The Watermelon Boys

Written by Ruqaya Izzidien
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

This extraordinary debut novel travels from 1915 to 1920 as World War I rages not only in Europe but also in the Middle East. On the banks of the Tigris outside Baghdad, Ahmad is a devout family man who is also a warrior. The British have promised to liberate his countrymen from Ottoman rule. He joins the revolt. The battle is triumphant, and Ahmad returns to his wife, daughter and two boatmen sons (the watermelon boys of the title). But soon he realizes that the trials of their separations, flooding, and starving times pale as their allies become conquerors.

A young coal mining Welshman named Carwyn escapes an abusive home life and finds himself also engaged in the Mesopotamia campaign. Because “a conquered man always knows conquest when he sees it,” he teaches himself Arabic and soon he is not under the illusions being fostered on his fellow soldiers by their British commanders.

Carwyn’s and Ahmad’s fates intertwine. Neither good man can escape larger forces that bring misunderstanding, loss and bloodshed born of discrimination and betrayal.

This is the history and point of view of British intervention in Iraq that is seldom seen. Beautifully rendered in rich and evocative prose, Carwyn, Ahmad and his rich-in-love-and-humor family and friends come alive in a way that lifts the soul and sears the heart. Highly recommended.