To him, Kurdishness meant growing old as a gypsy on the streets and highways of the world. Kurdishness meant driving your motorcycle like a man possessed, never looking back. It meant putting your foot on the pedal and, like a prisoner escaped from Hell, never having to ask what had happened in the Hell you left behind. Kurdishness was tantamount to a disease in which you spent your entire life trying to forget Hell.
It seems appropriate to be posting on Kurdistan just as the Kurdish region in northern Iraq is voting on whether to become an independent nation. The Kurds seem to be the biggest ethnic group in the world without their own independent country (perhaps excepting Punjab?), although this was (yet another of) the Allies’ broken promises after the First World War. A century later, they have managed to establish a de facto semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq, where they may hold an independence referendum today (25th September) and have also fought into control of much of northern Syria). However, in Turkey, where most Kurds live, the situation doesn’t seem as promising for them. This is about where Kurdistan might come in order if it were an independent country – who knows, perhaps it will be one day, since the Kurdish region in northern Iraq has achieved semi-autonomy and reasonable success (so it’s appropriate that Iraqi Kurdistan should be the standard-bearer for my little project).
I Stared at the Night of the City is apparently the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English – just in time for me! And it is great. The author, Bakhtiyar Ali, was born in Iraqi Kurdistan but now lives in Germany.
Appropriately, for a country that does not exist except in hopes, this is a novel all about the imagination. Ann Morgan, writing during her own reading project, was taken by the idea of books ‘talking to each other’, as am I. I was reading this one at the same time as Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, which is also about the imagination. I think this must have the cheekiest start to any novel I’ve ever read. The narrator (and through him, the author) seems to be constantly playing with you, taunting you, contradicting your expectations, trying to shock you.
The plot ricochets back and forth and between a circle of friends led by the poet Ghazalnus (‘ghazal writer’) on the one hand, and on the other, the ‘Barons’ who live in a corrupt ‘independent’ enclave of ‘Baronistan’, in an unnamed city (they are Kurds who undermine their own culture, afraid of artists & thinkers). Their leader, the ‘Baron of the Imagination’, tries to get the resistant Ghazalnus to build a dream ‘city of the imagination’ there which can be shown off to visitors, to hide the grim reality of the city.
The tale is related by the multiple unreliable authors from the two bands (including a former torturer and a weaver of magical carpets, and two ‘Magellans’), and spans a long period of time around which it jumps backwards and forwards.
On the whole, I felt conflicted about this novel. I definitely felt that it’s too long (that may be because I was also bogged down in my massive Kazakh tome at the same time). It seems a little too self-conscious and abstract – the characters seemed a bit symbolic to me. A more minor niggle is that not many of the Kurdish words are explained – it is not one of the world’s better known languages, and personally I love glossaries of exotic words and concepts! On the other hand I loved its quirkiness. It has some wonderfully memorable quotes: “Real love is not the desire to sleep with your beloved, but the desire to die with her.” “Lovers do not die – they turn into books or flowers.” “There are two types of paradise in the world: the paradise God gives to man, and the one that man gives to God. He who cannot give a paradise cannot receive it.” “We need to examine the details because, contrary to the proverb that says ‘the Devil is in the detail’, we believe that generalisations are the Devil’s work: it is the angel who pays attention to the detail”.
You can understand a Kurd like the Baron of Imagination being obsessed with maps – those abstract symbols of the world which draw lines where none exist (and which have not yet drawn one around an entity called ‘Kurdistan’).
The novel is like a combination of a magical realist and a postmodernist novel, but like nothing I’d ever read before. It presents a passionate argument for artistic freedom. I found it confusing book, but with often wondrous prose. I’m glad I chose to give the Kurds a space, otherwise I might have missed this intriguing novel. Let’s hope that not for much longer will the Kurds have ‘no friends but the mountains’. Any people could be proud of this work, especially one who was forbidden to name itself and whose very language was banned in more than one country until quite recently. I would definitely re-read it and I’m sure I will get much more out of it the second time, now I know what it was on about!
ALI, Bahdiyar (بەختیار عەلی,) (1960 – ), I Stared at the Night of the City, translated from (Sorani) Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman, Reading, Periscope, 2016, ISBN 9781859641255
‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.
If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’
Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get. It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.
You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.
Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.
Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and… Just what is reality?
For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.
Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.
A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.
Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.
Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]