September 28, 2016

Why hasn’t a single Kurdish novel been published in English until now?



Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared At the Night of the City, translated by Kareem Abdulrahman. Via Periscope.

Can you name a single Kurdish fiction writer? Probably not.

For anyone who thinks that the US and UK have made sufficient progress bringing foreign literature into translation, it may come as a shock to learn that this fall marks the first publication of a Kurdish novel in English. Ever.

As Marcia Lynx Qualey at ArabLit reports, this December the British publisher Periscope will release I Stared at the Night of the City, a 2008 novel by the Iraqi Kurd Bakhtyar Ali. The novel, written in Sorani Kurdish—one of two principal written Kurdish dialects—has been translated by Kareem Abdulrahman, whose interest in the book was piqued when a Kurdish publisher gave Ali a $25,000 advance, an unheard-of sum in Iraqi publishing.

According to Periscope’s description, the book is “a lyrical interpretation of contemporary Kurdistan,” following a group of friends, led by a poet, who are searching for the bodies of two lovers killed unjustly by the region’s ruling “Barons.”

Of course the publication of the novel provokes questions about the state of Kurdish literature, and how a whole body of work could have gone untranslated for so long. Qualey is quick to warn that we must be careful when discussing such literary firsts. “There are a number of reasons… why we don’t see more Kurdish novels,” she writes, going on to cite the poet Selim Temo, who has contended that Kurdish literature has “roots at least as deep as the 800s,” despite a history of artistic and cultural repression. According to Temo, there has also been a recent blossoming of Kurdish novel writing, of which Ali is only one example.

In interviews with NRT’s Sarhang Hars, Ali and Abdulrahman blamed both Kurdish and Western cultural institutions for failing to promote Kurdish literature. “When a people does not have translations and is not able to promote its culture, it does not exist,” Ali told Hars. Abdulrahman also noted that “translators in Europe are not respected as they should be. Few translators make a living on translations.” Of course, this is problem for translators working in many other languages, and it may be that ignorance and lack of funding (for authors, translators, even publishers) are the driving forces behind the inaccessibility of Kurdish literature to English readers.



Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.