Bakhtiyar Ali: “The Prisoner and the Plague”

15 June, 2022
The Pome­gran­ate Tree on a Gabbeh rug from south-cen­tral Iran (cour­tesy Gold­en Nile).


This sto­ry is the first chap­ter in the forth­com­ing Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Bakhti­yar Ali’s Kur­dish nov­el, The Last Pome­gran­ate Tree in the World, due out Jan­u­ary 2023 from Arch­i­pel­ago Press and pub­lished here by spe­cial arrange­ment. Pre-order here.


Bakhtiyar Ali


Trans­lat­ed from the Kur­dish by Kareem Abdul­rah­man with Melanie Moore


From ear­ly that first morn­ing, I knew he was keep­ing me pris­on­er. 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 there would be a sud­den down­pour, trees would fall down, or a flock of birds would soar above our heads.

I was being held pris­on­er inside a large 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 that 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 plague out­side 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 shoot- ing star cross 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 he’d draw a bird at the bot­tom, like 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 that the desert is full of voic­es, but humans will nev­er quite under­stand them. 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 the abil­i­ty 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. For the first sev­en years 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

The most dan­ger­ous thing is know­ing that some­one is wait­ing for you. Once you are sure that no one is wait­ing for you and the world has for­got- ten all about you, only then can you start think­ing about your­self, although after twen­ty-one years of life in the desert, the only thing you can think of 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 talk­ing to the sand. 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 this 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. They 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.

Even­tu­al­ly, 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 tak­en 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.”


Bakhti­yar Ali some years ago.


Noth­ing is more mean­ing­less than talk 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.

We drove through some tough ter­rain before we got to the man­sion. I could tell from all the bumps and jolts of the ride that we were head­ing for a moun­tain­ous region.

In the morn­ing when I looked out the win­dow, I was ter­ri­fied of all the leaves. There were thou­sands of leaves stir­ring in the morn­ing breeze, and the view over­whelmed me. I saw all sorts of winged mon­sters in the trees. Green mon­sters, mon­sters with eyes that shone like dew­drops. When I opened my eyes that first morn­ing, I saw noth­ing but win­dows and hor­rors. There were no sounds and no peo­ple, not even the trace of anoth­er human being. All the win­dows were shut, too. I was all alone in a huge man­sion and all the gates were locked. Nor could I find any sign of a human being out­side. I hadn’t real­ized I had been set free until I saw the bru­tal green­ery of those leaves. But a bright ray of sun­light danced in the trees, just like the con­stant bril­liant glare of the desert. After twen­ty-one years, it was the first time I had opened my eyes and not seen the desert, the old friend that had entered my soul. I knew he had brought me here. In the man­sion I could see some­thing that remind­ed me of him, of Yaqub‑i Snawbar.

I start­ed walk­ing through the rooms of the man­sion. My body couldn’t get used to this new geog­ra­phy. It was a strange night that I would nev­er for­get. The desert still had me in its grip. I could still bare­ly believe I was free.

I don’t know what time they brought me from the car, but it felt like ear­ly morn­ing. I can rec­og­nize ear­ly morn­ing by its smell. Soil, wher­ev­er it is, has its own per­fume. When I stepped onto the earth after twen­ty-one years, I was still liv­ing in a sea of sand and my coun­try had slow­ly become an illu­sion. Although I could smell the morn­ing air, although I could smell the per­fume of the trees and the cool breeze of the sur­round­ing val­leys, all these scents were still mixed in with a strong aware­ness of the end­less pow­er of sand. When I walked on the soil, I feared the ground’s pre­car­i­ous­ness, its giv­ing way and sink­ing down. I saw nobody, sensed nobody.

When I opened my eyes, it was night. I knew I was inside a large house. It was dark, but a can­dle glim­mered faint­ly in a cor­ner. It was fresh, some­one had lit it before my arrival and had just left.

I shout­ed into the man­sion, “Hey, who­ev­er lit the can­dle, where are you?” But all I heard back was a deep echo, an echo that trav­eled through the dark in lay­ers and returned faint­ly. An echo that opened the door of anoth­er world for me, an echo whose ring was dif­fer­ent from the sound of the sand. That night I saw nobody. There was nobody in the house. Some­one had tak­en me there and left me. In the dis­tance, I heard the sound of a vehi­cle pulling away.

The man­sion was lav­ish­ly fur­nished. It was like a king’s coun­try retreat but there was no sign of any oth­er human being. I was exhaust­ed. I want­ed to sleep — or to die. Through the big win­dows, I could see the sil­hou­ette of a dense for­est. The sky, as if about to assault me, hov­ered above my head. There was some­thing in its black­ness that was dif­fer­ent from the desert night. In the desert, night always has a bronze glow. The sky’s move­ment is sim­i­lar to the sand’s and the sand’s black­ness resem­bles the dark­ness of extin­guished embers that could be rekin­dled with a sin­gle puff of breath. That morn­ing, how­ev­er, the move­ment of the leaves scared me. For twen­ty-one years I had watched the world move dif­fer­ent­ly and, that night, I had gone from an order­ly, famil­iar, law-gov­erned uni­verse to an entire­ly dif­fer­ent one. I slept so as not to think. Rather than explor­ing the man­sion, I lay down in the first cor­ner that I came across and slept. Some­thing made me fear the beds. It was not just that I had been sleep­ing on the floor instead of in a prop­er bed for so long, but also that I was becom­ing sus­pi­cious of the place.

Before, I had known where I was, who I was, and why I was impris­oned in the desert, but that night I had no idea what I was doing in the man­sion. The place was big­ger than my imag­i­na­tion. My body was no longer used to mov­ing from one room to anoth­er. All of the things in the man­sion were killing my soli­tude. I belonged in an undec­o­rat­ed world, a world where your only pos­ses­sion was your shad­ow, a world where the uni­verse itself was an exten­sion of man, where the sand and the sky were the only exten­sions of the soul. Dur­ing that time, I thought that empti­ness, des­o­la­tion, and absence of orna­men­ta­tion were tan­ta­mount to the most beau­ti­ful life. The sand helps us see man in his authen­tic image, as he is with­out any addi­tions or arti­fi­cial exten­sions. I was a stranger to every­thing, and every­thing fright­ened me immense­ly. At that moment, I was look­ing for an emp­ty life, a life devoid of all shadows.

I don’t want you to think that I’m telling you all this for no rea­son. Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam was only a few days old when I left him. I didn’t know then that one Saryas, a sec­ond, and a third would enter my life. You shouldn’t think I hadn’t thought about Saryas dur­ing my time in prison. You shouldn’t think I was a bad father and thought only about the sand. But when you look at noth­ing but sand for twen­ty-one years, one day you wake up and every­thing is mixed up. You wake up and all the oth­er images in your mem­o­ry have dis­ap­peared. Oh, noth­ing eats away at our mem­o­ries like sand. Every day, you real­ize you’ve for­got­ten part of the past again. But I nev­er for­got Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam, oh, no. I for­got the whole world, but not Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam. He was the only thing that didn’t become sand, the only thing that remained ever­green in my mind. For many years, I would see him every morn­ing. Every day, I would imag­ine him at dif­fer­ent ages. I cre­at­ed thou­sands of faces for him, went through all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what he might look like. Every day, I looked into the desert and thought about him. I sup­pose the bizarre events sur­round­ing Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam start­ed dur­ing those strange desert morn­ings and evenings when I gave him more than one appear­ance. Year after year, I thought about him less because I no longer knew what I was think­ing about: my thoughts had no form or direc­tion. What stopped me wor­ry­ing about the one per­son I had left behind was the thought of my own death. I was sure that I had died dur­ing that lengthy peri­od of time and that the whole world had for­got­ten about me. The thought that you have died and that oth­ers are liv­ing on with­out you, their lives tak­ing their own cours­es and shapes, is extreme­ly com­fort­ing. That nobody expects you to return is sheer bliss.

After the sixth year, I became absolute­ly con­vinced that, no mat­ter what had hap­pened, Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam had now grown accus­tomed to my death. Like prison, death is some­thing to which you become accus­tomed. Peo­ple must have first tak­en up a space for their absence to be felt lat­er on. Like any­thing else — a vase on a table, the sound of a radio from an open win­dow — they must have first had a place before they dis­ap­peared. But if there was noth­ing from the out­set — if there was no sound, no phys­i­cal pres­ence — we don’t feel their absence and loss. There came a point when I felt that my life in the desert had reached per­fec­tion, when I had no need of any­one else. Myself and the infi­nite empti­ness of the uni­verse — that was perfection.

I felt that the out­side world had its own kind of per­fec­tion, too. I hadn’t occu­pied an impor­tant place in the world — life was going on per­fect­ly well with­out me, things had their own lives and mean­ings. I didn’t feel my absence had left a hole in anyone’s life. After twen­ty-one years, I was sure that Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam was liv­ing his own life as well. I was sure that Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam too, just like all the oth­ers, felt that I was dead. Until the tenth year of my impris­on­ment, I had only one hope: to see Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam for a few min­utes and then die. But then one morn­ing, I woke up and aban­doned that hope too. After ten years of sep­a­ra­tion, every reunion is anoth­er loss. Saryas and I had become an imag­i­nary father and son.

One morn­ing when I was look­ing at the sand, when I was look­ing at the aging of the desert, it dawned on me that I would nev­er become a father. I knew I’d return like a block of sand, like some­one who’d turn any­thing he touched into dust. Father­hood is an embrace, but I was a fist­ful of black earth. On my return, I would only ever see life through images of the desert. The night I was released, I didn’t know where Saryas‑i Sub­h­dam was.

I didn’t know that we would both even­tu­al­ly get lost in a desert that was nei­ther mine nor his.


desertfreedomimprisonmentKurdish literatureplague

Bakhtiyar 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, a renown very few authors writing in the Kurdish language enjoy. 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. Read more.


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