Bachtyar Ali: The Last Pomegranate Tree

“You want us to form a friendship built on disregarding the past, on ignorance and forgetting. Like all rulers, you want to burn your secrets so nobody can look at them after you die… We are not on the same path.”

How fittingly this line can be addressed to our current leader, and how I’d love to take some of Bachtyar Ali’s allegories to take a jab at the state of our politics!

But I doubt if railing against authorities was the main intent of this novel. Bachtyar Ali, injured in 1983 during a protest against Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and author of the first Kurdish novel to be translated in English, surely knows about unjust leaders and speaking out against them. 

This story of a peshmerga fighter who is released after being detained in a desert prison for twenty one years and goes on a quest to find the son he left behind is told with the magical realism of A Thousand and One Nights, but with a more discernible moral aim, which also weaves in its tale the sufferings and the violent history of the Iraqi Kurds.

The Last Pomegranate Tree, with its moments of breathtaking lyricism, seems to me more of a profound contemplation on freedom, on what it means to be really free, and on what it is we should seek and hold on to when all seems lost.

“Only one thing has been left to us, the one thing they can’t reach: our hearts, our inner worlds.”

The Beekeepers

Try as we might to hope that the two apian titles speak only of positive lessons from bees — of how theirs is a society where each one functions for the good of the entire colony, of how they continue to work even when everything around them is dying — I am afraid they don’t.

Two beekeepers of neighboring nations; one real, the other fictional. Both written by women; one an Iraqi journalist and poet, the other a novelist who volunteered in refugee centers, herself a daughter of Cypriot refugees.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar is Abdullah Shrem. When DAESH (ISIS) began terrorizing Yazidi communities and abducting their women including Abdullah’s sister, he took advantage of his knowledge of the terrain and select personal contacts to rescue and smuggle women back to safety. Each time he saved a captive woman, he felt that he was also saving his sister.

Among the stolen women was Nadia Murad, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded the prize.

Dunya Mikhail initially inserts poems into a journalistic approach and recounts distressing interviews with the rescued women who were sold, beaten, and raped repeatedly, but who nonetheless opened up to the author so that she could write about their suffering. “It’s important that your book see the light of day, so that the world will know what’s going on here.” The journalistic eventually veers into the poetic, and I feel that this is one of the books from the region that will endure not only as an overwhelming account but also as a literary work.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the fictional Nuri Ibrahim, but through him and the plight he shares with his blind wife, Christy Lefteri expresses the unspeakable realities and consequences of war, of lives ended, uprooted, wasted, abused, and destroyed.

“War,” writes Dunya Mikhail, “comes with various names but with only one face.”

Even though it seems that love and hope is universal, unfortunately, so is war.

“The problem isn’t that the world is going to end, but that it continues without any change.” — Nadia Murad

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad and Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love

October 19, 2021

“Things We Fear” — As soon as I learned about the Ex Libris (book club) theme for this month, I immediately took Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad from my shelf. Not a fan of the horror genre, it is one of the few I own that seems closely related to the theme.

I have this book because it is written by an Iraqi and therefore part of my current reading project.

Set in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad, the novel is a winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and a finalist of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. However, it took me a while to process how I felt about it.

A couple of passages eventually led me to conclude that this walking corpse, stitched up from different body parts of victims of violence, is the author’s grim portrait of what it means to be an Iraqi today: “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds — ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes — I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen, he thinks.”

“The definitive image of him was whatever lurked in people’s heads, fed by fear and despair. It was an image that had as many forms as there were people to conjure it.”

I think the novel is powerful in its own way, and it did give me goosebumps on the last page — but it did not really scare me.

So… If we did not have the power outage today that made me miss the book session, I would have presented The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak instead. 

Because, come on! Love is already scary enough! How much more if you add Forty Rules to it? Haha!

Finished only on the third attempt as a humorous attempt to present something “scary” in a bookclub session, I feel conflicted because it features a lot of what I am currently interested in — a time and place where the Crusades and Mongol conquests intersected, a time of Assassins and Mamluks, and basically the time when Rumi lived! I enjoyed the historical details but not so much the parts where the prose got syrupy and saccharine. It has its own beauty, but I think another reader might fare better.