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August 27, 2013

Book Notes - Sinan Antoon "The Corpse Washer"

The Corpse Washer

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sinan Antoon's second novel The Corpse Washer is as strong an exploration of the effect of war on individuals, families, and communities as I have ever read, yet is a book that glimmers with compassion and hope.

The National wrote of the book:

"The Corpse Washer is a remarkable achievement . . . a compact masterpiece, a taut, powerful and utterly absorbing tale that, with luck, will secure Antoon a wider, more international readership."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is Sinan Antoon's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Corpse Washer:

Nietzsche said "Without music, life would be an error." I recall this quote everyday. Without music, I would not have been able to write, or write for very long. I never write without my headphones on. It is predominantly classical music (piano) and oud (the guitar's ancestor), or Jazz, but other genres too depending on the mood. At times the music itself engenders a poem or a scene I had not planned beforehand.

The Corpse Washer, my second novel, is about Jawad, a talented young man who is born into a Shi`i family of traditional corpse washers in Baghdad. He is trained and expected to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors, but he rebels against his father's wishes and decides to study art. Iraq's economy collapses after the 1991 Gulf War and the devastating U.N/U.S economic embargo (1991-2003). Jawad's degree in art is useless. He can only get him a job painting houses and his artistic dreams are put on hold. His father dies right after the 2003 invasion and he is forced to go back to the profession he worked so hard to escape. The sectarian civil war makes death a most lucrative business in Iraq. Jawad has to face the piles of corpses on a daily basis. Being non-sectarian and secular, his alienation is compounded in an increasingly sectarian and violent Iraq.

The novel was difficult to write not only because of its subject, but because I had left Iraq in 1991 and returned only once in 2003, yet was writing about recent events. In addition to the required research, traditional Iraqi songs and music, especially maqamat, helped me inhabit my narrator and characters and live with them.

The following tracks accompanied me as I wrote (some of the songs are mentioned in the novel):

1. Munir Bashir, Maqamat


2. Anouar Brahim, Le Pas Du Chat Noir


3. Kamilya Jubran (Sabreen), Moment (Lahza)

After returning to corpse washing and shrouding, Jawad's life is quite grim and hopeless until Ghayda' appears in his life. She is young and optimistic despite losing her father. Jawad, however, is emotionally drained by death and is incapable of even imagining any sort of commitment. He lives in and for the moment.

Kamilya Jubran, formerly of Sabreen, sings these apt lyrics (from a poem by the Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003)) that describe Jawad's take:

"I wish for silence, stillness/Don't tell me "there was" or "there will be"/Don't talk to me about yesterday/Don't go to tomorrow/This moment has no before or after/. . . /This moment and nothing else/A blooms opening in our hands/No fruit and no roots/A blossom of immediate beauty/Let's hold it before it passes/Blessed is our moment/My love."


4. Beethoven, Piano Sonatas

Jawad's passion for art as a youngster and his desire for beauty and life, rather than death.


5. Zbignew Preisner, Damage (film soundtrack)

Preisner's scores are haunting. The sadness and despair in Damage was consonant with the mood of the novel, especially the narrator's impossible or truncated love affairs.


6. Berlioz, Requiem

I often listen to Mozart's (and Berlioz's) requiem when I write. This novel was described by someone as a requiem for Iraq and I agree. Economic hardship and his mother's illness force Jawad to finally give in and wash and shroud corpses to make ends meet. His daily encounters with death at the height of the sectarian civil war are devastating emotionally. Berlioz took me to Baghdad!


7. Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner, Ojos Negros, especially "Tango a mi Padre"

One of themes of The Corpse Washer is the generational conflict between Jawad and his father. The latter does not understand his son's desire to be an artist and to escape death and its rituals. Jawad never understands the depth of his father's commitment to his profession and the necessity of these rituals beyond faith until he faces death on a daily basis.


8. Sabah Fakhri, Let me be, people! (Sibuni ya Nas)

This Syrian singer from Aleppo is legendary in the Arab world and has a very powerful voice. In the novel Jawad sings this song about wanting to be left alone. I, too, sing it quite often!


9. Yusif `Umar, So Unfair of You (Hadha mu Insaf Minnak)

When Jawad's uncle returns for a visit in 2003 after being in exile for twenty-four years, he sings this song about the unfairness of separation:

"So unfair of you/To be gone for so long/What will I tell people/When they ask about you?/You left my heart burning/Reeling from your absence/So unfair of you and so cruel/What will I tell people/When they ask about you?/How could you ever/Let me down and betray me?/Never think my heart will heal/Never think the pain will go away/What will I tell people/When they ask about you?"

Although not originally by Yusif `Umar, I like his rendition and this is the best quality available. The song was originally sung by one of my favorite singers of all time, the Jewish-Iraqi diva, Salima Murad (1901-1074) who was quite famous and influential. Here is one of her last public appearances in the late 1960s in Baghdad singing this song:

Here is another version by Ilham al-Madfa`i:


10. Yusif `Umar, Pomegranates Surround Me (Chal chal `alayya r-rumman)
(And a another version by Ilham al-Madfa`i)

The pomegranate tree occupies a central role in The Corpse Washer. According to Islamic ritual, a piece from a branch of a pomegranate or a palm tree, must be placed next to the shrouded corpse of the dead. The water used to wash the dead is not supposed to mix with sewage water. In The Corpse Washer, a pomegranate tree stands the small garden behind the mghaysil (washhouse) is watered by death. Jawad sits there at times contemplating how life and death are intertwined.

This song is an old Iraqi song about someone being surrounded by pomegranate branches and a lemon tree comes to the rescue. It is said to have political symbolism in relation to the Ottomans and the British fighting over Iraq in the early 20th century, but it could also be about tenderness and yearning.


11. Basim al-Karbala'I, Where is this stranger from? (Hadha ‘l-Gharib Mnayn?)

Before deciding to leave Iraq and abandon corpse washing for good, the non-believing and non-practicing Jawad decides to join his mother on a visit to the Kazimayn Shrine in Baghdad for the annual commemoration of the death of al-Kazim. Musa al-Kazim, one of the revered Shi`ite imams, died in prison during the reign of Harun al-Rashid in 799. Jawad is drawn to the voice of Basim al-Karbala'i, the most popular performer of Shi`ite lamentations and eulogies and he hears that he was performing that day. As he listens to the chant, surrounded by hundreds of mourners, Jawad silently addresses al-Kazim and identifies with his plight. He, too, is a stranger among his people, but is mourning himself and his life.

Where does this stranger come from?
Where are his kith and kin?
Of poison he died in prison
No crime nor harm had he committed
Woe unto the poisoned one!
He spent his life grieving


Sinan Antoon and The Corpse Washer links:

Minneapolis Star Tribune review
The National review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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