Bakhtiyar Ali: Duwahamîn Henarî Dunya (The Last Pomegranate Tree In The World)
When reviewing Bakhtiyar Ali’s Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City), I commented that it was one of the finest I have read this year. I could certainly say the same about this novel. It cleverly shows gritty realism – Iraqi Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein and the aftermath, specifically the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, in which a lot of very unpleasant things happen, which are described by Ali – while, at the same time, telling this story as a fable , in which events happen which, were this novel Latin American, we might describe as magic realism.
Our narrator is Muzafar-i Subhdam. He had been fighting for the revolution against Saddam Hussein. He had been with his commander Yaqub-i Snawbar and the pair were facing the enemy, There were two options. They both held out and both would die or one would stay and the other would escape. As Yaqub-i Snawbar was the commander, it was he who left and Muzafar-i Subhdam was captured. He was sent to a prison in the desert where he had been for twenty-one years. There were no other prisoners and the guards rarely spoke to him. Not surprisingly, he has forgotten everything about the world except for his son, Saryas-i Subhdam, who was only a few days old when he went off to fight. What he does not know but will find out is that Saddam is long since dead and it is Yaqub-i Snawbar who has been keeping him in prison.
One day he is suddenly removed from the prison, blindfolded and taken to a fabulous mansion, one of Saddam’s former palaces in the desert. There is nobody there but Yaqub-i Snawbar soon turns up. Yaqub’s plan is to keep him there. We will grow old here. You and I. We will grow old here as we look out at the world from these windows and think. It’ll be our place. Yaqub’s view is that Muzafar’s long imprisonment makes him unfit for surviving in the current world and even invents a plague to persuade him to stay. Muzafar may well have accepted except for the fact that he is eager to get out and find his son. However he is left there on his own with regular visits from Yakub, who tries to convince him of the need to stay. He tries to escape but it is in the middle of the desert and he cannot find a way back to civilisation.
Meanwhile there are other key characters whom we meet. The first is Muhammad-i Dilshusha, aka Muhammad the Glass-Hearted. He is the key maker for all the impossible doors and his bundle of keys has opened them all. He is a master of uncovering secrets. More importantly, he felt that there was nothing to see but walls. One day he arrived at the sad truth that would later determine the path and the meaning of his life, that his life should be as transparent as glass, should be seen from all sides and have nothing in common with that world of darkness . He is the son of a powerful leader, Sulaiman the Great. He also carries with him a glass pomegranate, which is key to the novel. When there is a flood he seems to glide over the water and meets two sisters, Lawlaw-i Spi, and her elder sister, Shadarya-i Spi. The two sisters had made a vow never to marry and bury this vow, written on paper, under a pomegranate tree which, when Muhammad the Glass-Hearted visits it, he names it The Last Pomegranate Tree in the World. His proposal to Lawlaw is rejected and his heart – fragile as glass – is broken.
Meanwhile we also meet Saryas-i Subhdam. You will recall that this is the name of our narrator’s son. He works in the market as a trader and has done good work bringing the traders together to help them, as a group, to protect their interests. They all adore him and he even manages more or less good relations with the police. He had met Muhammad the Glass-Hearted when they were younger and fleeing the country because of the war. The two boys, as they then were, were the only ones who would help a blind boy, Nadim-i Shazada aka Nadim the Prince and the three became firm friends. they made a pact and left it under The Last Pomegranate Tree in the World, a tree planted by Nadim’s father, which would supposedly cure him of his blindness. At the foot of the mountain, they swore an oath to visit the tree again. They struggled but survived, helping one another.
Meanwhile there is a third pact, placed under The Last Pomegranate Tree in the World, that between Saryas and the two sisters, who recognise him as their brother. However when Muhammad the Glass-Hearted dies of a broken heart , the sisters are ostracised and move into the wilderness.
Back in the desert, Ikram-i Kew has turned up at the palace in the desert. He was and is Yakub’s assistant and was unaware of Muzafar’s presence, assuming, like everyone else, that Muzafar was long since dead. He is reluctant to help Muzafar as Yakub is all-powerful and is sure to find him and likely to be angry with both men. Nevertheless, he does agree to rescue him and takes him to a house in the wilderness, occupied by two sisters. Yakub has told him that Saryas is dead. Moreover, there can obviously be only one Saryas-i Subhdam, as it is such a rare name but then it seems that there might be more than one. It gets more complicated.
More than anyone, it was Muhammad the Glass-Hearted who used to look for the fine, invisible thread connecting all things. He could see the whole of the sea, the whole picture. His search for small secrets was designed to find something bigger, something I’d call “the meaning of our era”. This, to a great extent, sums up this book, as disparate characters and disparate events turn out to be linked in unexpected ways and all are part of what was going on in Iraqi Kurdistan during that era. It is Yakub who says to Muzafar Teach me how to be able to live far from power, wealth, pleasure, women. Please.” I swear to you he bowed quietly and kissed my hands, his warm tears dripping on to them as he said, “My friend, teach me. It is something people who have lived or many long years in war seek but Muzafar cannot provide it as he has his own problems to deal with, specifically the search for his son.
Once again, this is another superb novel from Bakhtiyar Ali, mixing reality, and a very unpleasant reality at that, with myth and fantasy, while telling a complex and first-class story which illuminates the problems that the Iraqi Kurds have lived through. There is no doubt that Bakhtiyar Ali: should be better known in the West.
First published in 2002 by Ranj
First English publication byArchipelago Books in 2023
Translated by Kareem Abdulrahman