Though the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, carving up the Ottoman Empire between France and Britain, had a devastating impact on the political landscape of the Middle East, surprisingly few Arab novelists ventured to explore its aftermath. The Watermelon Boys, a novel by Iraqi-Welsh writer Ruqaya Izzidien, narrated from the perspective of an Iraqi family affected by the treaty, offers a rare glimpse into one of the most pivotal events of Arabic modern history.
All in all, Izzidien spent three years researching for her project, sifting through fiction and academic books about the era. Most of the fictional work she encountered was narrated mainly from the perspective of Western soldiers or diplomats, as Arab protagonists played only a subsidiary role or were portrayed in stereotypical or racist manner.
Izzidien, despite the fact that the setting of your novel takes place almost 100 years ago, The Watermelon Boys is a very personal book, and was inspired by your grandfather. Tell us more.
The original seed that inspired this novel came about when my grandfather passed away. I had grown up hearing about his experiences of Iraq and, when he died, I was terrified that these stories would die with him. Two of his stories in particular were pivotal in the development of the book. One of them concerns a wave of violence directed towards Jewish Iraqis in 1920, which I haven’t been able to find documented anywhere.
The other story is about my great-grandfather. Like the protagonist, Ahmad, he suffered from temporary memory loss during World War I. In The Watermelon Boys, Ahmad is found by his wife. In real life, it was my great-grandfather’s mother who found him by coincidence, wandering lost through the streets of Baghdad. For this reason I named Ahmad and his son Yusef in my novel after my grandfather and his father, but it is important to note that this novel doesn’t reflect their lives and is definitely fiction.
What fascinated you to write about that time in particular?
I was disappointed to find that the overwhelming majority of English-language fiction set in colonial Arab countries either misrepresented or completely excluded Arab voices. Most of these works focus exclusively on Western soldiers during the occupation of Arab nations like Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. For example, in the novel Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan, set in Tangier in the 1950s, there is just one Arab of significance, and he only appears 25 percent of the way through the book, popping up infrequently only to offer a mysterious, menacing or stereotypical representation of Arabs. Long Road to Baghdad by Catrin Collier (2013) is set in British-occupied Baghdad and also revolves around the British, at the exclusion of Arabs. The same goes for Beneath a Burning Sky (2016) by Jenny Ashcroft, set in late nineteenth century Egypt. This novel does feature a few Arabs, but they are wildly unrealistic and poorly-researched, resulting in an ignorant portrayal of Egyptians that are little more than a mysterious sideshow to the British protagonists.
I wanted to write about a real Iraqi family, which faces dilemmas we all can relate to. The problem is that despite the fact that I am half Iraqi, I have never been there. Not yet, anyway, I plan to go this year. Yet somehow I had to write about Baghdad (she laughs). And I feel I did it justice through an incredible amount of research on Iraq at that time. I do not think you can write about modern Baghdad if you have not been there. It makes it easier to write about a period of time 100 years ago.
One hundred years ago Iraq was invaded by the British Empire, whereas Iraq now is still suffering from the consequences of the American-led invasion 2003. Have you chosen the post Sykes-Picot era deliberately because of the similarities?
It is more of a happy coincidence, I would say. The British involvement in Iraq during and after World War One is completely ignored in our domestic education. Nobody really knows that Britain invaded Iraq 100 years ago, and nobody cares that this isn’t being taught in school. We are happy to live in this colonial delusion. This is how we end up with 44 percent of Britons believing that the Empire left colonial countries better off than before. Without education about the brutality of colonialism we end up with this vision that it was a wonderful thing.
And so I wanted to draw the reader back to an Iraq which was not primarily associated with war. In the wake of the US invasion, Iraq became a cautionary tale, and the media would caution us about creating “another Iraq”. I found it very dehumanizing to reduce a diverse and complex nation to its current political turmoil. With this kind of singular narrative, all of Iraq’s history is forgotten, despite the fact that it remains one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Before World War I, Basra was a holiday destination for British travellers. It was considered the Venice of the East because of its amazing greenery and beautiful architecture.
All the modern, violent associations with Iraq feel alien to me. I deliberately wanted to cast another light on Iraq and offer some complexities to this one-sided narrative with which we have been bombarded in the last decades.
How did you experience the Iraqi invasion by US troops in 2003?
I was 16 years old, going to school in rural Wales. You have to remember that despite the fact that I am half British, I don’t look what is considered typically British, I wore the hijab. So the context in which the invasion took place was one that was very loaded for me on a personal level.
I was trying to contextualize the war and the post 9/11 atmosphere. In a way, I was the embodiment of that conflict, being Iraqi and British.
I struggled to contextualize my identity, being neither uniquely British nor Iraqi, but both, and as an extension – not fully either. As a teenager I wished I could wake up and not to have this impossible daily task to deal with; being a representative of something, and constantly reminded of my otherness. You become a political vision to people.
I actually staged a protest at my school the morning Iraq was invaded. I had always been a good student who didn’t cause trouble. So it shocked my teachers to see what they viewed as this shrinking violet mobilized half the school in protest. This is a school that played rugby and gave out poetry awards, so they did not know how to deal with a protest. They didn’t expect it, and they most certainly didn’t expect it would come from me.
I announced the protest during the break at the assembly hall on the microphone. One of the teachers tried to block me from running to the demonstration.
The Iraqi invasion hit me personally. I have cousins and an aunt in Iraq. I was always worried for their safety.
At that time I started frequenting internet forums, spending my evenings trying to debate proponents of the invasion online. It was a fool’s errand of course and I was too young to be able to express my thoughts fully. My parents were separating. I had an identity crisis. So it was a personal and political tragedy.
The Watermelon Boys is a product of those formative years, when I did not have a political platform. All of what you read in the novel had been bubbling in me for a long time, so writing it was also very cathartic. Even if it had never been published, it always felt like a significant process for me, that these stories which Jiddu (my grandfather) told me, would be passed on. I think this book would have happened one way or the other, and I’m grateful I got the chance to write it.
Your mother tongue is English. Your novel was primarily written for an English-speaking reader. If you had written it in Arabic, would it have been the same book?
Though I grew up speaking mainly English with my father, there was some Arabic at home, especially for food. Anything that was prevalent in Iraqi culture, but we used at home, I only knew by Arabic words and learnt much later in English since I rarely had cause to use them.
My father left Iraq around 1970. He had political concerns with the regime but he came to the UK to study. The last time he visited Iraq was three months before the US invasion. It is kind of strange to call a place you have never travelled to home. And I would say that The Watermelon Boys is an Arab story, despite the fact that it is written in English. It tells the rare Arab perspective of this brutal and violent invasion.
So, even if I had written it in Arabic, I don’t feel I would have changed much of the story. And I’m glad that there has been a lot of interest from Iraqis in my book because it shows that it resonated with that audience too.
There is a Welsh soldier, stationed in Bagdad, whose life intertwines with that of the Iraqi family. How does the Welsh side of you play into your book?
This book obviously came about through the fact that I am Iraqi-Welsh. My upbringing in Wales is joined in the narrative.
You want to write from a position of information, so I wrote about the parallels I saw in the two countries and as a consequence lots of my own experiences went into Carwyn and Ahmed. It was actually unintentional to begin with, but the more I wrote the harder it became to avoid the similarities.
Identifying with Wales has always been complicated for me. If I walk around the streets in Wales, nobody would assume I am Welsh or could speak Welsh. Yet the older I got, the more I identified as Welsh, especially when I left to study in England.
Wales has a very strong affinity for arts, poetry and history. Every year there are local, regional and national competitions called the Eisteddfod which is a cultural highlight of the year and usually falls on St. David’s Day.
Significantly, they award poets and literary prizes every year. In 1917, a Welsh soldier, who wrote under the pen name Hedd Wyn, was awarded the prestigious bard’s chair in the national Eisteddfod, but died before ever knowing he had won. Like many Welsh poets he was influenced by Welsh nature, and the concept of home. There is this Welsh word that has become popular online recently in the collections of unusual but meaningful foreign words. Hiraeth means a certain type of nostalgia, a sort of longing for your homeland. So there are many ways in which I can identify with this.
When I was young, I used to go with my father and siblings on these long adventurous walks through fields and rivers and mud. That was Wales to me, immersed in beautiful greenery and famous for its literary scene. I’d like to experience Iraq like that one day too.