Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Hashem AHMADZADEH


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

In Search of a Kurdish Novel that Tells us Who the Kurds Are

By Hashem AHMADZADEH (*)




The novel as a genre has often been presented as the literary manifestation of modernity. It is in this literary genre that some of the main components of modernity - for example rationalism, individualism, and nationalism - are most prominent. While the history of the novel in Europe goes back to the first decade of the 17th century, though its main development occurs in the 18th century, the emergence of such a literary discourse can hardly be traced before the 20th century in the Middle Eastern literatures. But the history of the Kurdish novel is even shorter - a clear sign of the socio-political condition of the Kurds during a period in which the penetration of modernisation challenged the traditional norms of life in the Middle East. The emergence of nation-states in the Middle East, mostly because of their ethnic based foundations, could not ease the way of the Kurds towards the achievements of a modern society. The whole 20th century witnessed the various levels of a denying policy towards the Kurds, conducted by the newly formed nation states which governed different parts of Kurdistan. As a result the emergence of the Kurdish novel was hampered by various political and social barriers and any expectation for the existence of a powerful Kurdish novelistic discourse is not realistic. Nevertheless, despite its delayed rise, the Kurdish novel established its existence towards the end of the 20th century. The achievements of Kurdish nationalism in the dawn of the 21st century also include a certain development of the Kurdish novel, which demands a profound study concerning its characteristic features. This article, based on a review of the published Kurdish novels, aims to consider whether the Kurdish novel, in accordance with the literary requirements of the genre, has been successful in representing the Kurds and their identity.


The question of identity and literary discourse

This search for the Kurdish novel necessarily involves the question of identity. But when talking about identity in the world, in Bauman’s words, everything is elusive. Globalisation, with its radical effects on all aspects of humankind, has made earlier straightforward approaches towards the issue of identity more problematic and complicated. Concerning the emergency and centrality of identity in our current world, Bauman asserts that “only a few decades ago ‘identity’ was nowhere near the centre of our thoughts, remaining but an object of philosophical mediation. Today, though, ‘identity’ is ‘the loudest talk in town’, the burning issue on everybody’s mind and tongue.”[i] Bauman’s works during the last decade are mostly dealing with globalisation and its consequences for the question of identity. Vecchi, in his introduction to the interviews that he has made with Bauman, mentions that Bauman perceives globalisation as a “‘great transformation’ that has affected state structures, working conditions, interstate relations, collective subjectivity, cultural production, daily life and relations between the self and the other.”[ii] Given this general tableau of globalisation, one can only wonder about the condition of an already denied, suppressed and marginalized stateless nation like the Kurds, who through the whole modern era of the Middle East have swung between the twin poles of oppression and liberation: oppressed by the ‘others’; always  hoping to be liberated by the ‘self’.

It must be emphasised that identify is by no means static, but an ongoing process, “a process never completed.”[iii] Another important aspect concerning identity is its constructed nature. “[I]dentity has the ontological status of a project and a postulate. To say ‘postulated identity’ is to say one word too many, as neither there is nor can there be any other identity but a postulated one.”[iv] It has different markers and various dimensions. Everyone possesses, for instance, both personal and group identities. Parekh defines a community’s identity as “a cluster of interrelated and relatively open-ended tendencies and impulses pulling in different directions and capable of being developed and balanced in different ways.”[v] One of the politically and culturally constructed types of identity that is most often referred to is national identity. Although national identity usually refers to an identity that is constructed and formed within the boundaries of a nation-state, one cannot limit it solely to such an entity. For Parekh, national identity is first of all identification with “a particular community based on a shared loyalty”.[vi] Stateless nations or in other words nations-as-people also share common characteristics with certain components differentiating them from other nations. An important aspect of identity, both individual and collective, is its dependence on “the other”. In other words, there is no independent identity without taking into account its difference from the identity of the others. The creation of “the other” as a necessity of constructing one’s own identity has widely been referred to. For Hall “identities are constructed through, not outside, difference”.[vii]    

Bauman argues that the classical patterns of the mutual affiliation of state and nation and their marriage are no longer relevant. For him the earlier established and postulated national identity and its subordination to the nation-state are drifting “slowly yet steadily”, toward being “semi-detached couples.”[viii] However, Bauman’s ideas generally reflect European experiences and the process of building the European Union - consequently a European identity, in turn reflecting his own personal fate: his Jewish background in Poland; later on his being forced to live in ‘exile’ in England. One can argue that the inhabitants of the Middle East, with their experience of so-called nation-states which were and are far from liberal and democratic values, and the destiny of ethnic minorities, do not follow the European experience. Hence, the puzzle of identity has its own peculiarities which make the question of “who you are” a central one, not only in the personal level, but also in the national level. In fact, the question of “where you come from” and “who you are” are central questions that the Kurds face in their daily life. Any suggested answer to these questions is problematic. The fact that identity is far from being an essentialist phenomenon makes it a subject for constructivist projects.


‘[I]identity’ is revealed to us only as something to be invented rather than discovered; as a target of an effort, ‘an objective’; as something one still needs to build from scratch or to choose from alternative efforts and then to struggle for and then to protect through yet more struggle”.[ix]


It seems to me that the peoples of the Middle East still need a process of democratisation for identifying themselves based on their own will. Kurdish nationalist movements, alongside other democratic movements in the Middle East, can play a significant role in this process.

Heidegger pointed out that in the modern era “man becomes the measure and the centre of being”.[x] It is not accidental that the emergence of the novel coincides with this same era of man’s being. Hence, the works of early novelists, e.g. Cervantes, Fielding, Richardson, and Defoe emerge during a period in which the philosophical grounds of modernity is formed by the philosophers such as Descartes and Locke. Kundera rightly refers to the 18th century “not only of Rousseau, of Voltaire, of Holbach” but also “the age of Fielding, Sterne, Goethe, Laclos”.[xi]

Literary discourse, especially the narrative discourse, has played a crucial role in creating the bases for enabling the members of the nation to imagine their communion and performing a “deep, horizontal comradeship”. Huxley’s emphasis on the role of the novelists as the inventors of their nations, shows the tight relationship between the literary discourse and the idea of the nation.[xii] Novelistic discourse can function as a reliable tool for studying various aspects of social and individual life in  a given society during a certain period. Literary theory since the 1980s has regarded literary works as sources which have political and social functions.[xiii] The importance of fiction for the building of identity originates from the fact that ‘identity’ is far from being a factual or natural phenomenon:


The idea of ‘identity’, and a ‘national identity’ in particular did not gestate and incubate in human experience ‘naturally’, did not emerge out of that experience as a self evident ‘fact of life’. That idea was forced into the lebenswelt of modern men and women – and arrived as a fiction.[xiv]


The crucial role of the literary discourse in shaping identities is widely acknowledged. The fact that the Kurds lack their own state, makes the application of national identity somehow problematic. National identity is mostly characterised by subjective elements, which in their turn are partly invented and postulated by the nation-state. In the absence of a Kurdish nation-state what we mostly observe as a common identity among the Kurds is first and foremost an ethnic one, which signifies “allegiance to a group with which one has ancestral links.”[xv] Acquiring a group identity that is not based on the ethnic peculiarities, but on democratic and subjective ones, in the absence of the instrumental institutions and organisations of a nation state requires multidimensional plans, including political, ideological and cultural prospects. Literary discourse, especially the novelistic discourse is among the most influential tools that is needed for reaching such an objective. 

The question of identity and the manner in which it is acquired is one of the main inquiries of modern thinking. Literature, especially the novel, is a discourse which provides a basis for tracing the construction of identity. Peterson maintains that the novel can be a genre in which the struggle for cultural identity is the most prominent.[xvi] Culler rightly points out the importance of the novel in terms of the question of identity:


Literature has always been concerned with questions about identity, and literary works sketch answers, implicitly or explicitly, to these questions. Narrative literature especially has followed the fortunes of characters as they define themselves and are defined by various combinations of their past, the choice they make, and the social forces that act upon them. Do characters make their fate or suffer it? Stories give different and complex answers.[xvii]


The rise and development of the novel in the European context shows its mutually interrelated  connection with other political and social factors. The emergence of the novel is linked to the various socio-political and epistemological changes during the 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time the novel itself had been regarded as a medium which narrates and represents the outcome of these changes in a certain society. The novel, according to a strict definition is “a picture of real life and manners, and of the time in which it is written.”[xviii] The importance of successful novels in representing their contextual space and time is widely accepted. As examples one can name the works of Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Austen,  and Gustave Flaubert. These novelists’ works have played an important role in revealing the characteristic features of the societies they are dealing with. Their works have not only been the source of inspiration and identification for their own societies, they have also become literary masterpieces worldwide. In the non-western context the art of the novel, despite its later emergence, has had the same function. The works of Iranian Sadeq Hedayat, Turkish Orhan Pamuk, Egyptian Nagib Mahfuz, and Nigerian Chinua Achebe provide their native and universal readers with an authentic artistic picture of their nations. Hedayat’s Blind Owl depicts the tragic outcomes of the modern era alongside the existential plight of being an Iranian. In Pamuk’s Snow the political situation in Turkey and its immediate impact on the inhabitants of this country are comprehensively shown. Mahfuz’s novels provide the reader with deeply detailed information about the Egyptians and their ways of life and thought. What can show the consequences of colonialism in Africa better than Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? The question here is whether there is such a representative Kurdish novel available? 


The Kurdish novel: a general review

In order to asses the contribution of the Kurdish novel to the idea of Kurdish identity a review of the formation of such a discourse is needed. However, in the limited frame of this article such a review is restricted to a very general one.[xix] Prior to the 20th century, when the Kurds were subjects of the Ottoman and Qajar Empires, the dominant identities within the political space of these Empires were tribal and religious. It is not accidental that the famous Kurdish classical poets such as Nali, Talebani and Mehvi wrote not only in Kurdish but also in Arabic and Persian. At he end of the 19th century and later during the 20th century, the question of language plays an important role as an identity-making factor. The nationalist reading of the classical Kurdish texts is a part of the nationalist discourse that begins to emerge during the same period. The nationalist reading of Ahmad-e Khani’s Mem u Zin, which was written in 1695, is the most conspicuous example. During the late 19th and arly 20th centuries “Kurdish nationalism in the Ottoman Empire started to assume modern tendencies, such as the presence of a rising urban nationalist elite, organisation of political parties, and nationalist publications.”[xx] However, it took decades until the first Kurdish novel emerged, not within the Ottoman or Qajar Empires, but in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the lack of a politically and culturally constructed nationwide Kurdish identity is most of all visible in the history of the emergence and development of the Kurdish novel. A general review of the Kurdish novel shows its fragmented character. As far as the earlier literary traditions are considered the Kurdish novel did not have any access to a rich prosaic  discourse. Before the modern era Kurdish literature was mainly a poetic discourse with a highly mystical, lyrical and epical content. However, the fact that the Kurds have been mostly polyglot meant that Kurdish novelists used the official language of those countries where they live in as their medium of acquainting themselves with the art of the novel. In some occasions theses languages were even used as the language of producing the novel. Prominent writers such as Salim Barakat, Yahsar Kemal and Ibrahim Yunesi belong to a generation of Kurds who published their novels in the official languages of the governing states. The main theme of these novels are about the Kurds. But the fact that they are not written in Kurdish has produced a debate in Kurdish intellectual circles as to whether they can be considered Kurdish literature. This debate can even question the works of those Kurds who live in the diaspora and write in languages rather than Kurdish. For me, since they mainly deal with Kurdish issues, they can be classified as ‘Kurdish literature in other languages’ - even if these works are not written in Kurdish.[xxi]

For political and ideological reasons the first Kurdish novels appeared among the Kurmanji speaking Kurds in the former Soviet Union in early 1930s. But it took some decades until a few of those novels which were published in the former Soviet Union were transcribed or translated into the Sorani dialect. The political restrictions imposed by the nation-states that governed the Kurds prevented any continuity in the development of the Kurdish novel . Even today the development of the Kurdish novel suffers from the lack of a common readership. This means for example that novels in Kurmanji, not only because of dialect differences but also because of different orthographies, do not find readers among the Sorani speaking Kurds - and vice versa. In fact, the novelistic discourse of these two major dialects has developed without an considerable influence on each other.[xxii] As the Kurdish novels which were published in the former Soviet Union were generally not accessible for Kurds beyond the Soviet border, they could not become a source of cultural capital for the further development of the Kurdish novel. Thus, each part of Kurdistan went its own way as far as the rise of the novel is considered. A further major impediment for the development of Kurdish novel has been the lack of a promising market. It is only during the last few years that the Kurds have had a real chance freely to publish books in Kurdish. The flourishing of Kurdish publications in Iraqi Kurdistan, mostly with official sponsoring of the major political parties in Kurdistan, shows the importance of political and economic facilities for the development of publishing, especially the novel. In 2005 a publishing house in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ranj, published Bakhtyar Ali’s The City of White Musicians in 10000 copies. This high number is quite promising. At the same time it was the first time a Kurdish novelist officially received a clear cut percentage of the price of his novel.     

Based on the date of its publishing, Peshmerge (Partisan) is the first Kurdish novel in Sorani to be written by a Kurd from Iranian Kurdistan who lived in the former Soviet Union. The book was published in 1961 in Baghdad. Ibrhaim Ahmad’s Jani Gal (Suffering of People) was first published in 1972 in Iraqi Kurdistan.  It is interesting to note that both of these authors were politicians involved in the Kurdish nationalist movement. The main themes of their novels deal with national liberation and the hard way towards achieving it. Even the names of these novels show their deep affiliation with the national question. For years these two novels were rare examples of the Kurdish novel in Sorani. In Iranian Kurdistan the Kurdish novel only developed in the 1990s. But the Kurdish diaspora has functioned as a golden opportunity for the development of the Kurdish novel. The publication of the first Kurdish (Sorani) novel in the diaspora shows the importance of the Kurdish diaspora for both rise and the development of the Kurdish novel. In fact, the Kurds from Turkey could not have published any novel but for the privileges of the diaspora. Since the 1990s there have been some Kurdish novels published even in Turkey. Now in the early years of the third millennium the list of Kurdish novels contains approximately 200 titles. Bearing in mind the socio-political condition of the Kurds, this is a relatively good record. Nonetheless, the quality of these novels is a matter of concern. Among the published Kurdish novels one can find some, from the literary and artistic point of view, that are relatively successful. But comparing them with the achievements of the novel in an international level, the Kurdish novel has still a long way to go. The dominant theme in the Kurdish novel is still a national one and the traces of statelessness are easy to find.[xxiii] This is perhaps against the major trend of the recent developments of the novel in the Western context, which is deeply influenced by the consequences of globalisation. Showalter, in her introduction to A Literature of Their Own, twenty years after its first publication, argues that:


With the globalization of culture, moreover, the national boundaries of the novel are fading and disappearing. Was Sylvia Plath a British or an American writer? Can the influence of Toni Morrison fail to affect the novel in Europe? The distinctions of nationality and culture I meant to imply in the title of A Literature of Their Own are no longer as sharp as they were only twenty-five years ago.[xxiv]


However, the national boundaries are still present in the Kurdish novel, and the main themes of the Kurdish novel show its deep affiliation with the question of national identity. The Kurdish novel has not been successful in combining native questions with universal ones. While some of them hardly overcome the traditional patterns of narrative, some of them imitate internationally recognised schools of narration techniques. Some of the Kurdish novelists have been ambitious enough to touch on ontological and existential questions. But these ambitious steps have not always been accompanied by a proper language able to deal with such issues. Vocabulary and structure have been deficient. The language of some of these novels is mostly the language of romance, which, contrary to the language of the novel, is lofty, elevated, poetic and epic. The events of some of the Kurdish novels remind the reader of Wellek’s definition of the romance which “describes what never happened nor is likely to happen.”[xxv] The limited dialogue in such novels is far from being personalised according to the speaker’s characteristic features. The characters of such novels lack their own individuality and mostly represent social types.        


My father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan

In search of a literary work that provides a real base for saying who the Kurds are, I have found the prominent work of Hiner Saleem, My father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan to be  the most promising and successful work.[xxvi] This book has been labelled as a ‘memoir’ by its publisher, and might therefore be thought to be beyond the scope of this article. But despite the ‘memoir’ category imposed on Hiner Saleem’s book, either by the author or the publisher, the book shares many novelistic elements and features. Had not it been distinguished as a memoir by the publisher there is no doubt that many scholars would have evaluated it as a novel. Memoir or autobiography has often been considered as the ancestor of the novel.[xxvii] Interestingly enough that the narrator of the book, i.e. Azad, does not share a common name with the author, i.e. Hiner. Here, it is necessary to bear in mind the problematic nature of the definition of the novel. Indeed, the difficulties of defining the novel, even in the case of European discourse, where the tradition of the novel in comparison to the non-European discourse is well established, has sometimes led to very pragmatic and functionalist criteria. In his critical guide to The British Novel, Massie, facing the problem of a competent definition of the novel, tries to adapt a non-literary criterion for regarding a work as a novel. “There is no satisfactory definition of a novel. Books have been published as novels in one country and as non-fiction in another. I have concluded it is sensible to consider a book as a novel if its publisher has offered it as such.”[xxviii]

Even if we accept the book as a memoir, we can easily distinguish it from the established generic features of such a genre. Like many other Kurdish memoirs and autobiographies it is dominated by political events. At the same time Saleem’s book is not less novelistic than the most of the novels that have been written by Ereb Shemo, the father of the Kurdish novel. In fact the first Kurdish novel, Shivane Kurmanca (The Kurdish shepherd), published in 1935 in Yerevan, is nothing more than Ereb Shemo’s memories.[xxix]

The book narrates the story of a boy who is born in Aqre, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the early 1960s and grows up there . In the late 1970s when he is 17 years old he leaves Kurdistan by crossing the borders between Iraq and Syria. The book was originally written in French and has been translated into twenty languages. It has been reviewed in numerous newspapers and journals throughout the world and in France it became a best seller. At the very beginning of the book we read the author’s quite concise and comprehensive presentation of himself. In fact this is generally an excellent presentation of the Kurds in which the imposed identities are clearly presented:


My name is Azad Shero Selim. I am Selim Malay’s grandson. My grandfather had a good sense of humour. He used to say he was born a Kurd, in a free country. Then the Ottomans arrived and said to my grandfather, ‘You’re Ottoman,’ so he became Ottoman. At he fall of the Ottoman Empire, he became Turkish. The Turks left and he became a Kurd again in the kingdom of Sheikh Mahmoud, king of the Kurds. Then the British arrived, so my grandfather became a subject of His Gracious Majesty and even learned a few words of English. (p. 1)


Azad refers to the linking of the Southern Kurdistan to the newly forming Iraq and making the Kurds of this part of Kurdistan Iraqis, an event that was never welcomed by the Kurds:


The British invented Iraq, so my grandfather became Iraqi, but this new word, Iraq, always remained an enigma to him, and to his dying breath he was never proud of being Iraqi; nor was his son, my father, Shero Selim Malay. But me, Azad, I was still a boy. (p. 1) 


The happy childhood days when Azad used to play with his cousin Cheto and his show pigeons soon pass and the murder of seven members of Azahd’s family by the collaborators, serves to announce a new world full of fighting and dilemmas.

 The artistic aspect of the book is remarkable. Comparing Azad’s reference to himself in the first page of the book with his last words in the last page shows his aesthetic approach. When he presents his ancestors and the identities imposed on them, he refers to himself as “still a boy”, who cannot understand the things well. At the time that he is crossing the borders between Iraq and Syria to go on his life in exile, he asserts that “I was no longer a boy”. These simple but profound sentences remind us of Hemingway’s style. Even content wise it is a reminder of Hemingway’s ‘Indian Camp’ in which a little boy follows his father, who is an physician doctor, to an Indian camp where he is due to perform a surgery. When they are crossing a river by canoe the boy touches the water and he feels that it is cold. However, when they return home, he, touching the water again, feels that it is warm. This is a metaphoric expression of being experienced after witnessing the tragic events in the camp.

Hiner Saleem’s story at the same time can be compared with Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City. While Orhan, being interested in painting and dreaming to become a painter, chooses to become a writer, Hiner who has the same interest and dream, chooses cinema and film making. If Khalid Hosseini’s Kite Runner and Asne Scierstod’s The bookseller of Kabul inform the reader about he experienced tragedies by the Afghans, Hiner Saleem’s My Father’s Rifle tells the rarely told story of the Kurds during the 1960s and 1970s.

In Hiner Saleem’s short book, one can find various social, cultural, political, and traditional aspects of Kurdish life: victory, defeat, hope, disappointment, betrayal, honour killing, collaboration, rural life, Peshmerge, humour, love, death, tribal structure, charismatic leadership, loyalty, childhood, modernisation, Kurdishness, totalitarianism, suppression, exile, bombardment, the mountains, linguicide, uprising, nepotism, and Kurdish nationalism with its transnational character. In short the book can be considered as a documentation of the daily life in Kurdistan. However, more interesting than what it says is how it is said. It is the literary, artistic and stylistic features of this well written book that draw the attention of the reader. Its poetic and eloquent language is fascinating. Some cinematic and precisely visual sights in the book suggest the author’s expertise as a film maker. The lean prose, simple language, clear structure and metaphoric character of the book all contribute to the success of the story and the satisfaction of the reader.

 The repetition of some central themes in the book has given it a harmonious, rhythmic and musical quality. Focusing on his childhood and his naive look on the terrible and tragic events, he, now and then, reminds us that “but I was still a boy.”  “We took the road of exile” (p. 70). “We were refugees” (p. 71). Here and there we share his enthusiastic perception of the Kurdish national anthem: “Oh my friends, be assured the Kurdish people are alive and nothing can bring down their flag.”[xxx] When Azad lives in a mountainous village where the families of Kurdish guerrillas live he falls in love with a girl, Jiyan (the name means ‘life’). After leaving her village Azad never sees her again. However, he now and then remembers her and refers to her as “the love of my life, … the girl who had given me the torch” (p. 131). Among Azad’s observations we can se his frequent references to the Kurds from other parts of Kurdistan who have joined the liberation movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. When Azad is passing the borders between Syria and Iran a Syrian Kurdish man who has helped him keeps looking at Azad and tells him: “We’re Kurds, right? We’re brothers, right? We’ll be free, right?” (p. 140)

Azad’s father’s rifle and several references to it gives a humorous and sometimes ironical feature to the story. His father’s claim that his Brno “was so precise he could hit a cigarette butt from a distance of eleven hundred yards”  (p. 14), fits the structure of the story and in some cases reminds us of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The father’s belief that within one year Kurdistan will obtain independence, his conviction that the Kurds have hidden their aeroplanes in the mountains and they could one day respond and attack the enemies’ aeroplanes are among the satirical points that punctuate the book. Getting disappointed by the constant attacks of Iraqi aeroplanes on the Kurds, he now and then shows his sadness by referring to the common belief about the hidden aeroplanes. He frequently raises this question: “When will our aeroplanes be called in?” (p. 70) The way that he refers to the bitter fact that there are no Kurdish aeroplanes, gets a melodramatic tone. “And still our planes didn’t fly from our clandestine airports” (p. 66). Azad’s description of his school and the dominance of Arabic in the teaching system, a language that Azad cannot understand, his unfulfilled longing to study in Kurdish, sometimes result in tragic and comic events. At low points, the only source of hope is the charismatic leader, General Barzani, to whom Azad’s father works as Morse code operator or in Azad’s father’s own words “General’s personal operator.”

Reading books of George Bernard Shaw, Regis Debray, Gorky, Sartre, Jack London, and Nehru clandestinely is a part of Azad’s struggle to keep “our crazy dream of Kurdish independence” (p. 94) alive. On some occasions we see Azad’s doubt about the fighting method of the Kurds. Once in the late 1970s Azad and one of his cousins decided to join the partisans. They were guided by a villager, Khidir, to find the partisans in the mountains. As they were waking in the mountains, they noticed that a bird was flying above them for some time. The villager tells them the story of the bird:


Then Khidir began telling us the story of the bird. ‘In the age of Solomon, two sisters lost sight of each other. In their search for one another, they changed into birds and flew all over the sky …’ Ever since, it has been said that the bird flying over us is one of the sisters, eternally seeking her sibling. He spoke of the grief of the two sisters changed into birds, and deeply believed in his story. (pp. 112-113)


Hearing this story, Azad feels so sad:


As I watched him, I was overcome by pity. How could a people so naïve ever liberate themselves in the days of Henry Kissinger and Andrei Gromyko, the most cynical politicians of the century? The bird triggered something in my mind. Suddenly I no longer believed in our fighting methods. (p. 113) 


The traces of becoming a film maker is a red thread in Azad’s story. Whenever he encounters problems he wishes to bring them to the screen. “I longed to watch television” (p. 49). Watching the Arabic and sometimes Indian films on television, his resolve gets stronger and stronger. “I vowed that one day I would make that machine [television] speak Kurdish” (p. 50). The tragic events that were happening in Kurdistan motivate him to be sure that “[s]omeday, I would bring Kurds to the screen” (p. 74).[xxxi]  

My Father’s Rifle successfully tells us who the Kurds are and how their life was during two crucial and important decades of the last century, the 1960s and 1970s.



The Kurds, in legitimising their historical roots in the area that they live, and stretching back the history of their struggle for their national rights, including an independent Kurdish state, usually refer to Ahmad-e Khani’s Mem u Zin which was written in 1695. Fortunate in having consensus on such a national masterpiece in the pre-modern era, they are still far from being able to agree on such a representative work in the modern era. The process of modernisation has already challenged the traditional religious, regional and tribal identities among the Kurds, producing movements in favour of a national identity. The Kurdish novel is also a result  and a symptom of these modernisation trends. At the same time Kurdish novel, exposing the power structures in the Kurdish societies, contributes to the building of a Kurdish nationalist identity.[xxxii] Since the late decades of  the last century there have been some important steps taken by Kurdish novelists to contribute to the process of the adoption of a national identity. However, the Kurdish novel still suffers from the lack of a book market. As far as artistic and literary quality are considered, the Kurdish novel has still a long way to go. It needs to achieve a more balanced combination of native and universal aspects. Thus, one can hardly find a Kurdish novel which can successfully, represent the complicated reality of the Kurds. At the same time there is no Kurdish novel translated into English. There are only a few novels translated into German, Swedish and French, and some available in Persian, Turkish and Arabic. It seems to me that there is a pressing need for language reforms; not only to create a common orthographic system, but also to develop the capacity of the Kurdish language to deliver a dialogical narration of the internal world of Kurdish being. Translation of the world’s literary masterpieces into Kurdish is a necessary step to enrich the Kurdish language to face such a challenge. In a globalising world there is a serious need for the Kurds to find their voice in that world. Translating successful Kurdish novels into at least the English language is an important and pressingly necessary step towards presenting to the wider world the biggest ethnic group in the world that lacks its own nation state.



Endnotes and references

[i] Bauman, Zygmunt, Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi, Cambridge: Polity, 2004, pp. 16-17.

[ii] Vecchi, Benedetto, ‘Introduction’, in Bauman, 2004, opcit. p. 5.

[iii] Hall, Stuart, ‘Introduction: Who Needs ‘Identity’?’ in Stuart Hall & Paul du Gay, Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage Publications, 1996, p. 2.

[iv] Bauman, Zygmunt, ‘From Pilgrim to Tourist – or a Short History’, in Stuart Hall, opcit. p. 19.

[v] Parekh, Bhikhu, ‘Discourses on National Identity’, Political Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 492-504, p. 504.

[vi] Parekh, Bhikhu, ‘Defending National Identity in a Multicultural Society’, in Edward Moretimer & Robert Fine (eds.), People, Nation and State: The Meaning of Ethnicity and Nationalism, London: I. B. Tauris, pp. 66-74, p. 69.

[vii] Hall, Stuart, 1996, opcit, p. 4.

[viii] Bauman, Zygmunt, 2004, opcit. p. 28.

[ix] Bauman, Zygmunt, 2004, opcit. pp. 15-16.

[x] Heidegger, Martin, Nietzsche: Volume IV Nihilism, in  Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche: Volumes Three and Four, trans. From German by Frank A. Capuzzi, Edited, with Notes and an Analysis, by David Farrell Krell, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991, p. 28.

[xi] Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, New York: Grove Press, 1988, p.160.

[xii] Huxley, Aldus, Texts and Pretexts, London: Chatto & Windus, 1959, p. 50.

[xiii] Culler,  Jonathan, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 37.

[xiv] Bauman, Zygmunt, 2004, opcit. p. 20.   

[xv] Crystal, David, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 34.

[xvi] Peterson, Margareta, ‘Om konsten att skriva om världens litteratur’, Karavan, No. 1, 2001, pp. 5-9,  p. 9.

[xvii] Culler, 1997, opcit. p. 112.

[xviii] Wellek, Rene, and Warren, Austin, Theory of literature: A Seminal Study of the Nature and Function of Literature in all its contexts, Penguin Books,  1956, p. 216.

[xix] For a detailed review of the rise and development of the Kurdish novel see Ahmadzadeh, Hashem, Nation and Novel: A Study of Persian and Kurdish Narrative Discourse, Uppsala, Uppsala University, 2003.

[xx] Natali, Denise, The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005, p. 25.

[xxi] For an argument about this issue, see Ahmadzadeh, 2003, opcit. pp. 127-138.

[xxii] In 2002, I organised a conference on the Kurdish novel in Stockholm where I introduced two most famous Kurdish novelists, Mihmed Uzun who lives in Sweden and writes in Kurmanji, and Bakhtyar Ali who lives in Germany and writes in Sorani. They had no knowledge of each other’s works. In recent years some initial efforts have been made to transcribe and translate Kurmanji and Sorani novels into each other.

[xxiii] For a study of the traces of statelessness in the Kurdish novel see my own article, ‘Longing for state in the Kurdish narrative discourse’, in Annika Rabo and Bo Utas (eds.), The Role of the State in West Asia, Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 2005, pp. 63-76.

[xxiv] Showalter, Elaine,  A Literature of Their Own: From Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing , New Edition, London: Virago, 1999, p. xxxiii.

[xxv] Wellek and Austin, opcit. P. 216.

[xxvi] Saleem, Hiner, My Father’s rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, London: Atlantic Books, 2005.

[xxvii] Wellek and Austin, opcit. P. 216.

[xxviii] Massie, Allan, The Novel Today: A Critical Guide to the British Novel 1970-1989, London & New York: Longman, 1990, p. 1.

[xxix] For a study of the reflection of author’s memoirs in Kurdish novel, especially in Shemo’s works, see Christine Alison’s ‘Kurdish Autobiography, Memoir and Novel: ‘Ereb Şemo and his successors’, (forthcoming) to be published in Studies in Persianate Societies. I have also discussed the typical characteristic features of the Kurdish autobiographical and memoir writings in ‘A Review of Kurdish Life-Writing’, The International Journal of Kurdish Studies, Volume 17, Nos. 1 & 2, 2003.

[xxx] It must be mentioned that the translation of the first word of the national anthem is wrong. “Ey reqib” really means “Oh my enemies” not “my friends” as it has been translated several times in the text.

[xxxi] After living in Italy and France since the early 1980s  Hiner Saleem’s dreams were realised and he became a successful film producer. His successful film, Vodka Lemon was awarded San Marco Prize by the Venice Film Festival in 2003. In 2006 his Kilometre Zero was nominated for the Oscar Prize.

[xxxii] For an interesting account of ‘Kurdish identities’ and cultural tool kits, especially in Turkey, see Romano, David, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunities, Mobilization and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp, 101-117.

(*) Lecturer at Exeter University, United Kingdom