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
“A thin blue vein pulsed in the collecting pool of blood where a bullet had lodged deep in the boy’s back. Hailu was sweating under the heat from the bright operating room lights. There was pressure behind his eyes. He leaned his head to one side and a nurse’s ready hand wiped sweat from his brow. He looked back at his scalpel, the shimmering blood and torn tissues, and tried to imagine the fervor that had led this boy to believe he was stronger than Emperor Haile Selassie’s highly trained police.”
So begins this fiery tale set at the time of the overthrow of the regime of Ethiopia’s last king. The central character, the surgeon Hailu, is dragged unwillingly into it despite his best efforts to keep out, while his sons split, one of them attracted to the resistance that was to become the socialist Derg dictatorship. The descriptions of inhumanity, violence and torture perpetuated in its name are quite confronting. The characters, especially Hailu, are torn between loyalties and courses of action. At the outset he is forced to make a wrenching decision for what he hopes is the best interest of his patient, the victim of terrible torture. There are no apologies for the hated old emperor (yes, the one revered by Rastafarians), but the new dictatorship is worse. Perhaps we should have learnt by now that we can’t expect a bloody revolution to be better than what it replaces. Since we haven’t, this stunning book about what may seem old history is fully relevant today.
MENGISTE, Maaza (1974 – ), Beneath the lion’s gaze: a novel, Norton, New York/London, 2010, ISBN 978-0-393-33888-1