by Rana Asfour
Ruqaya Izzidien's debut novel 'The Watermelon Boys' is an intelligent and well crafted re-telling of the general political climate in the Middle East during World War I. It sheds light on the role the local inhabitants of the Middle East, in this case the Baghdadis, played in securing English victory in Mesopotamia, overthrowing Ottoman rule and subsequently rebelling against the illegal shaping of their borders by foreign countries – a fierce and much neglected discussion regarding the aftermath of WWI that resulted in the deaths of many of the region’s civilians.
The novel opens with Ahmad, an Arab watermelon-seller recovering from the aftermath of the battle of Ctesiphon in 1915 in which he fought alongside the Turkish army. Now defected, he is discovered by his wife Dubriya on the outskirts of Baghdad, delirious, fatigued, suffering from partial memory loss and guilt brought on by the horror of the bloodshed he has witnessed as well as the loss of his close friend-in-combat Karim.
Once recovered, he is visited by his neighbors: Armenian Mikhail and rich Jewish court judge Dawood, both of whom during his absence had been looking out for Ahmad’s wife, his two sons Emad and Yusuf, as well as his little girl Luma. Both men urge Ahmad to forget about the Turks and instead to join the English Arab Rebellion promising ‘A Baghdad for all Baghdadis’. Ahmad is unconvinced, but when the Turkish army starts rounding up the Jews and come for Dawood, Ahmad feels that although ‘he is not with the English’ he must nevertheless do what is right and with that heads off to join the British-led rebellion to quash the Ottoman Empire that had declared a holy war against France, Russia and Great Britain.
Thousands of miles away, Welsh teenager Carwyn enlists in the war to escape the torment of his abusive stepfather and is sent, via Gallipoli and Egypt to the Mesopotamia campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Carwyn, like Ahmad, is a hesitant soldier because ‘what kind of man joins the army that killed his father’ if not one forced into service due to circumstance. However, once there, he learns Arabic and takes an active role trying to understand and empathize with the local inhabitants contrary to his commander’s orders. Throughout the novel, Carwyn is torn between despising the army he serves and following through with doing what’s right, which understandably gets him into hot waters with his superiors and the not so empathetic members of his battalion.
Although Carwyn and Ahmad’s paths eventually - if rather indirectly - cross in the novel, it is their separate stories that serve to show a colonizing Empire that was not only ruthless in its treatment of those it colonized but was equally brutal to those within its own ranks who would dare to question its morality. So it comes as no surprise to the reader when Ahmad realizes that when he had been spilling ‘his brothers’ blood in the name of freedom, the English were drawing maps across countries that were never theirs, laughing at how easy it had been.’
The last part of the novel deals with the aftermath of fighting with the British, when in the winter of 1917, Ahmad opens the newspaper in Baghdad to learn that the British ‘were attempting to create a mandate of Iraq, drawing together the three separate vilayets of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul in a new country, ruled centrally by the British’ -the French were to receive and divide all remaining Arab land. So, as the British mobilize to join together three independent regions, the people of Mosul, Basra and Baghdad come together to defend their future. In this part Ahmad’s children are now teenagers wanting to join the struggle through enlisting with the secretive clandestine group ‘Guardians of Independence’.
In reality, this proves to be a tough time in Baghdad’s history with loyalties between family, friends and neighbors tested and re-tested as all Iraqis (Arabs, Jews, and Armenians) try to forge a place for themselves in the emerging new country. By keeping the main focus of the narrative on the Baghdadis and their role in the establishment of their own country and bringing into focus how the political and social attitudes at the time in addition to foreign policy of broken promises contributed to the instability that has had repercussions lasting well into this day and age, the writer has distinctively given her novel that edge to set it apart from others written on the same subject.
Ruqaya Izzidien offers up an intricate tapestry of Iraq during WWI stitched up from the various points of view of a wide cast of strongly fleshed out characters moving in a space that is so well detailed in its description it actually felt as if were cinematic, playing out on an imaginary reel in this reader's mind. Ruqaya Izzidien’s writing displays a conviction that her characters, the good and the evil, the strong and the weak, the ugly and the beautiful, the guilty and the innocent, are capable of holding their ground lending truth to their story. Some tell a tale about war, others about love, about loyalty, belief, religion, political zeal, and the beauty and ugliness of human nature. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is that 'The Watermelon Boys’ is, most and foremost, the product of exquisite storytelling.
According to the author’s note at the end of the book, the novel is based on real events from social aspects, such as food, dress, games and the two schools mentioned in the story, as well as documented political events and the description of the aerial bombardment was even written by a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. The uniting of Shia and Sunni is also accurate. The anti-Jewish persecution that Dawood’s family faces is based on an oral retelling by the author’s grandfather whose family hid Jewish neighbors in a wave of persecution in 1920, an event, the author writes, goes unmentioned in official historical sources, but which affected a number of families.
Ruqaya Izzidien is an Iraq-Welsh freelance journalist and writer currently based between Morocco and the UK. ‘The Watermelon Boys’, published by Hoopoe Fiction, is her first novel.