The unattainable is always present

Bachtyar Ali, one of the most important writers from Iraqi Kurdistan, gave a fascinating lecture on the philosophical significance of the flight experience at PLURIVERSALE V. Our author Hannah Newbery met him for an interview after the lecture and talked with him about home, flight, integration and Der letzte Granatapfel (The Last Pomegranate), Ali’s first book to be published in German.

von Hannah Newbery

Introducing your lecture, Ekaterina Degot, the artistic director of PLURIVERSALE, said that you have succeeded in portraying the figure of the refugee in an in-depth, authentic way and that people who haven’t fled can’t understand that, despite violence, atrocities and injustices, the experience of escaping can be enriching. Can you confirm that, based on your own experience?

The Kurdish writer Bachtyar Ali at the Pluriversale V at Cologne. Photo: Khasraw Hama Karim
The Kurdish writer Bachtyar Ali at the Pluriversale V at Cologne. Photo: Khasraw Hama Karim

Bachtyar Ali: I tried to escape from Iraq several times. Under Saddam Hussein, the country was in fear and terror. You had the choice: either you became a soldier or fled the country. I never wanted to be a soldier. I was 17 when I first tried to escape. I fled to Iran. It was even worse there, so I went back. I tried again via Turkey but that didn’t work either. In 1994, when the Kurdish region was almost liberated from Iraq, the various political parties started waging war against each other. It was a difficult situation. At the start, we were very happy that Saddam Hussein was gone but it ended up being a big disappointment because the Kurdish parties were increasingly becoming an undemocratic, despotic force. A group of intellectuals including myself published a newspaper that was very heavily critical of this development. We faced serious difficulties so I had to leave the country, which is when I came to Germany via Damascus in Syria.

The problem is that for many people the sense of home was destroyed by war. There is neither protection nor rights in this homeland. People have only experienced terror, war and hate. This is why I try to develop a universal way of thinking in my writing. This is the only way we can overcome narrow-mindedness and hate.

You say that a country that harms you can no longer really feel like home. Can a country beset by war still be home?

The Syrian conflict is very young. Iraq has been in a continuous war since 1959. The country no longer has its own uniform identity. The various groups – the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites – find their identities holier and more important than the Iraqi identity. The war in Syria hasn’t yet lasted as long. If it continues for many years, the dream of development will gradually disappear. I’ll tell you about two moments in my life. The first one was when Saddam Hussein lost control about Kurdistan, as I mentioned earlier. We were so happy. We thought we could build a democracy in Kurdistan. But there were serious conflicts among the various groups. The second moment was after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003. I had great hopes for the future of the Iraqi people after more than 30 years of war and fear. But after five months the country had already sunk back into chaos – a war of all against all. This is why I lost this dream of development. I’m obviously hoping that Syria doesn’t go down the same path. But our experiences with Afghanistan and Iraq don’t leave me very optimistic. I obviously understand that people still love their old home, because they spent their childhood and youth in a formerly peaceful country. But if you look at the political map and fail to see any democratic forces there then I can’t deceive myself and be optimistic.

In your lecture during PLURIVERSALE V you spoke about the on-going crises in the East and said that modernisation in the East took place without the lead given by the Enlightenment in the West. Is there hope for change?

There’s only one way: we have to work with the younger generation on a change of mentality. We have to mould democratic young people, particularly those here in Germany. That’s what I’m hoping for. Nothing will happen without a radical change in mentality and worldview. The problem is the religious and political narrow-mindedness that make discussions impossible. How can we bridge this gap? Only through education and by working on mentality. I’ve done a lot as an intellectual. I’ve written more than 30 books and published lots of articles. This intellectual work and the constant attempts to bring about a shift in mentality aren’t easy. You need lots of energy and support.

A lot has changed, of course. There is a generation that doesn’t think that way, but it’s still too weak. From this point of view I have some hope. I’m not totally pessimistic. But being optimistic without good reason is a form of deception. The new generation is trying to think differently. All these catastrophes have shifted something inside them. How can we bring our democratic, enlightened mentality to power? That’s the big question! We have to do politics. But unfortunately, violence is the only dominating force in Eastern politics at the moment.

Bachtyar Ali during his very impessive lecture about the philosphical meaning of fleeing at the PLURIVERSALE. Photo: Roel Weenink

So does the root of the problem lie in a lack of secularism?

In my opinion, it has nothing to do with religion. Why not? I’ll use my city as an example. When I was a young, my small city was divided into three areas: the Christian, the Kurdish and the Muslim neighbourhoods. The people lived next to each other peacefully for hundreds of years. We liked the Christians very much, my best teacher was a Christian. The Iranian Revolution brought about political change and with it a total instrumentalisation of religion that spawned extremism and hate. Groups were formed that only tried to get their message across through violence. In Kurdistan, there’s a strong civil society. The young generation is against this instrumentalisation of religion but it has no power to change it.

The turn towards religion is understandable from a psychological point of view. If there’s no trust in the political system, no feeling of national identity, then religion is many people’s only home. Disappointment is another reason why people often escape into religion. I repeat over and again that what religion is doing today is related to these political aspects, not with the nature of religion itself.

In my lecture, I talked about the constant fear that refugees carry with them. People may turn to religion as a way of escaping this immense fear. They are scared of the West, of the future, of their past. They don’t know where to go. and then religion appears and offers fake but attractive consolation.

You said in your lecture that when someone talks about flight, they’re also talking about homelessness. Will refugees always be displaced?

I think I can say yes to that. You lose your home, a very holy place. This place we’ve lost is always in our memories, but it remains inaccessible because you can’t find it in Europe. The sense of being lost then deepens. Integration can even intensify this feeling, as integration, for example here in Germany, is a never-ending process. But even my daughter who was born here is still being asked where she’s from. This question stays forever and is not always an innocent one, very often it’s fraught with prejudice. I went with my daughter to register her at the driving school. She said she was currently studying for her Abitur [general qualification for university entrance]. She was asked: “Would you like to answer in German or Arabic?” My daughter can’t speak a word of Arabic. She said: “I’m doing my Abitur and right now I’m talking to you in German.” Maybe it’s unconscious, but it’s still the way she’s treated. Integration is a never-ending process. You can never achieve it. Just like this lost place, integration is a lost aspiration. The unachievable is always there. This is why I say that a refugee can never achieve what he or she is seeking to achieve.

How would you define ‘homeland’? Has Germany become a second homeland for you?

I don’t have a homeland and as a matter of fact I’d like to live without one. I’d like to accept this lack of a homeland as reality and define the world as my home. Literature has also given me my own home. I looked for this sense of being lost in my books. In many of my stories, there’s a utopian place where beauty is preserved and justice is protected. In my stories, these places are not unrealistic.

In your homeland, Iraqi Kurdistan, you’re a very esteemed and much-read author. You’ve been living in Germany since the middle of the 90s. One of your books is now being published in German for the first time. Do you see yourself as a voice for people in your homeland? How does it feel to write from a distance?

When I came to Germany, I had to make a decision: either I learn a high standard of German or I write in Kurdish. I thought that because Germany already had so many great authors and so much meaningful literature that it didn’t need me. Our society in Kurdistan needed new ideas, however. A generation of authors, I’m just one of them, wanted to change something, and we did it. I’m very deeply touched by the reactions to my work. I talked to an old friend on the telephone a week ago. We hadn’t spoken for a long time and when I asked him to do something for me, he said: “I’ll do anything for you. You’ve saved my life. Your books have given me clarity. Without you, I’d probably have landed in IS.”

Literature and art can make a big difference. Good literature also changed me. I’ve always tried to do something for our society. If I’d written in Arabic, for example, I’d have achieved recognition more quickly, but I write in Kurdish not for nationalistic reasons but because I believe I can make a difference there. The language and the people there need to be supported.

If I didn’t live in Germany, I wouldn’t have been able to write everything I have written. I may have written a few books, because I’ve always written, but to write 26 books in 13 to 15 years would have been a major challenge. It’s great that the novel Der letzte Granatapfel has been translated into German. English translations of a few of my books will also be published soon too.

Can you visit your homeland again today? How has it changed in the past 10 years?

Yes, It has changed a lot. I can go there but I don’t go often, generally only when I’m publishing a book or visiting my family. As a matter of fact, authors and journalists have always enjoyed a lot of freedom in Sulaymaniyah, my city. You can say everything, unfortunately you just can’t do it. That’s the problem. [He laughs] And that’s just as bad as dictatorship: say whatever you want but do what I want.

Der letzte Granatapfel was published in its original language in 2002. The story tells of the release of the former Peshmerga fighter Muzaferi Subhdam who goes in search of his son. His journey finally leads him to the West, crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a boat. This makes you think of the many people who are escaping today, but it’s also a reminder that there has also been refugee movement in the past.

I was actually skeptical about this book being translated because I thought it had too much local colour. I initially thought that no one would read this story because it was specifically concerned with the history of Northern Iraq and that it would be very difficult to understand here. I also thought that readers would maybe think that it was the kind of story you’d read in The Arabian Nights. [He laughs] The book was very positively received, however, and was in its third edition within three months. I hadn’t expected that. There’s a group of elite readers in Germany who are very intelligent and really understand what literature means, and they give very good observations and feedback.

Köln 2016. Foto: Hannah Newbery
The cover of the first novel of Bachtyar Ali recently published in German – „Der letzte Granatapfel“, translated by Ute Cantera-Lang and Rawezh Salim. Photo: Hannah Newbery

Why has it taken so long for one of your books to be translated into German?

I write in the Kurdish dialect Sorani. The problem was always finding a good translator to do it. The fact that a book was finally translated was a chance occurrence, as there was a young Austrian studying at translation school. He had to select a text in Sorani to translate. He said he would try it with Bachtyar Ali, our best author. [He laughs] And this was a successful attempt.

And this is the only reason the book was translated into German?

Yes. [He laughs] I was in constant contact with the translator. He sent me a chapter, and I would say: “OK, very good, carry on.” He has an Austrian girlfriend and he did everything very, very well with her. And it worked. When they were done, they said they wanted to try to get the translation published. It was very difficult to find a publisher, as Kurdish literature in general and myself as an author were completely unknown here. They suggested that we start by sending the translation to just one publishing house, the Unionsverlag. I said: “OK, let’s try it.” And some days later we got a message back from them: “We definitely want this book! Please send us the whole text!” [He laughs]

Two more of my books have already been translated into German, one by a different translator who lived in Switzerland for a long time but is currently in Kurdistan. The other book is very important to me, this one here. [He gets up, goes to the bookshelf and points to a thick volume] This one was translated into English and has now been translated into German. This is in my view my best novel. It’s called Die Stadt der weißen Musiker (The City of White Musicians).

What type of city is that?

It’s a fictional city but it’s actually about Saddam Hussein’s campaign to annihilate the Kurds and Shiites, about the history of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and afterwards. It will be published in German next year by Unionsverlag.

Will you continue to write in Sorani? Or do you think at some point you only write in Arabic?

I’ve always tried writing in Arabic. I wrote a few poems in Arabic that were very well received by Arabic-speaking poets and critics. Most of my books have also been translated into Persian and have been very successful. Der letzte Granatapfel, for example, was in its 17th edition within three years in Iran. But my main language remains Kurdish.

The other peoples – Arabs, Persians and Turks – have never believed in Kurdish or even Kurdish-language literature. The fact that the Persian translation of a Kurdish book is so popular among Persian people is a normalisation of the relationship between the two peoples in my opinion. It’s very important, also politically.

It used to be said of Kurds that they lived in the mountains and all they could do was dance and sing, nothing else. Then Kurdish language emerges as a literary language and that was very important for the Kurds and for their relationship with other peoples.

It’s great that lots of Arabic publishers are also getting in touch with me to translate my books.

What is your impression of the current mood in German society?

 The mood has obviously changed. I’d never had a bad experience with Germans in Germany, no racist remarks. I even had a Nazi friend who was really nice to me. He always said: “Yes, I’m a Nazi but you’re my friend.” [He laughs]

But since last year something has changed. For the first time in 18 years I’ve noticed that there are people who see us as inferior and who intentionally try to hurt us. That’s a shame. I’d never been insulted on the street before, but it has already happened to me twice this year, here in Cologne. That’s a new phenomenon for me. And you know that Cologne is actually a very, very warm-hearted and open city. You can say that people here have a cosmopolitan mindset. But nevertheless there’s now this heavy rejection and that obviously has something to do with the current refugee situation. And there are obviously political forces that try to exploit this and win more votes, to create more panic. I think extremists have the same language everywhere: in the East they’re always talking about the danger of Americanisation and Europeanisation, and about their noble Arabic, eastern values. And if you read statements from Pegida and AfD, it’s the same language just the other way around. [He laughs] You only have to turn the values around but the mindset of extremists in the East and those in the West is exactly the same.

We’re faced with the problem that despite globalisation, despite the fact the world has become smaller and peoples and cultures are moving closer together, political forces are trying to limit themselves to their ‘monoculture’. That’s simply impossible. Scientific development prevents us from going back to the past. Today, one event in one place often influences the entire world. You can’t ignore that. We’re no longer in the 19th century when something happened in one part of the world but didn’t touch other parts of the world. We have to change our thinking and get away from purely nation-state thinking.


Bachtyar Ali, was born in Sulaymaniyah in 1960. He is one of the most well-known Kurdish authors and poets from Iraqi Kurdistan. Due to his involvement in the student protests in 1983, he came into conflict with the dictatorship Saddam Husseins. He has been living in Germany since the mid-1990s. His work consists of novels, poems and essays. “Der letzte Granatapfel” (The Last Pomegranate) is the first of his books to be translated into German. Further books of Bachtyar Ali are being translated into German, Englisch and Arabic.

Translation: Nickolas Woods