Poetry and truth

Bachtyar Ali, probably the best known contemporary novelist and poet from the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has produced a major novel about art and reconciliation. It has recently been translated into German and is proving a major success. By Stefan Weidner

By Stefan Weidner

Like a phoenix from the ashes of obscurity, the exiled Kurdish writer Bachtyar Ali has risen to sudden prominence in the German-speaking world over the past year with his novel "The Last Pomegranate".

The book charts a father's search for his son on his return from exile and is, at the same time, a journey through the ravaged mental landscapes of Kurdistan, through a country broken by war, civil war and dictatorship. Bachtyar Ali has succeeded where many authors from war-torn regions have failed: he portrays violence without falling for its aesthetics or sounding sentimental. The oral tradition of storytelling, myths and an imagination reminiscent of magic realism are the key ingredients of his works.

The author was born in 1966 in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq. He has lived in exile in Germany since the 1990s, but writes in Sorani, the south-eastern variant of Kurdish. Unlike Kurmanji, which is spoken in Turkey, the language is written using Arabic letters. It has only just over ten million speakers, many of whom are illiterate.

All the same, Bachtyar Ali is famous in his homeland and able to make a living from his writing even though hardly any of it has been translated into Western languages. There are simply no literary translators from Sorani. The two novels of Ali's that have made it into German have been translated by Kurdish readers out of sheer love for the books. In the case of the recently published "Die Stadt der weißen Musiker" (The City of White Musicians), the translation was redrafted with the help of the author and an editor at the publishing house. The result is impressive.

Cover of Bachtyar Ali's "Die Stadt der weißen Musiker" (Source: Unionsverlag)
Bachtyar Ali's books build on the great Oriental story-telling tradition while at the same time relating the fate of Iraqi Kurds in a most poetic, yet unsentimental manner. In early September 2017, Ali was awarded the Nelly-Sachs Literary Award, which is presented by the City of Dortmund

A Kurdish "Doctor Faustus"

"The City of White Musicians" has all the qualities of Ali's previous novel and cements the impression that he is an exceptional voice in contemporary literature, an author whose corners, edges and narratorial quirks have not been smoothed away by the publishing industry and who does not care to pander to the expectations and reading habits of his audience (particularly a Western audience).

If you want to compare the book to a work of German literature, the only real contender is Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus". But how different, how much livelier and at the same time sadder is this Kurdish Doctor Faustus!  

"The City of White Musicians" is a Künstlerroman, a novel about literature and music, poetry and truth in the face of an inhuman world. But it is also a novel about love and justice, an epitaph for the victims of the Kurdish wars and a manifesto for the power of poetry and life.

The author Ali Sharafiar, Bachtyar Ali's alter ego, is tasked with writing about the life of Jaladati Kotr, a simple flute player who, over the course of his life, has become a legend. Alternate chapters are narrated by Jaladati and Ali. And of course the two argue over how best to tell this story, soberly and truthfully or with meaning and poetry.

A narrow escape from death

Having almost been killed by Saddam Hussein's henchmen, Jaladati is rescued by – of all people – a heinous murderer. And with the flautist's help, the murderer almost succeeds in atoning for his deeds. The journey into the murderer's mind and the private trial in which all the surviving victims sit in judgement over their executioner is one of the book's most moving scenes and a lesson on the possibilities of reconciliation.

Having narrowly escaped death's grip, it emerges that Jaladiti Kotr is able to travel back and forth between the spheres of life and death, passing from this world to the next, between ideal and real worlds, poetry and reality. He is at once phoenix and Pan, a nothing and a saviour, a mythical in-between creature, but depicted with such realism that this realisation only dawns very slowly on the reader and on Jaladati himself.

Bachtyar Ali is a storyteller who knows every trick in the book: those of modern literature and literary theory, but also those from the very oldest, mythical wellsprings of literature, the need to tell stories to create history, to create meaning. "Long before man conducted politics, he told stories. Long before he founded cities and built empires, he was a storyteller."

Jaladati Kotr, the flautist and protagonist of "The City of White Musicians" is also called Qaqnas, the Middle Eastern name for the phoenix. Bachtyar Ali's new novel sees the rise of the belief in art and literature from the ashes of our lack of imagination; with its brightly-coloured Kurdish plumage, it flies through the hearts of re-enchanted readers.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Bachtyar Ali: "Die Stadt der weißen Musiker", translated from Sorani to German by Peschawa Fatah and Hans-Ulrich Müller-Schwefe, Unionsverlag Zürich 2017.