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Twenty-one years of solitary imprisonment in the middle of the vast, southern Iraqi desert have made the Kurdish veteran freedom-fighter Muzafar-i Subhdam a nomad, roaming inside his own thoughts. A poetic, silent wanderer lost amidst his own reminiscences and fantasy. Throughout the years, inside his cell, where even the guards rarely talk to him, he’s left with only thinking and observing the sand. He has reached the zero point of the human condition, from where he has started constructing his own ideas of the world. He has one wish, one goal: to be reunited with his son Saryas-i Subhdam, who was only a few days old when Muzafar was captured in a fight. All other wishes, dreams and desires have diminished, for after such a long time in confinement, he has realised that “you can no longer distinguish between a human being and sand”. When released, he begins a journey to find his son – or rather – any son.
The Last Pomegranate Tree is a mosaic of entangled stories of journeys; journeys inside journeys that are sometimes connected by coincidence to form one, main holistic story. It is a modern fable with a historical backdrop, that feeds the events and surreptitiously determines the destiny of its characters. The story is told by the narrator, Muzafar-i Subhdam, who, after all that has happened, has embarked on his last journey away from his own story, or rather towards its end. In an almost one-thousand-and-one-night way, the narrator keeps his boat trip companions – and we the readers – awake and attached to the story by giving us clues of what is to come, while starting a new story of a new journey, or jumping from the middle of one to the middle of another. In some other way, the general feel of the reading resonates with the works of Italo Calvino, especially when now and then the author suddenly talks directly to the reader, breaking the so-called fourth wall.
The story starts with Muzafar’s own journey, as he is released from his desert prison and ends up in another captivity – a privileged one in a lavish mansion in the middle of a forest. It is the extreme opposite of the desert. He needs to escape and find out what has happened to the world in his absence and above all, to find his son. But there is only filth and a plague out there – or at least, this is what his captor (who is also his life-time friend and previous commander) Yaqub-i Snawbar wants him to believe. But he lies and Muzafar knows it.
In some ways this novel could have been about a pandemic and it still sort of is. Indeed, it is a plague of another nature: the plague of corruption and the abuse of power that follows many revolutions. However, the Kurdish revolution has never been only about one but many revolts and political disasters. On a political level, the novel has touched on a multi-layered issue. Revolutionaries of yesterday become the tyrants of future. Those in between, the soldiers (Kurdish peshmergas) and the common people, as well as the social structure and the foundations of a productive economy, are crushed by the rivalries of the political forces and the greed of nouveau riche leaders and chieftains.
Soon though, we discover that we are actually on another journey, on a ferry boat full of refugees trying to reach Europe. Muzafar is telling the stories to his fellow passengers – and to us readers. Other journeys start to interweave with the main story: a flood sweeps Muhammad the Glass-Hearted through the alleys of the city where he meets the sisters in white, falling in love with one of them, only to end with tragic heartbreak and a whimsical, absurd death. Later we discover that the Glass-Hearted’s journey really began much earlier, when Saryas-i Subhdam and the blind Nadim-i Shazada were searching for the pomegranate tree; the last in the world, which was supposed to heal sightlessness. It is another story with a tragic end.
The Glass-Hearted’s main voyage, though, was one of love. An ill-fated love with one of the sisters in white who swore never to fall in love with anyone. It is also a dreamy journey in search for a transparent world that should be of glass, like his own house is. “I am completing the journey Muhammad the Glass-Hearted was unable to finish that stormy evening,” Muzafar, the narrator, reveals towards the end of the novel. “You see, every story is like a small stream that eventually spills into the broad sea of thousands of other tales,” he explains to his companions. “And if a storyteller dies along the way, another must replace him and carry on the story from one river to the next and on out to sea.”
The sisters themselves are on a journey too. Though their acts and place in the tale – as the almost only two female characters in the novel – do not further the story, the two sisters, in turn, are rebellious, combining their beauty and euphonious voice, their singing and their stubbornness to fight for their place in a world of sophisticated men.
The complex structure, as in many of Bachtyar Ali’s novels, giving almost equal importance to each character and their stories, would have made it hard to recount from the point of view of the characters themselves. It is a quandary that is solved masterfully, though, through the use of an omniscient narrator, who doubles up as the main protagonist. Almost all of the characters are intriguing, eccentric people, as if there is no place for usual people in this tale. The story wastes little time on trivial passersby.
The narrative voice has also solved other technical storytelling issues such as how to show and not tell or create convincing character arcs, and Bachtyar Ali is clearly a master of narration. However, one problematic issue does arise from the adoption of this technique. Muzafar is not a highly educated man and has been away from the world for a very long time. He would find it hard to deal with and articulate all of the information he receives from the other characters in so much detail and in such a short time. Details, such as unusual names, or the names of sophisticated things such as L’Oréal perfume would be beyond him. The result is that at times, we readers forget that it is in fact Muzafar who is narrating the whole story, and assume instead that it is the author whose voice we hear. What’s more, Muzafar now and then reminds us that he actually is the narrator, obliging us to compromise if we are to remain captivated by his story. In many ways, I regret ever noticing this, keen as I was to enjoy his master storytelling. We should after all give ourselves up to the flow of the story, no matter who the narrator is.
Umberto Eco, in his book Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, analyses this issue, calling the omniscient fictional character a “model author” and the writer of the novel an “empirical author.” In such a narrative construction a “model reader” is needed, who as Eco states, can participate in creating the model author as he /she reads.
Sometimes we encounter philosophical conversations, or a poetic tract of self-reflection. At some point Ikram-i Kew appears, an experienced, full-scale veteran freedom-fighter who helps Muzafar escape. Twenty-one years of imprisonment has made our narrator a poet at heart, a naturalist. He doesn’t want to be confined to an extravagant mansion but go out and explore the abundance of life outside. “True, I don’t have friends or places to go, but there will be trees or water to adopt me, a cave to welcome me. I am only dead in the official records. I am only dead in the laws that govern the world. I am not dead to the treasure house of nature; water, birds, trees, and clouds remember me. I have a place in this universe.”
Ikram has seen the world and lived the events himself. Being a significant part of the revolution and the modern history of the Kurdish struggle for freedom, he is a sophisticated man with experience. He is more the philosopher of the story – and a practical one at that. “I do want to help you, but you’d need a roof and four walls, you’d need a room. Nature gives everything to human beings: the wind, the night, the garden. It gives you everything except a room. A human being without a room is lower than a stray dog. After all, everything nature gives to human beings is so that they can build themselves a room.” Muzafar, who is more of a dreamer, replies, “Who says I need a room? I have been in one for twenty-one years. I want to live in the rain and moonlight forever and to talk to nothing but the universe.”
Many of the other characters are also imaginative and eloquent in recounting the stories. Chapter 12 about the death of Saryas-i Subhdam is an elegy, a beautiful epitaph. It recounts the events that led to Saryas’s murder – which are narrated by his friend Zhino-i Makhmali, a young street vendor – with poetic beauty. About the tragic end of his friend, Zhino says, “We took it as a sign that none of our wishes, great or small, would ever come true.” The failure to fulfil Saryas’s wish [which I do not reveal, not to spoil much for the reader] wakes Zhino “to the fact that we humans live in a jungle of tyranny”.
Bachtyar Ali’s writing has created a paradigm of its own within the Kurdish literature in Iraq and is so much appreciated by Kurdish readers that many now expect the same from other writers. It takes courage to take on the task of translating such a work into English – or any other European language for that matter – let alone to represent a work of literature that has emerged from a very different, non-European literary and storytelling tradition. Sorani Kurdish, in which Bachtyar Ali’s novels are written, has for decades been in a disarray. Its grammar, spelling, punctuation and other stylistic traits have often been disputed. This is like so much else in the region, especially since Kurdistan practically freed itself from the rest of Iraq in 2003. Kareem Abdulrahman has, however, masterfully transposed this literary text into elegant, flowing English, without losing much of the soul and flavour of the original.
Another stylistic issue lies in the names of the characters in Bachtyar Ali’s novels, which for many Kurdish readers add additional pleasure as well as meaning or symbolism. The majority of Iraqi Kurds have no surname, but are registered and known according to a three-name system: their own name, followed by their father’s then grandfather’s names. For this reason, I wouldn’t use Ali on its own to refer to Bachtyar Ali. No Kurdish reader would recognise that person as their favourite author. Yet the writer himself, in giving a nickname to his characters (a traditional rather than official practice in Kurdistan) adds a melodious flavour to the names, forging extremely memorable characters and quite brilliantly, Kareem Abdulrahman has introduced a hyphenated “i” to keep that melody in the English text.
So to return to the sand, from which our narrator has risen to tell us his story. Is this simply another poetic metaphor for the wasted life of Muzafar, or does it carry greater symbolism? Is it not after all a metaphor for the history of the Kurds? A handful of sand that slips through our fingers, into an endless ocean in which we get lost with nothing left but the stories we tell each other on a drifting boat. Is that not the existential, melancholic state most Kurds are whirling in? Always on the run, living in nostalgia? Is that not the latent message at the core of this story? Only when the boat arrives at shore, intact or in a wreck, will we ever find out.
by Bachtyar Ali
Translated from the Kurdish Kareem Abdulrahman
Archipelago Books 321 pages
Goran Baba Ali
Goran Baba Ali is a British-Dutch-Kurdish writer and journalist living in London. He published his debut novel, The Glass Wall, in 2021. Goran left Iraq in 1994 and has since lived in several countries. He studied sociology in Amsterdam, where he was also the editor-in-chief of exPonto Magazine. After fifteen years living in the Netherlands, he moved to London in 2012 and has since spent most of his time writing, including a part-time freelance job reporting news from Iraq for the English language outlet INSIGHT. In 2019, he completed an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. Recently, Goran established Afsana Press (www.afsana-press.com), an independent publishing house producing sparkling literary works by authors whose stories have a direct relation to social, political or cultural issues in countries and communities around the world.