Tag Archives: donkey

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

Here is another in the series of Older Women in fiction. This is the second novel in the series to have been written in Arabic. It is set beside the River Shatt-al-Arab during the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?  Ismail Fahd Ismail was from Kuwait: and the novel was translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women in order to make them more visible. This will be the 46th in the series and the 8th to have been written by a man. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

The Old Woman and the River

An old woman Um Qasem, lives with her family in a village beside the river Shatt-al-Arab, near Basra in Iraq. It is 1980 and the long war with Iran has begun. The family have been ordered to uproot themselves as they are in a militarised area. On the journey her husband Bu Qasem dies suddenly and they have to bury him where he died and move on. The family resettle and put down roots in Najaf, but after a few years the old woman remains troubled by the abandoned body of her husband and decides to return home with it to Sabiliyat. 

She takes a donkey, the wonderfully named Good Omen with whom she has close understanding. Together they make the return journey, picking up her husband’s bones on the way. She returns to the abandoned village of Sabiliyat where she and the donkey take up residence, using the supplies from the houses. She is troubled by the damage done to the fields and gardens of the village because the rivers have been dammed.

A small group of soldiers is stationed on the banks of the river and although hostile at first they allow her to stay, initially, for the period of a ceasefire. They soon get used to her presence and gradually begin to help her with her projects, especially restoring irrigation channels which bring water to the gardens and cisterns of the village. They also help her to build her husband’s grave. She remains for many months, despite the danger of being killed when shelling resumes and of being sent out of the area by the military.

As in the previous novel, Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, an old woman is deployed as the protagonist of this novel because she represents everything that the clearances and war put into danger. Highlighting the experiences of one of the weakest of the population emphasises the inhumane actions of the strong and the aggressive. She reminds the readers, and the soldiers in this novel, of some of the quieter values of human life: nurturing, caring, providing sustenance, fostering nature, caring for animals and so forth. 

The Iraq–Iran War lasted from 1980-1988. 500,000 people were killed and no borders were changed as a result of the hostilities. The novel takes no sides in criticising the long war, but focuses on families and ordinary people. The soldiers too are revealed as individuals. The old woman, by valuing human relations, history and the bountiful gifts of the land and the river, restores some humanity to the village and the soldiers.

The old woman Um Qasem

It is not clear how old Um Qasem is. She and her husband had a good loving relationship and with their family had enjoyed their lives in the village of Sabiliyat. They had children and grandchildren who adapted to their new life in Nasraf. While she loves them all, she has her own life and decisions to make. She is not a frail and dependent old lady. In fact she shows great resourcefulness and courage in the face of the terrible war. And she reminds us too of the permanent pull of our roots.

Her effect on the soldiers is a bit mystical and Ismail Fahd Ismail did not wholly resist giving her special powers. Um Qasem dreams and hold conversations with her husband in her sleep which help her re-establish the water to the village. Her communication with the Donkey, Good Omen, is also from the realm of magic. She is a life-giving force. Indeed this novel has the feel of a folk tale to it. It is also based on real events.

I have noticed that Um Qasem has been likened to other literary figures such as Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. However, Good Omen is a complete contrast to Modestine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s companion in the Cevennes. (See my post about their travels here.) 

Ismail Fahd Ismail

Ismail Fahd Ismail was a Kuwaiti writer, born and brought up in Sabiliyat, and he lived from 1940 to 2018. He wrote 27 novels and many short stories and is credited with founding the art of fiction in Kuwait.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail, first published in 2016 and English version by Interlink Books in 2019. 176pp 

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. Shortlisted for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018

Here are some related posts in the Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

And the previous post in the series was …

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith 

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes

256 RLS coverIn the autumn of 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson set off with his donkey Modestine, spending 12 days travelling in the French region of the Cevennes. This is a mountainous area north of Montpelier. They covered 120 miles together, travelling south from Le Monastier (near Le Puy) to St Jean du Gard.

Last week (May 2016) I travelled, in much more luxury but also on foot, from Ganges to Millau. This route took us further south, crossing from East to West. My companions were 13 walkers, guided by a professional tour leader, looked after by a wonderful tour manager. No donkeys, but a lonely cow, with bell joined us for an hour one day.

Walking in France

RLS was suffering from a broken heart when he set out. He was 27 years old, already a veteran traveller, and destined to go on travelling, ending his life in Samoa. He came from Scotland, son of a lighthouse builder.

RLS was also a writer, and most people first meet him as the author of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. [Pause for people to mutter Aaah Jim lad! And Black Spot!] He published his account of his trip with Modestine in the year after his journey: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. He gave no reason for his journey, being a devotee of travel for its own sake.

Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Cevennes

RLS’s present was very exacting and he experienced many ‘needs and hitches’, not least in his relationship with Modestine. Most of the time he was on his own (except for the donkey) and at night, if there was no convenient auberge, he slept under the stars. He spent one night in a Trappist monastery. Trappists take a vow of silence. As he approached, with some trepidation, he met Father Apollinaris near the monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. They walked and conversed together.

‘I must not speak to you down there,’ he said. ‘Ask for the Brother Porter, and all will be well. But try to see me as you go out again through the wood, where I may speak to you. I am charmed to have made your acquaintance.’

And then suddenly raising his arms, flapping his fingers, and crying out twice, ‘I must not speak, I must not speak!’ he ran away in front of me, and disappeared into the monastery door.

I own that this ghastly eccentricity went a good way to revive my terrors. (18)

256 Gorge

He describes the details of his adventures with wry good humour. More than once he sleeps outside, rarely disturbed by people in this remote region. One night he leaves the village of Bleymard and camps among the pines. In the night he awakes.

256 travels-with-donkey

The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still. By the whiteness of the pack-saddle I could see Modestine walking around and around at the length of her tether; I could hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound save the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. …

As I thus lay, between content and longing, a faint noise stole towards me through the pines. I thought, at first, it was the crowing of cocks or the barking of dogs at some very distant farm; but steadily and gradually it took articulate shape in my ears, until I became aware that a passenger was going by upon the high-road in the valley, and singing loudly as he went. There was more of goodwill than grace in his performance; but he trolled with ample lungs; and the sound of his voice took hold upon the hillside and set the air shaking in the leafy glens. (55/56)

RLS the Walker

Map of RLS's route, licensed by Creative Commons

Map of RLS’s route, licensed by Creative Commons

It struck me that RLS does not report those things that occupy most walkers: feet, especially any blisters, tired legs or knees, whether the weather will hold, the next meal, all matters physical. Rather he focuses on Modestine’s limitations, which are great. Some ascents are too steep for her. Sometimes she refuses to walk. She meets a fellow donkey and wants to socialise. RLS has to learn how to encourage, entreat and provoke Modestine to carry his luggage: a switch, a goad, whistling, and pulling. It is a constant source of anxiety to him that he must treat this animal in ways he would rather avoid. Eventually, after 12 days, they reach St Germain de Calberte, but the donkey’s physical state means she can’t continue to Alais (today called Ales) as intended. So he sells her and she is gone before he realises that he will miss her, grieve for her.

He tells us about his struggles with Modestine, his luggage, finding the way, meeting various characters, the history of the region (known for being a stronghold of Protestants in a bloody struggle in the previous century) and innumerable conversations about religion. ßHe notes the telegraph wires, the railway, surveyors preparing for new tracks. But other signs of mechanisation are few.

Dartmoor Donkeys

Dartmoor Donkeys

His generosity of spirit, his belief in getting along with everyone, in the pleasures of travel for the adventures it brings, and his reluctance to goad Modestine, these are the charming characteristics of this account.

My journey

My journey did not coincide with RLS and Modestine’s. I went with no purpose but to enjoy the walking, the countryside, the company, the food and wine. I began to understand Modestine’s reluctance as we struggled up steep and rocky paths, and descended more of the same. Some tracks were forbidden to car and bikes, but there was no sign of any donkeys (except perhaps that pile of poo).

No entryOur journey lay over the high plateaux, in May awash with numberless wild flowers, overseen by larks and vultures. Our views were spectacular, the pine woods quiet and fragrant, our way up the slopes serenaded by nightingales.

And …

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1879. The edition I used is published by John Beaufoy Publishing ltd, Stanfords Travel Classics. 95pp

There is a useful website on Robert Louis Stevenson here.

The next post on Bookword will look at other Cevennes-related reading.

 

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Filed under Books, Reading, Travel with Books, Travelling with books