“The Watermelon Boys” by Ruqaya Izzidien

British entry into Baghdad, 1917 British entry into Baghdad, 1917

Behind the somewhat unprepossessing title, The Watermelon Boys is the story of several several interlocking destinies playing out in what is now Iraq during and immediately after World War I.

Insofar as English-speaking world knows about the Great War in what was then called “the Near East”, the stories tends to center on various tellings of the life and exploits of Lawrence of Arabia or the Battle of Gallipoli. Izzidien tells another part of the story, that of the the Baghdadis and the establishment of Iraq, actions and events whose consequences have destabilized the Middle East ever since.

The primary plot is the story of Ahmad and his family: boys Emad and Yusuf, daughter Luma, and wife Dabriya. The watermelon of the titles refers their occupation: they market the fruit up and down the river. Ahmad starts as a soldier in the Ottoman army, fighting alongside the Turks, and takes a life-threatening beating at the Battle of Ctesiphon. Driven mad, he runs, to be found several days later by Dabriya. Once recuperated, he joins a revolutionary Arab brigade under British command only to realize that the British have their own objectives which don’t include keeping their promises of Arab independence.

Ahmad’s story is contrasted with that of Carwyn Evans, a Welsh miner’s son who enlists to get away from an abusive stepfather. Carwyn has revolutionary inclinations of his own, which are given form by his experiences at Gallipoli and in Egypt and Iraq. He teaches himself Arabic. These two stories intersect in British-occupied Baghdad, where Carwyn tries to keep Ahmad and his boys away from his bigoted and vindictive senior officer.

These two strands parallel Izzidien’s own Welsh-Iraqi heritage and are augmented by several major subplots: one is of Ayesha, he headstrong and entrepreneurial betrothed of one of Ahmad’s comrades-in-arms and her male persecutor (and later turncoat) Abdelmajid. Another is the relationship between Ahmad’s family and that of the well-to-do Baghdadi jew Dawood, and budding romance between the romantic teenaged Yusuf and Dawood’s daughter Amira.

 

The Watermelon Boys, Ruqaya Izzidien (Hoopoe, September 2018)
The Watermelon Boys, Ruqaya Izzidien (Hoopoe, September 2018)

Izziden can be an affecting writer, especially in the passages between Ahmad and Dabriya or rather perhaps the other way round. Dabriya is only way that Ahmad can cope with the emotional strains of war. Izziden also manages a effective change of tone from tempered optimism that the War, however violent, might have deliver liberty, to a darker one as the British occupation takes murderous and oppressive hold.

It may be merely coincidence, but I’d wager that Ruqaya Izzidien has been reading Russian literature. Not only does The Watermelon Boys open with a with a pithy (and rather memorable) epigram—“The present is an arrogant time in which to live”—but it is also Tolstoyan in the number of characters and subplots. There are over a half-dozen different narrative points of view. Although one can understand why the author has included these elements—each illustrates a political, social or historical point—the book isn’t long enough to do all of the characters and their stories justice.

Yet while the stories interconnect, and the various paths cross and recross, Izziden has resisted the temptation to tie everything up in her tightly-written yet open-ended conclusion: “He coughed for a moment, saw a flash of bird wings and palm leaves and tanzanite river…” That “tanzanite” is worth the price of the book.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.