‘If I Hadn’t Written “Kobani,” I Would’ve Lost My Mind’

Germany-based Syrian Kurdish author Jan Dost was at this year’s Emirates LitFest, where he met with ArabLit’s Hend Saeed:

Novelist, poet, and translator Jan Dost has published three poetry collections in Kurdish and one in Arabic. His novel Kobani was published in Kurdish (2017) and in Arabic (2018), while his Green Bus Leaving Aleppo came out in Arabic last year.

Dost’s best-known translation is The Epic of Mem and Zin, by the famous Kurdish poet Ahmed Khani, which Dost translated to Arabic.

Hend Saeed: When do you choose to write a book in Kurdish and when in Arabic? Is it a conscious decision or a feeling? Does the language influence the structure and the subject of the book?  

Jan Dost: I am bilingual; I speak both languages at the same level, and I think in both as well. There is no difference between the two languages for me, except that the Kurdish language is my mother tongue and my people’s language, and Arabic is the language of the culture environment that I grew up in. I love the Arabic language as much as I love my mother tongue, the Kurdish language.

There are some books that I start writing them in Arabic and some I start writing in Kurdish; they just come to me in one language or another. Something like a mystery or the accumulations of the unconscious mind, which comes to me as a certain novel in a certain language, but it’s certainly not a conscious decision.

The subjects, the structures, and the writing style are different between my Arabic books and Kurdish ones. Most of the books I wrote in Kurdish are novels about old and recent Kurdish history, such as the Mijabad Republic, Kurdistan Republic, and Sheikh Saeed’s revolution against the Turks. The Arabic novels are about philosophical ideas…tolerance, hate.

HS: Why did you choose to translate Mem and Zin to the Arabic? What did you learn from this experience about the differences and similarities between the two languages? Did you find any difficulties in the translating some terms?

JD: The translation of Mem and Zin was a must. It is the most important book in Kurdish literature and is considered a masterpiece or even the Bible of the Kurdish national. The book was translated earlier to Arabic by the late Mohammed Saaed Ramadan, but he left some parts out because he thought they were against religious values or were shameful, but I translated the full work without leaving out any parts or scenes.

The book originally is a poetic epic, but I translated it as prose to the Arabic and added some explanations, notes, and comments to explain the classic plot, which was written more than 300 years ago and is full of Sufism and philosophy, logic, and astrology, etc.

There are differences between any languages. A language is a living being, and that being is transformed into another through translation; it does look like the original but has a different soul. We can say some translations are like cutting the wings of the language and some translations are like adding wings to the language.

The original Mem and Zin text is like embroidered fabric with different vocabulary from Farsi, Arabic, and Kurdish, in particular Sufism and philosophic terms — it wasn’t difficult to translate them.

HS: Kobani and Mirname are published in both Arabic and Kurdish, does it have different readers and did the critics received them differently?  

JD: Yes, it was received differently. Kobani touches the soul of the Kurdish reader; it is an incident that happened to the Kurdish people and we all lived it – from occupying Kobani then the legendary resistance, liberation, and the massacre. The Kurdish reader knows the subject and the incident is close to their soul, mind, and feelings, while the Arabic reader reads it as a novel. A novel of war regardless of whether it is talking about Kobani or another war.

The critics also received it from different points of view, but they celebrated it and liked both in the Kurdish and the Arabic and even the Farsi, as it is translated to Farsi, and the two Kurdish dialects.

HS:  Do you think it was important that Kobani is published in Kurdish?

JD: Yes, for sure, the incident is a Kurdish event and happened in a Kurdish area and all the Kurds around the world were worried and thinking about it; it was necessary that I first publish it in Kurdish then rewrite it in Arabic at the same level.

I intentionally used Kobani dialect for the Kurdish edition to be close to reality and to be truthful.

HS:  In one of your sessions, here at the festival, you said that “If I hadn’t written Kobani, I would’ve lost my mind.“ Why was it so important to you to write Kobani?

JD: Kobani was a wound, and I was a wounded man who needed to scream. The pain I went through in those days was beyond anyone’s endurance. During that time, all the people concentrated on the resistance and the female fighters, but this was one of the other sides of the battle, and they concentrated on that for many reasons.

I wanted to shed a light on the other side, which is more important in the case of war against Da’esh; the resistance was something good, but no one talked about the heavy price that our community paid for that resistance.

I was suffocated during the fight in Kobani; I knew my city was being destroyed and by that, they were eliminating the memories that had been built by the Kobani community for a century.

Some people were happy to see Kobani Street being bombed, and supported and encouraged it. Those people forgot that this bombing was destroying their nests and they couldn’t go back; at the end they cried hard when they couldn’t go back and found that they had lost everything.

While I was thousands of miles away, I lost everything, even the hope of going back to my small city; I lost all the places that witnessed my birth, childhood, and my youth — forever. I had to write the novel to rebuild my memories and the memory of my city, and if I haven’t done that I would have lost my mind, writing Kobani for me was a cure for the psychological crisis that I was going through in those days.

HS: Some of your work have been adapted to films and theatre, what do you think the book needs to be successful in other forms, and what have you learned from this experience?

JD: It was an unusual experience. My short story A Handful of Dirt was adapted to a short film, but I didn’t find my story in the film, I felt it became another story that wasn’t related to my original story. I think it should have stayed a story.

There is another story that was adapted to theatre but I haven’t seen it; it was showed in some Kurdish cities in Turkey.

Directors choose the story or book according to their criteria or how the book is suitable to be adapted.  A Handful of Dirt was chosen because it was about immigration. It is about a person who emigrated from Syria to Germany. In Germany he feels spiritually exiled and can’t adapt to the environment, but at the same time he forgets his own country. It is about geographical and spiritual immigration.

Many of my readers told me that when they read my stories they feel they are watching a film; so it seems that some of my novels are suited to being adapted to film.

Recently I wrote a play in the Kurdish language, and this is my first play. I wanted to try writing for theater.

HS: Are you still writing poetry? In Kurdish or in Arabic?

JD: Yes, I’m still writing poetry. I did stop for a long time, but suddenly found myself going back. My last collection Poems the War Forgot in the Poet’s Pockets is my first collection in Arabic, published in Amman by Dar Fadaat. It was a successful experience and I found out that poetry is still in me.

I have published three poetry collections in Kurdish, but the atmosphere of war compelled me to write in Arabic.

HS: This is your first time participating in the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature. How was the experience?

JD: I am thankful for the invitation. I was surprised by the number of writers and audience members; I didn’t think it was that big. There have been good interactions between writers and the audience, and I think this festival is bringing people from different cultures together through literature.

Hend Saeed loves books and is a literary program curator with a special interest in Arabic literature. She has published a collection of short stories and is also a translator, book reviewer, and an editor for ArabLit and ArabKidLitNow!