Legend has it that in the eleventh century, when the very eccentric and possibly demented Caliph El Hakim needed some money, he wrote a letter to the governor of Jerusalem asking that a tax be levied. The governor wrote back that this was impossible–most of the people were poor, many of them monks who lived in caves in Wad er-Rabâbeh. El Hakim asked his scribe to write a letter with the command “Count the men.” Whether the scribe made a mistake or whether the letter was intercepted, no one really knows. But by the time the letter arrived in Jerusalem it read “Castrate the men.” In Arabic, the difference between the two verbs hasaa and khasaa is a single dot.

The history of the Arabic language is full of such tales, in which a dot can change the meaning of a word entirely. In fact, the original Arabic alphabet consisted of consonant letters only, some of which corresponded to multiple sounds. For example, the letter ha could be interpreted as the sounds ha, kha or ja. The ambiguity was resolved through semantic context. It was not until the seventh century that diacritical marks were added to consonants, creating a simple one-to-one association between letters and sounds. A dot over the ha turned it into the sound kha; a dot under, and it became ja; no dot, and it remained ha. This process was known as I`jaam, which can be translated as “providing diacritical marks” or, more simply, “dotting.” The term has its origin in the root `-j-m, which also means, among other things, “foreign,” “barbarian” and “obscure.” Thus, the word I`jaam can be used to refer to the clarification of a term but also to its obscurity.

In his slim but powerful book I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, the novelist Sinan Antoon takes advantage of the orthographic ambiguities of Arabic to explore themes of love, loss, identity and resistance in the face of political oppression. Born in 1967 to an Iraqi father and an American mother, Antoon came of age under Saddam’s despotic rule. He studied English literature at Baghdad University but left Iraq in 1991 and moved to the United States, where he completed a doctoral degree in Arabic literature. He is a poet, a novelist, a scholar and a translator. (His translation, with Munir Akash, Carolyn Forché and Amira El-Zein, of Mahmoud Darwish’s Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, was a finalist for the 2004 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation.) He has also co-directed and co-produced a documentary film, About Baghdad, about Iraq after the fall of Saddam and at the start of the American invasion.

To enter Antoon’s novel is to enter the surreal world of Saddam-era Iraq, where it is not advisable to throw newspapers in the trash because their front pages carry photos of the Great Leader, where kindergarten teachers write reports denouncing the jokes children make in school, where students are forced to leave class and attend huge rallies and where young men are found “unfit for military service” rather than “exempt” from it. But I`jaam also lets us enter the intimate world of a regular citizen in 1980s Iraq, a man who resists the regime in myriad ways: he uses a newspaper with the photo of Saddam as toilet paper, he turns Baathist mottos into jokes, he votes for Mickey Mouse in the student union elections and he uses a benign tumor as an excuse not to join the army.

I`jaam is presented to us as a manuscript found in 1989 in a file cabinet of the directorate of general security in Baghdad. An introductory page informs us that the manuscript was handwritten with no diacritical marks anywhere on it, which made the task of reading it very difficult. Nevertheless, a state employee named Talal Ahmad is charged with typing the text, and adding diacritical marks and punctuation, but Ahmad chooses to preserve the ambiguities suggested by the absence of dots. For instance, when we encounter the expression “Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation,” a footnote alerts us that the words can also be dotted to mean “Ministry of Culture and Information.” Ahmad’s hope is that by exposing the “profanity used by the writer to deride the sayings of our Father Leader,” the Baathist Party’s “values and achievements,” and the war against the “tyrannical enemy,” he will help identify the manuscript’s author and “anyone who facilitated this disgraceful transgression.”

I`jaam turns out to be something of a memoir. Its author is the single-named Furat, a young student of English literature at Baghdad University. One afternoon, as he is sitting on a campus bench, he is picked up by the redoubtable Mukhabarat services and taken to al-Waziriyya, where he is interrogated and brutally tortured. The narrative thread then shifts between past and present, allowing us to learn more about Furat at the same time as we are trying to find out why he has been kidnapped by the state. Having lost both his parents in a car accident, Furat lives with his grandmother, a devoutly religious woman who lights candles “in church after church for [his] safety.” He writes poetry but has a hard time getting published in newspapers like Jumhuriyya, which devote their literary pages to panegyrics for Saddam and find Furat’s work useless. Furat’s girlfriend, the beautiful and witty Areej, shares this love of poetry, but she too cautions him against making his hatred for the regime so apparent. For his senior thesis, he wants to write a paper on Orwell’s 1984, but the book is banned from the university library. The department chair suggests a different novel, but his thesis adviser rejects the topic altogether: “Who is this Orwell? Never heard of him.” The adviser, it turns out, has gotten his position because he spied for the Baath Party. In the car that takes Furat to prison, he recalls the improvisational singer Nazim Al-Ghazali: “Those who threw me/those that tortured me/on a distant bridge have left me.”

Like K. in The Trial, Furat never learns the exact charges against him, but we quickly suspect that they have something to do with his writing, his poetry–his use of words. The Mukhabarat officers who pick up Furat tell him they want to hear more of his “ideas” and his “famous sense of humor.” After weeks of torture, he finally gets an audience with an interrogator, who professes to be “a great admirer of poetry,” though he does not like Furat’s prose poems, which he calls “pure nonsense.” A change in poetic form is thus considered suspicious and a dangerous “foreign” fad. As Furat is led out and back to his cell, the interrogator speaks words familiar to every oppressor throughout history: “It’s no use. You’ll never be civilized.”

The Baathist state does not tolerate ambivalence of feelings on the part of its citizens, nor does it look kindly upon any ambiguity in their use of language. After all, any ambiguity requires room for interpretation, and such freedom is not allowed. “Forbidden” the narrator informs us, “was the most often-used word in the country.” In a nightmare triggered by the torture he has endured, Furat is told that the Great Leader has ordered all lexicons and dictionaries burned and that the government will soon distribute lists of allowable meanings to the people. In this black-and-white world, Furat’s decision to write a manuscript without dots, full of ambiguity, is his way of resisting the regime. Yet the depth and range of that resistance remains muted, if not ambiguous, since Furat’s manuscript has already been “dotted” by a state employee, and although some of the puns have been kept, the reader cannot help but wonder whether the original text contained even more ambiguities that were excised from the manuscript she is reading.

I`jaam was translated into English by Antoon himself, in collaboration with Rebecca Johnson. This was no doubt a formidable task for a novel that plays on the orthographic aspect of the Arabic language in order to increase ambiguity. The text is rendered idiomatically throughout, with only a handful of missteps. (Sentences such as “my heart began to applaud in ecstasy,” which may sound fine in Arabic, could have used a bit more inspiration in their English rendering.) There is also the challenge of translating a text where the dialogue is in Iraqi Arabic, while the narrative is in standard literary Arabic. Antoon and Johnson acquit themselves of this task admirably.

Structurally, too, this novel is a gem, with brief sections that shift in space and time, taking us through Furat’s relationship with his grandmother, his love affair with Areej, his trials and tribulations on campus. In addition, the dislocations in the text mirror the confusion that Furat experiences, as he loses track of time in prison. The narrative also includes chilling, nightmarish sequences that further enhance his sense of confusion. In one such sequence, Iraqi citizens are asked to donate their eyes for the war effort against Iran; Furat sees lines forming at a middle school, now an organ collection center, where military officers take note of people’s eye color. A state that literally takes away the eyes of its citizens, Antoon suggests, requires one to bear witness through any medium available. An undotted text calls upon us to exercise our freedom in interpreting it and to discover its hidden meanings. The nightmares that Furat shares are not confined to such visions, however; they extend to his political opinions:

A bunch of sadists get sunstroke and declare themselves saviors. Then they begin to torture people and ride them like mules, especially after they discover that this is easier, and perhaps more pleasurable, than fulfilling their promises. Later another group will come along to depose the first, bringing with them longer whips and chains of a more economic metal.

The nightmare that American readers of this novel may be waking up to these days is that their country is now the one holding the whips and the chains. Despite its political overtones, however, I`jaam works on an aesthetic level as well.

For its experimental nature, its portrayal of ordinary human beings struggling with oppression and above all its attention to language, it will be remembered as one of the essential Arab novels of its time.