now, and we can be grateful that a new translation allows us, finally, to hear it. In this time of endless war, it tells (again) a story we needed so many lives ago." -Sesshu Foster, author of Atomik Aztex