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Book 56: Kurdistan (English): I stared at the night of the city (Bakhtiyar ALI)

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

 

 

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Book 53: South Yemen (English) – Two boys from Aden College (Qais Ghanem)

It was the last day of August 1967. The two old classmates from Aden College, the highest institute of learning in South Yemen, were preparing to leave for the United Kingdom.

 

Since I thought I would try to read a book from every country that has existed during my lifetime, including some that no longer do, I thought I’d try to find one from South Yemen, alias the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a strange Communist Arab country which existed from 1963 until it reunited with North Yemen in 1989 (the same year East and West Germany reunited). It proved very difficult to find anything in English. This is the title I came up with, with the help of Yemeni exile Alia (for which much thanks!) The author was born in Aden and it’s set in the right place and time, although it’s a newish (2012) book.

I wasn’t expecting much from the boring title, which is, indeed, about two boys from Aden College (Hasan the law student and Ahmad the medical student) who move to England. Despite being self-published, it is mostly well-edited, although it slips slightly towards the end. The author, who is a doctor himself, does not explain some medical terms.

Ghanem obviously wrote the book to explain Yemeni culture (like the one that Ahmad – obviously his alter ego – wants to write), and does succeed at that.

The plot is fairly predictable in a Cain and Abel way – both good and bad. Ahmad is the good guy, Hasan goes bad. The ending, especially, falls a bit flat. Hasan’s motivations are not sufficiently described, although they could be more interesting than Ahmad’s.

Often the dialogue doesn’t read as quite natural, for example:

 

“Wow! I suspected that such things were going on, simply because I know what human nature is like, but this was a really graphic description of debauchery. Where do they find all the alcohol you talked about? Here I am dying for just one glass of wine to go with my spicy Chinese chow, and I cannot get it.”

 

Not great literature, but if you don’t expect too much it is a good introduction for Westerners into Arabic culture and vice versa, and I can’t fault Ghanem for trying so hard to build understanding between our cultures.

 

Qais Ghanem MD: Two boys from Aden College, Bloomington IN, iUniverse, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4697-9626-0

Book 52: Yemen (English) – The Hostage = الرهينة (Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj)

How beautiful this city was!

I’d seen it first when I was taken from my village and imprisoned in the fortress of al-Qahira as one of the hostages of the Imam. His soldiers had come, in their blue uniforms, and torn me from my mother’s lap and the arms of the rest of my family; then, not content with that, they’d seized my father’s horse too, in accordance with the Imam’s wishes.

 

In recent years, Yemen had a reputation among adventurous travellers (or would-be travellers) as a magical land which had preserved an Arabian Nights civilisation. The fly in the ointment was that you stood a good chance of being kidnapped. Even this, however, was made to sound like a bit of a lark – the kidnappees were apparently very well looked after, in the highest tradition of Arab hospitality – only, in this case, compulsory hospitality. Today the country is in a much sadder state, as I write being torn apart by civil war, starvation and Saudi bombing and blockade. It seems like Yemen (the other, forgotten, country which re-united in 1990, apart from Germany), is in danger of falling apart again, which is one reason why I have also chosen to read another novel to represent the past (and, who knows, future?) South Yemen.
Anyway, The Hostage is my novel for Yemen (or former North Yemen). This is another, but entirely different, instance of Yemeni compulsory hospitality. In this case the hostage is not a foreigner but a boy imprisoned by the Imam as a guarantee of the acquiescence of his father and his clan. Although he lives in a gilded cage and far better, materially, than most of his countrymen, he is still effectively a slave, and feels it keenly. He constantly longs to visit his family and home country. Despite his embarrassing situation, he fights hard to maintain his self-respect. He is stubborn and proud (perhaps most startlingly when he refuses to have his shackles taken off), and does not always try to understand what is happening to him. Like a pet bird, the door to whose cage has been left open, he does not try to escape – what good would it do? This work makes you understand what slavery truly is. And yet, everyone has someone that he can look down on – in this case, the menial servants.
He becomes the reluctant toy boy of the governor’s sister toys with him like a cat with a mouse.
This edition has two what I felt were excellent introductions to the historical and literary backgrounds of the strange and vanished world in which it is set, sometimes reminiscent of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Something of a classic, it’s well worth reading!

 

Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj (زيد مطيع دماج) (1943 – 2000), The Hostage, translated from Arabic by May Jayyusi & Christopher Tingley, New York, Interlink books, 1974, 1 56656 140 X
(originally published as Ar-Rahina by Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 1984)

Book 44: Saudi Arabia (English) – Wolves of the Crescent Moon = Fikhakh al-ra’ihah (Yousef Al-Mohaimeed)

                ‘Where to?’

                The young ticket clerk was busy sorting the banknotes into the till according to their denomination. When he heard no answer he raised his head and peered through the round opening in the glass at the man standing in front of him. White hairs twitched on the customer’s chin, his eyes bulged slightly, and a thick mustache covered his upper lip.

                Turad hadn’t yet decided where he was going.

 

Off to another Arabic novel from the opposite end of Dar al-Islam. This nicely written novel begins and ends over one night at the bus station where the protagonist Turad is trying to decide where to escape to. The confusion throughout the book reaches its apogee in the subtly asked question ‘Where is Allah?’ in the sometimes horrific episodes – a breathtaking question to ask in Saudi Arabia. One of the cruelest acts is carried out by a caravan of hajjis, who are supposed to be ritually pure before carrying out the pilgrimage to Mecca.

There is an interesting Arabian take on Van Gogh’s ear-cutting-off from the equally ear-less narrator, who can’t believe the artist did it for a mere WOMAN!!

Despite the grim incidents, this is a very readable, engrossing and insightful inside view from one of the world’s most impenetrable societies. You will probably not be surprised to learn that it was banned in the Kingdom itself. Well worth reading, if you can!

 

AL-MOHAIMEED, Yousef (1964 – ), Wolves of the Crescent Moon, translated from Arabic by Anthony Calderbank, New York, Penguin, 2007, ISBN 978-0-14-311321-8

(originally published in Arabic in Beirut by Riyadh al-Rayyis, 2003)

 

Book 38: Algeria (French) – Nedjma (Kateb YACINE)

Lakhdar has escaped from his cell.

At dawn, his silhouette appears on the landing; everyone lifts their heads, without any great emotion.

Mourad stares at the fugitive.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. You will get caught.”

“They know your name.”

“I don’t have any ID cards.”

“They’ll come and nab you here.”

“That’s enough. Don’t discourage me.”

[my translation]

 

The first book I ever read in French was “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger/Outsider” by the pied-noir (Frenchman who lived in Algeria) Albert Camus, a rather existentialist novel about another pied-noir who kills another man. My teacher chose it as a fairly easy read, and its shock lives with me to this day. Later I read his “La Peste” (about an outbreak of the plague in Oran.)

But this time I wanted to read something by an Arab Algerian. In a way Nedjma is both a complement and an antidote to L’Etranger. In Camus’ work the Arabs are a mere background effect, like the heat, and if one of them gets shot it seems almost meaningless there, just as today a terrorist couldn’t care less whether he is killing Christians or Muslims. In Yacine’s mythologised story of Algeria, on the other hand, it’s the French who are almost irrelevant.

It’s possible to get a feeling of why the Algerian war for independence was so brutal and callous on both sides. The war seems almost forgotten today but it was a seminal event. France treated Algeria very differently from most of its other colonies – it was to become part of La Métropole, north of the Mediterranean, and its départements were just like those of the mainland; and it was heavily colonised. The struggle for independence was very long and bloody until President De Gaulle shocked the French by giving in and granting freedom.

This major work of Algerian literature is set during the time of the French colony. The novel centres on the métisse (mixed-race woman) Nejma (’Star’), as a symbol of Algeria, and the dangerous lives of the four lovers who revolve around her.

I have to admit that I found the free-form French very difficult. Sometimes a single sentence will run over two pages! I was beginning to despair of my French, but now I feel a bit better after reading my much easier book from Burkina Faso. ‘Nejma’’s circular plotting, ending back at the beginning, also makes it hard to follow – sometimes I felt like a caged animal. (The snappy beginning which I quoted above is not typical!) Even though it was hard work, I know it would well repay reading again, and it is written in beautiful French.

 

YACINE, Kateb (1929 – 1989), Nedjma, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-2-02-028947-4

Book 19: Turkey (English) – Snow = Kar (Orhan PAMUK)

 

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him ‘the silence of snow’.

He’d boarded the bus from Erzurum to Kars with only seconds to spare. He’d just come into the station on a bus from Istanbul – a snowy, stormy, two-day journey – and was rushing up and down the wet, dirty corridors with his bag in tow, looking for his connection, when someone told him that there was a bus for Kars leaving immediately.

 

When the remote eastern town of Kars is snowbound by a blizzard, turning it into a microcosm of Turkey (and, to some extent, the world as a whole), a showdown takes place between the secularists and Islamists who are tugging at Turkey’s soul, culminating in an explosive confrontation between two imperfect worlds. Neither the heavy-handed secular authorities nor the Islamic radicals come off well, but neither are portrayed superficially or without understanding. This novel seems to become more relevant by the day, given the recent election, for this country that is a bridge between East and West, enriched by both but endlessly skewered between the two.

You can read this moving, thought-provoking novel just as a thriller if you like, but there is a variegated landscape under the snow cover and it would be a shame to miss it. This is an important book for everyone.

Incidentally, if you don’t know Turkish you might miss the puns: ‘pamuk’ means ‘cotton’, and ‘kar’ (the title of the book in Turkish) means ‘snow’, so the poet-hero of the book (Ka) should not have been surprised to find the city of Kars in the grip of a snowstorm!

 

PAMUK, Orhan (1952 -), Snow, translated by Maureen Freely, London, Faber and Faber, 2005, ISBN 0-571-21831-8 (originally published in Turkish, 2002)

 

 

 

Book 18: Iran (English) – Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (Gina NAHAI)

This is a subtly magical realist novel from the part of the world which gifted us the Thousand Nights and One Night, and which is almost as beautiful as its title. It follows a few generations of an endearing and occasionally annoying Jewish Iranian family who try to evade an apparently fated bad luck. This is concentrated in Lili, who as a five-year-old watches her mother Roxanna the Angel fly away from her family (literally): “…she had been so light and delicate, so undisturbed by the rules of gravity and the drudgery of human existence, she had grown wings, one night when the darkness was the colour of her dreams, and flown into the star-studded night of Iran that claimed her.” She floated away insouciantly on the winds of inevitable Fate, and does not return for 13 years so Lili has to grow up without her. Her search for her mother and an explanation takes her through Turkey and the US, where they are finally re-united in the ‘City of Angels’.

Gina Nahai herself was born in Iran but has long lived in the United States. She wields her language like a master storyteller. Her book is wonderful escapism but at the same time so very true and meaningful. All in all, a lovely book.

 

NAHAI, Gina B. (1961 – ): Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, Pocket Books, Washington Square Press, NY, 1999, ISBN 978-0-671-04283-7