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An Iraqi Rhapsody: Poet & Novelist Sinan Antoon on the U.S. Destruction of the Iraqi State, His Latest Novel and the Sad Statement that Iraq was Better Under Saddam Hussein

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Iraqi-born poet and novelist Sinan Antoon joins us in our firehouse studio to discuss the U.S. occupation of Iraq, his latest novel, “I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody,” poetry and much more. Antoon says, “Even if there is withdrawal, it’s going to be withdrawal Israeli-style: from urban centers to the military bases … that have been built there with millions and millions of dollars. This is the old colonial style: When it’s too costly, you let the natives kill each other, let the natives police each other.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to another Iraqi voice, Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born poet, novelist, filmmaker. He left Iraq in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War, currently teaches Arabic literature at New York University. His poems and essays have been widely published in both Arabic and English. In the summer of 2003, Sinan returned to Baghdad with a group of filmmakers to co-direct About Baghdad, an acclaimed documentary about Iraq under U.S. occupation. His novel I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody was recently published in English, and a collection of his poetry was also published in June, called The Baghdad Blues. He’s a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report. Sinan Antoon joins us in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SINAN ANTOON: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: As you listen to your fellow Iraqis speaking about the oil law, your thoughts?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, frankly, it gives me hope, because even under terrible conditions and a military occupation, these people are fighting and organizing really to resist what I would think would be the last nail in the Iraqi coffin, this oil law, because with all of the destruction to the infrastructure and the damage to human life and material in Iraq, what’s left for Iraq, if anything is left, is the oil reserves for the future, to rebuild the country. And if that also is given to foreign corporations, then there’s no hope left for Iraqis and for future generations. So I am proud — and I think every human being, citizen of this world, should be proud — of these people who, under terrible and difficult conditions, are fighting these powerful oil corporations and, you know, the United States with all of its might.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it like watching your country from afar?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, it’s devastating, even for someone who — I mean, I’m not a nationalist, but I think any human being with a conscience should be, you know — would be really saddened by what’s happening, because here is a country that had seen so much violence and had gone through wars that were supported by the so-called civilized world. And not that there’s any, you know, any linearity in history where you expect any justice from history, but it’s just too much, I think, for one people to go through in the last three decades.

But I just want to point out that the tragedies that the Iraqis are going through right now, of course, were compounded by the latest invasion. But they started a long time ago, and it’s important for American citizens to understand the responsibility of this country goes way back to supporting the Baathist takeover of power in Iraq and also supporting the Saddam regime while it was building its reign of terror and destroying Iraqi lives during the Iran-Iraq War. So 2003 and the invasion is a culmination for a long policy that’s been going on for three decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to those who say, “Are you going to say Iraq was better under Saddam Hussein?”

SINAN ANTOON: You know, I had hoped that I would never say that, but if you want to go to the question of either/or, which now we are used to, of course life was better under Saddam Hussein than now. That does not mean that I or those who say that are pro-dictatorship.

But the reality is, for average citizens and human beings, most of us would want to live under, you know — when we have electricity, we have the basic services, we have water, there is police, there is order on the street. Most people, if they have this choice of living under dictatorship, while having electricity and water and knowing what the red lines are — under Saddam, people knew what to do to stay alive. You don’t organize politically, of course. You don’t say anything against the regime. You can have a relatively safe life, that is, if you have no political ambitions and don’t say anything.

But now, it’s a complete collapse and chaos. You could be just walking down the street and be killed. So, of course, life was better under Saddam Hussein. Also, that does not mean that Saddam was better, but under Saddam Hussein there was something called the Iraqi state. I want to emphasize that what the U.S. did is not only overthrow Saddam — that’s a byproduct — it destroyed the Iraqi state, which is something that took 85 years to build, all of its institutions and everything. That was not all the product of Saddam. Saddam was a latecomer. What the United States did is destroy an entire state, entire infrastructure, all of the institutions, so that there, you know — so, of course, life was better when you had a system that was functioning.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to proposals like those of Senator Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, to divide Iraq up, forget trying to keep it together, let there be a place of the Shia, a place of the Sunni, a Kurdistan?

SINAN ANTOON: I even wrote an article about that. First of all, it is not up to Senator Biden or any other senator to tell Iraqis how they should live their lives or divide their country. That’s number one.

Number two is the problem of this perspective of Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. It’s been repeated ad nauseum so that now it seems real. The fact is, these categories are not functioning categories, as well. And these are the product of the United States’ imperialist look upon Iraq. Sadly, since the invasion and because of the political system that Bremer put in place, he turned these ethno-religious identities into political identities, because they put the quota system in the governing council. But 10 or 15 years ago, people did not define themselves primarily as Sunni or Shiite and Kurds, you know. There were other kinds of identifications.

But the destruction of the social fabric of Iraq under the sanctions and the political void that was created by overthrowing a regime and then the political system that Bremer put in place — and the media also were parroting this thing about Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites with, you know, no consideration for class differences, urban and rural differences — let’s take, for example, the Shiites. It’s not that all Shiites want the same thing, you know. You know, middle-class Shiites in Najaf want something different from the downtrodden in Sadr City.

But most importantly, it’s not up to Senator Biden, who knows very little about Iraq, to tell Iraqis how to divide and rule their country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sinan Antoon. He’s a professor at New York University, Iraqi-born, left Iraq after the Gulf War, and has written two new books. One is I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody — I want to ask him about this book, about the novel about the imprisonment of a dissident in Iraq under Saddam — and also The Baghdad Blues. It’s a book of poetry. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Amer Tawfiq, singing in Iraq in 2003, filmed by, well, Sinan Antoon and his fellow filmmakers, who went to Iraq to capture life under occupation. Sinan Antoon is our guest, the Iraqi-born poet, novelist and filmmaker. When you returned from Iraq and came into our studio in 2003, returning after many years from being away — I think you came in actually in May of 2004 — we spoke to you about your trip to Baghdad, the first time you had returned since leaving Iraq after the Persian Gulf War. This is some of what you had to say.

SINAN ANTOON: It was very shocking to see the actual destruction, not just of the war, but, to me, the most damaging — and that’s what a lot of people in our film also say — is to the social fabric of Iraq. Really, the destruction of the structure of Iraqi society, which basically had gone on for a long time, started by Saddam as he was aided by the U.S., but the crucial, crucial factor is the 13 years of the sanctions, which really had, you know, driven Iraq to the edge, so that the war was the final blow. And, to me, it was just really depressing to see how drained and destroyed Iraqis are. I mean, they’re still resilient, at least, when we were there, and wanted to rebuild the country. But, really, people are really drained.

AMY GOODMAN: Sinan Antoon, three years ago, May 2004. Your thoughts today?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, sadly, you know, they have been drained even more, and even many of us or most of us who were against the war had thought that maybe something positive could come as a byproduct from the situation over there, not because of what the U.S. was doing, but because of Iraqis. But I don’t think Iraqis have been allowed to, you know, capitalize on any hope, and I think they have been stripped of everything. I mean, it’s enough to mention that three million Iraqis have left Iraq in the last three years to go to neighboring countries, creating —


SINAN ANTOON: Out of, you know, 26 million. And three million, at least, had already left in the ’90s because of the draconian sanctions, which, to my mind, are even worse than war. So, you know, everyone who can leave the country is leaving the country, because life is really unbearable. I mean, just going to get your groceries, as I read on Iraqi websites, is a major, major challenge, to go get your groceries without being shot.

AMY GOODMAN: Amer Tawfiq, who we were just listening to in break, you filmed him when you were there. Where is he today?

SINAN ANTOON: I don’t really know. We kept contact with him for a while after the film, but then we lost contact with him. And as I was telling you during the break, you know, sadly, I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, because so many people have been killed, especially those who are artists or professors and whatnot, because of all the complications and because of the sectarian violence. So I hope he’s alive somewhere in Iraq or in a neighboring country, but I do not know.

AMY GOODMAN: I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, what does that mean, “I’jaam”?

SINAN ANTOON: It’s a word that has two double meanings, antithetical meanings, that have to do with the Arabic script, because initially the Arabic script was without dots, although many of the letters had one or two or three dots. Initially, the dots were not actually written and could be understood from the context and the structure. And later, to avoid ambiguity in interpretation in reading, some suggested that the dots should be written, and because the dots were borrowed from a foreign language, which was Aramaic at the time, so dotting came to have two double meanings. One of them is elucidating and making something clear, but also because it was borrowed from a foreign language, it came to mean making something ambiguous.

And it has to do with the premise of the novel, is that a manuscript is found in one of the prisons that has no dots, and it seems that it was written by a prisoner, and then one of the security personnel is asked to add the dots and to decipher what the prisoner was thinking, but, of course, because there are a lot of puns and ambiguity, then the attempt of the kind of the state representative to understand what the prisoner was saying is also a challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a novel about a prisoner under Saddam Hussein.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us his story.

SINAN ANTOON: I just want to say first, preface, is that, I mean, it’s important to me as a novel first, but also during the '80s at the height of Saddam's oppression of Iraqis, we inside Iraq felt really lonely, because, you know, it was not an issue to the world. Now, you know, it’s a fad now. Everyone talks about the poor Iraqis and how they suffered under Saddam. But while the suffering was taking place, the entire so-called civilized world was aiding and abetting Saddam. So that’s the impetus for writing this story.

It’s basically about — the narrator gets taken into prison by the security personnel, but he does not know what is the reason for him being taken there. And then he gets tortured, and one of the guards gives him paper and tells him to write. So at first he’s afraid, because he thinks it’s a ploy to torture him further, but then he thinks if he writes in Arabic without dots, only he will be able to understand, and no one can implicate him. So it’s his attempt to kind of reconstruct his memory and also reminisce about being outside the prison and kind of to keep his sanity inside the prison, which, as we know, a lot of prisoners, that is the main challenge, is to keep their sanity while they’re in prison and to kind of resist the attempt to break them on so many levels.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re writing this book now, through this war, about Saddam Hussein, the times then and the brutality then. What were you thinking, as you were watching TV and seeing, well, the old Abu Ghraib, known for torture under Saddam, today?

SINAN ANTOON: I should point out the novel was finished before the war and published in Arabic. It only came later in English.

You know, the most eloquent statement I heard about it all was from someone walking down the street in Baghdad when we were filming, and he saw us interviewing people and asking them, and he said one thing that appears in the film. And he said, you know, “The apprentice is gone, and the master is here. The student is gone, and the teacher is here.” And that sums it all up.

I mean, I don’t want to equate dictatorship with military occupation, but from the standpoint of most Iraqis, the great majority of Iraqis, things only got worse. And to quote another Iraqi, who said, you know, “Everything that was good, that existed as good in the system, was destroyed by the United States, and everything that was terrible was compounded.” And this is what happened to Iraqis.

And Abu Ghraib is a great example. I mean, here is the symbol of Saddam’s oppression, and look what happened. You know, the great democracy, the light onto the nations, did the same things that Saddam did. And it’s more terrible, because Saddam was a dictator and never had, you know, pretense to democracy or human rights. But for the United States to practice the same practices against others, it is more atrocious.

And I should just point out that while we were filming in Baghdad, there were reports in the Arab press about atrocious incidents at Abu Ghraib, and we went there to film, but we were not allowed to go in by U.S. soldiers. And I remember us saying, the crew, something terrible must be happening inside if they don’t allow us to go in and film.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sinan Antoon. You have both I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, now translated into English, and your book, The Baghdad Blues, which is the compilation of your poetry. One of your poems is “A Prism: Wet with Wars.” Talk about that poem.

SINAN ANTOON: That poem was written in Baghdad in February of 1991. That’s another forgotten war, for the most part. You know, after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, there was so-called Desert Shield, that was then turned into Desert Storm. And while most of us Iraqis also understood that maybe Saddam should be evicted out of Kuwait, but what happened was a massive bombing and the total destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure back in 1991. I wrote that poem in the shelter, which was not even a shelter — it was a basement — while we were being bombed 24 hours a day for almost two months, and, you know, not knowing if we’re going to survive or not. So it was about the pain and the absurdity of war.

AMY GOODMAN: How old were you at the time?


AMY GOODMAN: Can you read a poem from The Baghdad Blues?

SINAN ANTOON: Maybe I’ll read that one, actually: “A Prism: Wet with Wars,” which was the title of the Arabic collection. “A Prism: Wet with Wars”:

this is the chapter of
this is our oasis
an angle where wars intersect
tyrants accumulate around our eyes
in the shackle’s verandah
there is enough space for applause
let us applaud

another evening climbs
the city’s candles
technological hoofs crush the night
a people is being slaughtered across short waves
but the radio vomits raw statements
and urges us to

with a skeleton of a burning umbrella
we receive this rain
a god sleeps on our flag
but the horizon is prophetless
maybe they will come if we
let us applaud

we will baptize our infants with smoke
plough their tongues
with flagrant war songs
or UN resolutions
teach them the bray of slogans
and leave them beside burning nipples
in an imminent wreckage
and applaud

before we weave an autumn for tyrants
we must cross this galaxy of barbed wires
and keep on repeating

AMY GOODMAN: Sinan Antoon, poet, novelist, filmmaker, professor. His book of poetry is called The Baghdad Blues. His now-translated-into-English novel is called I’jaam.

I wanted to ask you about President Bush’s July 4 speech. He gave it in West Virginia to the Air National Guard. He said, “Our first Independence Day celebration took place in the midst of war, a bloody and difficult struggle that would not end for six more years before America finally secured her freedom. More than two centuries later, it’s hard to imagine the Revolutionary War coming out any other way, but at the time America’s victory was far from certain.”

SINAN ANTOON: It’s ludicrous. And, you know, not that presidents are necessarily always more intelligent, but it’s amazing, because it’s — the analogy is flawed, because as, you know, a letter pointed out in The New York Times, it was the insurgents who won the war — right? — against British occupation. So this is the wrong example to use.

AMY GOODMAN: He goes on to say, “Those who wear the uniform are the successors of those who dropped their pitchforks and picked up their muskets to fight for liberty. Like those early patriots, you’re fighting a new and unprecedented war, pledging your lives in honor to defend our freedom and way of life. In this war, the weapons have changed and so have our enemies, but one thing remains the same: The men and women of the Guard stand ready to put on the uniform and fight for America.”

SINAN ANTOON: Well, what can I say? I mean, as I said, it’s tragicomic, because it’s a flawed example. But also, you know, the Americans who fought against British occupation did not fight with the aid of any foreign military troops, as the situation is in Iraq right now. And Iraqis now, I mean, are fighting against U.S. occupation in many, many ways. Of course, we, in the mainstream media, have more focus on the suicide bombings and the terrorist activities, but there are many incidents on a daily basis of Iraqi men and women fighting against, you know, the U.S. troops and foreign occupation, which is a universal right, so if President Bush is right, then he’s only, you know, nailing the — putting the last nail in his own coffin, because sooner or later, as it has always been, the United States military has to leave Iraq, because Iraqis, like other human beings, will not accept that.

AMY GOODMAN: If you were in charge, if you were president of the United States, what would you do now?

SINAN ANTOON: I would never want that, but first of all, an apology, a recognition of the mistakes and an apology, not only to Iraqis, but to the entire world, for what has happened and what has been done and for all the lies, and then a speedy withdrawal from Iraq as soon as possible, but also an international program to reconstruct Iraq and to compensate Iraqis for all the destruction that has been visited upon them and all the money that has been stolen from them in the last three years, especially.

AMY GOODMAN: What would Iraq look like if the U.S. soldiers left?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, unfortunately, because of many reasons, most of them having to do with the last three years, if and when U.S. soldiers and troops leave, there’s going to be more of the same. There’s going to be chaos, because we don’t have an intact or organized system over there. It will take time to sort out all the complexities and for the forces to kind of crystallize.

But I just want to say also that we’ve been embroiled in this debate about withdrawal. You know what? Even if there is withdrawal, it’s going to be withdrawal Israeli style, from urban centers to the military bases. Most people, Democrats and Republicans, are saying we are staying there for 10 or 50 or 60 years. So all this talk about withdrawal is just to fool the American people. It’s withdrawal from the urban centers to the military bases that have been built there with millions and millions of dollars, and to let the natives kill each other. This is old colonial style: When it’s too costly, you let the natives kill each other, let the natives police each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Is your family still in Iraq?

SINAN ANTOON: No, most of my family, the great majority of them, have left.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have plans to return?

SINAN ANTOON: We, with my, you know, comrades at In-Counter Productions, made the first film, have been wanting to go back to Iraq, but obviously it’s really dangerous and it’s very expensive to even go back to Iraq, because we don’t want to be killed, and it’s so easy to be killed right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And that international force that you see if the U.S. pulled out, who would spearhead it? The United Nations?

SINAN ANTOON: The United Nations, but it should have involvement from non-European, you know, Islamic countries, because, frankly, the Iraqis never had reason to trust, you know, Anglo-American troops. I mean, this is ridiculous. The memory of British colonialism is so fresh in the minds of Iraqis. Brits left Iraq in 1958. And why would Iraqis trust the very same forces that supported Saddam Hussein and supported the sanctions that destroyed them? And even if there was a shred of confidence in America or in the U.K., even if there was, it was lost after 2003. So they have no credibility whatsoever. Ideally, Iraq should be handed over to the U.N. or to an international — I know the U.N. has a lot of problems and the international system has a lot of problems, but Iraqis are better off with an international system than with the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. Sinan Antoon, thank you very much for being with us, author of I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, and his latest book of poetry is called The Baghdad Blues.

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