‘Reading Lolita in Tel Aviv’: Letters from a Kurd

Through the personal experiences of Mariwan, a Kurdish adolescent, Kae Bahar tells the story of the Kurdish nation's struggle for independence.

Letters from a Kurd is the first Kurdish novel published in the English language. Set against the historical and political background of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the critical years of 1971-1988, it sketches the life of a Kurdish boy between the age of five and seventeen. Nicknamed Mary, the hero Mariwan Rashaba grows up in oil-rich Kirkuk, in circumstances of severe persecution under Saddam. Measures included Arabization and attempted linguicide through bans on the very use and study of Kurdish not to mention Kurdish literary writing and artistic development. Arabization was a key policy of the Ba’ath, the pan-Arab political party that assumed power in Iraq and Syria in the 1960s. The objective was to force non-Arabs to assume Arab identity and culture and thereby to assimilate them.

From his childhood, Mariwan’s life is marked by tragedy. People close to him, including his grandfather and brothers, are killed, suffering terrible and unexplainable deaths. His Christian girlfriend, Aida, is murdered by Abu Ali, one of Saddam’s henchmen, for no reason other than sheer cruelty. Over the course of the novel, Mariwan himself becomes a target of the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s intelligence services. But despite his young age, he faces them down, and takes his revenge on them.  

These painful events are mitigated by Mariwan’s ability to escape the grimness of his circumstances into a world of magic and adventure. His budding romantic experiences, and strong friendships with open-minded Kurds and non-Muslim friends such as “Popcorn” — a Yezidi boy harassed by Muslim boys — enrich his life as well. There are also comic interludes: when Shamal, his teacher, discovers Mariwan’s artistic talents and introduces him to a new modern world or when Mariwan takes risks to watch forbidden films. Mariwan’s passion for cinema permeates the entire book, which itself unfolds like a film.

Through Mariwan’s personal experiences Bahar tells the story of the Kurdish nation: its history, its myths, and the unique culture which distinguishes it from the surrounding Arab society. He brings to life fairy tales and myths such as that of the Princess Shawa and interweaves the personal with the historical; an imaginative and thrilling story with political facts. It should be noted that in many ways, Mariwan’s story mirrors that of Bahar himself. Born in Kirkuk, Bahar was forced to leave his native city at an early age, self-exile in Britain providing refuge from persecution.

The novel’s epigraph is a famous Arab proverb depicting the Kurds as a plague: “There are three plagues in the world: the Kurds, the rat, and the locust.”  The first scene of the book describes Mariwan presenting a “mirror image” to that of the Kurd: “the ugly Arab.” There is a context: in this scene the 16-year-old Mariwan is held in a detention cell and brutally and repeatedly raped by this “the ugly Arab.”  Traumatized, the young man wishes to die. But somehow, he finds a way to relieve his anguish. He composes an imaginary letter to his hero, “Gringo”—the American actor Clint Eastwood—asking his help in spiriting him from his cell and to his dreamland, America. This is the first of the many letters that Mariwan composes to Gringo, sharing with him his ardent love of cinema as well as his innermost secrets.

These letters signify Mariwan’s strong desire to connect to the West and Western culture. They show his belief that in the West, he would be able to enjoy the freedom of artistic activities banned in his conservative Muslim society, and ultimately fulfill his aspirations: to become a film-maker, a dancer, a singer.  

Whether consciously or not, through this artistic device the author reflects the long-standing and deep desire of the Kurdish political leadership in Iraq to recruit the support of the United States in its struggle against Baghdad. Already by the 1960s, the legendary Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani had attempted to find channels to America, in the belief that only this Great Power could assist the Kurdish people’s push for independence. One of these channels was Israel, who had supported the Kurds officially—but clandestinely—between 1965 and 1975. Israel’s support was channeled through Iran, since Israel does not share a common border with the Kurdish region. It ended in 1975 after Iran and Iraq signed the Algiers Agreement, which required Iran to stop its support for the Kurds. Consequently Israel was obliged to do the same, without managing to “bring the American support” which the Kurds yearned for so much.
In his personality, Mariwan embodies the clash between tradition and modernity, between religion and atheism, between East and West. His father had wanted him to become a devout Muslim dervish. But very early on, he began to rebel against his strict, dogmatic and demanding parent. Through his passion for music, art, and film, Mariwan was drawn to people who represented opposing poles to the patriarchal, Islamic society of his childhood. These interests kindled his father’s wrath; the latter’s rejection of modernity is reflected in his brutal destruction of Mariwan’s first camera.  

The clash between these two disparate worlds prompts interesting philosophical questions concerning religion and God. One recurring question for Mariwan: Where was God when “the monster,” Saddam Hussein, inflicted such terrible atrocities on Kurds? Indeed, one of Mariwan’s friends likens God to Saddam. Religion, as a whole, is sharply criticized across the text. As the protagonist comments archly: “Religion is the cancer of our people and the main cause of our suffering.”

But even when relating Saddam’s atrocities, the author does not downplay the Kurds’ own flaws, nor does he shy away from criticizing his own “twisted society”. The backwardness and cruelty of this society is depicted in the circumcision of Mariwan’s five-year-old female friend, leading to her death. Mariwan himself is sexually abused by dervish, leaving deep scars on his psyche. In this traditional society, oppression is the order of the day for women; attitudes to sex are so unhealthy that they sometimes lead to tragedies, such as the suicide of “Papula” (butterfly) —the young and beautiful wife of Mariwan’s uncle—who burns herself to death.

But the greatest flaw of this society is the rampant treason of the Kurds themselves. As Mariwan explains, this is the root cause of the Kurd tragedy, their failure to establish a state of their own. The traitors, known among the Kurds as jash—donkeys—are embodied by Abu Ali, Saddam’s henchman who mercilessly targets Mariwan and other Kurdish patriots.

Mariwan, his family, and his close friends represent Kurdayeti, Kurdish patriotism. His uncles teach him Kurdish, because “without it, we Kurds would have been wiped out.” They also speak about the importance of education, “for gaining freedom, not guns.” They give their children Kurdish names, to preserve and develop Kurdish identity and to differentiate them from Arabs. The reader sees Mariwan’s own patriotism in his admiration for the Peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrillas; his decision to volunteer to fight in the guerrilla war against Saddam’s army, despite his youth; and his call for Kurdish separation from Iraq. In real life, the strength of Kurdish patriotism can be deduced from results of the independence referendum held in the Autonomous Kurdistan Region in September 2017.  No less than 93% of the voters supported independence. However, a small Kurdish group co-operated thereafter with domestic and external forces, frustrating this outcome.

The Kurdish patriotism expressed in Letters from a Kurd is reinforced against the background of historical events depicted in the novel, such as the end of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. Bahar describes the Halabja massacre, in which some 5,000 Kurds were gassed with chemical weapons, and the Anfal campaigns, during which around 180,000 Kurds were murdered by Saddam’s army. He also references Kurdish leaders and figures like Mulla Mustafa Barzani and Jalal Talabani. This style of writing moves the novel towards what scholars term faction, a combination of fact and fiction.

Where does Bahar’s novel fit in the Kurdish literary scene? On the whole, novels are a quite recent literary endeavor in Kurdish societies. This puzzling fact begs explanation. What are the reasons for the late blooming of Kurdish literature, in an ancient nation representing some 35 million people? What were the sociopolitical factors that impeded its development? Why did Kurdish literature only begin to reach the outside world in the twenty-first century, and very modestly at that?

Kurdish literature, and writing in the Kurdish language in general, has made a very long and intricate journey. In its written form, Kurdish literature is a very recent phenomenon.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, only thirty-seven literary works were known to have survived over the course of the language’s thousand-year history. As the Kurdish scholar Hashem Ahmadzeh writes, this modest beginning emerged in the Soviet Union, but the books published there had very little readership.

Many obstacles stood in the way of written literary work. The most important is the fact that the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, is written in Arabic. Beyond this, Kurdish speakers were surrounded by Arabic, Persian and Turkish-speaking neighbors, whose languages were considered to be refined epitomes of high culture, thus influencing the language choices of Kurdish writers. For example, the famous Iraqi Kurdish poets Buland al-Haydari and Salim Barakat wrote in Arabic; the Kurdish Turkish writer Yashar Kemal and the poetess Bejan Matur wrote in Turkish. Yashar Kemal is the most famous Turkish- Kurdish writer. His novel Ince Memed (Memed, My Hawk) was translated into Hebrew in 2009. Bejan Matur writes mainly poetry but she also authored a reportage on the insurgent Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK.

The Kurdish language itself served as a barrier for the promotion of its literature, since it was only at the end of the 19th century that it took its first steps towards standardization. Worse still, the language is written in three different alphabets, reflecting the Kurds’ political fragmentation: the Arabic alphabet in Iraq, Iran and Syria, the Latin alphabet in Turkey and the Kurdish European diaspora, and Cyrillic in the former Soviet Union. But as the poet Selim Temo suggested in a 2016 interview published on the ArabLit portal: “For a long time, no matter which alphabet was used, writing a Kurdish literary text was enough reason to be prosecuted or even killed”. All this had negative effects on the spread of the readership.

Kurds consider the 17th century as the epoch of Kurdish revival. While in the West, this was the period in which the novel began its first steps, in Kurdistan it was poetry, mainly oral, which remained the principal medium of literary expression until the twentieth century. The person who most symbolizes this revival is Ahmad Khani (1650-1706), a poet, philosopher and man of religion who sought to turn Kurdish into a written language on a par with Persian and Arabic.

Khani’s most renowned literary work is Mem U Zin, which in time became the Kurdish national epic. On one level, it tells the story of the doomed love affair between Mem, from the tribe of Alan, and the Princess Zin, sister of the prince of the rival tribe of Botan, located in today’s Turkey. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the lovers could not consummate their love, dying in tragic circumstances thanks to the machinations of Bakr, the villain of the story. Bakr himself tries to evade the people’s wrath by hiding between the lovers’ graves. But he is captured and killed; his blood seeps into the ground, and becomes the thorn that continues to separate the lovers. But on a more elemental level, the story symbolizes the situation of the Kurdish people, separated by the Ottoman and Persian empires. Lamenting this situation, Khani expresses the hope that a king will one day arise in Kurdistan, to unite the Kurds and change their destiny.

Khani’s call to turn Kurdish into a living, written language continues to reverberate in modern times. However, the challenges faced by the language were even greater in the twentieth century than in Khani’s time, as the central governments placed huge obstacles in the path of the very use of the Kurdish language. Turkey, for example, permitted the publication of only six Kurdish-language books between 1923 and 1970. The consequence, according to the Kurds was the linguicide of the Kurdish language.  

Notwithstanding these formidable obstacles, Kurdish literature has flourished during the last two decades. In her 2015 book Imagining Kurdistan, Ozlem Belcim Galip suggests that “the first decade of the twenty-first century has been somewhat a golden age for Kurdish literature, particularly the Kurdish novelistic discourse.”  

The broad autonomy gained by the Kurds of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, coupled with the annulment of the Turkish law forbidding the use of Kurdish in the public sphere, contributed greatly to the spread of written Kurdish. Similarly, the expansion of internet access among Kurdish societies now enables Kurds to interact virtually and freely with each other across previously insurmountable “national” boundaries.

No less important was the role played by the Kurdish intelligentsia in the diaspora. They contributed immensely to the spread of Kurdish literary works, particularly in Europe. Many Kurdish intellectuals found refuge in Paris, where they founded “L’institut Kurde,” which was very active in promoting Kurdish culture and language in the early 1980s.  More recently, Sweden, where many Kurdish works have been written or translated into European languages, has replaced Paris as the “capital” of Kurdish literature. According to Galip, one hundred novels were published in Turkish Kurdistan and the diaspora between 1984 and 2010. Hashem Ahmadzedeh counts that by the second decade of the twenty-first century, the total number of all Kurdish novels had reached three hundred.

Another important project taken up by Kurdish intellectuals was the translation of literary works into foreign languages. Particularly noteworthy was the novel Jan-I Gal (‘The Agony of People’), published in French as Mal du Peuple in 1994, almost thirty years after its initial publication. Ibrahim Ahmad, its author, was a Kurdish intellectual and leading political figure in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mid-1950s and 1960s. Banned under the Ba`ath, the original text was popular with young people, only able to read it in secret. Now it can be read freely in Iraq, and has been adapted into a successful film.

In many ways, Bahar’s novel fits in the general framework of Kurdish literary writing, blending fiction with history and imbuing it with a strong Kurdish patriotism.

Like Khani, Ahmad combines literary motives with ideological-political ones. The novel’s hero is Jwamer, from Sulaymaniyya— once the cradle of Kurdish nationalism. Jwamer was imprisoned for ten years because of his Kurdayeti. On his eventual release from prison, he discovers that his wife died in childbirth and the child died too. The terrible news had been kept from him by his friends and close relatives, because they did not want Jwamar to lose hope while in prison. In any case, the harsh conditions which he found on his release from prison convinced him to join the National Army for Independence. Like Khani, Ahmad emphasizes the historical subservience of Kurds to other nations; he too calls on them to break free from this vicious circle.

As with most nascent national movements, literature has been highly politicized and mobilized for the Kurdish cause. However, under the wide autonomy which the Kurds of Iraq have enjoyed since 1992, Kurdish writing has moved one step forward, authors now daring to criticize the Kurdish government for its corruption, nepotism, and other misdeeds. Before then, such criticism could have cost writers their lives; now it can be found in works of fiction and not just journalism.

A case in point is the novelist Bakhtyar Ali, author of the 2005 novel Gezalnus and the Imaginative Gardens. The novel is an allegorical account that sharply criticizes the current Kurdish regional government. Interestingly, the publisher paid Bakhtyar $25,000 for the publishing rights and printed 10,000 copies of the book—amounts unheard of in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the past, writers were obliged to fund the printing of their own books, due to government censorship and the limited readership.

In many ways then, Bahar’s novel fits in the general framework of Kurdish literary writing, blending fiction with history and imbuing it with a strong Kurdish patriotism. The influence of other Kurdish novelists, such as Yashar Kemal and Ali Bakhtyar are evident in Bahar’s writing. One also notes the influence of Hiner Saleem, whose novel My Father’s Rrifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan has some echoes in Bahar’s work. Similarly, Bahar walks in the footsteps of some of his predecessors, in choosing not to write his novel in his mother tongue but (in this case) in English, obviously with a view to reaching a wide readership and bringing the Kurdish voice to the world.

One such audience may be Israeli readers. Kae Bahar, who is also a filmmaker, has already introduced himself to Israeli public through his film “No Friends But The Mountains,” screened and discussed in cinematheques across Israel last spring. On the whole, Israelis have displayed great interest in the Kurdish cause. For one thing, there is a large community of Jews of Kurdish origin in Israel. This community maintains links with the Kurds of Iraq, and also serves as a kind of lobby for them here in Israel. For another, the Israeli political leadership—and indeed Israelis and Jews in general—have shown an interest in the Kurdish situation for various historical, strategic, political and moral reasons. As a result, clandestine support and behind-the-scenes relations have been a feature of Israel’s links to the Kurds of Iraq since the mid- 1960s.

Still, Kurdish literature has not made inroads into Israel as yet. In part, this is a reflection of the status of the Kurdish novel in the world at large; it also stems from the dearth of knowledge of the literary Kurdish language. It should be mentioned that the Jews of Kurdish origin have not very much contributed to the renaissance of Kurdish literature, mainly because their mother tongue remains Aramaic (By way of comparison, the Jews of Iraq contributed greatly to Arabic literature.) But there are now initiatives in Iraqi Kurdistan for the translation into Kurdish of books written by Israelis or dealing with Israel, examples including the publication of biographies of David Ben- Gurion and Golda Meir.  An Israeli who visited the KRG reported that he saw a lot of books about Israel in one of the bookshops and that Golda Meir’s biography became a bestseller. This can be explained by the fact that the Kurds look at Israel as a role model, hoping to imitate its success in establishing a state of their own in a very hostile neighborhood.

To sum up, Letters from a Kurd presents an opportunity to get acquainted in depth with Kurdish society and culture, via a literary medium and not merely from short newspaper articles or journalistic reports in the media. When all is said and done, Letters from a Kurd is a lovely, thrilling, and very interesting novel, meriting a Hebrew translation so that it can reach a wider public in Israel beyond English-language readers.

*Kae Bahar, Letters from a Kurd, Yolk Publishing, pp. 418.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles