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Writer of Ghazals: On the Kurdish Novel I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali

Agri Ismaïl By Agri Ismaïl Published on May 26, 2017
This article was updated on June 1, 2017
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In an interview with Asymptote, the literary journalist M. Lynx Qualey dismantles the notion of the “first Arabic novel”, an honour traditionally ascribed to Zaynab, written by the Egyptian author Muhammad Husayn Haykal in 1913. “The idea of the ‘emergence of the Arabic novel’ irks me,” Qualey says, “as if Arabs started writing in a meaningful way when they started writing European-style novels. Instead, I like to view aspects of the European novel as being folded—incorporated, absorbed—into a very long Arabic narrative tradition.”

This eloquent notion of folding novelistic conventions into existing narrative traditions also helps elucidate the state of the humble Kurdish novel, the reputation of which is imbued with the novel’s supposed superiority as a narrative form (and thus of western superiority). The Kurdish novel has had the exceptionally challenging task of having to emerge within nation states where, for long stretches of time, the Kurdish language itself has been banned. A novel can’t be written, after all, without a language. Iran, Iraq and Turkey have all at various times banned the publication of Kurdish works and even when the practice wasn’t formally banned — such as in Turkey prior to the 1982 constitution — the fact that printing presses were under the control of governments or missionaries meant that the published output remained extremely slim. Indeed, there were only six books published in Kurdish in Turkey between 1923 and 1970. We must also take into account the effects of Kemal Ataturk’s language policies at the beginning of the 20th century, which led to a ban on the Kurdish alphabet, replaced with Ataturk’s preferred latinised alphabet instead (while letters used in Kurdish such as Q or X were banned even from this new alphabet, since they were not needed in Turkish). When the Kurdish novel emerged, then, it did so through the cracks of various authoritarian policies, with authors and publishers often persecuted, manuscripts often burned before they even reached readers. And yet to say that Arabe Semo’s The Kurdish Shepherd from 1935 is the first Kurdish novel remains simplistic, dismissive of many centuries of other narrative forms. 

The Kurdish novel’s appearance at the beginning of the 20th century did not come as a surprise; growing Soviet influence in the Kurdish region had a new generation of intellectuals enamoured with Russian novels such as Maxim Gorky’s The Mother while the Soviet Union donated printing presses and paper to the Kurds (which led to a formal complaint against the Soviet Union being lodged by the Iranian government in 1944). Once the technology and influence was present, social realist novels by authors such as Ibrahim Ahmad and Rahim Qazi appeared, as did literary magazines such as Galawej which published Kurdish authors next to translations of Russian and French texts.

That we then speak of Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at the Night of the City as the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English is useful PR shorthand to indicate that this is a momentous book (and in many ways it is, though perhaps not for the political reasons that are ascribed to it), but it doesn’t quite paint a complete picture: the 17th century narrative poem Mem u Zin (essentially, the kind of star-crossed lover narrative that Romeo and Juliet best exemplifies in the Western canon) has after all been translated into English already, while several of Mehmet Uzun’s novels have been translated to Swedish and Ibrahim Ahmad’s Jani Gal to French. Bakhtiyar Ali’s own The Last Pomegranate of the World has previously been translated into German to great acclaim. The notion of this being the first translation of a Kurdish novel into English may, then, be more of a comment on the state of translations into English than the state of Kurdish literature.

Still, Ali’s 600-page tome is the first to arrive, and if a single novel must shoulder the impossible burden of representing an entire people’s literature, few could do a better job than I Stared at the Night of the City, both in terms of thematics as well as genre. A sprawling, interweaving tale of multiple narrators and a timeframe that spans almost 50 years, Ali’s novel attempts nothing less than capturing the entirety of Iraqi Kurdish history in the aftermath of the 1991 revolution that afforded Iraq’s Kurds de facto autonomy. The plot circles around a group of friends, joined by their relationship to a poet who goes by the moniker Ghazalnus, who write a book of the dead honouring those who have perished since the revolution. Opposing them are the Barons, shadowy figures who rule all aspects of Kurdish life and who live in Baronistan, “an independent entity” where “all its residents were now senior politicians, wealthy engineers and famous businessmen.” The conceit of the Barons allows Ali to bring to the surface the deep vein of corruption that has infected much of Kurdish public life in spite of the persisting revolutionary rhetoric — a rhetoric from which any actual leftist values have been hollowed out by shock doctrine-style policies. In one of the two main plot threads, the main character Ghazalnus (literally ‘writer of ghazals’, that famed form of Middle Eastern poetry), is instructed by the Baron of the Imagination to help build a “city of the imagination”, a clear echo of how local politicians in the Kurdistan Regional Government speak highly of the need for culture and the arts, but rarely allow for any substantial criticism, wanting the progressive sheen that the arts provide without wanting to have to deal with its contents, and who want grand statement constructions like concert halls and luxury hotels but neglect to ensure that people have electricity or access to basic services. Ghazalnus, however, does not believe in the intermingling of politics and art, and so the struggle between the poet and the baron develops amidst a multitude of fabulous events such as babies born with poetry verses on their chest, children who can see through walls, and gardens that only appear at night.

...if a single novel must shoulder the impossible burden of representing an entire people’s literature, few could do a better job than I Stared at the Night of the City.

 These supernatural tales are a long way from the particularly Russian brand of realism that the Kurdish novelists of the early 20th century espoused, but what more contemporary authors such as Sherzad Hassan and Bakhtiyar Ali have done is to strip the political skeleton from the earlier novels and coat the sociopolitical realities in magical realist trappings. Magical realism was always more successful when it was talking about a people to themselves, than when it was used to talk about a third world people to a white, often middle class, audience. There is a reason that the genre has few cheerleaders today in Europe and the United States: it’s too linked with the exoticism of the other, the primitive non-westerner in foreign lands where magic still exists. 

 The genre, of course, lives on in Latin America, where it was born, and it has become quite popular in the Middle East as well; perhaps particularly in the Kurdish region. Partly this popularity stems from its conventions seeming more real than those of Balzacian realism: families tend to share superstitions, and refer to unexplained phenomena (ones I grew up with: a neighbour renowned for their evil eye who could make televisions explode or cars break down merely by complimenting them / an old woman who was said to have set fire to herself after having made a pact with a demon / my own great-grandmother who foresaw the death of a woman’s son at the very moment the death was taking place in another city). To not mention these superstitions would be odd, then, indicative not of the world as it is experienced but as we have been taught to experience it by French 19th century novels. 

A second reason for the genre’s popularity in Kurdistan is that it allows for satire that is more difficult to censor, allowing an author to allude rather than outright name: there are for instance in Ali’s novel multiple references to corrupt politicians and assorted veiled references that for a reader acquainted with Kurdish society is bound to conjure up a variety of past news cycles. The narrative is not a mere roman à clef, however, and the mythical Barons in Ali’s novel do not easily match up with any existing public figures. For a while I was certain that the two murdered lovers that the plot circles around was a reference to the murder of Sardasht Osman, a journalist who had written critical texts about the ruling party in Kurdistan and who was subsequently murdered under suspicious circumstances until I realised that I Stared at the Night of the City originally came out in 2008, two years before Osman’s murder. The magical sheen that covers the political reality allows for the text to condemn the underlying dysfunctions and corruptions without having to deal with specific events, thus gaining a useful universality.

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There is also a more prosaic explanation that has to do with the books that were available in Iraqi Kurdistan to begin with; translations of contemporary fiction to Arabic were not uncommon, but it remained difficult to get books in the Kurdish region. As for translations to Kurdish, the few that did appear became massively influential; Maxim Gorky’s aforementioned The Mother for instance was read by thousands of budding marxists, and arguably no non-Middle Eastern novel had greater influence in Kurdistan during the 1980s and 1990s than Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. (The last English book I saw translated to Sorani Kurdish was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. What its influence will turn out to be has yet to be ascertained). More than just about anywhere else, it has then been the translator who has been able to shape Kurdish literature and provide it with its influences.

It’s perhaps fitting then, that one of the heroes of the publication of I Stared at the Night of the City is Kareem Abdulrahman, the journalist who wound up translating Bakhtiyar Ali’s novel. Upon the original 2008 publication of the novel, Abdulrahman wrote several pieces in English for various outlets describing the hype around the novel after its author had received an unheard-of advance of $25,000 from the publishing house Ranj. This advance, and the 10,000-copy print run were a massive show of faith by the publisher in Ali (not an arbitrary one, however: Ali has for years been one of the most prolific Kurdish writers and several of his previous novels have been bestsellers). When Abdulrahman’s piece about the novel was published in the Times Literary Supplement in 2008, he was contacted by an agent, which led to the book’s translation and publication by Periscope. 

With so much context weighing down I Stared at the Night of the City, the translation could easily have been an insufferable mix of intrusive footnotes and dumbed-down prose to make the non-Kurdish reader feel at home, but what is remarkable about Abdulrahman’s confident translation is how much it respects the reader to be able to follow the story without necessarily getting every last reference. The different registers employed by the various narrators in the original Kurdish are aptly mirrored in the translation: the chapters narrated by a former assassin filled with clichés, a rug-maker’s narration is poetic and so forth, while the excessively flowery nature of Kurdish dialogue has been whittled down to preserve only certain elements that render the prose somehow otherworldly, in line with its genre and subject-matter.

Successful translation aside, what ultimately makes this novel truly valuable is that it allows a reader to overhear a Kurdish author address their own people, a different dynamic entirely than that of an author addressing a western audience. Ali, in self-imposed exile in Germany for many years, views the unnamed town in I Stared at the Night of the City (an unnamed town which shares many similarities with the author’s native Slemani) with disillusionment: except for Baronistan, secluded by guards and wire fences, the city is uniformly ugly, full of counterfeit goods and counterfeit ideas. This Iraqi Kurdistan is not the optimistic “Other Iraq” that lobbyists and PR-firms attempted to conjure up in order to differentiate the region from the war-torn Iraq on the news, but rather a region rotting under the influence of warlords and mafia-like bureaucrats. Kurdishness, usually a point of pride amongst those glorifying Kurdish peshmerga in their fight against ISIS, here means “a fear of walls, an eternal flight from barriers” and “tantamount to a disease in which you spent your entire life trying to forget Hell.” 

While the West is lamenting the widespread cuts in government funding for the arts, forcing artists to engage in ever more commercial practices in order to be able to live off their work, it is interesting to read an impassioned plea to allow art to be separate from government financiers; where the free market is presented as a force that can liberate art from authoritarian shackles. Of course elsewhere, the free-market path has also shown its limitations, and it is unclear how Trifa, the carpet-maker in I Stared at the Night of the City, is to sell her rugs in a marketplace dominated by cheap imports or when faced with local competition. Ultimately, I Stared at the Night of the City argues for the purity of the artist, who can write poems “so powerful, they made people faint.” A paean for the power of the imagination, the novel asks us to try and imagine a world without Barons, one where artists can finally be free. It is however worth daring to imagine, also, what such freedom should actually look like.

Agri Ismaïl is a Sweden and Iraq-based author whose work has appeared in The White Review, The Lifted Brow, Guernica and Asymptote amongst other places.

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