Rodaan Al Galidi’s impressive novel is set in the dusty backwater town of Boran, on the banks of the Thirsty River in southern Iraq. In Boran live the Bird family, the birth of whose children is said to coincide with regime change in Baghdad, until the birth of Adam – who never wakes up – and the coming to power of Saddam Hussein.
The book documents the lives of three generations of the Bird family, from the formidable matriarch Simahen in the early years of the 20th century up to the present day. The wider world intrudes into their parochial, circumscribed lives in the form of the sinister, omnipresent Ba’ath party functionary Hadi the Rocket and intermittent TV broadcasts from the capital. The latter is the focus for a cataclysmic event in the life of the family when, following an unfortunate incident involving a broadcast speech by Saddam, a ram and a TV aerial, all the men of the family are taken away by the authorities, never to return.
Thirsty River is a vivid and compelling portrait of Iraq, in which the violence and wars of the powers-that-be are echoed in the astonishingly violent and turbulent relationships within the family. As one character says of Iraq: ‘It is a bloody history, there is not a single decade without famine or death.’ Nevertheless, amid all the hardship and chaos there is humanity and tenderness, and Rodaan Al Galidi’s affectionate yet clear-eyed and unsentimental depiction of these ‘victims of history’ deserves the widest possible audience.