In Review: The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali

Translated from the Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman

Archipelago Books

Release date: January 24, 2023

direct quotations from the text appear as highlighted italics

During a war, people are always broken. Sometimes the fragments find one another, and with enough heat even the smallest pieces of sand can be turned into glass, but finding one another isn’t always enough. And often, it’s just the beginning of another story.

In Kareem Abdulrahman’s stunning English translation of the Kurdish-language novel The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali, this fragmentation is made literal as Muzafar-i Subhdam, released after being imprisoned and thought dead for twenty-one years, finds his son in three different Saryas-i Subhdams, one beautiful creature cruelly divided by fate, all of whom possess a glass pomegranate. The text hovers on the divide between realism and fable. But hints of the fantastical are what give life to the story—a story that is unbreakably tethered to reality will never be able to reveal all of the hills, valleys, and crevices of life. Everything, in the end, is both human and fantastic. After all, what is life but a great detour from what we think of as “normal” until we look at things from a new perspective.

What goes into a name, or rather, what comes out of a name? The Last Pomegranate Tree toys with the singularity of both personhood and narrative, folding in on itself as the story pieces together that which can never be made whole. The name of a being that existed on earth in various colors, that he was more than just one person, more than just a grave. He was a great prism, each facet of which had something to show us. The fate of the three Saryas-i Subhdams echos the fate of a generation buried, burnt, or behind bars, while the story of the three Saryases journeys far past its origin.

The soft grip of the writing has an ebb and flow, simultaneously spinning and unravelling the story of the last pomegranate tree and the three Saryases. Meanwhile, Abdulrahman’s translation dances with the musicality of the writing: I have never believed the notion that if small fragments come together to form a larger whole, the new entity will have the same properties as the tiny pieces. A shower of sparks is different from fire. And that’s what life’s like, great swells of beauty, composed of thousands of small waves of suffering. Look, my friends and travel companions, look at the sea beneath us. Should you confuse the essence of a wave with that of the sea? We understand a single wave, where it comes from and where it dies, but which of us can tell where dreams begins of where water ends? Only when Muzafar addresses his audience on the boat do I, the reader, find myself teleported back to my self, reading in a comfort not afforded to Muzafar’s audience in the book. As of 2023, The Last Pomegranate Tree is one of few Kurdish novels translated into English. One of Bachtyar Ali’s previous novels, I Stared at the Night of the City, became the first Kurdish-language novel to be published in English in 2016.

It’s appropriate for the story of The Last Pomegranate Tree to be bookended by the desert and the sea. This way, Muzafar remains an eternal storyteller, repeating the story until he’s unable, this tale of glass boys living in a glass time in a glass country, which takes place during Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq and his genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people up through the creation of the Kurdish Autonomous Republic and the subsequent civil war. Historical context can be found in the references to chemical bombings and the uncertainty if they would survive even the next few hours of their lives, forced displacement into state-built collective towns, and the flight of refugees. But simultaneously, the experiences and sentiments break through the singularity of space and time, like those earthquakes that played hide and seek with life.

Muzafar-i’s journey to find his son isn’t necessarily concerned with a search for truth. People find their own truth, like Lawlaw-i Spi and Shadarya-i Spi, also known as the sisters in white, who remain adamant that the First Saryas is the only Saryas in their life. For them, only one thing is to be seen in the prism and that is the fact that some things are just pieces of broken glass. Instead, the stories of Muzafar-i, the three Saryas, and the last pomegranate tree in the world grapple with the network of human lives and relations, whose existence goes beyond what is true or false. The ties we bind with one another do not only connect one to another. We are always merely added to an ever-growing community, even if there are those that try to sever the bonds of others and themselves. And after a certain point, those lingering ties will be all that remains. Everyone leaves a footprint, the hint of a breath, some mark. 

The butterfly effect, except whenever a butterfly flaps its wings, it and everything in its chaotic progression turns to sand. Sand that flows through the hourglass and turns to water for its return. Our dependable world comes to an end as we lose ourselves among people and mirrors. Amongst the many pieces that life has scattered, the only one who knows everything is never physically found in Muzafar-i’s retelling. Nadim-i Shazada lurks in the corners of the story, jumping up in past recollections but never encountered by Muzafar-i. The thread that binds them all, without whom this story and all the stories in the world are incomplete, cannot always be found amongst the weaves. 

As long as someone remains, the story will continue to be told—I am certain something will carry my voice far away, mixing it with other voices, taking my story to the other side of the sea. Until the boat reaches its destination or capsizes and finds all the other broken pieces at the bottom of the English Channel, the story of The Last Pomegranate Tree exists only among the waves. This ferry that is lost at sea, this ferry whose fate and direction are unknown. This ferry—since we have no idea where it will deposit us—is the only way this story ends. Until tomorrow night, when we will sit here again, and I’ll tell it in a different way. Meanwhile, the uncertainty of Muzafar-i’s journey due to the ferry lost at sea feels haunted by the fates of over 300 refugees who have drowned while trying to cross the English Channel since 1999.

History is circular but in three dimensions who knows in what direction that spiral goes. I imagine it to be like the solar system hurtling through the universe. We may think we’re back where we started but we’re already millions of miles away. Maybe it’s all about your point of perspective. For there are certain places in the world from which people can see things more clearly, and that under the last pomegranate tree was one of them. But no one can really watch the solar system in space.

Whispers of the contemporary find themselves in a text written twenty years ago about the past twenty years. Those earthquakes that played hide and seek with life disappeared, letting the world regain its composure, silenced the nights, soothed hearts, and granted a mysterious peace of mind to people who slowly, slowly, began to trust the walls of their houses again…And as soon as they went back to their homes, reassured and at peace, the earthquakes returned, rocking the world again like a cunning snake playing a devilish game. News continues to report of the devastation wrought by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February 2023. Though the lines in The Last Pomegranate Tree refer to an earthquake in Iraq whose aftershocks dwindled over twenty years ago, how many Kurdish people have found themselves fleeing one earthquake into another. Some earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates as our active planet continues to swirl under our feet. But the earth can also quake from the thundering boots of soldiers or the dropping of bombs. Even when a glass heart crumbles, but not everyone can feel that shudder. How much rumbling does it take before everything is cracked?

Break open a pomegranate and let all the seeds rain down. It’s no wonder that multiple languages take the word for grenade from the word for pomegranate. Break everything into smaller and smaller pieces until there’s nothing left but sand. All fragments eventually become sand when ground and weathered. But from sand you can rebuild, maybe something small like a glass pomegranate or something larger like a glass house. All it takes is to be rich in imagination on a night when reality was sinking its ugly teeth into people’s bodies. 

People are entitled to be unique. But suffering makes our lives essentially the same. There’s something that brings us together, despite our differences.

Marina Manoukian is a reader, writer, and collage artist of the Armenian diaspora. Based in Berlin, Germany, her writing has been featured in LitHub, The Baffler, and Full Stop Review, among others. Find more of her work at or at Twitter/Insta @crimeiscommon.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

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