The Book of Collateral Damage

Sinan Antoon, translated by Jonathan Wright

May 30, 2019 
The following is from Sinan Antoon's novel The Book of Collateral Damage. Nameer, an Iraqi PhD candidate at Harvard, is hired by a filmmaker to document the devastation in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. In Baghdad, he meets a bookseller who is trying to catalogue everything that's been destroyed in the war. Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, translator, and associate professor at NYU. He is the author of several books, including The Corpse Washer, and his award-winning works have been translated into 13 languages.

Preamble (draft)

How can I write what happened?

(This “how” kept me up at night for many years.) And how can what I write escape the traps of distortion and domination of official history? I realize there’s something paradoxical and ironic about it. Is it reasonable to worry about the fate of what I write before my pen even begins to bleed ink onto paper? There’s a wonderful African proverb in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart that goes “Until lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The idea isn’t new, of course, but the metaphor is a gem. The victors are always the ones who write history. By the time someone who wants to revise, question, or change it comes along, it’s already too late.

But what about the history of the victim? Or the victim’s victim? That’s what I am concerned with. The first time I read that proverb I empathized with the lion, of course. But then I thought hard about the matter and reconsidered, to discover, or rather remember, that I should be in solidarity with the lion’s victim. I imagined, even felt, that I was inhabiting the gazelle (or any other prey) in this equation because it represents me and I represent it. I even feel I am it. I am the one who’s been marginalized and disappeared at least twice. I’m the prey’s prey. As for numbers, they don’t serve the purpose. Statistics may count us, but at best they diminish our lives and our deaths. They dehumanize us. Assuming there’s someone to count in the first place, because the historians of the hunt count the number of dead hunters! Numbers turn us into numbers. Dead signs and symbols in comparative studies designed to improve the hunt and make it more efficient. Our details disappear—our features, our color, our voices, our memories, our skin, our eyes, and so on. Once we’ve been skinned, our skins might be tanned and hung on the wall in the hunters’ homes. Or photographs of the hunters, standing next to our dead bodies to celebrate a new record, might be hung on museum walls.

But where should I begin, and how? Can I enter time through a hole or through the window of one moment in time? I believe so. As soon as I get inside time, I can take the moment and analyze it as if it’s a tear or a drop of blood under the microscope and discover the bonds and interactions that produce it. But how can I describe the moment when it isn’t a moment, but in fact more like a tree? So I have to get down to the roots and listen to the earth’s conversation with the tree and what it drinks from the earth.

Then there’s the trunk and everyone who has ever leaned on it or carved their name on it. And the branches and their memory and everything the wind has picked up and scattered far and wide. And all the birds that have perched on it on their way to distant places. And the ones that have nested in it and so on. It’s a labyrinth. And which particular moment are we talking about? Is the moment the same moment everywhere? Or is each moment associated with its own place in the universe? If this last possibility is the case, then there is more than one time. There are times that might intersect but never coincide. But in this project I’m interested in one time in one place. First, I’ll write down the history of the first minute of the war, which wasn’t the first war I’ve seen. Most of the people who tackle history record centuries, decades, and years. I’m interested in minutes, especially the first minute.

The minute will be a three-dimensional space. It will be a place where I snipe at things and souls as they move. The juncture where they meet before disappearing forever, without saying goodbye. Humans say goodbye only to those they know and those they love, whereas things say goodbye to each other and to humans too. But we rarely hear their voices, their whispers, because we don’t try. We rarely notice things smiling. Yes, things have faces too, but we don’t see them. Those who do see them, after making an effort and training themselves to do so, and those who talk to them are labeled mad by your standards.

I’m the one who saw everything, and I see what they don’t see.

There’s always a moment in the life of every being and every thing in which their whole truth is manifested. A moment when the past intersects with the future. Those who can see and hear can discern the truth about that being. You no doubt sometimes see a photograph of a famous person, or even an ordinary person. And you realize that this photograph/moment preserves the whole existence and history of that person. I’m not sure, but many of these condensed moments come just before death. I know I contradict myself sometimes. Is there any way around that?

Time is a black hole. A hole into which things fall and disappear. Even the beginning of this whole universe, according to one theory, was an explosion. And the universe is just fragments and debris, and here we are, living the consequences and effects of it. I’m going to pluck this minute out of the black hole. But why? ere are people who write in order to change the present or the future, whereas I dream of changing the past. This is my rationale and the rationale of my catalog.

–Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright


From The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon; translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Published by Yale University Press in May 2019 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.

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