Bakhtiyar Ali: “The Prisoner and the Plague”

15 June, 2022


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.


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.

desertfreedomimprisonmentKurdish literatureplague

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