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Bakhtiyar Ali: Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City)

If any proof was needed that magic realism was not confined to Latin America, this book is it. It is a wonderful, lively, colourful romp through Kurdistan, full of humour, improbable adventures and, yes, magic realism, but, at the same time, with a very serous intent, confronting the political situation in Kurdistan.

The two main themes are the main themes of many a novel, namely death and the imagination. There is an incredibly complicated plot, with lots of different stories, featuring a large cast, which we keep hoping will come together.

Unknown to most Kurds, the country is essentially run by a series of barons. They keep a very low profile so they are not recognised and not even known by name. They make their money in various ways, using a lot of corruption as they work closely with public officials and government ministers. They have strange titles. For example, there is baron of the imagination, a baron of courgettes and baron of chickens.

On the other hand, our heroes are writing a book of the dead, particularly the stories of those who died after the 1991 uprising. There are three main authors, who each give it a different title. One calls it The Book of a Thousand Bodies, another The Garden of Blood and the third Hell’s Notebook. It is, as one of them says a book of sadness and unhappiness, a book that brings grief and old age to its authors and deep, genuine sorrow to its readers. It is a book that, once written, makes us feel we have bidden farewell to many angels and demons in our own souls and opened the door to dark storms, to gardens filled with secrets and the untrodden roads of the darkness in our hearts.

The three main authors are Majid-i Gul Solav, known as the Imaginary Magellan, Bahman Nasser, known as Ghazalnus, and Trifa Yabahri. The term Magellan is used for anyone who has travelled much. (We will later meet a character nicknamed The Real Magellan). Majid-i Gul Solav has never left his country but, in his mind and with a group of blind children, he has travelled the world, primarily the imaginary world, i.e. to places that do not exist in the real world. It is he who first decides the group should look for the barons, aware of the danger that this might bring but also aware that they are key to the many deaths.

Ghazalnus is perhaps the key figure in the book. He is so called because he writes and collects ghazals, a type of lyric poem. Like any good hero, he has a strange birth. He later learns that the poor man who brought him up was almost certainly not his true father. Indeed, his true father may indeed be two people are two sides of the same coin. (He receives a letter from both on their respective deathbeds. Soon after receiving the second one he has an epiphany, which awakes him to the meaning of universal love.) He adopts a child from a woman he does not know as she is dying and sees the child both as his adopted son and as his brother. He becomes, briefly, a teacher of imagination.

Trifa is the third and also has a strange birth. Fawziya is pregnant by her husband, Zahir Agya, and gives birth to a son. Zahir Agya has a difficult sister, Samira. SHe was very jealous of her brother, who was charming and good-looking. As head of the family, Zahir Agya proposed numerous suitors for his sister but she turned all of them down, vowing to never marry. However, when Fawziya became pregnant, after several years of trying, Samira became pregnant, too, though she maintained she was still a virgin. Fawziya produced Jawhar, who turned out to be a thoroughly obnoxious human being, while Samira produced Trifa. To avoid shame for the family, it was decided that Trifa would be seen as a twin of Jawhar and she was brought up as such. Fawziya clearly preferred Trifa. When the two grew up, Zahir Agya died and Jawhar inherited. He turned violent and threatened to kill both his mother and Trifa. Trifa fled and ended up in a carpet factory.

The carpet factory was fairly successful but Trifa brought a new dimension. She created wonderfully imaginative carpets which were very successful and also had a huge and positive influence on the staff. This, inevitably, attracts the attention of the barons, particularly the Baron of Imagination.

Another key character is Attar. He made his living not by trading goods but by trading people. If you wanted a special skill for some purpose, Attar will find it. He was so successful at this that he bought children with rare skills from their parents, looked after them well and then used them. It is he that has found and used Darsim Tahir, whose skill is to sniff out buried corpses. He was used by the Iraqi army in the Iraq-Iran war. However, early in this novel he sniffs out the buried corpse of Murad Jamil, who has been murdered. This prompts our three heroes and others to pursue their investigations.

Attar has another role. He is asked to find a teacher of imagination. Mahnaz is the daughter of a rich man and her mother is determined that she will go to university, as all of her friends’ children are doing so. But Mahnaz, while clearly not stupid, cannot seem to learn. She needs a teacher of imagination says one tutor and Attar is sent off to find such a a person. He struggles but comes up with two: Ghazalnus and Trifa.

Imagination is key to this book. It is, of course, a highly imaginative book but reference is made to the importance of imagination and not just in teaching Mahnaz or with Ghazalnus’ ghazals or Trifa’s carpets or Majid-i Gul Solav’s imaginary journeys. No matter what historical era someone works in, if their work is devoid of imagination, they move closer to death, the author comments in relation to Trifa’s carpets. Mullah Sukhta, one of Ghazalnus’ alleged fathers, says in his letter to Ghazalnus that you need imagination to understand the truth. However, Majid-i Gul Solav says that there is a clear line between imagination and truth and if we remove that line, the world would be plunged into chaos and later says that imagination is not like memory. It is reality Other characters say that imagination is a great force and that it helps overcome death. In short, it is clear to Bakhtiyar Ali that imagination is of great importance to human life and this book clearly illustrates that idea. The barons do not like imagination and the Baron of Imagination tries to buy up all the Imaginative Creatures.

The plot of this novel is incredibly complicated and would need pages even to summarise it. I have only touched on the Real Magellan who is looking for his bored niece, who may be married to a baron and not mentioned the Idle Murderers’ Club, the women who leave their families and the women who are set on fire, the complicated way the barons maintain control (and the role of the US), the characters who seem to have alter egos, separate characters who are nevertheless part of them, and any number of other characters who play an important role in this book.

Overall, this is a first-class novel and one of the finest I have read this year. It is one of those novel that you know you are going to have to read again to fully appreciate it. If it is has one theme, it is the idea, as The Baron of Imagination has been told by Husni the Imaginative, that kings need poets but poets do not need kings, that imagination is one of the most important of human faculties, and those that do not understand that will not lead happy lives. I cannot recommend this book too highly.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Ranj
First English publication by Periscope Books in 2016
Translated by Kareem Abdulrahman