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In Iraqi Kurdistan, book clubs and science fiction offer 'escape'
Members of a book club meet to review a novel at a book store in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on April 9, 2021. The eight book clubs that have sprung up in Kurdistan in recent months make a point of giving homegrown authors a platform, and regularly discuss narratives tackling social issues. SAFIN HAMED / AFP.

by Qassim Khidhir

ARBIL (AFP).- Huda Kathem waits anxiously for feedback on her first novel, scrutinised by a book club in Iraqi Kurdistan's Arbil, where young authors are breathing new life into a centuries-old oral culture.

"This is the first time my book is being critiqued," the 17-year-old first-year medical student told AFP.

"I learnt a lot about how to improve my writing and storytelling," she said, adding that comments from other writers, readers and professors had given her "enormous encouragement" to continue.

With a published children's book under her belt, the young author's first novel, titled "Barani Marg" (Death Rain), tells the story of a Kurdish boy who runs away from a broken home and a broken heart to join the army at age 15.

It's a familiar story for more than a few residents of the autonomous northern region of 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 homegrown authors a platform, and regularly discuss narratives tackling social issues.

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

'Enlightenment school'

For Sabah, who has a PhD in journalism from Kansas University, book groups are "the best way to exchange ideas and create a sense of belonging among young people" in the Kurdistan region.

"Every one of these book clubs is an enlightenment school, that creates generations who gain confidence in changing society from the bottom up" in the face of youth poverty, growing unemployment and ingrained conservatism, he said.

"Some youths 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 Sabah's club, agreed.

"Kurdish youths are writing to express their anger and the suffering they are going through, as well as to forget their harsh reality for a brief moment."

An Iraqi passport doesn't open many doors, so many Iraqis "read novels to travel", Faruq said. "We can visit Paris in our imaginations."

Kurdish literature, today mostly published in Sorani and Kurmanji, Iraq's two main dialects, is rarely translated.

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

Heroine of Arbil

Sabah chalked limited translation and promotion of Kurdish literature up to a "lack of political will".

"Many countries allocate a budget to introduce their literature to the outside world, but this has not happened here so far," he said.

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

Each year, it hands out three awards to young Kurdish authors, and it is translating a collection of modern Kurdish poetry into Danish and two novels into Danish, English and Farsi.

"It is extremely difficult and costly to translate and introduce Kurdish literature to the world, but it is a dream and we want to achieve it," Nusyar founder Alan Pary, himself a poet and translator, told AFP.

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

"Life Enders" tackles suicide, a highly taboo, but increasingly common, issue 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 at the end of February, flew off the shelves.

© Agence France-Presse

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