June 26, 2022

In Iraqi Kurdistan, book and sci-fi clubs offer an ‘escape’

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Huda Kathem eagerly awaits feedback on her first novel, scrutinized by a book club in Arbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, where young authors breathe new life into an age-old oral culture.

“This is the first time my book has been criticized,” the 17-year-old medical student told AFP.

“I learned a lot about how to improve my writing and my storytelling,” she said, adding that feedback from other writers, readers and professors had “incredibly encouraged” her to keep going.

With a published children’s book to her credit, the young author’s first novel, titled “Barani Marg” (Death Rain), tells the story of a Kurdish boy who runs away from a broken house and a heartbroken to join the army at age 15. .

It’s a familiar story for more than a small number of people in the autonomous region of northern Iraq, a country ravaged by decades of conflict.

The eight book clubs that have sprung up in Kurdistan in recent months make a point of giving a platform to local authors and regularly discuss stories tackling social problems.

Novelist Goran Sabah led the way by launching his book club in January at a cafe in Erbil.

– ‘The School of Lights’ –

For Sabah, who holds a doctorate in journalism from the University of Kansas, the reading groups are “the best way to exchange ideas and create a sense of belonging among young people” in the Kurdistan region.

“Each of these book clubs is a school of enlightenment, creating generations who gain the confidence to change society from the bottom up” in the face of youth poverty, rising unemployment and entrenched conservatism, he said. declared.

“Some young people watch football to escape this reality, while others read and write novels and books,” Sabah added.

Bakhtyar Faruq, a Kurdish language teacher and member of the Sabah club, agreed.

“Young Kurds write to express their anger and the suffering they endure, as well as to forget for a moment their harsh reality.”

An Iraqi passport doesn’t open many doors, so many Iraqis “read novels to travel”, Faruq said. “We can visit Paris in our imagination.”

Kurdish literature, now mostly published in Sorani and Kurmanji, the two main Iraqi dialects, is rarely translated.

Occasional books are distributed in Arabic, Farsi or Turkish, aimed primarily at Kurdish audiences in neighboring countries who speak a different dialect.

– Heroine of Arbil –

Sabah attributed the limited translation and promotion of Kurdish literature to a “lack of political will”.

“Many countries allocate a budget to introduce their literature to the outside world, but that hasn’t happened here so far,” he said.

A small publishing house, Nusyar, established two years ago in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, is taking steps to fill this void.

Each year, it awards three prizes to young Kurdish authors and translates a collection of modern Kurdish poetry into Danish and two novels into Danish, English and Farsi.

“It is extremely difficult and expensive to translate and bring Kurdish literature to the world, but it’s a dream and we want to make it happen,” Nusyar founder Alan Pary, a poet himself, told AFP. and translator.

One of the two novels Nusyar is working to promote is a science fiction story written by Sabah, who says it is the first such novel ever written in Kurdish.

“Life Enders” tackles suicide, a highly taboo but increasingly common subject in Iraq.

Set in the year 2100, it tells the story of a young Kurdish woman from Arbil who ends a wave of suicides after religion, technology and science fail to stem the tide.

The book has been a hit with young Kurds and is set to be reprinted after the first 500 copies, published in late February, flew off the shelves.