Shortlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Ismail Fahd’s novel “The Old Woman and the River”[i] is a charming and heart-warming read. With a gentle yet gripping introduction to a story that unfolds gracefully and at times humorously, the novel builds up expectations that could go either way.
The book commences with hints about a swathe of land which mysteriously remained fertile in the years of the Iran-Iraq war. Sabiliyat, a small village near the Iran-Iraq border, escaped the parched fate of neighboring villages, thanks to Um Qasem, the novel’s protagonist.
In 1980, the residents of Sabiliyat are delivered an evacuation order. Um Qasem and her family embark upon the long journey to Najaf, together with their donkeys. On the way, Um Qasem’s husband dies of heart failure and the family buries him close to the highway.
Exile and the loss of her husband contribute to Um Qasem’s constant forays into memory.
In Najaf, Um Qasem’s existence takes on a different dimension. Exile and the loss of her husband contribute to Um Qasem’s constant forays into memory, while her present life is characterized by dissonance. Her children and grandchildren have settled in their new lives. There is only one way for Um Qasem to reclaim her purpose and her life – a return to her village despite the ramifications of war.
Unbeknownst to her family, Um Qasem embarks upon the journey with her donkey, Good Omen. The return to her village is not complete without bringing her husband’s remains to rest in a place where life and memory intertwine. Her wit eludes the rest of the children, who catch up with her and concede to her journeying back to Sabiliyat, ostensibly upon the wishes of her late husband. As her family retreats to Najaf, Um Qasem’s solitude mingles with the apprehension of travelling alone during a time of war and the anticipation of returning to her village.
Memory is expectant and positive; it relies on nostalgia which soon turns to bewilderment as the lush greenery of Sabiliyat is now a parched desert, mirroring the dry riverbeds. Bringing life back to the village becomes Um Qasem’s aim, as she negotiates her stay with a contingent of soldiers who are mystified by her sudden appearance and her determination to remain.
As an “old woman,” she earns the soldier’s respect and the protection of Lieutenant Abdel Kareem, while her idiosyncrasies and fantasies, or visions, are acted upon in ways which mystify the contingent and at times, raise the Lieutenant’s ire as he grapples with Um Qasem’s simplicity and his unfounded suspicions of infiltrators.
Meanwhile, the connection to land shapes a perpetual backdrop against which the story unfolds in its simplicity and yet, not without a dose of embellishment as Um Qasem, prompted by visions from her husband, is guided towards acts of sabotage to restore the village to its former glory.
As the mutually-beneficial relationship between Um Qasem and the soldiers develops – she can find provisions by foraging in abandoned houses while the soldiers offer her protection for a stipulated time frame – the land returns to life. Land is portrayed as both a public and a personal experience, leading the reader to ponder the meaning of land during war, the ties to land left behind, as well as the changing perceptions upon one’s return from exile.
Land is portrayed as both a public and a personal experience, leading the reader to ponder the meaning of land during war.
Land is the terrain upon which wars are fought and in which the soldiers participate through aggression and forcing evacuation orders upon the villagers. It is also a memory for the soldiers who have left their homes, and who, in the novel, are not portrayed as right or wrong but merely fulfilling orders.
Yet, the soldiers’ connection to the land they left back home creates empathy with Um Qasem, as she sets about clearing the village and tending to the land. In a brief timespan, much is accomplished and its continuation rests on a twist which, coupled with her visions in which her late husband issues instructions or provides remembrances, gives Um Qasem the clause she requires to escape another cycle of forced exile.
Upon her return from banishment, Um Qasem not only tends to the land, but brings memories of the villagers to the fore, in brief snippets which hark back to the time before the war. Shifting between indignation and momentary resignation, Um Qasem interacts with her surroundings through justifying foraging, while tidying up to the best of her abilities.
Through her actions, the social fabric of the village is revealed, only to contrast once again with the current absence and emptiness. The land, devoid of people, becomes both a responsibility and a source of pride and pleasure to Um Qasem. Since she is the only returnee and only villager among those present, memory rests upon her and she embraces the role as its guardian.
Um Qasem is dependent upon the soldiers for remaining in Sabiliyat, yet her independent streak makes her story run its course.
As the only woman among men who have the power to decide her fate, Um Qasem is remarkable. The book rests heavily upon detailed descriptions that convey atmosphere and mood yet mirror the protagonist’s simplicity. Um Qasem is dependent upon the soldiers for remaining in Sabiliyat, yet her independent streak is what makes her story run its course.
Far removed from privilege, but with an innate sense of pride in her roots, Um Qasem’s role in transforming the village and bringing out the humanity lost behind uniforms is void of pretense and imbued with purpose, imparting a sense of how things should be and in an almost absurd manner, regardless of war. Fayed’s prose is soothing: a return to land manifests itself in new relationships springing from a void yet bound by a love for territory which escapes the confines imposed by war.
[i] Ismail Fahd Ismail, The Old Woman and the River, Interlink Books, 2019