It was a stiflingly hot night in a Nigerian border village. Thousands of miles away, bombs were raining down on Baghdad as the Iraq War intensified. A young aid worker on her first United Nations mission to implement a polio vaccination in West Africa was trying her best, but it soon became clear that rather than gratitude, she faced suspicion and hostility.
“This man came to me screaming,” remembers the author Claire Hajaj. “He said: ‘You’re bombing our brothers in Iraq; you expect us to believe that you’re here delivering vaccines? You must think we’re stupid.’ I was really disturbed by that – but I understood the sentiment, too.”
All of which, years later, became the starting point for Hajaj's new novel, The Water Thief. The book follows the story of Nick, a young British architect, who volunteers for a year abroad and arrives in a remote village on the edge of the Sahara. He is trying to do good, but ends up endangering many lives as he gets embroiled in family conflicts, corruption, fanaticism and affairs of the heart. It's a thoughtful novel full of nuance and secrets, desire and fatal consequences.
“I’ve met people like Nick very often, maybe I was a Nick to a certain extent,” she says. “I know his story, and what happens when you’re in a world where you can’t take rule of law for granted, where life exists on a much narrower edge between survival and sickness, between having a full cupboard and an empty one.
“For Nick, the ultimate dilemma is whether doing the right thing is saving the lives of the people he can see, or whether he should think more deeply about the consequences of his actions. When do we judge that a deed is good? Sometimes, it’s not so clear to see what the right course of action would be.”
As Margaret, the wife of Nick’s host Dr Ahmed says: “You people always try to mend things that are broken”, and while the water well Nick plans to build might make the drought-stricken villagers’ lives much better, he fails to consider the effect it will have on the tight-knit way in which life is run within the region. “You are digging into ground that has not been touched for many years,” says Dr Ahmed. “You do not always know what lies beneath.”
'Do the right thing and you will be rewarded'
Though it's set in the late 1990s, The Water Thief does feel very 21st century, tapping into the fundamental issues of our day; of faith and the nature of morality. Hajaj is perfectly placed to grapple with these huge issues as a woman with both Palestinian and Jewish heritage, who grew up in Kuwait and rural England. She explored some of those dichotomies in her award winning debut Ishmael's Oranges, based on her family experiences, and in The Water Thief, religion and cultural difference are constantly bubbling away in the background.
“In a way this story is a clash of ideas about what star we should sail by as human beings,” she explains. “Religion seems to provide that for many people, and I know this will sound radical, but I don’t see there being any real clash between Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Effectively, their precepts are the same – do the right thing and you will be rewarded.” Instead, Hajaj believes the real moral divide is between those who believe in a guiding universal force and those who think we’re on our own to figure the world out. Nick doesn’t believe in God – but does trust in his own conscience, an internal moral guide. If a course of action feels right then he will take it.
“But when he sees things spiralling out of control, he does look for someone to be in control, a higher force that could make it all clear,” says Hajaj. “It can be quite terrifying when you can’t find anyone to do that. Maybe that’s why religion has such a powerful hold over the human psyche – because it promises a map.”
Meanwhile, JoJo, Dr Ahmed’s son, is also looking for guidance. He finds it in a Boko Haram-like gang, and once again, Hajaj carefully navigates through his story with the understanding that seems crucial to her outlook on life.
She tells me the first and only draft of The Water Thief was stolen in Beirut, and she had to pay a ransom to get it back. "It was terrifying to think I'd lost the whole story," she laughs now. "I couldn't have rewritten it again. It's apparently quite a big business, stealing things and ransoming them back, and I'll never forget having the computer handed across the border and putting US$600 (Dh2,204) across the other side. It was on a bus full of refugees. I often think about them and hope they had a happy ending, but for me it was a combination of immense relief and intense joy."
No hard feelings then, and it does feel like an anecdote straight out of one of Hajaj's books. A bad experience, but one with context, humanity and hope. "Ultimately I hope that The Water Thief generates discussion about what makes a good person, a good choice, a good deed," she says. "What makes us good, in the end."
The Water Thief, published by Oneworld, is out now