The Watermelon Boys: A heart-breaking reminiscence of British intervention in Iraq
"He remembered all the boys he had shot for the sake of an enormous lie told by a nation that thought it was superior to every other. He remembered the months he had tortured his wife and children with his absences, and the words he would never get back. But most of all – more than the abstracts of what wasn't or what might have been – he remembered the blood. Forever etched to the inside of his eyelids were the unshakeable images of flesh and limbless torsos crawling through filth."
Meet Ahmad. A Baghdadi Muslim who plunges the reader into the First World War in Iraq, 1915. He is married to Dabriya and has three children; Emad, Yusuf and Luma. The Watermelon Boys is an apt title for this account of historical fiction, relating to the family's trade of marketing the fruit up and down the river. Ahmad and Dawood, a Baghdadi Jew, are great friends and the novel details their lives together, their loyalty and friendship, the respect they have for each other. Dawod is married to Naima, and they have two children together, Farah and Amirah.
We encounter the friendship between the children, the secret yet tender love between Amirah and Yusuf. The characters are explored in such a way that as we dive into the Winter of 1915 from the very first pages, we can't help but feel as if we have known the families their entire lives.
Their suffering in the war as the British invade Iraq is as heart-breaking as the language is easy to read; there were parts where I could barely continue for fear of what was going to come next, and sometimes, knowing exactly what was going to happen, but scared for the family.
Ahmad starts as a soldier in the Ottoman army, fighting alongside the Turks. He is kept sane by Dabriya – their love is soft and kind. Dabriya herself, like other female characters in this novel, is headstrong, tough and knows her own mind.
|The book shows the fallout that the war had on a handful of Baghdadi individuals, the violence that ensued, ending in death for some and the promise of a new life for others|
The book shows the fallout that the war had on a handful of Baghdadi individuals, the violence that ensued, ending in death for some and the promise of a new life for others. I was immersed in their pain, could not stop reading, did not want to stop reading.
Intertwined in their story is Carwyn, a Welsh miner's son who enlists in the army to get away from an abusive step-father. He meets Ahmad and the boys during the war, not only as a solider but also as someone who is on their side, a friend in disguise, who helps them with no outward display of this to his colleagues. He is a gentle, kind man who feels overall, that war is futile and questions the benefit that comes, at what cost, and if at all.
Events occur in this text from 1910 to 1920 but feel just as relevant today making the mind churn of events in the Middle East, immigration issues and the impact of war-time conflict.
The family dynamics, historical context and the sense of geography the writing infuses in the reader is sublime. You are on a cultural journey, can almost taste the food mentioned, can hear the sounds in your ears. Yes, it is important to note the grittiness of war, the food shortages, the damage to homes and livelihood.
Most important to me is the impact war had in Baghdad and how families were torn apart by a conflict they did not create, by their never-ending desire to want to do good. The political situation is grasped with little confusion. So many of the characters shine that you can't help but root for them all, want them all to live, to succeed, to be happy.
As a reader, be prepared to find yourself gripped to the point where you won't want to read anything else and you will be counting down the time when you can pick the book up again just to have a few more glorious sips.
It will linger in your mind. It is guaranteed to pull on your heartstrings, will make you understand the tragic sweeping of war, the struggle to survive, raise a family and find happiness. I had many a conversation with my husband about the politics behind this book, as I confess, it is a part of history I knew little about prior to reading.
|It will linger in your mind. It is guaranteed to pull on your heartstrings, will make you understand the tragic sweeping of war, the struggle to survive, raise a family and find happiness|
There is a twist in the tale as well with one of the characters and it depicts the betrayal in people and humanity, during not only wartime, but echoes of it in life itself.
The ending is very much left open-ended and I think this is deliberate on part of the author. Events don't tie together in neat boxes in real life. Why should they on a tale that tells the story of a Baghdadi family literally cast apart by war. It is a very impressive debut novel, full of hope and life and the struggle that comes with living through war.
I cannot wait to read more by Izzidien, despite the fact I was left devastated and utterly heartbroken as I finished those final few pages. I clutched the book to my heart and sat in silence for a long time, pondering what I had just read.
Izzidien writes in her epilogue that inspiration for the book came from her own family. She breathed so much life into this story, fleshed and carved the characters out so well and wrote with such depth that it is truly remarkable.
Fine threads of human nature, love, anger and despair are tied together wonderfully. This book will stay with me for a long time.
Order of your copy of The Watermelon Boys here.
Amena Ravat is a qualified social worker, a mother and a wife. Reading is her form of escape and something she is very passionate about.
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