[Engaging Books is a monthly series featuring new and forthcoming books in Middle East Studies from publishers around the globe. Each installment highlights a trending topic in the MENA publishing world and includes excerpts from the selected volumes.This installment involves a selection from Archipelago Books. Other publishers’ books will follow on a monthly basis.]

Table of Contents


By Sevgi Soysal
Translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely
About the Book
About the Author / Translator
In the Media
Additional Information
Call for Reviews

In Praise of Defeat 

By Abdellatif Laâbi
Translated from French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
About the Book
About the Author / Translator
Media Coverage
Additional Information
Call for Reviews

Pearls on a Branch 

By Najla Jraissaty Khoury
Translated from Arabic by Inea Bushnaq
About the Book
About the Author / Translator
Media Coverage
Additional Information
Call for Reviews

The Last Pomegranate Tree

By Bachtyar Ali
Translated from Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman
About the Book
About the Author / Translator
Media Coverage
Additional Information
Call for Reviews


By Sevgi Soysal, translated by Maureen Freely

About the Book

As the sun presses down on Adana, köftes and cups of cloudy raki are passed to the guests of a dinner party in the home of Ali – a former laborer who gives tight bear hugs and radiates the spirit of a child. Among the guests are a journalist named Oya, who has recently been released from prison and is living in exile on charges of leftist sympathizing, and her new acquaintance, Mustafa. Together they sit among calico cushions, debate communism and socialism, words rumbling around the room “like hot peppers.” A swift kick knocks down the front door and bumbling policemen converge on the guests, carting them off to holding cells, where they’ll be interrogated and tortured throughout the night.

Fear spools into the private shells of their minds, into the tip of a pen being forced into confession, into claustrophobic thoughts of a return to prison, just after tasting freedom. Bristling snatches of Oya’s time in prison rush back – the wild curses and laughter of inmates, their vicious quarrels and rapturous belly-dancing in the courtyard. Her former inmates created fury and joy out of nothing. Their cloistered yet brimming resilience wills Oya to fight through the night and is fused with every word of this blazing, lucid novel.

About the Author

Sevgi Soysal was born in Istanbul in 1936. Her work is inspired by her childhood in Ankara, youth and student movements in Turkey, revolutionary dreams, and experiences of leftist intellectuals in prison and in exile. In 1974, Soysal won the prestigious Orhan Kemal Award for Best Novel for Noontime in Yenişehir, which she wrote while in prison. Dawn was published in 1975, a beautiful thematic companion to her memoirs of prison life, which were originally published in the newspaper Politika and published in a single volume as Yıldırım Area Women’s Ward in 1976. She wrote a brilliant set of endearing and illuminating story collections, novels, and memoirs over the course of her short life. Soysal died at the age of 40 of cancer in 1976. She left behind an incomplete novel, Welcome, Death!

About the Translator

Maureen Freely is a writer, translator, senior lecturer at Warwick University, and the President of English PEN. Translator of five books by Orhan Pamuk, Fethiye Cetin’s My Grandmother, and – with Alexander Dawe – Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s The Time Regulation Institute, she is active in various campaigns to champion free expression. She has been a regular contributor to The GuardianThe ObserverThe Independent, and The Sunday Times for two decades. Her novels include Sailing through ByzantiumEnlightenmentAngry in Piraeus, and The Other Rebecca.

Media Coverage

“The fluid shifts in points of view underscore the precariousness of the characters’ lives during a tumultuous and violent period following a recent coup . . . [Dawn] powerfully underscores how the threat of violence drives all the characters into suspicion and paranoia. This story of persecution convinces with its urgency and humanity.

Publishers Weekly

“[Soysal’s] writings, full of courage, malice, disobedience and irony, do not so much reflect an existing feminist movement on the streets . . . as forge a new voice, inquiring into the power of capital and men, while keeping in mind the tempestuous and fickle nature of human relationships, with their power to subvert, inflame and destroy . . . Defiant, flawed, piercing. Reading . . . Soysal today restores the volatility and violence of female concerns, and expands our horizons of understanding how inequality operates.”

— Helen Mackreath, The White Review

“Sevgi Soysal’s unique voice continues to echo today, long after her passing. In the antagonistic environment of the 1970s, when the country was divided between leftists and rightists, Soysal questioned, in clever, flowing prose, patriarchal precedents on all sides . . . She was the writer of women dangling on the threshold—between sanity and insanity, society and the individual, setting the table and walking away, endless self-sacrifice and impromptu selfishness. . . . She created female characters who straddled the divide between living for others and following their hearts.”

— Elif Shafak, from her memoir, Black Milk

“With a clarity and courage rooted in her own experiences as a political prisoner, Sevgi Soysal unflinchingly exposed the suffering and defiance of women in 1970s Turkey, and more broadly the conflicts inherent in personal and political loyalties which continue to resound in our time. A brutal but ultimately rewarding novel, and a timely and typically sensitive translation by Maureen Freely.”

— Alev Scott, author of Ottoman Odyssey

“With the unflinching eye of a journalist and the sensitivities of a novelist, Soysal reveals one night of horror threaded with moments of possibility and human connection. Maureen Freely’s translation brings Soysal’s riveting words to a wider audience, one courageous woman’s story, a necessary story for our whole fragile world.”

— Patty Dann, author of Mermaids and The Wright Sister

Additional Information

November 15, 2022

376 Pages

$20.00 (list price)

ISBN: 9781953861382


A chill goes down Oya’s spine. Suddenly she can’t move. Me too? Well, why wouldn’t they? There’d be no point to it, though. They don’t have anything on me, after all. Most likely, they detained us without any real reason. Would they know already how little she’d have to give them? Why waste their efforts for nothing? Those questions have left ice trails all across her brain. She can’t help it. She can’t push Zekai Bey’s threats from her mind. Nor can she brush away the stories she heard while in prison: what happened to others might soon be happening to her. In those days, it was other people’s stories she carried. Now she would be living them. She’s not so foolish as to not know the difference between sharing a burden and living it. No. Zekai Bey only said that to scare me . . . and, well, he succeeded. I’m scared. Idiotic. Absolute nonsense. Evil, to finish off this evening’s raid with torture. Don’t even imagine it. Don’t be such a fool. If worse comes to worst, I’ll be arrested, no more. At the very least, there must be some genuine reason behind all this. From the moment she began her sentence, she’d been so careful, so correct. And now they bring her in? What is to be gained from all this commotion? How she hates herself, for losing herself in explanations and excuses. What’s become of you? Did any of this make any sense, ever? And still she’s trying to make some sort of sense of it. But for them, torture always does have a meaning. For instance, when the Romans were hunting down Christians, they’d sometimes throw one to the lions, just to lull the spectators in the arena, just to amuse them. There’s no big shake-down going on here. No brilliant spectacle. No hectoring crowd. When all is said and done, there will be just the one headline: Police raid house in the Independence District where a secret meeting was underway. It might be fear that has her going through all the possibilities. Or she might just be doing this to stay calm.

Abdullah walks beside her in silence. His evil looks don’t scare her as much as they did before. What can this man do to me? He can beat me, he can curse me. He’d never go so far as the deliberate, systematic kind of torture she’s heard about, thousands of times over. When she thinks about that sort of torture, and then thinks about what Abdullah could do to her, Oya is almost relieved, almost amused. But Zekai Bey had said something else. He spoken of her being taken somewhere. Oya had heard of other somewheres in Ankara and Istanbul. She’d heard there were places like that in Adana, too. Those things she’d heard about in such horror – they can happen here too. Close enough to touch. They’re almost there. Electric wires, attached to all your fingers and toes. Hearts beating so hard they might burst. Begging to be killed. Deliberately kept alive, but only just. Lying in a pool of blood and vomit, no longer a woman, no longer human. Rolling down and down and down . . . And then, the worst a man can do, but with a truncheon . . .

Suddenly she notices the truncheon in Abdullah’s hands. Is that what he beat Ali with? At just that moment, she looks down the corridor and sees Ali crumpled up on a bench. One of his eyes is shut. Bruised deep purple. The soles of his feet are swollen up like drums. He’s moaning. She pauses, then walks over to Ali’s side.

“I’m sorry.”

He stares up at her blankly through a sightless eye. Then he turns away, to moan some more.

He didn’t even recognize her. No, he did recognize her. He was just shocked by her asinine gesture. What exactly am I apologizing for? What sense is there in apologizing to Ali at this moment? She can sense Abdullah smirking at her. Even he knows what an idiot I was to do that. Maybe while I’m at it I should apologize to Abdullah as well. This man who brought us in. Who beat poor Ali to a pulp. It would have been bad enough if she’d wished Ali a quick recovery. But no. She’d had to apologize.

I didn’t apologize on behalf of Abdullah, the police, and their headquarters. I apologized for getting him and his family into trouble by visiting their house. I’m still putting myself at the center of everything. I’m too quick to assume it’s all about me. I don’t know why they raided the house yet. It could have been because of Mustafa, or Hüseyin, or even Zekeriya. Or Ekrem. Yes, Ekrem. Someone seeking some sort of advantage might have denounced him. Or could it be Ali?

After all. Do I know anything about this man? Maybe he got himself mixed up in something. It could be a coincidence, that they raided the house when I was there. No, my dear. If that had been the case, Abdullah would not have singled out Mustafa, Hüseyin, and me at the outset. Not that I know much about these brothers either. Maybe all this was a trap. They’d turned up so suddenly. Her suspicions, her guilt. That about sums it up for people like me. Yet another mixed-up little bourgeois lady!

Abdullah’s job now is to give her a beating. This will do her some good. What she needs now is physical pain. Otherwise she’ll keep babbling and quarreling. In these days of struggle, is it too much to expect us to give up fighting with ourselves, or worrying how people see us?

Call for Reviews

If you would like to review the book for the Arab Studies Journal and Jadaliyya, please email info@jadaliyya.com

In Praise of Defeat 

By Abdellatif Laâbi

Translated from French by Donald Nicholson-Smith


About the Book

Abdellatif Laâbi is without a doubt the major francophone voice of Moroccan poetry today.  Shaped by struggle and the pain of exile, Laâbi’s expressive simplicity reflects both a life worn to the bone and a resilient, embracing spirit. Laâbi’s is a poetry of protest – internally tumultuous yet delicate verse that grapples with political and spiritual oppression. This collection of poems, selected by Laâbi himself, shows the evolution of his style. From the mutilated syntax and explosive verse of his early work to the subtle lyricism and elegant constructions of phrase that characterize him now, Laâbi never ceases searching, demanding, penetrating.

About the Author

Poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and political activist, Abdellatif Laâbi was born in Fez, Morocco in 1942. He was also the founder of Souffles, an important literary review that was banned in Morocco in 1972. Laâbi received the Prix Robert Ganzo de Poésie in 2008, the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie for his Oeuvres complètes in 2009, and the Académie Française’s Grand Prix de la Francophonie in 2011. Also available in English are his debut collection of poetry The Rule of Barbarism, the memoir Rue de Retour, and The World’s Embrace: Selected Poems.

About the Translator

Donald Nicholson-Smith was born in Manchester, England and is a longtime resident of New York City. His translations, ranging from psychoanalysis and social criticism to crime fiction, include works by Thierry Jonquet, Guy Debord, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Henri Lefebvre, Raoul Vaneigem, Antonin Artaud, Jean Laplanche, and J.B. Pontalis. His translation of Apollinaire’s Letters to Madeleine was shortlisted for the 2012 French-American Foundation Prize for Nonfiction and in 2014 he won the Foundation’s Fiction Prize for his translation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad. His translation of In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017.

Media Coverage

“There is unfathomable beauty and unspeakable sorrow laced throughout this 800-page bilingual opus of poems by Moroccan writer Abdellatif Laâbi, which speaks to his feeling of exile from his own language and his displacement within his own country, mired in the mess of colonialism. Donald Nicholson-Smith skillfully carves out a space for English to accommodate Laâbi’s vigorous and vital voice.”

–        Emma Ramadan, The Center for the Art of Translation Best Books of the Decade list

“ Each poem testifies to Laâbi’s revolt against silencing, oppression, and exclusion, promoting an alternative world based on resistance, love, and commitment…Laâbi reaffirms the ability of poetry to transcend borders, celebrate human desires, and denounce atrocities and horror, from Madrid to Baghdad.”

–        Khalid Lyamlahy, The Poetry Review

“As the new collection In Praise of Defeat, deftly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness…In Praise of Defeat presents a poet-activist who was born in the direst possible circumstances, survived them, and has continued on a trajectory of art and activism. He shows any poet how the artistic space created by “poet, activist, former prisoner, exile” is the space where the most crucial acts of art happen.”

–        Emily Wolahan The Quarterly Conversation

“A career-spanning collection of poetry from Morocco’s poet of protest, In Praise of Defeat gives the reader a time-lapse tour of Abdellatif Laâbi’s expansive poetic voice in development. Presenting the text en face, translator Donald Nicholson-Smith navigates the poet’s many styles and moods with poise and opens this landmark writer’s body of work up to nonfrancophone readers.”

–        Nota Benes World Literature Today

“In Praise of Defeat brings together poetry chosen by the author that spans his entire writing career, from 1965 to the present. In its 800 bilingual pages, the book provides as complete a portrait as we are likely to have of this central figure of Maghrebin culture. Brilliantly and feelingly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, this collection has been nominated for the Best Translated Book Award, and if there’s any justice in the world, it will win it.”

–        Mitchell Abidor Jewish Currents

Additional Information

January 2017

$20.00 (list price)

ISBN: 9780914671596



One by one

dreams come to die on the page The word was passed around They come from everywhere

to die on the page

like elephants in their graveyard I witness their convulsions

cannot offer them a glass of water I look at them for the first time for the last time

before wrapping them in the shroud of my words and placing them in the tiny boat

that was once their cradle The current carries them off

but very soon brings them back to me

as though the open sea were not over there but here on the page



I am the child of this pitiful century a child who has never grown up

the questions that used to burn my tongue have burnt my wings

I had learned to walk then I unlearned

I grew tired of oases

and camels searching avidly for ruins Stretched out in the middle of the road with my head turned toward the East

I await the caravan of the mad



I dare to speak of my darkness I am in the darkness

and beg for no lifeline

I am going to live in this chaos furnish it as you would a cell

make myself a bed from the straw of my books tie my hands

to defeat temptation

carve out a window in the wall of the night with my black flame

Thus I shall live, keep watch like a scarecrow standing

in a field of shadows

Call for Reviews

If you would like to review the book for the Arab Studies Journal and Jadaliyya, please email info@jadaliyya.com


Pearls on a Branch 

By Najla Jraissaty Khoury

Translated from Arabic by Inea Bushnaq


About the Book

While civil war raged in Lebanon, Najla Jraissaty Khoury traveled with a theater troupe, putting on shows in marginal areas where electricity was a luxury, in air raid shelters, Palestinian refugee camps, and isolated villages. Their plays were largely based on oral tales, and she combed the country in search of stories.

Many years later, she chose one hundred stories from among the most popular and published them in Arabic in 2014, exactly as she received them, from the mouths of the storytellers who told them as they had heard them when they were children from their parents and grandparents. Out of the hundred stories published in Arabic, Inea Bushnaq and Najla Jraissaty Khoury chose thirty for this book.

The folktales in this collection have survived generations, told by women to women, going back to a pre-literature era when oral tradition prevailed. it is no surprise that the protagonists in these stories are often women, too – cunning, strong, and resilient women who triumph in the face of oppression.

About the Author

Najla Jraissaty Khoury was born in Beirut. In the 1970s, she taught at adult literacy programs and later trained pre-school teachers. Her work has been influenced by her experience in education and her interest in folk tales and children’s literature. Najla Khoury founded and directed a puppet troupe and has developed several educational toys. In 1997, she helped found the NGO Assabil Libraries, which focuses on establishing public libraries throughout Lebanon.

About the Translator

Inea Bushnaq is a Palestinian-American writer and translator born in Jerusalem, educated in England, and now living in New York. She edited and translated the collection, Arab Folktales, published by Pantheon. Inea Bushnaq is an active supporter and promoter of Arab and Arab-American causes. She is a member of the advisory board of the Arab American National Museum.

Media Coverage

“A joyous example of an artist/archivist carrying out this work of cross-cultural recording and interpretation”

–        Daniel EricksonA Gathering of The Tribes Magazine

“The collection gives a strong sense of the women who passed down these stories through generations: rebellious, ribald and utterly charming.”

–        Jade ColbertThe Globe and Mail

“Dark emotions in the folktales are balanced with tenderness as lovers reconcile and wives pray for infants to hold… Female protagonists are agents of peace but also indelibly clever, demonstrating the humor, alternately ribald and subtle, at work in the lives of the tellers.”

–        Sara RameyWorld Literature Today

“Many times these stories express a desire to upend power structures…One could look for hints of protofeminism or use for comparative literature or read for pure enjoyment. The author’s and translator’s notes are helpful for appreciating the tales as expressions of women who had no voice except among themselves.”

–        Booklist 

“Comic, unique, and at times provocative… There are many figures to admire in Pearls on a Branch, and the translator must be counted among them… [Inea Bushnaq’s] preservation of a sense of the original’s rhythmic quality, more than making up for the loss of wordplay and rhyme, achieves the impossible—rendering the written audible, enough to hear generations of female voices calling out, inviting you to sit and listen to their timeless tales.”

–        Anaka AllenAsymptote Journal

Pearls on a Branch is an all-ages collection with something for everyone: delicious language, fun stories and unexpected reversals. Those who read it will find themselves like the married frogs at the end of their tale: ‘Content, they ask for nothing more.'”

–        M Lynx QualeyThe National

“A funny, bawdy, occasionally gruesome, and decidedly adult collection that celebrates small cultural variations amid large universal values.”

–        Kirkus Reviews

“Here a young woman slaps a suitor, transporting him back to his old life; the daughter of the sun and the moon commands objects with her voice; Thuraya, a long-haired woman trapped in a tower by a beastly ghoul, escapes with her lover by transforming everyday objects into a forest, a fire, an enormous lake… Filled with magic and cultural insight, the stories collected in Pearls on a Branch should be read aloud, explored and thoroughly enjoyed.”

–        Laura FarmerThe Gazette

“[T]hese tales are radiant with sunlight and flowers, jinns and spirits, palaces and sultans… the themes will resonate with anyone who loves fairy tales and folklore… An absolute delight for readers young and old.”

–        Barbara HoffertLibrary Journal

“It was very interesting to be given this opportunity to glimpse into such an essential but often overlooked aspect of Arabic life.”

–        Literary Flits

“The stories of Pearls on a Branch vary from fairy tale-esque to curiously compelling or comic. […] These fantastic tales are culturally intriguing, and particularly notable for acknowledging the unique voices of Lebanese women, past and present.”

–        Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews

“Timeless… Not just a ‘rescue mission to preserve the oral tradition’ but a bridge that will help connect Western readers to a culture they do not know.”

–        D.A. DellechiaieBoston University News Service

“I loved the pre-story that is often told in rhyme, the blessing, the rote “true or not true” statement… Many of the stories have to do with marriage, and often deception, changing the appearance, and Sultans or Princes who marry for the wrong reasons. I was pleased to see stories where the ending was a woman getting to marry who she wanted to in the first place.”

–        Jenny ColvinReading Envy

“I loved these [folk tales] – they’re fun, or moving, or occasionally horrifying, they’re very well written, the translation is excellent, and there’s a wide range so that they don’t begin to feel repetitive. Also, they shed a huge amount of light on a society and way of life that is so different from my own, and which is slowly passing; so that there’s an importance and even urgency to the act of gathering and recording these oral traditions before they are lost.”

–        FictionFan

Additional Information

April 2018

$14.00 (list price)

ISBN: 9780914671961


The “Farsheh”

An old woman,
Who looks like a hag
With grey hairs that sag
And a comb in her bag,
Walks with a limp and a hop
Till she comes to a grocer’s shop.

“Young man, what is your name?
You set my soul aflame.”

Says the young man:
“They call me Taktakan.”

“Do you sell cream and do you sell wine?” she asks. “And perfume in crystal flasks?
It is for a girl, radiant as the sun at noon,
A full-bodied young woman with a beautiful face, She can say to the mid-month moon,
‘Set! Let me shine in your place.’
Her hair? Ropes fit to tether camels!
Her cheeks? Two Damascene apples!
Her lips? Neat and thin,
A coffee cup’s rim!
Her forehead? The morning star!
Her nostril? A curved scimitar!
Her eyes? Eyes of a gazelle grazing on the hill!
Her brows? Lines drawn with a fine-cut quill!
She is sweeter than Turkish delight

All of Istanbul has no fairer sight.”

The young man felt faint and said with a cry:

“Stop, Old Woman, stop or I’ll die!
Tell me what I must do,
I’ll give my life and treasure too
If only I could find her!”

She said:
“You’ll need a turban, Indian cashmere, for your head,

For your back, a shawl of woven mohair thread.
Ride a pedigree horse with a lively trot

Fill your purse with all the gold you’ve got.

You’ll come to where three mansions stand

The finest in the land
One richly furnished

One lately varnished
One notched with gold untarnished. Pull the bell
Hear the knell
A young girl will bid you welcome. . .”

The young man wept:

“Enough! Old Woman, say no more!

My head is lost, my heart is sore!”

He went to his storehouse and put up for sale all the goods he owned. When the store was empty, with nothing left to sell, his purse was filled with one thousand, one hundred dinars of gold. So the young man went to the cloth merchant:

“O Hajj, do you sell cashmere?” he asked.

“Yes,” said the merchant, unrolling the cloth along his arm. One arm’s length then another, the merchant began to measure and the youth to wind until they had a turban fit for a Sheikh.

Next the youth went to visit a man who owned a horse.

“O Hajj, will you lend me your horse for an hour or so?” he asked.

“Anything you want, dear fellow, take it and welcome!” said the man. This was the pedigree horse. The young man jumped into saddle, put the turban on his head and went to his friend old Hajj Hassan.

“O Hajj,” he said, “Will you let me borrow your shawl for an hour or so?”

“Gladly,” said Hajj Hassan, “Take it.”

It was a mohair shawl that people wore in bygone days and used as a cloak. The young man threw it round his shoulders and rode to the place the Old Woman described.

He arrived where three mansions stood,

The finest of the neighborhood:
One richly furnished,
One lately varnished,

One notched with gold untarnished. He pulled the bell
He heard the knell
A young woman with a tray,

Came out to say

“Welcome to you, Taktakan!”

She offered him coffee and he drank it. When he put back the cup, she said:

“Now lay your purse, one thousand, one hundred dinars of gold, on the tray and stay. Sit here and wait, we’ll not be late.”

“Your wish, my command,” said the youth.

She took the gold and he sat down. One hour, two hours passed. Waiting is hard and he was bored. He looked out the window. There, as far as the eye could see, was a garden and in it grew all that lip or tongue might crave: every kind of fruit and plant.

“I need some air,” he thought. ”I’ll take a turn outside.”

As he paced the garden he saw a henna shrub, tall and luxuriant – exalted be the Creator! From here to there, its scent hung heavy on the air. The young man found it pleasing.

“By God, I’ll pick me a flower and sniff it as I go,” he said. He reached up to snatch the bloom but the plant rebuked him:

“Hands off, or I will call a curse on you!
My mistress mocks: she neither loves nor likes you.”

“O God’s wonder, you can talk? ” he asked.

“I am Henna,” said the plant,
“I can speak and also sing,
I’m a guest at all weddings.

My warm red dye

Adorns your brides.”

The young man left and continued walking. On his path there was an apple tree its branches bending, weighed down with fruit. From each stem hung two apples, one red one green, praised be the Creator!

“I think I’ll pick me an apple,” said the youth. But as he stretched his hand towards the tree it said: “Hands off, or I will call a curse on you!
My mistress mocks: she neither loves nor likes you.”

“O God’s wonder, you can talk?” asked the young man.

The tree said:
“Of course I have the gift of speech!
I am the one whose fruit tastes best,
I keep my apples out of reach
For he who picks one knows no rest.”

The young man left. Around him grew fruits and flowers of every kind that he dared not touch. Then he glimpsed a shimmer far ahead. He ran to see and found a pavilion–a glittering wonder to be hold! Four gold pillars were the base; the walls inlaid with pearls and gems; diamonds and rubies, faceted in varying ways. He saw a young woman walking towards him with roses preceding her and jasmine following as she came. Beautiful she was as the old woman had said. One look and the young man fell apart! Every bone in his spine was loosened and all his strength deserted. He sank to the ground unable to move either arm or leg.

“Get up!” the young woman said, giving him a push with her foot. “He who seeks women that are fair, must not groan and cry despair. Get yourself up!”

She pushed and pulled and made the young man sit upright.

“O Taktakan,” she said, “Will you let me rest on your knee a while?”

She placed her head upon his lap and closed those gazelle eyes. In her sleep, now she blushed and then was pale. O Lord, the tints in her face! Roses and lilies! They maddened the young man till he began to sob. One hot tear fell on the young woman’s cheek. She awoke and said:

“What is this, O Taktakan, burning coal or a tear of woe?”

“A tear, dear Lady,” said the youth.

“What makes you cry?” she asked.

“I lament love unrequited,” he said.

“Love unrequited?” She screamed. “What did you hope for, Cur? What more, Son of a Cur?”

She slapped him once on this side of his head and once on that. Suddenly, without knowing how it happened, there he was, back in his grocer’s store, buying and selling as before!

Call for Reviews

If you would like to review the book for the Arab Studies Journal and Jadaliyya, please email info@jadaliyya.com

The Last Pomegranate Tree

By Bachtyar Ali

Translated from Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman


About the Book

“Whenever he told lies, the birds would fly away. It had been that way since he was a child. Whenever he told a lie, something strange would happen.” So begins Bachtyar Ali’s The Last Pomegranate Tree, a phantasmagoric warren of fact, fabrication, and mystical allegory, set in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s rule and Iraq’s Kurdish conflict. Muzafar-i Subhdam, a peshmerga fighter, has spent the last twenty-one years imprisoned in a desert yearning for his son, Saryas, who was only a few days old when Muzafar was captured. Upon his release, Muzafar begins a frantic search, only to learn that Saryas was one of three identical boys who became enmeshed in each other’s lives as war mutilated the region. An inlet to the recesses of a terrifying historical moment, and a philosophical journey of formidable depths, The Last Pomegranate Tree interrogates the origins and reverberations of atrocity. It also probes, with a graceful intelligence, unforgettable acts of mercy.

About the Author

Bachtyar Ali is one of the most prominent contemporary authors and poets from Iraqi Kurdistan. He has written over 40 books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, including 12 novels, and has been translated into Kurmanji Kurdish, Persian, Arabic, German, Italian, French, English, and other languages. In 2017, he was awarded the Nelly Sachs Prize, joining past recipients such as Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood and Javier Marías. He is the first author writing in a non-European language to do so. In 2005, the Ministry of Culture of Iraqi Kurdistan elected the novel Shari Mosiqare Spiyekan (The City of the Musicians in White) as the best book of the year. In 2009, Ali received the first HARDI Literature Prize, part of the largest cultural festival in the Kurdish part of Iraq. In 2014, he was also awarded the newly established Sherko Bekas Literature Prize.

About the Translator

Kareem Abdulrahman is a translator and Kurdish affairs analyst. From 2006 to 2014, he worked as a Kurdish media and political analyst for the BBC, where translation was part of his job. In 2013, he was awarded a place in the British Centre for Literary Translation’s prestigious mentorship programme. He translated prominent Iraqi Kurdish novelist Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at the Night of the City into English (UK; Periscope; 2016), making it the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English. He is also the co-managing editor at Insight, a political analysis service focusing on Iraq and Kurdish affairs. He lives in London.

Media Coverage

“Bakhtyar Ali’s skillful, seamless movement between history and mythologies is unique in its political engagement and cultural depths. A major writer of our time.”

— Rawi Hage

“Superbly realized novel of life, death, and what lies between . . . Blending magical realism with dark fables worthy of Kafka, Kurdish novelist Ali spins episodes that require the willing suspension of disbelief while richly rewarding that surrender . . . Altogether extraordinary: a masterwork of modern Middle Eastern literature deserving the widest possible audience.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing . . . Ali’s novel is a visionary wonder that plunges into the dreamscape of a people’s fraught memory. For readers, this is unforgettable.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review

Additional Information

January 2023

$24.00 (list price)

ISBN: 9781953861405


From early that first morning, I knew he was keeping me locked in. He told me that a fatal disease, a plague of some sort, had spread outside. Whenever he told lies, the birds would fly away. It had been that way since he was a child. Whenever he told a lie, something strange would happen. Either a sudden downpour would begin, trees would fall down, or a flock of birds would soar above our heads.

I was being held prisoner inside a large green mansion within a sequestered forest. He brought me a stack of books and told me to read them.

“Let me out” was all I said in response.

“There is disease and corruption everywhere, Muzafar-i Subhdam,” he said. “Stay here in this beautiful world. This is the mansion I built for myself. For myself and my angels. For myself and my devils. Stay here and be patient. What’s mine is yours. There’s a disease out there, and you need to stay away from it. You understand?” 

True, I was far away from the plague there.

It was how we’d been since we were kids, he leaving his duties to me, I leaving mine to him, to Yaqub-i Snawbar, the man whose glance towards the sky could make things happen: a cloud might suddenly appear, a star might shoot across the sky, a light might suddenly enter our hearts, or night fall before its due. The world felt different by his side. I often went on walks with him and felt as if I were under a spell. He could drag you along the roads for many days and nights and you wouldn’t even feel hungry.

I was his only childhood friend. Our fellow Peshmergas were all younger. Later on, one half would become his enemies and the other his servants. I don’t know when my story with Yaqub started. Twenty-one years of imprisonment had left me with nothing but a poor memory, had made me a willing slave. In those years, he was the only one who sent me letters. He would write on a small piece of paper, “When you come out, it will be a new era. You will live in the loveliest mansion in the world.” He sent that message year in, year out. He never signed his name. He’d either write “a friend who misses you” or draw a bird at the bottom, like in the old days. From one year to the next, I could tell from his handwriting that something was happening. In those twenty-one years, I received nothing from outside through which to interpret the world except for his messages; his short notes were my only window to the changes in the world. For twenty-one years, I received the same line from the outside world, but each time it had a different meaning for me.

My first night in the mansion was cold, quiet, and creepy. I had spent twenty-one years alone. I had been silent for twenty-one years. In all that time, I had made a huge effort not to forget language. During all those long years of incarceration, I had the time to create my own language, a language of poetry.

When I came out of prison, I could express anything, but in a way that others couldn’t always understand. When I came out, I smelled of the desert. Every desert has its own smell. Only those who have spent a long time in the desert can distinguish these smells.

The only time they took me out of prison was when they’d hoped to swap me for a state prisoner. But it never worked out. After ten days in another prison, I was taken back to the desert. For twenty-one years, I listened to the sand. My prison cell was far away from the entire world, a cell in the middle of a sea of sand, a tiny room besieged by sky.

For a while, I was deemed the country’s most dangerous prisoner. Cut off from the world, I was left at the far end of the country in a place where man is forsaken even by God, a place where life ends and death begins, a place like an empty planet. In those twenty-one years, I learned to talk to the sand. Don’t be surprised if I tell you the desert is full of voices humans will never quite understand. I listened to the desert for twenty-one years and gradually began to decipher the hieroglyphs of its various sounds. If you are in a prison cell for that long, you learn how to fill your life, how to keep yourself busy. The most important thing is not to think about time. Once you can stop thinking about the passage of time, you can stop thinking about place also. Dwelling constantly on other times and other places can kill a prisoner. Until the seventh year of my captivity, I counted the hours day after day. At first, you count exactly, second by second, but one day you wake up and see that everything has gotten mixed up. You don’t know if you’ve been there for a year or a century. You don’t know what the outside world looks like.

The most dangerous thing is knowing someone is waiting for you. Once you are sure that no one is waiting for you and the world has forgotten all about you, only then can you start thinking about yourself, although after twenty-one years of life in the desert, all you can think about is sand. Some nights the desert calls your name, but the biggest problem is not knowing how to answer. I saw the spirits of the desert, apparitions made of sand, created and scattered by the wind. It takes a long time to learn to talk to sand. In those twenty-one years, I came to see that there is an art to doing so. It means learning never to expect a reply, learning to talk and then to listen to your own echoes, to echoes that fade away and are buried beneath hundreds and thousands of others.

Once a month, I was let out into the desert. Accompanied by a guard, I would walk across the sand for several hundred meters. Those were the best days. I always looked forward to them for a whole week, so that when I stepped onto the sand, I was thrilled. For twenty-one years, the sand was my only friend. When I dipped my feet in it, I felt life, I felt the earth, I felt my unbounded being, condemned to die in that prison cell.

I gradually forgot about people. The universe was my only companion. Twenty-one years is a long time to think about the universe. I would wash myself with sand and I would be filled with life again. Eventually, a day comes when you think of nothing but the freedom bestowed upon you by the endless sea of sand. A few years into my prison term – I don’t know exactly when – I stopped thinking about politics. One night I was awoken by the moonlight. It had brightened my cell so much that I could see everything as if it were daylight. That light gave me the energy to think of nothing but the universe. I had died a long time ago. No one knew I was alive except for Yaqub-i Snawbar. Plus, no one was looking for me. I had come from nothing and to nothing I had returned.

Year by year, all my memories turned to sand.

I didn’t know where I was being held. The desert remained nameless to me. My captors had blindfolded me to take me there. We were on the road for many days in the back of a ZiL military truck. I could tell from the smell of the road that we had driven through the desert for a long time. They held me for twenty-one years in order to swap me, one day, for a senior figure.

One dark night, they released me. When you leave prison after twenty- one years, you can see nothing but sand. You can think of nothing but sand. When I was brought to this mansion, I neither understood anything nor wanted to. It was so dark everywhere that I didn’t have a clue what was going on. From the moment I left prison to the moment I opened my eyes in the mansion, I saw no light at all. One pair of hands passed me on to another in the dark, hands quieter than the night, quieter than the walls, quieter than an old prisoner’s closed cell door. A man took my wrist and put me on board another vehicle. He said nothing. I didn’t even hear him breathe. Until then I had heard only the cries of the sand. I didn’t know where they were taking me, nor did I care. Thinking about the universe makes you unafraid.

I was twenty-two when I was arrested. I was forty-three when I was released. One dark night, they came, blindfolded me, and took me out.

“Are you leading me to my execution?” I asked the guard.

“No, to set you free,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant by “free.” Nothing is more meaningless than talking about freedom after twenty-one years behind bars. My only real freedom was to be left alone to live in the desert. I was certain I wouldn’t understand anything about the world; I had a great fear of cities and people. After years of imprisonment, you can no longer distinguish between a human being and sand. Throughout my prison sentence, I had seen no one but my guards. And they were quieter and stranger than the desert. During those twenty-one years, they rarely exchanged even a few words with me. They seemed to have been born and bred in the desert, to have seen nothing but the desert all their lives.

Call for Reviews

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