Nothing threatens the meaning of life like freedom: The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali

On a plateau atop a mountain in Kurdistan, at the border of heaven and the realm of earthly reality stands a lone pomegranate tree. Known as “the last pomegranate tree in the world,” it is an enchanted and symbolic point of intersection for a handful of boys and the man whose life is bound to all of them although he will only meet one in person. His story—and, through him, their stories—recounted night after night to an audience of fellow refugees on a ferry riding dangerous dark waves, is one of hope, despair and the immeasurable price war exacts.

No, tonight I’m not going to tell you about Muhammad the Glass-Hearted, Saryas-i Subhdam, Nadim-i Shazada, and their connection to a pomegranate tree that heals the blind. It’s too early to reach the heart of our story. It seems as if we’ll be out at sea for many more nights. And if God comes to our help and our story is cut short because we’ve reached some country’s shores, if the coast guards detain and separate us, don’t worry that you haven’t heard the end of the story. You are right there at its end. This ferry marks the very end of the story.

The road to autonomy for the Kurdish people has been long and bloody, marked by insurgency, uprising, genocide and civil war. This is the reality of Bachtyar Ali’s The Last Pomegranate Tree (originally published in Kurdish in 2002), but the tale he gives us is one filled with magic, mystery and philosophy. Unfolding over the last decades of the twentieth century and just into the twenty-first, amid the dark, violent years of Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, it is as much a story about orphans, oaths and glass pomegranates, as a testimony to the brutality of warfare and the hollowness of victory. Yet above all, it is a story about the power of storytelling.

With his captive audience, our narrator, Muzafar-i Subhdam, is an unlikely Scheherazade, weaving his tale, not to save his own life, but to preserve the memory of a story beyond anything he ever expected to encounter—one he has now has committed himself to carrying. He begins with the account of his sudden release from prison after twenty-one years confined, alone with only the vastness of the desert for company. However, rather than finding himself a free man, he is taken to a luxurious mansion surrounded by a dense forest, where he soon learns that his old childhood friend, Yaqub-i Snawbar intends to keep him hostage so that they may grow old together apart from a world ravaged by destruction and disease. Years earlier when they were fellow Peshmerga freedom fighters, young men dreaming of a new future for the Kurdish people, Muzafar had forfeited his freedom to allow his friend to escape. He emerges from the desert, long thought dead and nearly forgotten, while Yaqub has amassed great wealth and power. But the wounds of conflict and corruption run deep, and Yaqub sees Muzafar as pure soul whose presence will ultimately cleanse his sins. But our hero has no desire to trade one prison for another. He has only one goal—to learn the fate of the infant son he left behind when he was captured so many long years ago.

Like a seasoned raconteur, Muzafar-i Subhdam entwines the story of his own search with the stories he acquires along the way, offering his audience hints at what lies ahead, but making them wait as a rich mythological tapestry slowly takes shape. Whenever he asks about his son, he is told that he is dead though no one can or will tell him how or when he died. Again and again he is advised not to seek answers, to accept the truth and move on. But for the decades he spent surrendering himself to the world of sand, letting all other memories be swept away, the one thing he held fast to was the thought that somewhere on earth there was someone named Saryas-i Subhdam. His son.

In these unusual times, fathers have become estranged from their sons.

Slipping into what at first seem to be magical detours, we learn about Mohamed the Glass-Hearted killed by love and two mysterious sisters who have sworn to never marry and always wear white. As Muzafar will discover when he conspires to return to the outside world, the life of Saryas-i Subhdam is bound to their lives and to the lives of many others. His efforts to piece together the clues he uncovers blends fantasy with the very real horrors of a series of conflicts that are, at the time, still ongoing and unforgiving. The chronicle he shares with his ferry companions is filled with memorable characters and strange coincidences, interspersed with philosophical musings as in the following testimony from Ikram-i Kew, the giant-sized,  soft-hearted fixer who agrees to help free Muzafar from the mansion and assists him as needed on his journey:

“I served the revolution for many years,” he said. “I’ve done everything except kill for it. I often regret it, and often I don’t. Muzafar-i Subhdam, innocence creates two feelings in us: on the one hand, you feel you’re nothing, you’re weak, and your innocence is like a rabbit’s in the middle of a pack of wolves. At other times, you have the opposite feeling – that you have encountered every kind of war and filth but retained your innocence. You tell yourself: that’s good, that’s beautiful, it’s a great achievement. Muzafar-i Subhdam, the revolution is a great big lie. You’re fortunate – you’re a revolutionary without having been in the revolution. And that’s divine grace. I had thought that the success of the revolution would automatically bring about paradise on earth. And yet, from the next day, the very next morning, when you opened your eyes and washed your face, you could see that everything was starting all over again. I saw that devil being reborn day after day, a devil that was only small to begin with. At first you say, So what? That devil is part of all of us, it’s only small, a natural part of any human being. But you can see it gradually grow bigger, sweeping everything away. Everything.”

The Last Pomegranate Tree, a modern Kurdish fable, is an immersive, entertaining tale that fuses the charm of ancient legend with the harsh reality of contemporary history. It honours a generation lost or, worse, hardened to death and disaster by years of hostility—both coming from outside the troubled region and arising from within. Resilience, as fragile as the glass pomegranates at the heart of his tale, is what Muzafar-i Subhdam cherishes and holds close as he trusts the convoluted story of Saryas-i Subhdam to a group of refugees lost at sea.

The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali is translated from the Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman and published by Archipelago Books.