After the ceasefire in 1988, the devastation to the landscape of Iraq wrought by the longest war of the twentieth century—the Iran-Iraq War—becomes visible. Eight years of fighting have turned nature upside down, with vast wastelands being left behind. In southeastern Iraq, along the shores of the Shatt al-Arab River, the groves of date palm trees have withered. No longer bearing fruit, their leaves have turned a bright yellow. There, Iraqi forces had blocked the entry points of the river’s tributaries and streams, preventing water from flowing to the trees and vegetation. Yet, surveying this destruction from the sky, a strip of land bursting with green can be seen. Beginning from the Shatt al-Arab River and reaching to the fringes of the western desert, several kilometers wide, it appears as a lush oasis of some kind. The secret of this fertility, sustaining villages and remaining soldiers, is unclear. But it is said that one old woman is responsible for this lifeline.
About the Author
Ismail Fahd Ismail is regarded as the founder of the art of the novel in Kuwait. After the appearance of The Sky Was Blue, in 1970, he published 27 novels, as well as three short story collections, two plays and several critical studies. The Phoenix and the Faithful Friend was long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. He is revered for his encouragement of new Kuwaiti and Arab literary talent.
SOPHIA VASALOU is a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Her books include Wonder and Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics.
"In a land ravaged by war and deprived of its inhabitants, a returnee embarks upon regeneration of land, memory, and relationship ' a charming and heart-warming read ' with a gentle yet gripping introduction to a story that unfolds gracefully and at times humorously ....
The wisdom of age (both in the writer and the protagonist) pervades this novel set in Iraq, in the delta of the storied Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is a story of personal and national bereavement, underlined by abundant resilience, with characters who are lush and full-bodied, whether dead or alive, and a war that decimates and yet cannot truly overcome the hearts and minds of a people. I wish more American novels could build their stories around women like Um Qasem or tell the story of mothers and widows in war to such profoundly moving effect. — Ru Freeman, Words without Borders, The Best Translated Books You Missed in 2019
Hemingway, eat your heart out! 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 ' the novel is wrapped up with grace and affection. It also makes a magical end to the life of the prolific and beloved novelist Ismail Fahd Ismail, who passed away late last September in Kuwait, at the age of 78. May his books, like Abu Qasem, live on. — Marcia Lynx Qualey, Qantara
An understated, simply told story of the hell of war from an unusual perspective. Kuwaiti writer Ismail sets his story across the international border in Iraq, at the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is 1980, the outbreak of a long, savage war between Iraq and Iran, and a woman named Um Qasem finds herself suddenly widowed when her husband dies of heart failure; as Ismail writes, ??Everyone dies when their time comes, be it in the midst of war or lying in their own bed.' She and her sons, refugees from the delta region, bury him alongside a highway near Nasiriya, but when Um Qasem, feeling homesick a few years later, decides to head back to her home village of Sabiliyat, about 250 miles away, her husband appears to her in a dream and says he wants to go home, too. After digging up what remains of him, Um Qasem undertakes a dangerous journey in the company of a donkey aptly named Good Omen, who snorts understandingly as Um Qasem voices her worries. Arriving at Sabiliyat, she finds that her old home is in disarray, and the entire village, long since emptied of people, is desiccated, destroyed by the river's having been dammed up by her country's own army in an apparent scorched-earth maneuver. Um Qasem's husband begins to figure ever more prominently in her dreams, taking a neighbor's ax to the flimsy dam, even as Um Qasem becomes a substitute mother to a soldier stationed on the front: ??I have three sons,' she says, happily, ??you're now my fourth.' Tragedy, of course, soon follows, even as Um Qasem subversively disobeys orders to evacuate, taking her time to bury her husband as she quietly restores a bit of the village's formerly green orderliness. Ismail's story has a fairy-tale-like quality at points, reminiscent here of Don Quixote and there of Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees, and it speaks plainly, without sentimentality or obviousness, about the terrors of warand in particular a war that few Westerners know about. A memorable tale by an author who deserves wider circulation in English.