First Kurdish Novel Published in English? ‘It Is Unfortunate That We Still Talk About This’

Claims of first-ness often have an earnest, door-to-door-salesman ring to them, pressing us to see a firm break with a vision of the past, moving us into a (sometimes bizarre) vision of the future:

ali-and-book-covers-710x339This novel’s particular claim to first-ness is relatively modest: It’s that Sulaymaniyah-born Bakhtyar Ali‘s 2008 book will be the first novel brought from Sorani Kurdish into English.

Firsts in the literary world — particularly where they concern the novel — are a fraught territory. In the twentieth century, the novel was given a peculiar priority, often spoken of reverently, as though one could not have a proper culture until one’s culture churned out novels.

There are a number of reasons, of course, why we don’t see more Kurdish novels. In a 2014 interview, Kurdish poet Selim Temo suggested that Kurdish literature has roots at least as deep as the 800s. However, in recent centuries, Temo said, it has been suppressed:

“For a long time, no matter which alphabet was used, writing a Kurdish literary text was enough reason to be prosecuted or even killed. Thanks to the nearly century-old freedom struggle by the Kurdish people, the situation has recently relatively improved.”

Ali’s novels are among those Temo mentioned in this new flowering, along with novels by “Lokman Ayebe, Ciwanmerd Kulek, Şener Ozmen, and Ata Nehayî; the short stories of Roşan Lezgîn, Murad Canşad, Lorin Dogan, and Îsmaîl Dîndar; and the poetry of Kawa Nemir, Rênas Jiyan, Welat Dilken, and Osman Mehmed.”

It was 2008 when translator Kareem Abdulrahman wrote about Ali for the BBC. That’s when Ali got a surprising $25,000 advance for his Ghazalnus and the Gardens of Imagination, which Abdulrahman has now translated into English as I Stared at the Night of the City. 

This novel, which will be published by Periscope Books this fall, wasn’t Ali’s first successful book. His 2005 The City of the White Musicians sold 10,000 copies, according to Abdulrahman’s report, which surely makes it a Kurdish bestseller. At the time, Abdulrahman reported hopefully that such success might lead to an end to a new financial standing for Kurdish writers.

In a more recent interview, Ali was asked by NRT how he felt about having written what seems to be the first Kurdish novel translated into English. He said:

“It is unfortunate that we still talk about this. When a people does not have translations and is not able to promote its culture, it does not exist.”


According to NRT, Abdulrahman remained optimistic. He reportedly “shared Ali’s concerns but expressed hope that this first English translation of a Kurdish novel (and his first major work of translation) can open the door for more books and translators.”

Perhaps. Meantime, I Stared at the Night of the City won a “PEN Promotes” grant, and PEN’s World Bookshelf describes the novel as a trip:

I Stared at the Night of the City is a trip, in more ways than one: a tale of extraordinary people travelling great distances, in their minds or with their feet. It is a lyrical interpretation of contemporary Kurdistan, so much in the news nowadays but otherwise so little understood. Told by several unreliable narrators in a kaleidoscope of fragments that all eventually cohere, the novel manages the neat trick of dipping readers into a fantasia just long enough before wrenching them back to hard, cold ‘real life’.


Stylistic and thematic changes in the Kurdish novel,” by Hashem Ahmadzadeh

In Search of a Kurdish Novel that Tells Us Who the Kurds Are“: by Hashem Ahmadzadeh