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 war—and in particular a war that few Westerners know about.
A memorable tale by an author who deserves wider circulation in English.