Water Bearers by Atiq Rahimi

Diego Mattei, SJ

 Diego Mattei, SJ / Book Review / Published Date:12 March 2021/Last Updated Date:26 April 2021

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Atiq Rahimi’s latest work, Les porteurs d’eau, which we expect to appear in English under the title The Water Bearers or The Water Carriers, is a refined and powerful novel that sets two Afghan stories side by side. One takes place in Kabul, the other in exile between Paris and Amsterdam.

The two protagonists, Tom – or Tamim – and Yussef, linked by subtle differences and deep similarities, are both lovesick. The fate of the gigantic statues of the Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley, which the Taliban destroyed on March 11, 2001, looms over everything. In fact, the two stories coincide with that event, which deeply shocked the world.

Tom fled his homeland when he was only 20 years old, and now, at 45, after many years of marriage and a young daughter, he decides to run away, to join Nuria, whom he met by chance and who has become first a lover and then a reason to escape from his life as an uprooted exile. Without being fully aware of it, he wishes to return to his origins, which he rejected when he arrived in France as a young man.

Yussef, on the other hand, lives in Kabul. His job is to bring water to those who need it. As months of drought that have hit the city hard drag on, he has become ever more important. He alone knows the secret of how to descend into the depths of the mountain caves and draw the water that everyone lacks. According to the Islamic law of levirate, he is obliged to take care of his sister-in-law, Shirin, whom his brother, fleeing abroad, has abandoned. Yussef is secretly in love with her and is struggling with himself and his beliefs.

The themes of origins and identity are interwoven throughout the novel, along with those of memory, remembrance, “doubles,” dreams and delirium.

The novel opens with a vivid description of Magritte’s painting, The Forbidden Reproduction. A print hangs in Tom’s house and it is in some ways an icon of the novel.

The “doubling” effect is accentuated by the choice to write, almost always, in the second person singular, so addressing the principal character as “you.” This achieves a particular effect that begs the question: Who is speaking? Is it the inner voice of the two characters? Is it the one who lives in Paris, or in Kabul?