CHICAGO: From Hoopoe Press comes a powerful debut novel by Ruqaya Izzidien, “The Watermelon Boys,” that begins in 1915 in the area now known as Iraq at the height of World War I and during the early stages of Iraqi independence. Through her main characters, Ahmad from Iraq and Carwyn from Wales, Izzidien writes of the turbulent stories that make up the history of Iraq and explores the fate of a country that is made up of multiple faiths and traditions in which countrymen are bound together by the desire for statehood.
Izzidien ties together two worlds — in one, Ahmad from Baghdad struggles to decide between continuing to fight against the British for the Ottoman Empire or switching allegiances to fight against the Ottomans for Iraqi Independence. Meanwhile, a young Welshman named Carwyn finds his way into the Fourth Battalion of the South Wales Borderers and, ultimately, to Iraq. He, like Ahmad, struggles to fight for a force he sees as colonizers. Both men are conflicted, both are out of place, and both must find their voice and their independence through war.
Izzidien’s strength lies in her ability to take a complex history and to turn it into the heartbreakingly emotional stories that are the foundation of said history. Her writing is relatable and profound. The way her story moves, between people and their lives, their joy and pain, weaves a picture that is at times dark and at other times beautiful. Through her characters, she consistently portrays the conflicts of war, the grey areas in which soldiers fight for complicated outcomes, where allegiances and loyalty must be given to the men of the hour and where dreams should never be forgotten. She confronts the complicated circumstances of Iraqi independence, the fallacy that Iraq as a country must be established by outside forces and that people whose roots have been embedded in the land for generations have no say in their future.
Izzidien’s brilliant novel is another reminder of the devastatingly multifaceted history that makes up Iraq, in which decades of occupation, colonization and war have reshaped the borders.