The Exile of the Water Diviner, by Omani author Zahran Alqasmi, is on the shortlist for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the winner of which is set to be announced May 21 in Abu Dhabi. This novel tells the story of a water diviner employed by the villages to track springs of water hidden deep in the earth. As the publisher, Rashm, writes, “The novel’s subject matter is a new departure in the Arabic novel, steeped in the history of the aflaj, a farming system of garden irrigation which is inextricably linked to village life in Oman, and has become the inspiration of many stories and legends.”
From ‘The Exile of the Water Diviner’
By Zahran Alqasmi
Translated by Nashwa Nasreldin
“A drowning, a drowning!”
The messenger’s voice bellowed through the village of Misfa as he rapped on doors, yelling so that everyone could hear:
“A drowning! A drowning! Someone’s drowned in al-Khatm well!”
The women heard the village messenger’s calls, so they searched for their children, combing their homes and courtyards. In an alley, a woman screamed and howled because her ten-year-old son was nowhere to be found. And an argument broke out along a path between the houses, because a woman’s boy had been out since early morning with the other woman’s son, and they still weren’t back.
An elderly woman stood up and, leaning on her cane, tried to catch up with the messenger. A short young man who’d been reclining peacefully bolted upright and sprinted all the way to the well. The shrieks and cries could be heard at the edges of the village. From another village came the sound of a dog barking, at the outskirts of a palm grove chickens could be heard cackling, along with the braying of donkeys deep in the valley.
Young men raced to help the messenger and to spread the news to distant homes. The mountains reverberated with the echoes of loud drumming as hot gusts of a shrilling western wind slapped people’s faces and carried away tree trunks. A cacophony of overlapping sounds transformed the village’s midday serenity into pandemonium.
The quiet streets narrowed and crowded with the feet of villagers rushing towards the well.
The messenger, who had set off a tremor through the village, was Hamdan bin Ashur, who lived next door to the well. This was after the old man Hamid bu Oyoun had knocked on his door to say: “Call out to everyone in the village. We’ve got a drowning in the well.”
On that day, Hamdan had eaten his lunch later than usual because he was late coming back from the neighbouring village. He had set off early that morning in search of watermelon seeds, which he’d heard described as the best of their kind, and which could only be found with a man who lived in that village. Eventually, after having waited too long in the man’s house to see if he would show up, Hamdan found the place where the man had hidden the seeds. He’d just reached home, laid out his lunch, and barely taken a few bites before he heard Hamid bu Oyoun calling him and pounding on his door. When he went outside, he found the old man trembling, as though the news he wanted to deliver might cost him his life.
At first, Hamdan felt a rush of nerves. This was the first time he would play the official role of village messenger. But soon he had left his house, barefoot, bareheaded, dressed only in a shirt and izaar, then went around knocking on everyone’s doors, his voice booming through the streets: “A drowning! A drowning!”
People called the old man Hamid “Bu Oyoun” because of his perfect vision. Although the nickname had been given to him when he was young, his vision remained sharp, even into his eighth decade. He could see from a distance what others could not; he could distinguish who was coming from afar and recognise the villagers’ animals roaming deep in the mountains and in the neighbouring plains, identifying them and their owners.
It was by a strange coincidence that he happened to pass by al-Khatm well that day at noon, since it wasn’t on his way home. What was also strange was how he had glanced into the bottom of the well, as if ordered by some voice. As though he was meant to spot, beneath the dark surface of the water, the ghost of a person, to narrow his eyelids until his eyes were slitted, then remain there, mesmerised by the water in the well until the truth revealed itself.
He could see a floating corpse, a person drowned, so he rubbed at his eyes before opening them again. Looking closely, he was sure of what he saw, but he couldn’t identify the drowned person because the well was too dark and too deep.
It was a blazing summer afternoon, the western wind together with the arid valley making the whole place unbearable. Even though midday was usually a time of stillness, when people reclined beneath trees, having moistened the earth with water to soften the air, fear pounded in people’s hearts, their curiosity roused over the identity of the person who had drowned, which the messenger had not revealed. And so, everyone abandoned the shade and hurried over to the well.
The clamour was overwhelming and people hovered around the well looking for answers about the person who had drowned: Who was it? What had happened to them? Why had no one seen them climbing down the well? What were they looking for? Was it one of the villagers, or a stranger? Who found them and how did they see them when the well was so deep? Did they fall down or did someone push them? Questions scattered from everyone’s lips, each person desperate to know what had happened.
The crowd reacted in a similar pattern: each would arrive in a flurry, before staring into the water’s murky depths until the image of a person at the bottom of the well appeared—a person whose features and gender no one could discern—and so on, and so forth.
“It’s like some sort of creature,” a woman said, covering her mouth with her veil.
“I’ve never seen a corpse,” a young man in his twenties added.
“The only corpse here is you,” an old man replied, shaking his head, leaving the young man to look down in silent shame.
The depth of the well demanded that an experienced man descend, because the slightest slip could kill him, too, especially since its bottom was rocky and not entirely level. This meant that the village messenger’s second task was to find a volunteer to climb down to the bottom of the well.
Saif bin Hammoud was one of the first to hear the messenger’s calls and had immediately rushed out of his house. A tall, grim-looking man, strong and brawny, Saif was known around the village for never allowing any problem to go unsolved. That’s why he didn’t need anyone to ask him to climb into the well to pull out the person who had drowned. All eyes had automatically turned to him.
When Saif bin Hammoud descended into the well, hanging from a rope, and sank beneath the water, his eyes met those of the corpse, which were open wide, as though glaring at him. Fear and panic took over, and he almost choked and drowned. Yanking at the rope, he screamed for them to pull him out. When he reached the mouth of the well, he was trembling as he raved: “The corpse can see… the corpse can see…they ate me…its eyes swallowed me whole.”
Then he fled to his house, pulling the door shut, and wrapped himself up in a thick woollen robe.
The elderly man realised that the only person who would dare to go down to the bottom of the well was a man they called al-Wa’ry.
“Al-Wa’ry’s who you need,” he told the others.
Al-Wa’ry Salam wid Amour was a brave-hearted, fearless man who never hesitated to fulfil a request or to action a plan of his own. He climbed lofty palm trees and challenging peaks, descended into the dark recesses of the water channels and into deep, ancient wells. He spent his nights alone in the mountains, without a soul for company, and generally did not mix with others.
One man offered to go and fetch him, so he ran over to where al-Wa’ry usually took a nap on his small farm, far from the people and the streets. He had just laid his head on a small red pillow, closed his eyes, and began to savour his state of drowsiness when the man reached the edge of the farm and started shouting at the top of his voice: “Oooo! al-Wa’ry!” He quickly rose to find out what was happening, since it was the first time anyone had ever called for him that way or even approached from the perimeter of his farm at this time of day.
He emerged red-eyed, hair dishevelled, his beard thick. It was this same eccentric appearance which made people feel nervous around him.
Once the man had explained what had happened, al-Wa’ry quickly set off, not pausing to go back into the house for his shoes. He ran barefoot and didn’t stop until he reached the well.
When he arrived, he placed one foot on the edge of the well and the other on the opposite edge, pushing his legs out and grabbing the two ledges with his hands as he began to descend to the surface of the water. He grabbed hold of the rope that was dangling above him and took a deep breath. Then he leapt towards the bottom and vanished.
He was gone for a long time, so that the tension rose amongst the people waiting above, but finally he secured the rope around the corpse so that it wouldn’t fall when the rope was tugged.
When he saw the corpse’s open eyes, he reached out and closed its eyelids. La illaha illa Allah, he recited to himself as he did this, there is no God but God, then proceeded to haul the corpse out. From the depths of the well, he shouted up at them to pull the dead body out, but he stayed where he was until he could be certain that it had been removed. Then he climbed back up, clambering over the stones without asking for any help.
The corpse was placed near the edge of the well and covered up. The sounds of lamentation rose as soon as people recognised it. It was the dead body of Maryam bint Hamad wad Ghanem. A ring of women formed around her, some of them crying silently and others wailing.
“Maryam is gone.”
Her husband, Abdullah bin Jameel, was there. He went up to the body, staring at it incredulously. What had made his wife, who was terrified even to approach the edge of a well, get so close that she would fall and drown in one this deep? But there she was, covered up in front of him on the ground, her eyes closed, water seeping from her body, her veil slipped from her head and wrapped around her neck like a noose.
In accordance with tradition, they swiftly washed and shrouded her so that she could be buried in the village cemetery. As the women were shrouding Maryam, her aunt, Aisha bint Mabrouk, suddenly cried out: “There’s life in her womb! There’s life in her womb!”
Zahran Alqasmi is an Omani poet and novelist, born in Dima Wattayeen in the Sultanate of Oman in 1974. He has published four novels: Mountain of the Horseradish Tree (2013), The Sniper (2014), Hunger for Honey (2017), and Exile of the Water Diviner (2021), as well as ten poetry collections and Biography of the Stone 1 (short story collection, 2009) and Biography of the Stone 2 (non-fiction, 2011).
Nashwa Nasreldin is a writer, editor, and a translator of Arabic literature. She is the translator of a number of books including the collaborative novel, Shatila Stories, from Peirene Press, and Talib al-Rifae’s novel Shadow of the Sun, which is forthcoming from Banipal Books. She is a contributing editor of ArabLit.org and ArabLit Quarterly, and holds an MFA in Poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.