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Marie LaBrosse: Introduction to "City of Non-Existence"

The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), looking out from the foothills of its host city, is made of glass. When I would arrive with the sunrise, the backlit silhouette of the mountain range outside of town gain texture would turn dusty purple, then dusty in the higher light of day. When I would leave with the sunset, the city would slowly go electric until the sprawl below became handfuls of scattered sequins. Construction in every neighborhood, ongoing at the university as well, brings with it cement powder, the thin wooden poles that are the locally sourced scaffolding, and blue tarps in various stages of repair and tatters. Litter accumulates among the wild narcissus that grows in the spring. Men erect tents to gather for tea and cigarettes by the roadside. The shepherd I sometimes see on my morning commute, grazing his flock by the highway with its artistically arching steel street lights, is constantly on his cell phone. It is a surprising city in the midst of great growth. 

The university is part of this growth. It is the first institution in the country that offers an American-style liberal arts undergraduate experience. Additionally, the instructional language is not Arabic or Kurdish, but English. All students must have academic fluency in English before they enter the undergraduate program. Some of our students have grown up in-country speaking Arabic or Kurdish, others have attended Turkish schools or sought refuge in Iran. Other students, returning from the UK and other countries in northern Europe now that the threat of Saddam Hussein has passed, have conversational or greater fluency in English, German, and Dutch, among other languages. This rich linguistic landscape means that all our students are, to greater or lesser extent, English language learners. 

We rely on our Academic Preparatory Program (APP) to build the foundational command of English, but fluency in a language is an endeavor of constant upkeep. Throughout the undergraduate composition sequence, we reinforce the work of APP and try to help our students become their own best editors, honing their memory and knowledge of grammar and structure. This can be dry, especially for young adults ready to begin their independent, professional lives. As a lecturer in the English Department, I'm always thinking about ways to transform the work of fluency into play, pleasure. 

The streets in Sulaimani are named after poets and the walls of Cha Hanishab, the historical teashop in town, are crammed with paintings and photographs of famous poets and other cultural figures. All this hinted at a millennial terrain which I could only glimpse. My desire to see the wide horizon dovetailed with the more basic drive need to continuously emphasize fluency. I proposed a workshop in literary translation. 

Here, I should stop and explain: unlike in the United States, children in Iraq grow up hearing, memorizing, and responding to poems. In other countries, poetry is not inherently motivating for students. In Sulaimani, poets and poems enjoy popular reception. At a reading I hosted with a well-known Kurdish poet, two hundred people attended. All the Americans were astounded. All the local people kept asking what had gone wrong: had we failed to advertise? Typical attendance of a reading is in the hundreds. Readings begin with a standing ovation as the crowd chants the name of the poet and the bodymen pry fans off the poet's sleeves. 

The workshop students loved poems so well, they both gravitated toward and feared translation. They wanted to give the poets they loved new life in a new language, but dreaded betraying the texts they held dear. In service to these poems, these revered poets, the students would argue for hours over word choice, diction, syntax, tense, image. The finer points of the students’ acquired language became riveting.

Beyond entering the mechanics of English through the beloved, intimate territory of poetry, the class helped re-define "liberal arts" for the students. Because the university and many of its faculty and administrators are American, there is the common misconception here that the liberal arts approach is western. If done right, though, liberal arts should transcend national alignment. 

The translation workshop brought the region’s cultural texts into what had been a very western conversation. It married the foreign with the familiar. It legitimized the knowledge with which students entered the class. In this way, too, the workshop transformed the tensions they carried within them into the very reasons why they were ideal translators. Translators are liminal. 

The young Kurdish nationalist educated in Turkish schools: the love she bears her Turkish teachers complicates a stance that she considers central to her identity. The young Kurdish man who grew up in Baghdad, fluent in Arabic: his hesitant Kurdish shames him. The young Kurdish man whose family sought refuge in Iran for over a decade: he holds so many languages inside his head he has to shuffle through them to get to English. These tensions, which isolate these individuals in their society, also position them to stand between cultures, between languages. Where others must stand on the shoreline, these students can become bridges .

As this was the first workshop-style course at the university, we used the first six weeks of class to orient ourselves  toward a writer’s terminology, evaluate a selection of translations  and individually experiment with translation and revision . I asked all students to translate a poem a week for two reasons. One: they would have to think on a small, almost minute, scale, about language. Two: they would be forced to produce. Even if the speed compromised the initial quality, it would help students immerse themselves in the task of translation. 

After these orienting weeks, I asked each student to choose an author they particularly identified with, and dedicate themselves to that author’s work for the remaining eight weeks of the semester. I hoped that each student, in choosing an author to focus on, would become fluent in that author’s voice, learning style through immersion. As well, I hoped that the choice of author would continue to create personal investment in the challenges that would come with the extended assignment.

Already, the class had begun to laugh ruefully about the immense difficulty of translation. In English, a common mistake the students make is to substitute “too” for “so.” Rather than indicate a great degree of difficulty, they claim a prohibitive level of difficulty. As in, “Last night’s homework was too difficult, Ms. Marie.” 

I began to tease them a little, “Too or so?” At first, they groaned, “What’s the difference?” But, after several weeks of inspecting language at its elemental levels, they began to differentiate. They’d roll their eyes and correct themselves, “So.” Finally, one day, Nergis walked in after battling with a particularly troublesome Yehya Kamal poem. She dropped her bag on the table and sighed, “Wallah, Ms. Marie, that poem is too difficult.” And before I could ask, she pointed her finger at me and added, “Too!” 

But it’s the pleasure of difficulty that inspired these students to finish what you now see collected here.

From Turkish, the students chose two authors: Yahya Kemal and Bedhirhan Gokce. Nergis, a Turcoman student fluent in Kurdish, Turkish, and English, told me how she “met” Yahya Kemal’s “Silent Ship” in secondary school. The assignment was to read and analyze, but Nergis instead committed the poem to heart and studied it for years. From Arabic, the students have translated poems from Jameel Al Zahawi (Jamil Al-Zahawi), Ma’arouf Al Rasafi, Nazar Qabani (Nizar Qabbani) and Ghada Al Saman (Ghada Al-Samman). These translations came primarily from two students, Soran Huner and Sivar Qazaz, two Kurdish students fluent in Arabic. 

Soran’s translation of Qabani’s “I Fear” appeared in workshop as it is published here. As the class remarked how beautiful his work was, he joked right back: he thought by choosing a shorter poem, his work for the week would lighten. He had found the opposite. In the prism of the short poem, every cut on the stone changes the light that emerges. Sivar, who chose to translate Al Zahawi and Al Rasafi, had more political and personal motivations in the texts she chose to bring into English. The Iraqi poets who combine verse, philosophy, and science, who defy the predominant image of “terrorists who walk around with their guns attached to their hips,” interested her. Over the course of the semester, she came to believe that through translating these poets, not only could she prevent their footsteps from fading, but she could become a part of the dissenting minority in Iraq that she so admires.

From Kurdish, the most common mother tongue among students at AUIS, the students selected a range of poets from classical to contemporary including Mahwi, Sheikh Raza Talabani, Ahmad Mukhtar Jaff, Abdulla Pashew, Sherko Bekas, and Muhammad Omar Othman. Hemn and Shadman took on the classical Kurdish poet, Sheikh Raza Talabani. Both saw Talabani, as Hemn said, as an inventor. Nations, Hemn maintained, pride themselves on their inventors, whether they be military, religious, or literary. Both Hemn and Shadman saw Talabani as a man unafraid to be different, new, startling. The risks he took as a poet were risks that the translators had the privilege of participating in. Danar chose the short fiction of Ahmad Mukhtar Jaff, a writer famous among the Kurds, as a pioneer in socially conscious literature. Much of his writing displays standards of living Jaff sought to change. 

Muhammed Abdulla, having loved and memorized many of his poems, chose Muhammad Omar Othman. Nicknamed “The General of Autumn,” Othman’s poems functioned as a heart-breaking mirror for Muhammed Abdulla’s self-described anguish as a Kurd. Abdulla Pashew visited AUIS as a guest speaker and is known for his unflinching honesty in matters political and personal. Sherko Bekas, the recently deceased director of Sardam Publishing House, also visited the university to give a reading.

Finally, included are two of my own poems that Nergis asked to translate. Seeing the obvious pitfalls of her request, I prompted her for a justification. Her response was graceful: “There are always people willing to translate a famous poet’s work.” As well, she said, how fun it would be to translate a poem in conversation with the poet. I acceded. 

The linguistic complexity of these poems alone might make translation feel “too” difficult. While much contemporary Kurdish poetry draws solely on a single dialect, almost all classical Kurdish poetry draws not just on multiple dialects, but several languages. Some dialects have diverged so severely that a speaker of one cannot understand another. So, while a poem may have “only” two or three languages, it may also contain several dialects that function as separate languages to a translator. As if that weren’t enough, classical poems also, of course, use words and phrases that residents of the region no longer use. Without a comprehensive dictionary of classical Kurdish, it takes time and an extended network to track down these words.

Finally, consider the current political boundaries overlaid on the people speaking these various languages and dialects. The red star marks an approximate location of Sulaimani and AUIS.mini lnaguage map

The national and international tension present on this simplified map might make translation impossible were the students in the workshop not able to, in honor of poetry, put their writerly identity before their ethnic or political identity.

The community we created among the workshop members went beyond the campus. We hosted our final reading in Cha Hanishab, the same teashop that had inspired me to wonder about the history of the region’s literature. Under the portraits of the cultural pioneers who had come before them, the students of this first workshop gave their first reading. They read in Farsi, Turkish, Arabic, English, and three dialects of Kurdish. And as they posed for pictures after the reading with the brothers who own and operate the teashop, they created a new generation of portraits that now hang beside their idols.

About This Gallery

The IWP Publishing Gallery hosts collections of new work curated by our colleagues worldwide.


Writing University

MFA in Literary Translation  (University of Iowa)

The Iowa Review


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