‘The Last Pomegranate’: A Talk with Bachtyar Ali

This week, our series on Iraq’s diverse literary scene — curated by Hend Saeed — focuses on Bachtyar Ali’s novel The Last Pomegranate, which describes decades of conflicts in northern of Iraq, home to the country’s Kurdish minority:

By Hend Saeed

The Iraq Kurds, who live mostly in the north of Iraq, rose up against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. The conflict continued for several years and reached the peak of its violence during the Iraqi army’s Anfal Campaign, which led to the Halabja chemical attack in 1988. In the decade that followed, the 1990s, there was an internal conflict between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KPD) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). 

Bachtyar Ali’s The Last Pomegranate is a philosophical Sufi narrative that conveys the pain, violence, injustice and the tragedies of the Kurdish people through love, friendship, and sacrifice—their pacts and promises buried beneath the pomegranate tree.

The novel was written in Kurdish and translated into Arabic by translator Ghassan Hamdan, who succeeded in bringing the author’s philosophical and poetic language from Kurdish into Arabic. An English translation by Kareem Abdulrahman is forthcoming from Archipelago Books this fall.

In the novel, Muzafer al-Sabahi, a peshmerga fighter, is released from prison twenty-one years after sacrificing himself for his friend fellow fighter Yagoub al- Sinobar, who is now the revolutionary leader. Muzafer’s only request to Yagoub was that he take care of his young child Saryasi, but Yagoub didn’t. When Muzafer starts his journey, searching for his son, he finds out that there are three who share the name Saryasi al-Sabahi.  One has died, another is in prison, and the third is burned beyond recognition. In his journey to find the three Saryasi, he learns about the twenty-one years that he has missed, and the struggle of the three Saryasi who represent the lives of the young generation. 

Bachtyar Ali is perhaps the best-known contemporary Kurdish writer. Born in 1966 in Sulaimaniya, northern Iraq, his geology studies ended after he was injured in a student protest against Saddam Hussein in 1983. He was awarded the newly founded Sherko Bekas Literature Prize in 2014, and the Prestigious Nelly-Sachs Prize in 2017. He has published elven books, including Shari Mosiqare Spiyekan (The City of the White Musicians) in 2005, which was selected as the best book of the year by the Ministry of Education in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as The Last PomegranateThe Death of the Second only Child, The Mansion of the Sad Birds, and others. 

Hend SaeedIs the Kurdish novel now well-recognized in the Arab world or in translation?

Bachtyar Ali:  No, unfortunately. There are hardly any communications between the Eastern languages, and the intra-regional translation in the East is very week. The translation of novels requires brilliant abilities and a wide knowledge of all aspects of the language, and to my knowledge there isn’t an Arab or a Turkish or a Persian writer who could read a Kurdish text.

There are large numbers of obstacles, but the most important is that we don’t have what I would call the “Eastern awareness.”  The west had developed mutual group awareness in art and literature. There is a joint awareness of the importance of cultural products in the face of civilizational conflict. They face the other, the non–western, as one harmonized culture group, but the narrow nationalism and religious views in the east had divided people even in the pain they all share. 

There is a mutual hate and fear, and that has resulted in building a gap and distancing the eastern cultures in a dangerous and disgraceful way. 

There are only few educated Kurds who can or who are willing to translate to Arabic. I am not talking about the translation of my novels only, but in building knowledge of the importance of culture communication in implementing awareness and joint values. The intraregional translation between the eastern cultures is the only way to close the big gap between the people of the region.  

I appreciate the hard work of the translator Ghassan Hamdan, who translate tirelessly all the modern Iranian, Afghan, and Kurdish literature into Arabic.

Your novel The Last Pomegranate is the first Kurdish novel that was translated into German; had it been translated into other languages?

BA: It is translated into German, Italian, French, Farsi and the English translation was about to be published last year, but it was delayed because of COVID.

The Last Pomegranate is about the struggle of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein’s rule followed by internal Kurdish conflict, but the reader doesn’t read or see these events. Rather, they live it through the philosophical Sufi narration. 

Can people rise above pain and hurt and live a philosophical life like your characters, Muzafer al-Sabahi and Saryasi al-Sabahi?

BA: I don’t overlook the effect of the historical moments on the characters; I don’t look at human suffering as a heavenly or metaphysical punishment. The disasters that we have lived in the east have a strong link to how we view freedom, God, and other people who are different.

What I care about is the spirit of the historical era, the atmosphere, the disaster that came from power, and the nationalism and obstinate racism. 

The atmosphere is hard and aggressive, which I called in my analysis an Eastern fascism, as opposed to the Western fascism. The Eastern fascism doesn’t represent a certain historical era or a certain political view, but the current destructive spirit in all the political fields in the region. 

The writer has to personify this disastrous environment without concentrating on particular identities. The novel is the meeting point between the historical burden and the existential burden, and between the collective awareness and the individual awareness. I don’t intent to write purely narrative novels or novels that depend on the beauty of the poetic language.  To separate between the novel and philosophy is a dangerous work. 

The novel is the only place to reach the understanding of the philosophical views of ordinary people. Philosophy is a field for philosophers to philosophize, and the novel is the field for normal people to philosophize. 

 On the other hand, we can’t separate between the political disaster and the human existential crisis. The political crisis at the end is a philosophical and moral crisis, and all political cries express in one way or another the human existential crisis, and it is impossible to overcome these crises and tragedies without raising above all the poisons that political field has produced.

In the novel, myth and fantasy melt together with the painful reality, and the characters bury their pacts of love and friendship under the pomegranate tree. Do people create myth and fantasy to be able to survive? 

BA: The mythical and magical dimension in the novel has a strong link to the dimension of reality. Narratives of pure realism can’t express the hidden places and the dark corners of the reality, as they can’t express the wild imagination.

Imagination and fantasy are good tools to come close to the hidden reality or the marginalized reality. The legend isn’t a way to escape, but it is to prepare and revive the unspoken. Only through imagination we can go deep into the world that was isolated or abandoned. 

The pomegranate tree in the novel is a symbol of the desired world — the normal life that seems very hard for the characters to achieve. The absence of a real rescuer drives the characters to depend on themselves and take pledges and personal commitments on themselves. 

I believe the victims are obliged to defend each other, as the religious and political rescuer is absent. The only solution left to them is the human commitment that is free of everything.

The tragic aspect here is when human relations are transformed into a kind legendary of dream. Transforming the norm and usual in the human connection to imaginary and legendary is a real disaster, and the novel is trying to expose this tragic dilemma. 

When I read the section “The Sons of Coal,” about those who live in the hellish situation, in a house where a generation has been burned beyond recognition. I wished it were pure fantasy. Where was the line between the reality and fantasy in this part of the novel? 

BA: I lived in Iraq during the war, and the absurdity is that wars that continue until today. Iraq is a country that writes its history with blood because nationalism and sectarian hardliners are stronger than any human mutual connections and the hate speech became a lethal disease between all groups and parties. Iraq didn’t learn a lesson from the dictatorial period and didn’t build a tolerant community. 

There is no literary genre that can express what happened in Iraq. We might need decades of literary production to understand and clearly see how deep is the disaster. I don’t doubt the great ability of the literature until I look at how enormous and horrible the Iraqi disaster has become. The harsh reality is beyond the ability of novels to explain or personify. All we can do is partially refer to it in a certain section, or refer to the fate of the people who lived the horrible tragedy and all its hardship.

I’ve tried to refer to this bloody history in all my novels. The children in this scene in the novel represent a full generation whose future was destroyed, and they were forgotten in the darkness of time.

Mohammad, the boy with the heart of glass, was optimistic and loving but was killed by love. Isn’t there a place for love and optimism? 

BA: The novelist shouldn’t be selling dreams. Finding romantic solutions doesn’t give us the right answer. The death of the lover of Mohammad at the beginning of the novel represents the world where love has became impossible.

Representing love as a medicine to all these tragedies is only an absurd and fictitious solution that those television scenarios produce like emotional opium. 

Love doesn’t bring salvation, but it is another closed road. Love in the east isn’t free of cruelty, harshness and of war. Searching and mediating on the impossibility of love or the destructive ability of love is the favorite subject of my eleven novels. The death of Mohammad is evidence that the floods we’ve lived through are stronger than our ability to swim.  

Previous Thursdays:

From Abdullah al-Sakhi’s ‘Pathways of Loss’

Abdullah al-Sakhi on Writing His Multigenerational Iraqi Trilogy

‘When Darkness Falls’: On the Shortened, Brilliant Life of Iraqi Author Hayat Sharara

‘Born on the Wrong Side of the Border’: The Journey of Iraq’s Feyli Kurds

Ali Shakir: Translating My Jewish Grandmother

Black Basrans: Mortada Gzar’s ‘Broom of Paradise’

‘The Bird Tattoo’: Between Horror and Peace in the Sinjar Mountains