The last time Bachtyar Ali made a trip from his adopted home of Germany to his birthplace of Iraqi Kurdistan he received something of a hero’s welcome.
In Sulaymaniyah and Halabja, for four hours a day and for three days in a row, he signed copies of his new novel for readers. “That’s a sign that literature is now deeply embedded in people’s lives,” Ali says, “that there are people who see literature as an effective weapon.”
Over the course of four decades, Ali’s literature — spanning novels, poetry and essays — has confronted and explored chaos, conflict and injustice, particularly in regards to Iraqi Kurdistan. “In my entire literary work, I talk about how politics and power destroy human connections,” he tells The National, ahead of the release of his new book.
“In my country, the relationship between identities and individuals has been dangerously destroyed. It is the function of literature to reflect that tragedy and to reproduce a different type of relationship.”
Ali’s remarkable fiction is filled with, and indeed fuelled by, characters who journey far, either physically or spiritually, to build bridges, forge alliances and salvage what they hold dear. “My books are odes to individuals who don’t sit idly by when disaster strikes but who want to rescue something,” he reveals.
In The Mansion of the Sad Birds, a woman sends her suitors around the world to save them from the constraints of a small town and a parochial mindset. Meanwhile, I Stared at the Night of the City — the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English — features a group of friends who embark on a quest to recover the bodies of two lovers killed by the autocratic “Barons”. And in The Last Pomegranate Tree, Ali’s latest novel to be translated into English from Sorani Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman — the author follows a peshmerga fighter who goes in search of his long-lost son after 21 years in captivity.
Dazzlingly inventive, The Last Pomegranate Tree has Ali engaging with his common themes and, at the same time, employing his trademark style — gritty realism combined with myth, allegory and fantastical flourishes.
Muzafar-i Subhdam’s odyssey is a desperate cross-country hunt depicting casualties of war and atrocities of dictatorial misrule — but it is also a never-ending magical mystery tour rendered vivid by Muhammad the Glass-Hearted, the Professor of our Dark Nights and the eponymous tree with its healing powers.
Ali is widely regarded as one of the most renowned and critically acclaimed writers from Iraqi Kurdistan. He grew up in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, a place he found stimulating as “a literary and intellectual centre for the Kurds” — but also suffocating due to its “one-dimensionality” and lack of interaction with other cultures.
Ali abandoned his studies in geology after being injured in a student protest against Saddam Hussein and instead decided to devote his life to literature. “Understanding humans is more interesting than understanding rocks,” he says.
Rejecting the army and participation in the Iran-Iraq war, he went into hiding for several years, where he read and wrote regularly. After the revolt in 1991, Ali enjoyed a degree of creative freedom, publishing a collection of poems and the philosophical magazine Azadi.
“From the outset, I knew that the situation would not last for long, but I still wanted to make the best of that opportunity to do new types of intellectual and artistic work,” he says. “Most political situations in the Middle East are temporary. One must make the best of these calm, more normal periods.”
When Ali and his fellow journalists fell foul of the authorities and started to receive death threats, he realised he had to leave the country. He has lived in Germany for 25 years but, for his writing, continues to draw on his thoughts and memories of the land he left behind. Despite his best efforts, he feels he cannot fully convey the horrors of what he terms “the Iraqi disaster”.
“The vastness of this tragedy — its impact on the lives of adults and children, the deep psychological scars incurred, the displacement of millions of people — cannot be relayed," he says. "A paradox is created by the fact that our power to recount a story is limited whereas man’s brutality is not. But that doesn’t mean we should stop writing: it means we should write as if we are searching for the impossible.”
Ali is heartened by the fact that the voices of more and more Kurdish writers are being heard after years of suppression. Some, however, don’t get the wider audience they deserve,e he says. “There are only a small number of competent Kurdish translators and they work under very difficult circumstances,” he adds.
“In the West, there’s a common view that the Middle East doesn’t produce great art and literature. Few publishers take the risk of publishing a literary work from the Middle East, let alone from Kurdish literature that is virtually unknown.”
Still, Ali believes that Kurdish literature has come a long way in the last 30 years. “Until 1991, the number of good Kurdish books could probably fill one bookcase," he says. "Now, the Kurdish library is fairly large because many important works have been written in or translated into Kurdish.”
Ali says poetry used to be the dominant genre until a “radical change” brought about an interest in theoretical writings and novels. “Kurdish narrative literature is new," he adds. "Given its short history, I’ve seen some beautiful works, but I haven’t managed to read everything or to get to know all the writers well."
“It's impossible for me to give you an overview and say where my work lies in this,” he says. “But I do know that other writers rarely share my style and themes, or my philosophy of literature’s role. That makes me happy. As a writer, I’d like to be a different and remote island on the bigger map. I don’t know where exactly I am on it, but I know I hold a special place.”
The Last Pomegranate Tree was published on January 24 and is available to buy online or in bookshops
Explore Sulaymaniyah and Iraqi Kurdistan through the works of artist Ismail Khayat below