Editor’s Note: A Kurdish-language translation of this article is available on the website of the Kurdish magazine Culture Project.
Kurdish novelist, poet and essayist Bakhtiyar Ali is best known for his novel, translated as I Stared at the Night of the City, which is a best seller in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and is believed to be the first novel translated from Kurdish into English.
Now he and his translator, Kareem Abdulrahman, are finalizing Ali’s next novel, The Last Pomegranate, which the author hopes will be published next year. He read an excerpt from it at the Shubbak Festival in London in July.
Ali’s forthcoming novel is set in Turkey and explores the repressive and racist politics in the successive regimes after Atatürk, the modern nation’s founder and first president, and how discrimination against ethnic minorities came to be accepted as the norm.
“It will be the first time I write about a non-Kurdish, non-Iraqi environment,” Ali said. “There is a dark side to Turkish history that few talk about. I think it is the duty of literature to expose the contradictions inherent in nationalist and racist rhetoric.”
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey, making up about 20 percent of the population, and their culture has faced varying degrees of repression over the years. There are an estimated 45 million Kurds worldwide, concentrated in a geographical region known as Kurdistan, which includes parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Fascination With Literature
Ali was born in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, in 1960. He now lives in Bonn, Germany. He won a PEN Promotes grant for literature in translation in 2015 and the Nelly Sachs Prize in 2017.
Impressed by the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Ali was fascinated with the way literature could serve as a vehicle for important philosophical ideas. Although he studied geology in his university years, his passion for literature remained a constant source of refuge, especially during the turbulent years of the Iran-Iraq War, “one of the most absurd wars in history,” as he calls it.
“The brutality of politics at the time was terrifying,” Ali says. “I felt as though I were a stranger in my own circles. All my friends were involved in the political movements of the time. I read a lot as a way to forget the circumstances around me.”
Unable to continue his studies at university and refusing to join the army and fight alongside Iraqi troops, Ali turned to writing. The interruption in his academic life afforded him the space to develop his writing career, which began with writing poems and essays.
“I was deeply doubtful that politics could save us,” Ali says. “In times of war and dictatorship, literature offers the last shelter for freedom. Science is a way to understand the world, but literature helps us survive the horrors of life.”
“In times of war and dictatorship, literature offers the last shelter for freedom. Science is a way to understand the world, but literature helps us survive the horrors of life.”Bakhtiyar Ali
Under the Ba’athist regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Ali published relatively few works due to heavy censorship. What he did write was not published until years later. The poetry he wrote from 1983 to 1986 was published in 1992. The first novel he wrote, in 1987, was published in Sweden in 1996.
“Publishing was not my goal at that time,” Ali says. “I was mostly afraid of my inner censor, the fears I had inherited, the prejudices that were imposed upon me and that I had unwillingly absorbed. My main struggle was against this kind of unconscious censorship. In the East, it is not only the political censors who do the job, but networks of religious, ethical, ideological censors. As writers, we have to face all these taboos. In Kurdistan, there is no direct censorship by the authorities, but there is political, social, and religious intimidation, which are no less firm or cruel than direct censorship.”
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Ali’s most prolific writing period followed the 1991 uprising against Saddam’s regime, which resulted in de facto independence for the Kurdish region of Iraq and a consequent release from the stifling censorship of the Ba’athist state. While the achievement was celebrated as a historic victory, Ali says it also “shed light on the intellectual emptiness of the nationalist movement,” which was unable to keep up with the significant changes during that period.
“The predominant Kurdish political schools of thought still clung to the same shallow ideological trivialities,” Ali says. “We needed to address modern questions like, Why did attempts at revolution result in relapse and a regression of human values? Or, Why were attempts at modernization failing in Eastern societies?”
Ali and a group of fellow intellectuals thus founded the journal Azadi (Kurdish for “freedom”) with a view to answering these questions. “The magazine was the first step towards a critical examination of dogmatic Marxism and insular nationalist thought,” Ali says.
Distrust of Ideologies
In his writing, Ali strives for introspection. Few, he says, have had the courage to approach the traditional power structures in Kurdish society with a critical eye and dispel what he refers to as ethnic and religious illusions.
“In the East, we have entire communities that are afraid to face up to their secrets, their histories of atrocities, and confront the illusions surrounding them, and readers are not used to writing that is free from ideology. The political solutions to our problems have resulted in further fascism and destruction. I do not pretend to present any solutions in my books; I simply present questions regarding our responsibilities as humans. The basic questions in my writing are ethical ones: the meaning of human solidarity, absent of the ideological, ethnic or religious.”
His novel I Stared at the Night of the City (originally titled Ghazalnus and the Gardens of Imagination), explores themes of corruption and authoritarianism among the political elite and the efforts of artists and intellectuals to abide by their principles and flourish in this environment. It likewise symbolises the struggle of writers to break free from the control of political parties, which, as Abdulrahman noted in a 2008 article for the BBC, own most of the publishing houses in the region.
Ali has little faith in politics to effectuate meaningful, honest change, which is why he avoids bringing a political dimension to his writing, unless it is to expose its destructive tendencies.
“People in this part of the world are born with political hatred and political loyalty. … Politics here represent a degeneracy of ethical responsibilities; they only build walls and create barriers between people of different identities. I try to find the common human spaces outside politics.”
“We needed to address modern questions like, Why did attempts at revolution result in relapse and a regression of human values? Or, Why were attempts at modernization failing in Eastern societies?”Bakhtiyar Ali
Houzan Mahmoud, a writer, feminist activist, and founder of the Kurdish magazine Culture Project, calls Ali’s style of writing “lyrical” and “enigmatic.”
“Bakhtiyar Ali is a household name in Kurdistan,” Mahmoud says. “He became familiar to most readers in the mid-1990s, at the peak of the Kurdish civil war and in the years of tension, corruption and warlordism that followed. His writing speaks to the souls of those who lived through these years of war and dealt with the aftershock.”
Ali hopes that his fiction will “fight the collective mind” and encourage the expression of individual identity, free from the ways of thinking and being that are imposed by the larger society.
“People here rarely talk about what they think and what they feel,” he says. “Making them speak out is a very important part of the job. Most of my characters try to break the silence, to challenge social and political norms, and to survive without having to swim through the violent, bloody swamp of politics.
“I refuse to present utopian visions or solutions that do not take into consideration the inner world of man,” he adds. “Depicting the rebirth of the hidden and repressed power of the individual has always been my goal. I believe in individual intelligence, not in the collective mind.”