It is a widely accepted truth that the greatest of sailors are not bred in calm waters but on turbulent seas.
This proverb can be equally applied to the craft of writing, for it is often the most arduous and trying of lives that yields the greatest literary treasures. This reality holds particularly true for Kurdish intellectuals, who have had to wage a tireless battle to defend the rights of their people, resulting in an unfortunate history of forced exile.
Jalal Barzanji, a distinguished Kurdish poet and novelist, is a prime example of an artist forged in the crucible of a life filled with struggle and tribulation. His journey from the sunbaked streets of his Kurdish village to the frosty terrain of northern Canada is an account that is both captivating and worthy of attention.
As a master wordsmith, Barzanji has been lauded with countless international awards, an honorary PhD from a Canadian University in Alberta, and has published several books of prose and poetry in both Kurdish and English. In addition to his artistic achievements, he has demonstrated a deep commitment to assisting new migrants in Canada through his collaborative work with various local and international organizations.
Recently, during his visit to Kurdistan, Barzanji shared his story in an exclusive interview with Kurdistan Chronicle. He revealed his struggles, his moments of triumph, and the creative works that have come to define his literary legacy.
Kurdistan Chronicle: How did you start writing and what was the trending literary school back then?
Barzanji: March 11 [the Iraqi–Kurdish Autonomy Agreement of 1970] carried a sort of freedom in its first breath and allowed Kurdish culture and literature to revive, but I cannot determine the time and exact reason why I started writing. I became interested in writing through reading literary works, and I’m sure I dreamed about a more beautiful world to live in. I had something deep inside me that I needed to let out.
Following Stalin’s victory over Hitler, eastern European countries joined the socialist block, and communist parties started emerging around the world, including in countries further east. Back then, the communist party supported writers who wrote socialist realism. Meanwhile, the Kurds were in a situation that required resistance and realism literature. The latter was the side that I chose. I advocate freedom of expression, but I also have my own way to support the rights of my people, which also goes in line with the literary values that I hail in my works.
Paul Valery’s quote “poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking” fascinated me a long time ago. Then I published my first prose poetry titled “Cracked Graveyard” in a student magazine in 1971. Thereafter, my writing themes further expanded to include the complexity of humans’ inner beings, existence, eternity, life, death, and the struggle for a better world.
There was no freedom of expression under the rule of Saddam Hussein. My first collection of poems was rejected twice by the [then Iraqi government’s] ‘literature police’ and was only approved the third time when they cut out some parts. For me, this meant cutting out the sense, distorting the dream, and weakening the construction. While important fragments were missing, I finally decided to publish the collection in 1979 under the title The Dawning of the Evening Snow.
Kurdistan Chronicle: You have been living in exile for decades. What does exile mean to you? When do you feel you are in exile? How can you adjust all the scenes and memories that you have taken from Kurdistan with those you have in exile, and how do you deal with such a delicate realm?
Barzanji: An exile is a person who has been expelled due to their political, social, religious, ethnic, or war views, but migration for seeing new things, a better life, or shirking responsibilities is optional and intentional. Life under Saddam’s authority and then under Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s rule after the Kurdistan Referendum, who imposed an air ban on the Kurdistan International Airports flights, was difficult. I could not return to Kurdistan and felt then like I am in exile. I can now freely travel to Kurdistan and do not feel that way. I am living in the post-migration and being-away stage now, and the pleasure I get from my second country, the travels to my home country, and from my writings has prevented me from feeling tired.
Living in another country does not necessarily mean giving up and capitulating on your language, memory, culture, childhood or the scenes that you have kept in your thoughts; one can take all these things with them and share them with the new place. Whatever I have kept in my thoughts, I have intermingled them with the color from abroad and their reflections are seen in my works. Remoteness from home and land and entering a new geography have changed my poetic path; in my writings I talk about being abroad, looking miserable, and the lack of certain landmarks. I believe if the poet does not get stuck in nostalgia and avoids being lost in romanticism, they can write nice but somehow equivocal poems on this delicate condition.
Kurdistan Chronicle: After nearly half a century, you are still known by The Dancing of the Evening Snow – what secret lies behind that?
Barzanji: The Dancing of the Evening Snow was written differently from the Kurdish style of poetry of that time. I used simple but deep language. I am honest with my feelings. The words freely gushed out, and I tried to set the scenes into their real nature and place.
This collection of poems is paid careful attention by the poetry experts at the University of Alberta in Canada. This university decided to publish a select number of my poems from all six of my collections. After translating the selected poems, they were published in a bulky book. They wanted to select poems from all my collections, and they should have, except from the The Dancing of the Evening Snow.
Kurdistan Chronicle: Emigrating from Kurdistan and starting a difficult life in another country could detach a writer from their pen or force them to write romantically about nostalgia. However, your books have their own readers outside Kurdistan and have become the best-selling books and won prizes. How did that happen?
Barzanji: Throughout my long and delicate journey, and the challenges prior to re-starting my life from scratch in another country that included learning the language, fitting into a new system, finding a job, embracing fatherhood in a new culture, and being away from Kurdistan, I was afraid that these challenges would drive me away from writing, but since my start, writing has been my passion, inclination, and priority. Thus, this has been the dynamo of my continuation. Alongside these, being awarded the title of “First PEN Writer-In-Exile” in 2007 has opened doors for me.
In the course of my time abroad, I have two offices: one in the public library of Edmonton city, Canada, and the other in the University of Alberta, where I wrote The Man in Blue Pyjamas, which was translated into English and published in 2011. Then, another collection of mine named Trying Again to Stop Time was published in English in 2015. These two works have been best-selling books several times and won several prizes.
Afterwards, my relations got wider within the Canadian Writers’ Community, and I became a member of the following organizations: International Writers’ Association, Canadian Poets’ Association, Alberta Province Writers’ Syndicate, Poet’s Walk Community, Edmonton Poetry Annual Festival, and Beyond Borders Writers, and was interviewed by many newspapers and television programs.
Kurdistan Chronicle: Countless books are published in developed countries, out of which there are only a few that gain readers, whereas yours, especially The Man in Blue Pyjamas, was received warmly by readers and became a best-selling book and won prizes. What was the secret behind its popularity?
Barzanji: This book was written visually. It is full of interesting and heart-warming stories and information about the history and culture of Kurdistan and the Middle East. The significance of the book lies in the fact that despite experiencing many misfortunes both as a person and as part of the nation to which I am attached, I lost no balance in narrating these stories with a humane and friendly perspective that steered away from hatred and vengeance. In this book, I also allowed the reader to accompany me and be in the setting during my journey and narration and think throughout as if they were with me.
Kurdistan Chronicle: You have been known as a poet, but how did you start writing novels? And how do you see the differences in expression in these two literary genres?
Barzanji: When I look back at my life, I see that from childhood to adulthood and then to maturity, I have not taken a straight line. I have stepped forward but been returned backwards, i.e. my life has been full of starts and stops, full of fragmented stories, and has been revolving around migration. I was born in a village with no electricity, which is where I learned the simplicity of life. I was seven years old when a school was established in our village for the first time. This was my first inner journey of learning and discerning myself, but that journey was short; it did not complete its full circle as [the Iraqi Army] attacked us and burned our school, village, and dreams. We fled to Erbil with bare and empty hands. This was a migration from an innocent village to a big city that I knew nothing about it. From 1985 to 1988, after having done nothing wrong except for being Kurd, which was a wrongdoing and a crime according to [the Iraqi Army], I spent my life in the dark and unqualified prisons of the Ba’ath regime.
Years were circling around during which many good things happened, such as the Uprising [of the Kurdish against the Ba’ath Regime Authority in the Kurdish areas], clearing the Kurdistan areas from the invading enemy army. There were also unpleasant incidents like the fleeing [because the Iraqi army returned to the Kurdistan areas] and the civil war. I was personally in the fleeing but not in the civil war. From 1996-1997, to cover the distance from continent to continent, I depended on smugglers and reached Canada in 1998.
I restarted life abroad in the freezing temperature of -70 °C, but have continuously visited Kurdistan, my home country, as I do not want my poetic abilities in expressing thoughts and feelings with a prestigious and precise language to fall into disuse and become insufficient. I use words less in my poems and allow the reader to enjoy and merge the reflection of their feelings with the local, but the novel is a different, long genre. In the novel, to move forward and backward between events and narrate them requires a lot of words. Since there are characters, the novelist should know what roles they will give them. Meanwhile, there are also the setting, actions, and conflicts (plot), not to mention the narrator, so the novelist needs to provide details on the events, actions, and answers to the questions with words and take the reader into events. Thus, narrating all these stories and experiencing all these different types of life has made me write novels as well.
Kurdistan Chronicle: Season of Solitude is the oration and biography of the author in a novel frame, but in parts of the discussions, some of the detailed analysis of the historically significant events are referenced. Why does the author think that analyzing these events through the voices and thoughts of the novel’s characters is important?
Barzanji: It is difficult to jump over parts of your life and skip them. Many think that in a biographical novel, the novelist talks about the life stories of other people, but readers still believe that these stories belong to the novelist. When the novelist talks about their own life, even if it is understood as the life of someone else, it gives the novel its formula for understanding. Narrating history, of course, or the catastrophic incidents through the characters’ voices and thoughts is crucial because it gives the novelist more space to stimulate discussion about the novel’s plot, events, actions, and details.
Kurdistan Chronicle: After reading Season of Solitude, the reader acquires a clear vision of the miserable history of Kurds in the area. Why does the author insert both the old and recent history into their story?
Barzanji: Through reading literature or listening to stories, readers want to know the identity and culture of nations. It is through literature that the Holocaust has become understood as the world’s first genocide case. I have realized and learned about life in Russia from the novels of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak and others, rather than from politicians’ writings and works. I am personally among those writers who make their writings full of information and messages, as the Kurdish people have many untold catastrophic stories. Therefore, I blend story and history together and narrate the extraction in the form of drama. In narrating my nation’s history and its tragic incidents, I intend to convey the reality of the incident with a high artistic quality and humane perspective to the world. When I wrote this novel, I took into consideration that it would be translated into English, and thus discussed some historical incidents accurately, so that they might provide extra material for open-minded Kurdish readers.
Kurdistan Chronicle: In Season of Solitude the clocks play an important role. Apart from telling time, do they have any symbolic meaning(s) in the author’s mind?
Barzanji: In the novel’s plot, the main character Shko travels to the North Pole in January and stays alone outside of any time zone on a day when the temperature is -70 °C. The aim of going to that place is to write outside of time zones and noise. In this novel, despite discussing many sensitive problems of the past and today, there is discussion between the human and time and its measurements. Although, for the writer, writing time is different from normal time, later the writer realizes that we are all bound to time and living with others. Perhaps, living that way has its own joy, but a full escape from it is a waste of time itself.
Kurdistan Chronicle: This novel and the author’s other works have proved that after spending decades abroad, the author is still bound not only to the norms and customs of his original people but also to their current barriers and obstacles as well. The geographical distance and being away from Kurdistan for many years have not made you disconnected from Kurdistan. Why is that? Is working at the migration office a reason for having such an uninterrupted spiritual connection or there are other factors?
Barzanji: The reason for my spiritual connection to the land is older than that. My roots are in Kurdistan because this is where I inhaled my first breath of life, started walking, and banked my first memories. Furthermore, my mother lives in Kurdistan. All these are living memories; I have kept them in my thoughts and wherever I go, even if to another planet, I will take them with me and keep them. I must also not forget that my long and delicate journey across countries, continents, and water borders (as a migrant), 23 years of living with the concept of exile, making many travels, and frequently returning to my homeland have influenced and changed the style of my writings, which is reflected in my work. Through a very precise exploration, depth, and clarity in manifestation, I am merging my nation’s story with my personal one in a friendly and humane perspective with a high artistic quality and sharing it with the world without losing myself, except in nostalgia and the present.
Kurdistan Chronicle: How do you view literary translation?
Barzanji: Translating feelings, keeping the aesthetics of poetry and story, and rendering them from a language and culture to another, i.e. reshaping them, is very tactful work. Poetic translation must always convey the original text’s meaning and message, without which there are no other bridges to pass literature beyond borders. Literary translation cannot be word-for-word translation; the translator must master both languages, cultures, and national metaphors; otherwise, the text will be spoiled, and the perception and flavor of the text will be uninspiring.
Kurdistan Chronicle: We have heard that the University of Alberta in Canada has awarded you an Honorary PhD. Could you talk this a little, please?
Barzanji: This is the highest degree that a university annually awards to those who have been creative in literature, science, and law and have influenced others. Although I have been awarded many other prizes before, being awarded this degree by a Canadian university whose ranking is among the world’s highest is worth appreciation.
Kurdistan Chronicle: You have been awarded with merit certificates abroad, but in your recent visit to Kurdistan you were awarded with merit certificates from Kurdistan institutes. How did this make you feel?
Barzanji: Awarding prizes and merit certificates means that others appreciate what you have done, and it is pleasing regardless of who awards it, but when your home country does not value your works, it is displeasing and leaves a gap. This time, the merit certificates came from my home, and the feeling of joy was different. It was another motivating driver to continue in the journey of writing.
Sardar Sattar is a translator and journalist based in the Kurdistan Region. He has an MA in English Studies from the University of Lodz, Poland. He has translated several books and political literature into Kurdish and English. He writes regularly for local and international newspapers and journals.