Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam

My review of Sinan Antoon’s debut novel, I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, appears in the January 21 issue of The Nation magazine. Here is how it opens:

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-Rab├óbeh. 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.

And it is that aspect of the language that Antoon’s novel exploits, to great literary effect. You can read the review here.