Apr 072015

Agri Ismaïl

Premise: Four men sit around a giant bottle of vodka, picking at various unappetising appetisers as waiters hurry to bring them an assortment of mixers and pour clumsy blends of vodka and juice. The men raise a toast, welcoming each other, and talk of work, politics, war. One of the men tells the story of when, in 1996, he had saved up and bought his very first portable cassette player after toiling away at the reception desk of a local hotel for months. He describes the specifications of the lost device (auto reverse! 20radio station memory!) with affection between modest sips of his drink. He recounts how when the city was taken, he was sure that his house would be looted due to his political affiliations, so he considered whom among his friends and family members was least enmeshed in the political situation before driving it to his young cousin, sure that his house would be spared. The man starts giggling then, before he has even told the funny part: of course, in the end, the cousins house was the only one in his family to be looted. All the men laugh in recognition. They drink to all that was taken, all that was lost.


IMAGINE THAT THIS STORY has roused whatever part of you that is interested in narratives, for whatever reason, and that you are about to undertake the increasingly non-trivial process of deciding what form said narrative is to take.

Imagine, furthermore, that you are a Kurd, that the event takes place in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in Northern Iraq and that the men in the above scenario are all Kurds speaking in a Sorani dialect. The first conclusion presents itself as evident: this should be a narrative in Kurdish.

At first, this seems satisfactory. It pleases the dreadfully lazy part of you to know that minimal effort will be needed to achieve an acceptable level of verisimilitude (dialogue will admittedly need to be polished somewhat to achieve a certain degree of artificiality in order to pass for realism, but can otherwise be reproduced more or less verbatim).

Also, to write in a minor language is to a certain extent its own reward. It is not just about reaching an audience (which for Kurdish literature is minuscule, even if you were to disregard the fact that Kurds use two completely different alphabets; it is also, perhaps even foremost, about preserving and enriching said language. The thought that something you write can, fairly easily, have such lasting power feeds your ego tremendously. You imagine cyborgs in the future attempting a comprehensive account of the extinct human race by reverse-engineering our technology to be able to read today’s hard drives and noting that there was such as a thing as Kurdish literature. This will, you imagine, please the cyborgs.

You think back on the Kurdish novel, a feeble object that has barely been allowed to breathe, kept alive by authors like Sherzad Hassan, Bakhtyar Ali and the dearly departed Mehmet Uzun, in spite of overwhelming evidence that literature is pointless in a society that wants to emulate the capitalist wonderlands of our most generic cities (to echo Rem Koolhaas), our Singapores and Dubais and Heathrow Terminal 5s, while simultaneously fighting off the medieval LARP currently en vogue. A tricky juxtaposition, that. But it has always been thus, literature has never had it easy here: texts were uniformly banned for being written in a language that several governments tried their utmost to eradicate during the 19th and 20th centuries. A novel cannot be written, after all, if the language to write it in does not exist. When novels appeared at all, it was often small editions printed by clandestine presses, an arrestable offence for author and publisher alike. That we then define 1929’s The Kurdish Shepherd by Erebê Şemo, 1961’s Peshmerga by Rehîmî Qazî and 1972’s Jani Gal by Ibrahim Ahmad as some of the first Kurdish novels merely attests to the fortune of these manuscripts to have survived. Indeed, there are no extant copies of the first edition of The Kurdish Shepherd, which was originally published in the Soviet Union and heavily censored. That it has survived is only due to a 1947 Beirut reprint. Similarly, Ahmad’s Jani Gal had to be rewritten twice from memory after the original manuscripts were burned or lost, and it wasn’t until a French translation appeared courtesy of L’Harmattan that the text appeared in its complete state, including geographical locations and the overt references to the regime that had been previously excised. It is indicative of the subjugated state of Kurdish writing that one of the very first Kurdish novels ever to be written appeared in its entirety not in Kurdish, but in French, as late as 1994.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

You fortunately no longer have to worry about censorship, about having to burn your only manuscript in the garden before Baathist police get to it, about having to hide a printing press in your bedroom. Even the Turkish government, which for decades insisted the Kurdish language did not exist (and, in a wonderful display of incoherent logic, that this thing that did not exist should, because it did not exist, be banned) has begun to begrudgingly tolerate texts written in Kurdish.

And yet, there are other obstacles. Such as the invisibility of your work by merely writing in a non-Latin script, where it will be hidden to all but those who can conjure the signs to summon it. You often labour under the belief that everything can be found online, yet forget that in order for this to be even slightly true, you must master alphabets that mean nothing to you, alphabets that your computer is reluctant to write in. The non-Latin text is sealed off, unsearchable by the Latin index, hidden behind the limits of written language. You think of the character in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia who is only known by a non-standard, unpronounceable, symbol (which you cannot reproduce in this text other than as a screenshot: 

and therefore would never be able search for it). You suspect it is not a coincidence that throughout Negarestani’s novel this character is missing.

Another obstacle: Microsoft Word on the Macintosh Operating System cannot use Arabic fonts (let alone Kurdish ones). You could of course use another word processor (e.g. Apple’s own Pages) but the fonts remain often incompatible with other word processors and so e-mailing a file in Kurdish, more often than not, will result in something like this:


Now this is perhaps impressive in a formalist kind of way, a uniform representation of thought and language and whatnot, but you doubt that you can convince an audience that what they have before them is the Great Kurdish Novel (to take a silly term from the Americans, because lord knows they’ve taken their fair share from us) when all they are looking at are a series of Unicode squares. The computer was not designed, after all, with non-Western languages in mind, nor was any of the software (though you envy the Chinese who you imagine, by virtue of their logographic writing system, would be able to write entire short stories on Twitter in 140 characters — if China had not banned access to Twitter, that is). The electronic age is upon us and that age was coded using a specific writing system. You would be insane to think this does not matter.

Also, and you’re ashamed to have to mention this but even though Kurdish is your native language you don’t really master it: you are a child of exile with the exile’s unnatural feel for language; you frequently mis-use words and your handwriting is all haunted-house seance scribbles of the dead trying to communicate with the living in crude approximations of letters. You are far more comfortable with English, even though you have no tie to that language other than the fact every book you read and every movie you see is in English. You have not read more than a handful of Kurdish novels because as already mentioned, Kurdish novels are hard to come by. You should, of course, practice your mother tongue; you suspect that you could become a half-decent writer if only you put as much effort into reading and writing in Kurdish as you have done in English but this is a multi-year project, akin to reading Proust. And you have yet to read Proust.

At this point you start doubting yourself: if writing in Kurdish means more effort than writing in English why not just write in English? You also begin suspecting that the above premise may not be interesting to a Kurdish audience as everyone has had their house looted at some point. Everyone has lost a family member to genocide or internecine warfare. For you, the exiled one whose portraits would invariably reek of privilege and Eurocentric notions, to comment on the Kurdish situation to a Kurdish audience can easily become patronising and in bad taste. What can a foreigner possibly have to teach people about themselves? You may instead want to shine a light outwards, towards readers unfamiliar with Kurdish history, and this requires another language. “Texts must experience the condition of exile.” said Emily Apter, and which better way to exile a text than to force it into a language which is not its own?

So you choose English, because, yes, “the Anglicized subject is at once bullied and seduced into accepting the corporal burden of English,” to cite Susie O’Brien & Imre Szeman.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

Though this is the right choice (you hope), problems arise immediately, as they tend to for immigrants pretending to be something they are not. You are suddenly tempted to add explanations for your audience that you would refrain from adding if you were writing about a people to themselves.

For instance:

1. The men would have to be defined as Kurdish, as you suspect merely writing “men” would conjure a group of white people to the reader.

2. A Kurdish reader would understand that the choice of vodka, rather than the traditional arrak, indicates that these men are rather affluent or at the very least cosmopolitan (mostly this cosmopolitism is derived from a life in exile, from refugee camps, from being a foreigner where fluid thoughts have had to be rendered as malformed syllables and broken grammar and have been mistaken for stupidity), so when you lose this element you may well be tempted to linger on other details, the brand of vodka, the logos on their polo shirts, in order to convey the same thing in a much cruder manner.

3. You will have to explain what happened in 1996, a reference that would be evident to Kurdish readers but an obscure historical footnote for everyone else. Also you’ll want to briefly touch on the sanctions, embargoes and the overall financial situation that made the purchase of a cassette player in 1996 – when even CDs were beginning to be replaced by MiniDiscs and Mp3s – something that required significant capital.

Your text is now overwritten, heavy with exposition, and you haven’t even dealt with the question of language.

The dialogue will be laboured, tortured into resembling Kurdish. Perhaps you will try to mirror the cadence of a Kurdish speaker; perhaps you will keep the expressions intact, all the “may I be sacrificed in your honour”-style sentences that seem so clunky when translated. You could also use the trick that all those world lit novels of the 1990s used: sprinkle English dialogue with some non-English words for added authenticity. You try, you try, you fail, you delete.

(All fiction is based on artifice, but for some reason writing non-English dialogue in English often seems like an artifice too far. If only there was some form of literary subtitle, you think. [1])

You also worry, as all translators are wont to do, about the weight of words. You are reminded how for centuries, the French have been misunderstanding Nietzsche because the French “sujet” does not contain the “critique of the effects of subjective submission” that the German “Subjekt” does (cf. Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslability and Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles). The Kurdish word for looting, تالان, best transliterated as “talan”, has an inherent weight to it from its frequent use in Kurdish society under various dictatorships and processes of ethnic cleansing that is immediately lost in translation, as the English “looting” has since long lost its primal association to times of war (and is mainly used in times of riots, as a byproduct of temporary capitalist collapse).

What you are left with, then, is a text that panders to its audience in its need to hold the reader’s hand through a history with which she is not familiar, a text infused with exoticism, a narrative forced into a form that is inherently Western, with all the issues that arise when, to cite Franco Moretti, “Western form meets [non-Western] reality”. These texts, as selected by Western publishers, often seem to include an outmoded paean to humanism, as though to comfort a bourgeois reading culture, to ensure that the narrative that we are all the same is heard. Fredric Jameson, in his otherwise unspectacular essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism (wherein he actually states that “Nothing is to be gained by passing over in silence the radical difference of non-canonical texts. The third-world novel will not offer the satisfactions of Proust or Joyce.”) provides a rare insight when he notes that “Indeed our want of sympathy for these often unmodern third-world texts is itself frequently but a disguise for some deeper fear of the affluent about the way people actually live in other parts of the world”. This is echoed by a much-debated editorial in N+1 wherein the editors argue that “Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience” and that “the bestselling Kite Runner, by the Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, made some Americans feel better, and others worse, about our war over there”.

Above all, perhaps, it rankles to use English because of the ravages that the British Empire wrought on Kurds and the possibility of Kurdish statehood. If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is accurate in his assertion that “African authors should be clear about the fact that when they write in English they are contributing to the expansion of, and dependence on, the English language.”, then to write in English is a betrayal.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.


international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one and unequal: with a core and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality.i.e. the destiny of a culture [] is intersected and altered by another culture (from the core) that completely ignores it’”

(Franco Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature”)

Most novels that you read today seem like relics, as though modernism never happened at all, Flaubertian narratives in which characters hold the latest consumer technology to make you, the reader, realise that it is meant to take place in the now. But it does not feel like any reality you experience on a daily basis, it feels literary: as though what we consider realism is merely what authors convinced readers reality looked like a hundred and fifty years ago, static narratives that embrace the provincial when finance and politics are now global. The very conventions of the realist novel, so daring when they were perfected by Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, have now trapped narratives in an individualistic, humanistic world order. After all, how to describe the light-speed flow of capital, the corporations with human rights but without human obligations, the drones killing the anonymous in a form that is structured around individual agency, about self-realisation and a human perception of time? The novel is doomed to fail. If contemporary capitalism and consumer culture are a part of contemporary fiction, it is often as a mere gloss, rather than the actual spine of the constructed reality. Similarly, the challenges of globalisation are reduced to facile exotifications, the non-Western reality forced into a Western form. The novel was not designed, after all, with non-Western cultures in mind.

What you want is the literary future imagined by Bhanu Kapil — an author who has managed to dismantle all the problems listed here with aplomb — namely “a literature that is not made from literature.” The heroine of her novel Incubation: A Space for Monsters is half girl, half machine/cyborg, her identity and culture shifts along with the text, as essential a creation as any archetype. You are heartened by Julius’s dérive in Teju Cole’s Open City where the character maps out a New York of immigrants and asylum seekers before he transforms the 20th century urban dérive into an international one, by travelling to Belgium, to Nigeria. You embrace the aforementioned Cyclonopedia, a dense but fragile text that can barely even carry the categorisation of novel, with its fake translator’s notes (e.g. “The linguistic structure of the original Farsi text is highly inconsistent, to the extent that one assumes it to have been written by more than one author.”) making the reader realise just how many truths a narrative can contain.

We heed the warning in the aforementioned N+1 essay that “Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations,” but why should literature not instead revel in these deformations? You realise that English literature always has been “an unsteady amalgam of [the] voices of the vanquished, along with the voices of the dominant English regions” (to cite Stephen Greenblatt) and if you are to dissent from Lorde and try to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, you could do worse than making English your own Latin, a tool for a vulgar novel. Let there be allusions that remain unexplained, let there be dialogue that is not naturalistic, let there be disregard for the master’s rules, let the work contain the fractured realities as we see them today.

—Agri Ismaïl

Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose work has appeared in the White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera, and the Swedish journal Glänta among other places. He can be found on Twitter.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yes, of course there is the footnote which has a long literary history: remember how War & Peace began with a long chunk of French dialogue, which Tolstoy then translated (badly, one might add) into Russian in the footnotes. But this does not seem like a very good option: if none of your readers understand the dialogue in the original language, in effect you’re just asking them to do more work. You suspect your readers would hate you after one or two pages of this.

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