At Rest in the Cherry Orchard by Azher Jirjees

At Rest in the Cherry Orchard
by Azher Jirjees
ISBN: 978-1-913-04339-1

Paperback   •   eBook   •   224pp


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Longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction



Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

This novel, writes Alastair Niven, "is a hymn to Baghdad, seen both from within and from afar".  Author Azher Jirjees,  now living safely in Norway, was forced to flee his home country Iraq, after zealots tried to assassinate him for his satirical work, The Earthly Hell,  about the terrorist militias that abounded in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion.  As protagonist Said muses in At Rest in the Cherry Orchard:  ". . . We have already spent a third of our lives in a place where there are narrow lanes, houses packed side by side, and the smell of bread from clay ovens. However benevolent and peace-loving those new countries might be, we long for the street in which we first played football with our friends."

Longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, this novel takes English readers into places that are on the news every day, but mainly exist for them only there, not in reality.  In At Rest in the Cherry Orchard, readers will experience a gamut of emotions as they follow Said's relentless and tragic nightmares about meeting his father – who died before he was born – and follow his tortuous journey through Europe as an asylum-seeker, and then back to Baghdad when a mass grave is being opened up that might contain the remains of his father. Through all, a search for peace and calm in Azher Jirjees’s debut novel, which captures with empathy the way life flips from reality to unreality and back as people have to find ways to live with the bloody horrors and deprivation that count as ‘normal life’ in Iraq.

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Said Mardan has to flee Iraq after an informer colleague reports him for a joke about Saddam Hussein. He obtains asylum in Norway, learns the language, and becomes a postman. He marries his Norwegian language teacher Tona, even adopts her family name Jensen, and starts writing satirical stories in Norwegian for the Dagposten newspaper. However, he suffers throughout from all too vivid visitations from the ghost of his dead father, who was seized and killed by the regime before Said was born. “Where’s my grave?” his father is always asking.

Said’s life is upturned after his wife dies suddenly leaving him struggling with ever-increasing depression, headaches and cruel, haunting nightmares while painful and bloody memories keep rising to the fore, possibly aided by the ketamine he has been prescribed. His e-friend Abir urges him to come to Baghdad immediately, where a mass grave likely to contain his father's remains is about to be opened. He arrives, only to find that Baghdad after the US invasion of 2003 is not the paradise he has been promised. On the contrary the city is exhausted and in the poisonous thrall of competing religious militias: he has to carry two sets of false IDs to oblige whichever one stops him.

After a brutal encounter and finding himself in a large cemetery, he recalls fondly his old Norwegian neighbour Jakob who bought an orchard of cherry trees so that he could be laid to rest there, and according to old legend, reincarnate into a cherry tree. At the mass grave, Said takes a photo of his father – an incomplete father, that is, just a skull and some bones – to fill the empty frame he brought with him. After his shattering experiences, can he also find rest in a cherry orchard?

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Published Date - 09/05/2024