A Wartime Novel That’s Tender, Charming, and Donkeyphilic

If you’ve read it, you’ll know I’m referring to Ismail Fahd Ismail’s al-Sabiliyatwhich has been translated to English as The Old Woman and the River by Sophia Vasalou, who was one of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction judges who put that novel on the prize’s 2017 shortlist:

 We discuss and read a bit from the novel in the next episode of Bulaq, coming November 6. Until then, I have a review on Qantara that you can read in English, German, or Arabic. I am not sure why the review’s headline suggests Hemingway should feast on his heart, although: why not.

The review opens:

Part desert-island novel, part war story, part Don Quixote, and part folktale, the last novel by Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail (1940-2018) brings us the Iran-Iraq war through the eyes of a wise old fool. Although to be clear, Um Qasem—the beating heart of Fahd’s The Old Woman and the River—is not yet 60.

The book has come into English thanks to debut translator Sophia Vasalou, who was on the jury that selected The Old Woman for the shortlist of the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Unfortunately, the book—titledal-Sabiliyat in Arabic—did not win the prize. But as consolation, Vasalou has brought Fahd’s novel into an equally charming, wise-naïve English.

The “desert island” in question is Sabiliyat, a village near the Iran-Iraq border where the novelist was born in 1940. When the book opens, it’s 1980, and the village’s residents are being evacuated as hostilities open between the two neighboring countries. Um Qasem goes into exile on donkey-back with the rest of her large family: husband, five adult children, their spouses, her grandchildren, and nine donkeys. They relocate to Najaf, which, according to Google maps, is about an 85-hour walk. Um Qasem’s husband dies unexpectedly on the journey, and they bury him at the roadside, between two palms.

After this, Um Qasem is unmoored. Yes, she loves her children, and they seem to have agreeable spouses. The grandchildren are lovely enough. At first, the family lives in shacks in Najaf. But soon they’re renting out their nine donkeys and making a new life for themselves in the holy city. The adult children get back on their feet, and things go fairly well for them. But not for Um Qasem, who feels superfluous in this new environment. No garden, no life partner, no village. What is she even…for?

Um Qasem as Don Quixote

So Um Qasem decides to get up before dawn and make off with a donkey called “Good Omen,” who is both her trusty steed and her Sancho Panza. She rides on Good Omen, evading military patrols and questioning gazes, all the way back to the site where they buried her husband, Abu Qasem. This is where Um Qasem’s adult children catch up with her. But instead of getting dragged back home by the arm, Um Qasem claims her husband came to her in a dream, and that it’s his last wish to be disinterred and buried where he was born, in the village of Sabiliyat.


IPAF Judge Sophia Vasalou on the 2017 Panel’s Criteria, Advice to Future Judges, and ‘Obligatory Sex Scenes’

Kuwait Mourns Loss of Novelist Ismail Fahd Ismail, 78

A Final Interview with Ismail Fahd Ismail: ‘Nostalgia Breeds Transparency’