The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail
As the war between Iran and Iraq gathers steam in 1980, military orders arrive at the village of Sabiliyat requesting the immediate evacuation of all civilians. Old Um Qasem and her family pack up their belongings, round up their donkeys, and begin the journey north to find temporary refuge in Najaf. One loss comes at the heels of another as Um Qasem’s husband suddenly passes away overnight. Two years into their new life, the sense of yearning becomes unbearable. Late one night, Um Qasem quietly saddles her trusted donkey Good Omen and together they begin the treacherous journey home. The village, now a military barracks, is a ghost-town bearing all the scars of war. The war has also left its mark on the land, with the rivers throttled and the fields dying from thirst.
The story that follows is a story about the life-giving powers of women; it is also a story about hope and the possibilities of the human spirit even in the bleakest settings. As it unfolds, the boundary between the real and the fantastical never seems stable. What appears impossible may be possible yet. In a language of hypnotic simplicity, the novel puts in touch with the land and sky of Um Qasem’s loving vision and makes us long to know just how far miracles can reach.
The novel, which is based on a true story, was short-listed for the 2017 International Prize of Arabic Fiction (on whose judging panel I served). You can see more details about the book and the author here.