Earlier this year the English translation of Sinan Antoon’s Ya Maryam (‘Ave Maria’) was published. The brief novel first came out in Arabic in 2012, the year when it was also shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Maia Tabet’s translation under the equally fitting title The Baghad Eucharist is a harrowing read that unfortunately has lost nothing of its urgency in view of what happens to the Christians of the Middle East in general and those of Iraq in particular. A must-read, for its beautiful language and its power to evoke the world of Baghdad’s Christians.
Antoon needs only a few characters, the city of Baghdad and one long day to paint a deeply moving picture of the dreams, nostalgia, fear, doubts, anger and the faith of Iraq’s Christians. The novel is structured around the opposing perspectives of two members of the same family: the young woman Maha, in her twenties, and her unmarried uncle Youssef in whose house she lives with her husband after she lost their unborn son in an attack at their family home in Dawra. Maha is finalizing her medical studies and is eager to leave the country, whereas the retired bachelor Youssef stubbornly resists leaving the house his father built even though only one of his friends of old remains and most of his siblings have left the country. Bascially, the novel is built up around a description of one day of each of their lives, whose events make them both reflect on their pasts.
Their reflective mood is started off by an argument on the evening of the twenty-four hours that are covered by the novel, about the ongoing importance of a more congenial past that Youssef hopes to be a guarantee for better days to come. However, for Maha the past is something to quickly discard, and even if it ever was as harmonious as Youssef believes it was, it is no help today: ‘“You’re just living in the past, Uncle!”’ (1). From this starting point, Antoon introduces us to their diametrically opposed worlds: Youssef’s that is filled with sweet memories of childhood friends of all religious communities, his lifelong conversation with a Muslim friend, and a satisfying career in state agriculture occupying himself with Iraq’s signature tree, the date palm. Maha grew up with the 1991 American bombings of Baghdad among her earliest memories, the family’s displacement to the north in 2006 when the Christians of Dawra were scared out of Baghdad, and a car bomb in front of the family house after she and her husband had returned as newlyweds to Dawra, the impact of which caused the loss of her unborn son. What is more, she experiences the daily harassment in the streets, making her wear a headscarf in order to blend it. Even that does not prevent the questions, the suspicions, the outspoken distrust of Christians as seen as ultimately disloyal to the Iraqi state. But even Youssef, though he clings to the hope of change, realizes that the Jewish boyhood friend was made to leave Iraq in the 1950s, and that he was not able to marry the love of his life because her family did not allow her to marry a Christian. While Youssef might not feel the daily pressures as much as Maha, and is comforted by his memories and his beautiful garden with a flourishing date palm, he certainly is aware of the ongoing and increasing pressures. He thus is keen to make up with Maha after her outburst the previous night.
However, first life and then death prevent a reconciliation between the two. Daily chores prevent a chat, and in the end they catch a glimpse of each other on Sunday evening, after they went to church separately: Maha because for her religion is the only refuge in her times of need, and Youssef, whose faith is vague at best, because he came to commemorate his pious sister Hinna who died on that same day seven years ago. Religion brings them together, but also separates them: a violent hostage taking (modelled on the attack on the Syriac Catholic Our Lady of Salvation Church in 2010) kills Youssef. And thus in addition to the reading of the past, it is the understanding of the role of religion that Antoon makes into a central theme of the novel. The two different titles, The Baghdad Eucharist in English and Ya Maryam in Arabic capture different elements of that. ‘Ya Maryam’, the most common way to address Mary in Arabic and the starting point of many prayers and hymns (some of them referred to literally by Antoon), at first is the cry of the women that suffer in many ways: Hinna who gave up her dreams to care for her younger siblings when both their parents had died, Maha who lost her unborn son and finds some solace in Mary’s suffering over her son. In the final lines, however, it is Youssef who dies with these words on his lips, becoming part of the suffering of the Christian community even if his own faith had long lost the literalness and intensity of his sister and niece.
The English title takes this image one step further, in a manner hinted at in the title of the last chapter, ‘The Eucharist’ (119) which starts with a bible lection referring to the rock upon which Jesus will build his church (Mat. 16, 13-18). So what or who is that rock in the present time? Is The Baghdad Eucharist referring to one of the priests who is willing to give up his life for his flock? Is it Youssef who dies so that the younger generation can start a new life? Is it the secular hope that dies so that religion can take over? Is the Baghdadi Christians who in a Girardian twist become part of the suffering Christ to atone for the sins of Iraq, of perhaps even of the world?
Antoon does not provide us with final conclusions, true to the different perspectives that he has put forward in the novel. He also does not come up with easy hope for the future, allowing the full extent of despair to be felt, a despair that, whether one likes it or not, whether one clings to the past or not, will lead Maha to leave the country, like so many other Christians before and after her. Her bitter disappointment in the ability of the Iraqi state to protect the Christians and her frustration over accusations of disloyalty, cannot be soothed by official proclamations of religious leaders, by half-hearted security systems, by romantic notions of the past or even by the firm belief of the church that it should maintain its present in the region. ‘That’s all I have to say’, she concludes her speech on television after the church bombing (128), only to be followed by the unfinished prayer of Youssef, ‘Ya Maryam’.