Translated by Kareem Abdulrahman
The Last Pomegranate Tree
(Archipelago Books, 2023)
“Since the day I left the desert,” declares our narrator Muzafar-i Subhdam, “I have met one person after another who is running away.” With that, he widens his melancholy embrace: “Look at yourselves: who are you but a bunch of ghosts on a ferryboat, running away from something that has no name or color, that cannot be caught or tamed?” The man’s got a point, in a time when so much of the world is unhoused, but regarding his own case, Muzafar’s guilty of some exaggeration. He can name what he’s running from: a Kurdish prison, the “desert” in which this novel begins. The opening pages see him mysteriously released, in the care of his former commander, after twenty-one years as a prisoner of war. Muzafar fell into enemy hands during the holocaust that engulfed his homeland, the Kurdish Civil Wars of the 1980s and ’90s. As for those, their destructive force indeed couldn’t be tamed—no exaggeration.
The Kurds fought Saddam’s Iraq and Syria’s Assad and ISIS wherever it popped up (with spotty Western aid), but throughout, they fought among themselves. The grisly evidence confronts Muzafar even in the “remote guesthouse” where his old C.O. first sets him up. This officer, Yaqub, warns: “You could put all the twenty-one years you spent in prison in a coffin and throw them away. There was nothing in them but death.” Even comfortable confinement won’t do for the long-confined, however, and more than that, Muzafar has a son he’s never seen, Saryas.
The search for this grown child, or whatever’s left of him, sets the protagonist on an odyssey, every stop clouded with mystery and many of them dreadful. It comes to seem inevitable that he winds up another “ghost” of a refugee, struggling to cross the Mediterranean⎯ and yet that summary makes Bachtyar Ali’s novel sound far too grim. Doesn’t its very title, The Last Pomegranate Tree, suggest a haven? Homegrown, at that? Episode by episode, the story earns that hoary old compliment, “spellbinding,” since so much of what happens has the magic of One Thousand and One Nights. Certainly we encounter demons, but also angels, including a rapscallion prince and two sisters, their hair uncovered, who drift untouched through this war-torn Islamic culture. These improbabilities often unfold into others, tales within tales that can whip up suspense or turn an earlier incident on its head. In time, Muzafar catches word of a second Saryas, then a third, surprises that also recall the cunning Scheherazade. Even the pervading exaggeration becomes part of the charm, a heightening that allows for splendid metaphor. One example occurs early on, when the escapee speaks of the psychological work he did in prison, learning to forgive and forget. His language proves anything but therapeutic: “Night after night I sat and calmly removed all those things from my head as if I were operating on the heart of a sparrow.”
Such a lovely turn of phrase of course owes something to the translator, Kareem Abdulrahman, who’s worked with Ali before. The author is nothing like the folks he’s imagined (dreamers in rags, by and large); a multilingual scholar and poet as well as a novelist, he has a bibliography running to almost forty titles. Five years ago he won a major award in Germany, where he’d relocated to escape the upheavals in his native country. One of his novels, translated by Abdulrahman as I Stared at the Night of the City (2016), appears to be the first in Kurdish to see print in America and the UK. A few others have followed, as well as Ava Homa’s Daughters of Smoke and Fire, composed in English, but what matters for this book is the rapport the author and translator have achieved, their shared sensitivity to the balance essential in such a tale, at once a cabinet of curiosities and a catalogue of woe.
Speaking of balance, the text switches between two plotlines for a good half its length. One concerns Muzafar and his quest, starting with the first Saryas and then moving on, startled, to the second and third⎯ the name, we learn, is rare, and one of the final surprises comes when Ali reveals the word’s meaning. The alternative plotline in Pomegranate Tree follows the sisters Lawlaw and Shadarya, more than a little supernatural as I say. They never cover their heads, their singing enchants even the thugs in the streets, and they eventually work as “sweet-natured teachers with a genuine love of children.” Such fairytale touches, I must say, struck me as too glossy. A fiction so often hunkered down in filthy trenches, among guerillas exploited by usurious fat cats, deserves women of commensurate complexity. I’ve seen such rich creations in other recent novels of the Arab world, in particular the work of Jokha Alharthi.
Nevertheless, when Ali brings the sister’s ethereality together with Muzafar’s grieving, it’s a tour de force, his finest balancing act. The characters find each other in some unnamed major city, something like Erbil, still a major center despite its battering, and in any case its markets and alleyways allow the author to open key sliding panels of his narrative, leading us to “the last pomegranate tree in the world” while also revealing its several varieties of significance. At the same time, the urban scenes contribute to the author’s in-the-round portrait of his homeland, showing us more than bunkers and bomb craters, suggesting fertility and possibility. Granted, this happy implication always has the same gloomy counterpoint, whenever our Kurdish Van Winkle hears again of “brothers [who] mangle each other like rabid dogs.” But isn’t it a fine novel that sustains such counterpoint? Alive with the tension between humanity and hatred? When a damaged veteran growls, “hate rules this country,” Muzafar finds he has to offer better: “Since the night you rescued me, I’ve only come across good-hearted people.”