Archive for the ‘Bachtyar Ali’ Category

The Last Pomegranate Tree

February 17, 2023

Bachtyar Ali is a Kurdish writer who has published thirteen novels alongside numerous volumes of poetry and essays. In 2016, his novel I Stared at the Night of the City became the first novel to be translated from Kurdish into English by Kareem Abdulrahman, who has now translated an earlier work, The Last Pomegranate Tree. The novel opens with the release of Muzafar-i Subhdam from twenty-one years of imprisonment:

“My prison cell was far away from the entire world, a cell in the middle of a sea of sand, a tiny room besieged by sky… In those twenty-one years, I learned to talk to the sand.”

Muzafar is, however, released into further captivity as his childhood friend, Yaqub-i Snawbar, places him in a beautiful mansion, telling him that “a fatal disease, a plague of some kid, had spread outside.” Yaqub is now an important man, but that importance has come at a moral cost and he wishes Muzafar to remain pure. Yaqub tells him, “Innocent and principled people simply can’t survive.” Even Muzafar’s capture demonstrates his goodness as it occurred when he and Yaqub were trapped in a house, under siege, and either both would be taken or one could sacrifice themselves for the other:

“…. but he was the leader and I was one of his closest aides. Ultimately it was my duty to sacrifice everything so that he could live.”

However, although the years of imprisonment have distanced Muzafar from the world, he still remembers his son who was only a few days old when he was captured:

“I forgot the whole world but not Saryas-i Subhdam.”

Yaqub tells him his son is dead but that “the period in which he died cannot be explained”. Muzafar, however, realises that his comrade’s admiration of his innocence is also an example of his habit of using others:

“He wanted to usurp not only power, authority and pleasure, but also beauty, purity and wisdom.”

He accepts that Saryas is dead but eventually his death stirs “the desire to lift my head above the sea of sand” and he decides to leave the mansion in the hope of discovering more about his son’s life. By this point, however, the novel is already more layered than this summary suggests. We know, for example, that, at the time of telling the story, Muzafar is undertaking a sea voyage, the purpose of which we will only discover towards the end. In the opening chapters, his story in intercut with that of Muhammad the Glass-Hearted who finds himself carried through the streets of the town one night during a flood “siting cross-legged on the floodwater… as if on a prayer mat.” The flood takes him to the home of two sisters – the sisters in white – who will break his ‘glass’ heart as they have taken a vow never to marry. In his pocket he carries a glass pomegranate.

Muhammad’s story will eventually link to Muzafar via his son – but Saryas’ story, too, will be complicated, particularly as he is one of three babies given that name shortly after birth when placed in the protection of Yaqub. All three are given a glass pomegranate. Muzafar’s son – who is, indeed, dead – was ‘Marshal of the Street Vendors’, respected by the other sellers and skilled in negotiating with the police who intermittently attempt to clear them from the streets. As we will discover, Bachtyar Ali will use all three Saryas to exemplify the difficulties of life at that time, almost as if they represented three possible fates for the same person. When Saryas’ friend, Zhino, tells Muzafar the story of his death, he comments:

“Oh, that night changed me. It woke me to the fact that we humans live in a jungle of tyranny.”

The two remaining Saryas still live, but they, too, have suffered – one is imprisoned, the other badly disfigured.

The Last Pomegranate Tree is a novel filled with wonderful characters, scenes and stories. It is not afraid to venture into the surreal or mystical, yet, in doing so, it paints an often heart-breakingly realistic picture of Kurdish Iraq. It offers hope in the patience and acceptance of its long-suffering narrator now undertaking a dangerous voyage in pursuit of the third Saryas, for, as he says, “I cannot be angry at this vast sea that plays with us mercilessly.”