Sinan Antoon, Ya Maryam (Beirut/Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2012).
Ya Maryam is Sinan Antoon’s third novel in Arabic, after I‘jam (Dar al-Adab, 2004) and The Pomegranate Alone (Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 2010). The first two have also been published in English translation. Ya Maryam (Ave Maria) was shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arabic Booker. The events in the novel, which is divided into five sections, take place after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first and third sections, titled “To Live in the Past,” are narrated by Yusuf. The second is titled “Pictures” and tells the story of members of Yusuf’s immediate family who are scattered in Canada, Lebanon and Sweden. The fourth and fifth sections are titled “The Sad Mother” and “The Sacred Sacrifice,” and are narrated by Maha, Yusuf’s relative who is temporarily living in his house with her husband.
The novel depicts the relation between the past and the present, focusing mostly on Yusuf and Maha’s stories. Maha is in her twenties studying medicine in Baghdad. The retired Yusuf is the only member of his immediate family who has stayed in Iraq. He tells his friend Sa‘doun about a dream he had where his house became a museum and he was the guide showing people around the rooms. He wonders:
Am I really escaping from the present to the refuge of the past, as she [Maha] accused? What is wrong with that, since the present is full of explosions, murder and brutality? Maybe the past is like the house’s garden that I love and take care of as if it were my daughter. In the garden, I escape from the noise and ugliness of life. It is my paradise in the midst of hell or the ‘autonomy area’ as I call it at times. I will protect it, together with the house, as they are all I have left.
I have to forgive her, as her time has been different from mine. She opened her green eyes to see war and sanctions, and experienced early in life the meaning of scarcity, murder and dispersion. I, on the other hand, lived through and remember the times of plenty and believe that it was reality.
Yusuf is guarding not only the house but also its memories. “It is more than a house, just as a palm tree is not only a tree but part of all that surrounds it.” Sa‘doun and Yusuf, two close friends, one Muslim and the other Christian, ponder the causes of sectarianism, something they never felt before. According to Sa‘doun, “There was always Sunni and Shi‘i, Christianity and Islam, but there was no murder, militias or explosions.” Although Yusuf did not attend church regularly, he loved the rituals and old traditions. He would imagine the voice of the priest, especially singing in Aramaic or Syriac, as if coming from deep, mysterious beginnings. “I see the ceremony as a celebration of life, birth, death and resurrection, not only for Jesus, but for all of us.”
Maha, on the other hand, wonders whether Yusuf and Sa‘doun are stuck in mourning the past. She sees Yusuf spending most of his time listening to old songs, reading books or enjoying his garden. “His beautiful garden is an island with no connection to the ugly outside world that I live in. If you sit in the garden you cannot even see the street. He does not deal with people like I do and does not hear or see what I witness every day. It is impossible for him to imagine what it feels like to be a woman being stared at [because she was not wearing a headscarf].” For two years, Maha resists donning the scarf when going out. In the past, she had worn one only in church. But she finally relents.
Thinking about the past, she admits that there were “gifts, celebrations and scattered happy moments that seem now like tiny islands floating upon a deep sea of sadness that swallowed those that I love or took them away from me.” And though she criticizes Yusuf for it, Maha too isolates herself from the outside world with the help of earplugs as “daily life becomes more merciful, and less violent and absurd, when it resembles silent movies.” When does the past begin or end, she muses, in 1963, 1979, 1991 or 2003? “Beginnings mix with endings. Each cries over its happy Iraq, and I felt, as I was looking through the pictures and commentary, that I have no happy time to long for. My happy time has not yet been born. Maybe I could be happy there, away from Iraq.”
Throughout the novel, Antoon employs a beautiful language full of yearning to describe a miserable reality. With biblical references to sacrifice and salvation, Ya Maryam ends with a commentary on political, religious and generational coexistence, and the emerging future in light of intertwining pasts and presents in Iraq.