Stories from a future republic

Doves in a tree
In this groundbreaking anthology, Kurdish authors – including several present and former political prisoners – imagine a freer future, one in which it is no longer effectively illegal to be a Kurd (image: DW)

"Kurdistan + 100" is the third anthology in Comma Press's "future past" series, and a fourth – Egypt + 100 – is set to be published next year. Writers are asked to imagine a moment in the future connected to an event in their shared past

By Marcia Lynx Qualey

In this thirteen-story anthology, co-edited by Orsola Casagrande and Mustafa Gundogdu, the reader finds themes they might expect from Kurdish authors: language, memory, political repression. Yet what ties Kurdistan + 100 together is its rocky, difficult landscapes of mountains, caves, and cliffs. These often isolate the book's Kurdish communities, cutting them off from their neighbours, as well as from the rest of the world.

Unlike previous collections Iraq + 100 and Palestine + 100, which are set a century after invasion and dispossession, this collection is set 100 years after a moment of joy, if a fleeting one: the birth of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad on 22 January 1946, led by Qazi Muhammad. 

The co-editors, in their introduction, write that they hoped this moment would serve as a lens "through which progressive, positive futures might be seen, even though, as a moment in time, it contains both hope and devastation".

Language is a battleground

As the editors suggest, the collection does have visions of a positive future, although it is the bleaker ones that dominate. All of the stories are set at least partially in the mid-2040s, and while some are set against a familiar futurism with robots, food pills, and space colonisation, others build future landscapes that are strikingly original. 

Language is a battleground in many of the stories, which have been translated from Turkish, Kurmanji, Sorani, or written directly in English.

Cover of story anthology "Kurdistan +100", edited by Orsola Casagrande and Mustafa Gundogdu and published in English by Comma Press
Kurdistan + 100 poses a question to contemporary Kurdish writers: might the Kurds one day have a country to call their own? With 13 stories set in the year 2046, this book offers a space for new expressions and new possibilities in the ongoing struggle for self-determination (image: Comma Press)

In the moving and dark short story "The Wishing Star", by Jil Swani, the tongues of all the Kurdish villagers have been cut out, with babies' tongues severed soon after they are born. These villagers feel impossibly far both from other Kurdish communities and from the wider world, and their only regular visitors are Turkish soldiers. The story is told from the perspective of a journalist who makes the difficult trek to the village on foot, along with his fixer and interpreter, who fortunately knows Kurdish sign language.

In Sema Kaygusuz's extraordinary "Waiting for the Leopard", translated from Turkish by Nicholas Glastonbury, the battleground over language is more quietly violent. In this story, people's remains are dug up and revivified so they can be companions to the "wardens" who work the grimly bleak landscape, hunting for animals that are extinct or nearly so. These revivified souls are not supposed to have access their memories, but the woman who is brought to life as the companion of the Leopard Warden wrestles with her mind, managing to gain access to her past.

At first, the Leopard Warden's companion, who he calls Sedef, learns Turkish from approved books and TV shows. But after a spot on the landscape triggers her memory, she – Xime – helps her warden climb the craggy landscape and come face-to-face with a long-lost feline. When this single leopard finally appears on an otherwise dead landscape, the moment is, as the narrative has it, "almost unbearably beautiful".

In some of the stories, the loss of language is less violent, if not less painful. In Nariman Evdike's "The Letter", translated from Kurmanji by Rojin Shekh-Hamo, the story begins when a woman finds a letter among her dead mother's possessions. Although some of the words are familiar to her, she cannot read it. For a while, she cannot even identify her own ancestral language.

Warriors, scientists – and three women presidents

And in Selahattin Demirtas' hopeful "My Handsome One", translated from Turkish by Amy Spangler, a sixty-eight-year-old narrator, recently elected president of a future Kurdistan, recalls a time when speaking Kurdish was forbidden, as it was in Turkey from 1980-1991. She carries a photograph of her long-dead father and remembers visiting him in prison as a young girl, when she couldn't understand him, because he was forced to speak in Turkish. Happily, in the foreground of the story, things are different.

This sixty-eight-year-old is not the only future female president of Kurdistan to appear in the anthology. The collection is filled with women warriors, women scientists, and no fewer than three women presidents of a future Kurdistan.

Another motif from "My Handsome One" that echoes through other stories is mementos of the dead. In Karzan Kardozi's tender "I Have Seen Many Houses in My Time", characters in one family suffer from thalassemia, a rare genetic disorder. Each time the narrator visits, he finds the children he knew have died and new children have been born. But those who have been lost are not forgotten, and their photos fill the house with their presence.

In Qadir Aged's "The Last Hope", a dead man is at the centre of the story: Kurdish leader Qazi Muhammad, who slips from the 1940s into the 2040s, is surprised both by the things that have changed for Kurdish people and those that haven't. One thing that surprises Qazi Muhammad is how quietly people must speak in the future.

Read, re-read and remember

The co-editors write in their introduction that their hope was that the authors in this collection – several of whom have faced censorship or worse – could write boldly, loudly, and freely. And while they surely have done this, it has not been without consequences. 

Contributor Meral Simsek was recently brought up on charges of "making terrorist propaganda", and the editors write that her story in Kurdistan + 100, which had not yet been published when the charges were brought, was listed as evidence of this claim. Simsek now lives in exile in Germany.

It will be a while before another contributor, Selahattin Demirtas, sees his story. He is in prison in Turkey and, the editors write, "nothing with the word Kurdistan on it would be allowed in jail".

Still, despite the obstacles, these authors have passed on their stories. The importance of storytelling is perhaps most forcefully articulated by Muharram Ebry's "The Story Must Continue", translated from Turkish by Andrew Penny. In it, a man in a future Kurdistan tells his daughter: "The best response you can give to those who want to leave us without stories is to not forget our story and to pass it on to our children and grandchildren". 

Whenever and however a future Kurdish nation might come to pass, the stories in this collection remain: to be read, re-read, and remembered.

Marcia Lynx Qualey

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