By Sinan Antoon
Displaced by the sectarian violence in the city, Maha and her husband are taken in by a distant cous…Read more
Earlier this month, in a live chat, Hoopoe author Sinan Antoon spoke with Joshua Ralston, Reader in Christian-Muslim Relations at the University of Edinburgh, about the Iraqi’s writer four novels, including The Baghdad Eucharist (translated by Maia Tabet, Hoopoe, 2017).
Here is how their conversation started off. “I was in Cairo at the AUC Bookstore in Tahrir in 2017 and was flipping through the bookstore, and picked up The Baghdad Eucharist,” explained Ralston, director and co-founder of the Christian-Muslim Studies Network. “As a scholar of religion, theology, and Christian Muslim relations, it was actually the title that drew me to it.”
Antoon went on to describe the context in which he wrote the novel. “I come from a Christian background and one cannot change that, but I don’t like to always have that be the primary defining characteristics of a person. . . . In a way, I resisted writing about the Christian background because . . . I find it more challenging to write about something that is outside of my community.”
Throughout the novel, set in a war-torn Iraq, deeply divided by sectarian violence, Antoon explores the painful realities and inner confrontations of an Iraqi Christian family housed in Baghdad. Displaced by Christian–Muslim strife in the city, Maha and her husband are taken in by a distant cousin, Youssef. As the growing turmoil around them seeps into their household, a rare argument breaks out between the elderly Youssef and his young guest. Born into sanctions and war, Maha knows nothing of the good years in Iraq that Youssef holds so dear.
“I had started writing a novel about a house and a home, one’s relationship to one’s home,” explained Antoon. “Then the bombing of the Nejat Cathedral in Baghdad took place, the hostage taking, and the massacre. That was one of the many painful moments in Iraq’s recent history. . . . This caused me to change the course of the novel. Also at that time, what I had heard and read from Iraqis Christians inside Iraq and the diaspora, some of whom were my extended family, troubled me so much . . . they were reinventing the history of Christianity in Iraq from the current moment going backwards. . . . That’s in a way how the character of Maha entered and the novel still became about the home and the many levels of the home, the house, home as Iraq, and the different perspectives that are still out there.”
Elaborating further on the theme and metaphor of the home, Ralston noted: “The home is so central in the novel, whether it is the images on the wall, the pictures of the family, but also I think what you do so well with the perspective of both Youssef and Maha is that you are able, in a non-pedantic way, to show the variety of experiences of what it means to be a Christian in Iraq.”
Reinforcing that comment, Antoon added: “. . . This is the microcosm of the society that we live in. What I wanted to show is that there are two people who are living in the same house and experiencing the exact same events but of course they have a totally different perspective because of their age, their gender, their lived experience.”
Ralston, who teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses such as “Comparative Political Theology: Islam, Christianity, Secularism” and “Islamic Law: From Prayer to Politics,” noted that some of his colleagues have also used The Baghdad Eucharist in their own courses on religious studies or theology: “In part, because you are able to get in the complexity of lived reality in a way that often religious studies books are not able to account for. . . you don’t deny either person’s perspective and in fact your decision to divide the novel close to half between Maha’s perspective and Youssef’s perspective gives you that sense into this history of Iraq.”
During the hour-long online conversation, the Iraqi author and poet touched on his fascination for religious rituals (“I see them as works of art”), the presence of dreams and nightmares in his novels (“Maybe I should cut down on the nightmares!”), his deliberate choice of “fragmented” narratives and “reflective nostalgia” ( “I don’t like linear simplistic narratives”), and recurring themes such as “the Iraq of before.”
The conversation ended with questions from online listeners. When asked about the new novel he is working on, Antoon, who currently lives between in New York and Baghdad, and teaches at New York University, said: “It is about two Iraqis in the US—refugees from different periods–one is a refugee from the Saddam dictatorship and the other from the recent militia violence. It talks about the way the refugees see the new country [the US] and the old country [Iraq], that is ultimately determined by their class background and the way they acclimate to the new country. It is about contrasting these two ways of seeing what it means to be an Iraqi: does one completely forget Iraq and say “OK, I am done, I am an American now” or does one cling to the country that one is from and how does it work when one lives in a country that is still involved in Iraq.”
One of the five million Iraqis living in the diaspora, Antoon stressed that he always keeps a strong connection with his homeland. “I have always followed the news . . . I always want to know what is happening to Iraq because it’s important to me.”
Click here to listen to the complete conversation.