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‘Khuzama’: Sinan Antoon’s Latest Novel Explores Themes of Homeland and Memory

The internationally renowned Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon’s new novel “Khuzama” explores the homesickness and alienation of two very different Iraqi émigrés to the United States.

Antoon relates in parallel the stories of the two protagonists, who are united by the Iraqi diaspora but separated by differing destinies and perceptions of their homeland through memory and the present.

The relevance of the novel’s title, “Khuzama” (Arabic for lavender), becomes clear as the flower’s scent triggers memories that illustrate complexities in the personality of the elderly Sami Al-Badry and the trials that Omar, the second protagonist, is going through.

The threads of Sami’s and Omar’s stories begin to intersect at a moment of hardship. The older cardiologist finds it hard to recall his memories, while Omar can find no escape from the clamour of his.

Published by Manshurat al-Jamal in Beirut, the novel begins with the older protagonist, Sami, finding it difficult to recognise his new American surroundings or remember his previous life in Iraq. He sees himself in photographs and but cannot recognise the people pictured with him. “Why did they put me in these pictures with these strangers?” he asks.

As the novel progresses, the reader realises that Sami is suffering the effects of old age and dementia. He used to be a cardiologist in Baghdad before emigrating to the United States after family tragedies in the wake of the U.S.-led Iraq war. His brother, a university professor, was assassinated, then his wife was killed, so Sami fled first to Dubai and then to the United States, where he settled with his son Saad and his grandchildren.

As his mental abilities deteriorate, however, Sami becomes a threat to himself and his family.

After being admitted to a specialiist centre, he gets medical and psychological treatment for his memory loss, but keeps insisting: “I want to go home. Baghdad is my home.” He rejects this new American atmosphere he knows nothing about.

In his dementia, Sami seems to believe he has never left Iraq. In one scene, Antoon describes Sami walking the streets in the United States, surprised by all the signs, pedestrians, and cars he sees. He notices Arabic voices coming from a Yemeni shop and wants to talk to the young Arab who owns it.   

“I want to go to Baghdad,” Sami tells him. “We are in Brooklyn, Hajj,” the young man replies.

The cover of the novel “Khuzama” by the Iraqi writer and academic Sinan Antoun.

Sami’s treatment includes vigorous attempts to reduce his hallucinations and anger attacks. Besides medicine, his caregiver, Carmen, contacts his family to ask permission to try music therapy.

Sami begins listening to Iraqi songs and others by the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, which Carmen finds can calm him. The memories evoked by these auditory experiences become linked to others triggered by smell. Sami recalls distant family memories after he smells a lavender-scented perfume. Thus, the senses in the novel play an important role in filling the holes of memory. 

An Alternate Identity

Omar, the novel’s second protagonist, experiences a bitter struggle over identity. He left Iraq for the United States only to fight daily battles of hiding his origins and trying to fit into American society.

He invents a new identity to get a job on a goat farm, convincing his employers that he is of Puerto Rican descent. Some customers, however, become curious about his physical appearance and accent, which they think suggest possible Arabic roots.

After frequent stumbles, Omar weaves a life story which gets more convincing to himself and others through repetition. He says his parents were Puerto Rican but did not speak much Spanish to him because they worked in the Gulf, where he grew up speaking Arabic. This explains his strange accent, he tells customers. To further this mask, Omar secretly starts learning basic Spanish.

All Omar wants is to live far from politics and war. Despite denying his origins to clients, he is known to U.S. authorities as an Iraqi refugee who arrived with a severed ear from being tortured as an Iraqi army deserter.

The novel’s narrative originally suggests no link between the stories of Omar and Sami, but the threads of the two stories begin to intersect at a moment of hardship. The old cardiologist finds it hard to recall his memories, while Omar can find no escape from the clamour of his.

Sinan Antoon’s Narrative Project

“Khuzama” is the fifth novel in Sinan Antoon’s project of telling Iraq’s recent history of war and dictatorship.

His first novel, “I`jaam” (2003), was translated to English as “I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody” (City Lights, 2006). Other novels include “Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman” (“The Pomegranate Alone”, 2010), which Yale University Press published in Antoon’s own English translation as “The Corpse Washer” in 2013; “Ya Maryam” (“Ave Maria”, 2012), translated to English as “The Baghdad Eucharist” (Hoopoe Fiction, 2017); and “Fihris” (2016), translated to English as “The Book of Collateral Damage” (Yale University Press, 2019).

Antoon likes having his characters speak in the Iraqi colloquial dialect, a preference that suffuses his novels with a particularly Iraqi feeling but can make them difficult for non-Iraqi Arab readers to follow.

Antoon’s works have been translated into 20 languages and have won international awards, as did the French translation of “The Pomegranate Alone,” which won the Arab World Institute’s 2017 Prix de la Litterateur Arabe for the best Arabic novel published in France.  

Besides his novels, Antoon has also published three collections of poetry and numerous essays in Arabic, as well as translations of other Arabic writers’ works to English, notably Mahmoud Darwish’s last prose book, “In the Presence of Absence”.

He is also an associate professor of Arabic literature at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He earned a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic studies from Harvard University in 2006 and also holds degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Baghdad.

Although immersed in the themes of homeland and alienation, “Khuzama”  also shows Antoon’s liking for putting his protagonists’ dialogues in the Iraqi colloquial dialect. This practice suffuses his novels with a particularly Iraqi feeling but can make them difficult for non-Iraqi Arab readers to follow.

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