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.”