Page last updated at 14:32 GMT, Wednesday, 6 August 2008 15:32 UK

Kurdish novel re-writes rules

Kareem Abdulrahman
Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

A leading novelist's latest work could mark a new era for Kurdish literature.

Book cover
The novel may signal the emergence of writers from the control of politicians

In an unprecedented deal, author Bakhtyar Ali has been paid $25,000 by a publisher in the Kurdish region of Iraq, who has printed 10,000 copies of Ghazalnus and the Gardens of Imagination.

The potential readership for a novel in Kurdish is small. In all, there are between four or five million Kurds in Iraq and literacy rates are very low.

The fee paid to Ali is greater than the annual salary of a senior civil servant, while the most popular Iraqi Kurdish newspaper prints around 12,000 copies daily.

And readers have been willing to pay the equivalent of US $10 for the 600-page novel.

Its publication could spell the end of "vanity" publishing in the region, when authors pay for their books to be printed from their own pockets.


Set at the turn of the 21st century in Kurdistan, the novel explores the relationship between an emerging political elite and intellectuals.

A group of like-minded friends, led by a poet, go on an odyssey to find the bodies of two lovers killed by the authorities.

The plot features elements of fantasy: the poet discovers a land that turns into an infinite garden at night, a group of women living in a shelter to escape domestic violence weave the world's biggest carpet, and a Hollywood film buff leads a group of blind children on an imaginary sea journey.

Bakhtyar Ali
Ali is a prolific writer whose works are bestsellers by Kurdish standards
Bakhtyar Ali claims the novel ends the subordination of Kurdish writers to the will of politicians.

The plot of the novel depicts opposing realms, and opposing interests of poets and politicians.

"Until now, there has been harmony between the essence of poetry and the essence of politics in Kurdish literature," Ali says.

Also a prolific critic, Ali has published five novels to date. He says his novels are now being translated into Arabic, Persian, German and English.

Respected publisher Dar al-Mada says it will fund the Arabic versions.

Political control

Like elsewhere in the Middle East, print runs in Iraqi Kurdistan tend to be small and writers are poorly-paid, hence the trend of vanity publishing for those who can afford it.

Making things more difficult, the government and political parties own most of the publishing houses, which means many books are published because of the writers' political connections, rather than on literary merit.

In this case, the novelist and his publisher hope that the deal will herald the end of government and political party control of the market.

"We want to free the Kurdish intelligentsia from the control of the parties," says Ali's publisher, Tariq Fatih.

Most of Ali's work has been published by the Sulaymaniyah-based Fatih , including his 2005 novel The City of the White Musicians. The work was well received, selling 10,000 copies.

Fatih says the success of Ali's books is prompting other private publishers to strike similar deals.

He is already in talks with other writers, and is proud to have secured a $20,000 deal with renowned Kurdish poet, Sherko Bekas, to publish his complete works.

Ironically, Bekas runs a publishing house in Sulaymaniyah funded by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Kareem Abdulrahman is a journalist and translator with BBC Monitoring.

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