Thirsty River by Rodaan Al-Galidi
Susannah Tarbush


Thirsty River

by Rodaan Al Galidi

Aflame Books, UK; 2009, pbk, 323 pp

Growing sunflowers on their graves

In this satirical epic, published in translation from Dutch, the Iraqi-born novelist Rodaan Al Galidi gives a sweeping view of Iraqi politics and society through the experiences of four generations of one family. Al Galidi’s inventive and entertaining prose interweaves the action of the novel with folk tales, myths, secrets, prophecies and dreams, in language ranging from the scatological to the lyrical. Tragedy and horror are juxtaposed with black comedy as the author explores the corrupting effects of dictatorship. Thirsty River has much heart and humanity and has a powerful emotional impact, while revealing a great deal about Iraq.

The Bird family lives in the town of Boran on the banks of the Thirsty River in southern Iraq, and long ago “lost its reputation and its glory”. The family name had originally been Star, but was changed after family member Dime, a girl living under the strict control of her ten brothers, was driven crazy by frustrated desire and raging hormones. She ran naked through the streets of Boran, screaming to a hunter that her genitals had become a bird, and drowned herself in the Thirsty River. From then on the family was known as Bird. Dime’s remains were found by one of her brothers when Thirsty River ran dry, as it does every winter, and he took her bones and hair home in a sack.

The discovery of Dime’s bones has resonances many years later when a member of the Bird family, ex-military man Rizen, devoteshimself after the 2003 invasion to excavating mass graves, putting bones and documents in bags to be identified by families.

Among the myriad of characters created by Al Galidi is the local Ba’ath Party bigwig, Hadi the Rocket, who takes full advantage of his position to enrich himself, and take multiple wives. The members of the Bird family, including Rizen’s brothers Sjahid, Joesr and Djazil, live through a gamut of experiences. Sjahid wants to be an artist and works for a time with Naji, a humorous artist who studied in Catalonia, and later at repainting the ubiquitous public murals of Saddam Hussein. Nasr warns Sjahid that any mistake in painting Saddam could result in execution. Djazil and his men set up a feared militia, the “Army of God” militia. Rizen’s brutal son, who had been a member of Saddam’s commandos before the invasion, also joins and is transformed into Abdullah the Pious.When Djazil is captured by the Americans and photographed in a pyramid of naked bodies in Abu Ghraib, the family recognise him from the eagle tattoo on his buttock. As Rizen’s daughter Shibe puts it: “The arse of my uncle Djazil is now famous all over the world, just like Elvis Presley! We have a worldfamous member of our family!”

Various members of the family meet a grisly end over the years. One of Rizen’s sons, Edjnaad, is captured by soldiers and buried alive after he comes across them with trucks at night dumping live captives in pits and covering them with earth. Rasjad, pays a people smuggler to get him to Amman in order to follow a girl he has fallen in love with, only to fall victim to a broker of human organs. His heart is transplanted into a woman in Germany.

The novel ends on a few notes of hope. Rizen’s youngest son Tali strikes up an e-mail friendship with an American soldier who is a deserter. The Bird family finds that the soil in which the bodies of so many murdered Iraqis have been dumped is ideal forgrowingsunflowers. The family moves into sunflower farming and the production of sunflower oil. As highlighted in the special feature ‘Writing in Dutch’ in Banipal 35, Al Galidi is one of an increasing number of writers of Arab origin who live in Belgium and the Netherlands and are gaining prominence as writers in Dutch. Al Galidi grew up in a village in southern Iraq and wrote from an early age, although his training was as a civil engineer.After leaving Iraq in the mid-1990s he arrived in 1998 in the Netherlands where he claimed political asylum. He spent eight years in the asylum detention system, and although his asylum application was finally refused he benefited in 2007 from the general pardon given to asylum seekers who had arrived before 2001.

Al Galidi has made his mark on the Dutch literary scene with impressive speed. He started teaching himself Dutch from a dictionary while held in asylum detention, and before long he was writing poetry and had columns published in newspapers. In 2002 he won both the El Hizjra Literature Prize and the Phoenix Essay Prize; two years later he was shortlisted for the J C Bloemprijsand the Debut Prize. His poetry collection De herfst van Zorro (The Autumn of Zorro) was shortlisted in 2007 for the prestigious VSB Prize. Thirsty River was first published in Dutch as Dorstige Rivier by Meulenhoff/Manteau in 2008, to much acclaim. In 2009 it was runner-up for the BNG New Literature Prize, and was also nominated for the Gerard Walschap Prize for Literature. Thirsty River is Galidi’s third published novel, and last September Meulenhoff/Manteau published the fourth, De Autist en de Postduif (The Autist and the Homing Pigeon).

From Banipal 37 - Iraqi Authors

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