Book of Collateral Damage

Sinan Antoon—

A drop of sweat fell on the edge of the piece of paper and I stopped reading. His handwriting was neat and confident. The ink was black, maybe from a ballpoint pen. The words were perched like birds on lines that looked like small sky-blue threads running across small brown pages. I probably thought of this because he had written about the sky and flying. The passage reminded me of the storks’ nest I used to see in Shorja on the dome of a building when I was young. I turned the page. The title of the passage that followed also began with the word colloquy.

The air-conditioning unit in the room was panting and sputtering, and the pores of my skin were oozing sweat from the heat. I wiped the drop of sweat off the page with my finger and caught another one that was rolling down my forehead and about to drop. I left the pages on the bed next to the buff-colored notebook, stood up, went to the air-conditioning unit, and turned the dial counterclockwise as far as possible. I went to the bathroom and washed my face in cold water. I dried it with the towel and went back to stand in front of the air-conditioning unit for thirty seconds. I thought about the long, tiring journey to Amman. I had to pack and sleep a little, because we were scheduled to leave Baghdad at six a.m. I went back to the bed and read his letter a second time:

Dear Mr. al-Baghdadi,

I hope you had a productive day in the arms of your fatigued Baghdad. Apologies for intruding and daring to disturb you. But I’ve thought long and hard about the happy coincidence that brought us together and about your sincere interest in my project and your kind offer to translate it (although I’m not in a hurry to have it translated or even published, as I mentioned, at least not for now). I decided to take a risk and lay claim to more of your generosity and kindness. I sat down waiting for you at the hotel reception until half an hour before the start of the curfew so that I could deliver this part of the manuscript to you personally, but you didn’t come back. That’s why I’m writing this letter. I attach the first chapter (it’s the history of the first minute, which has yet to be completed, and I do have my own opinions on whether texts end or not and I might tell you about them in the future). I hope you like it and I hope you’ll give me your opinion with the candor and rigor of a critic and a writer, even if it is negative.

With this letter you’ll find a simple gift, because books are all I have in this world. I’ll try to obtain an email account so that we can communicate across the continents and the oceans. Thank you in advance and I apologize again if I was a little rude at the beginning of our meeting. I’m not usually much good at dealing with people and I prefer books, because they never hurt or betray.

With affection,
Your brother,
Wadood Abdulkarim,
July 29, 2003

He’s not interested in being translated or published. So why is he sharing his manuscript with me so readily? Does he care that much what a stranger thinks? He’s strange, this Wadood. I folded the letter up and put it in the notebook I had bought specially to record my impressions during this visit. It had large pages that were slightly tan. The edges were stitched and trimmed unevenly to look like an old book. It had a thick cover of buff leather and a thin red ribbon attached to the top of the spine as a place marker. The marker was still on the first page, where I had written just one word since arriving: Baghdad.

I envied Wadood his productivity. I can’t even begin. And all this concern, or rather obsession, with writing rituals and instruments only ends in blank pages and silence. This visit had of course been hectic and hurried, and the pace of the work and daily travel exhausted me physically and mentally, leaving no time to write or even to think in peace. I have yet to start processing the whirl of scenes and people and ambivalent emotions. Nevertheless, I should have written something. One sentence at least. Every night I came back exhausted and sat on the bed. I picked up my pen but didn’t manage to write anything. The first night was the only night I wrote anything—that one word, Baghdad.

I went back to thinking about his manuscript and his gift, which wasn’t simple at all. Yes, it wasn’t the first edition, only the second, but it was the first part of the collected poems of Abbud al-Karkhi, and it does date back to 1956 and I think it’s rare. The book is in excellent condition. I browsed through the first few pages. There was a dedication to King Ghazi and a photograph of him on the next page, then one of al-Karkhi. The introduction was a collection of tributes and essays: there was a poem by al-Rusafi entitled “To the Poet of the Nation” (What a fine man you are, Abbud / With your rhymes you raise the banner of zajal), another poem by al-Zahawi, an essay by Raphael Butti on the use of colloquial Arabic in poetry and prose, one by al-Rusafi on zajal poetry and popular forms of literature, another one by Mohammad Bahjat al-Athari on colloquial and classical Arabic, and then, finally, the poems themselves. As I expected, “The Crusher,” al-Karkhi’s most famous poem, was the first in the collection. I fell asleep before I was halfway through and dreamed that al-Karkhi was our driver on the journey to Amman. All the way he recited his poems and explained their context and how they came about, but Roy kept insisting that I translate them. I lost my temper with him and said, “Poetry can’t be translated that way. We’re not at a press conference!” And I kept repeating, “One hour and I’ll break the crusher / And curse this damned life of mine.” Al-Karkhi roared with laughter and said, “How did you get stuck with them?”

I woke up to loud banging on the door of my room and Roy’s voice saying, “Come on, Nameer. We have to leave in half an hour. Don’t you want to eat breakfast?”

From Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon; Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, and translator, and an associate professor at New York University. Born in Baghdad, he left Iraq after the Gulf War. He is the author of several books, including The Corpse Washer, and his award-winning works have been translated into thirteen languages. 

Jonathan Wright is an award-winning translator of works by authors including Ahmed Saadawi, Saud Alsanousi, and Youssef Ziedan.

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Featured photo by Levi Clancy on Unsplash

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