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I'Jaam Cover

AUTHOR BIO (from City Lights Publishers and New York University)

Sinan Antoon was born in Baghdad in 1967. He currently teaches at New York University where his teaching and research interests lie in pre-modern Arabo-Islamic culture, and contemporary Arab culture and politics. His dissertation, "The Poetics of the Obscene," is the first study of the 10th-century Arab poet Ibn al-Hajjaj. In 2002, he was awarded a Mellon Grant to support his research in the Middle East. Antoon's poems and essays (in Arabic and English) have appeared in The Nation, Middle East Report, al-Ahram Weekly, Banipal and the Journal of Palestine Studies, among others. He has also published a collection of poems, Mawshur Muballal bil-Huroob (A Prism; Wet with Wars), and a novel, I`jaam (with City Lights this year.) His poetry was anthologized in Iraqi Poetry Today. He has also contributed numerous translations of Arabic poetry into English, and his co-translation of Mahmud Darwish's poetry was nominated for the PEN Prize for translation in 2004.

Antoon returned to Baghdad in 2003 as a member of InCounter Productions to film a documentary, "About Baghdad," about the lives of Iraqis in a post-Saddam occupied Iraq, which he co-produced and co-directed. He is a senior editor for Arab Studies Journal, a member of Pen America, a contributing editor to Banipal, and a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report. Sinan has been interviewed on PRI's "The World" and "Democracy Now". I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody has received excellent reviews in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. In recent years, he was interviewed on NPR's "All Things Considered."

SUMMARY OF I'JAAM (from City Lights)

An inventory of the General Security headquarters in central Baghdad reveals an obscure manuscript. Written by a young man in detention, the prose moves from prison life, to adolescent memories, to frightening hallucinations, and what emerges is a portrait of life in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In the tradition of Kafka's The Trial or Orwell's 1984, I'jaam offers insight into life under an oppressive political regime and how that oppression works. This is a stunning debut by a major young Iraqi writer-in-exile.


  1. What is your sense of the meaning of the word "rhapsody?" A rhapsody can be defined as an exalted or enthusiastic expression of feeling in speech or a state of bliss or elation. One famous example in popular culture is George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Does this book seem like a rhapsody? One aspect of a musical form is the repetition of certain elements. In I'jaam the phrase "I awoke to find myself (t)here" is repeated after which a memory is narrated either of being in prison or of Furat's life before being imprisoned. How did this method of telling the story work for you?

  2. The introduction and note by the translators point out that the title of I'jaam refers to a way of writing in Arabic that creates double or multiple meanings which clarify and elucidate the word used. The translators (Rebecca C Johnson and the author) use near-homonyms and rhyming words, along with footnotes, to reproduce this effect in English. For example they use the word "feces" for "species" and the "Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation" for the "Ministry of Culture and Information." How did this affect your reading of the story? Is it fun or funny? Does it get in the way of the storytelling? How might it constitute resistance to authority on the part of the author?

  3. How do you feel about main character Furat's actions in the novel, such as choosing to write about George Orwell's 1984 for his senior thesis, his relationship with Falah, submitting stories to a magazine that were rejected for not being politically correct? How did you feel about the character of the grandmother? Did you find you identify with one of these characters?

  4. Does reading I'jaam remind you of a situation in which you had no control and where you wanted not to be there? Did this situation occur because of your resistance to authority? Is your memory of the experience clear and sequential, or foggy and freeform?

  5. How is I'jaam like 1984 by George Orwell or other works you have read or watched about police states or countries dominated by one "glorious leader?" Have you or anyone close to you ever lived in such a place?

  6. How does the sense you have of Iraq after reading I'jaam relate to the Iraq you have seen on TV, films, online and in print news sources? Has reading I'jaam changed your perspective?

This reading group guide is provided by Small Press Distribution to Engage as You Age as part of the "I Remember Project" to support reading groups for seniors in Marin Country. SPD's "I Remember Project" is generously supported by the Marin Community Foundation.

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