Book Review: I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑

Photo Credit - Periscope Books

A poignant and thought-provoking novel which encourages us to see the Eastern world from a different perspective.

By Nabaz Aziz (he/him)

I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali, the renowned Kurdish writer, has been translated into English from the original Kurdish version, which is one of Ali’s most famous works. Ali is a versatile writer, intellectual, literary critic, essayist, and poet hailing from Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes in Kurdish Sorani. His work has made significant contributions to Kurdish literature, and the translation of his books have allowed a wider audience to appreciate the depth of his writing.

The novel is a poetic masterpiece that talks about a big defence in poetry when life has nothing to offer, in a place where war and politics have swallowed every bit of human life. The author presents a radical solution that focuses on becoming something that does not produce violence and oppression. He proposes that we need to get closer to our half-part poetic humanity and listen deeply to our strong bond with love. In doing so, we can understand the real hell we have made and find a way to make our lives more meaningful.

The novel is set in Iraqi Kurdistan at the turn of the new millennium, where the country is recovering from the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war and the subsequent Gulf War and civil war. Against this backdrop, the main character Bahman Naser, also known as Ghazalnus, is an imaginary child born out of a platonic love affair between his mother and her lover. His imaginary father has left behind dozens of unpublished love poems for him, which he absorbs and uses to become a poet.

Ghazalnus spends six years travelling during the Iran-Iraq war, reading his father’s poems to people and inspiring their imaginations. He devotes himself to defending love and life and creates a group called the Community of Imaginary Spirits with the help of Hasan the Storm, a former hitman for the Party who has become disillusioned after killing an innocent woman. They are joined by the Imaginary Magellan, who takes blind children on journeys of the imagination, and the Real Magellan, who has returned after wandering the world for 24 years to investigate the disappearance of his niece and Trifa Yabahri, who has run away from a violent adoptive brother and become a designer of wonderful carpets.

Together, they set out to write the longest book ever regarding the history of every death since the 1991 uprising and subsequent civil war. The idea to write such a book came after they discovered the body of Murad Jamil, also known as the Chinese Youth, who had numerous lovers, including the wives and daughters of the barons. As they investigate his death, they uncover more about the complex and brutal society they live in.

However, the political elite is also trying to assert its power after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. They want to build Dubai-style cities to demonstrate that they can govern on a modern platform. As they clash with the Community of Imaginary Spirits, who are determined to show people the real face of reality through their imaginative works, the story delves into the politics, history, and culture of Iraq and Kurdistan, providing a unique and fascinating perspective on the country and its people.

In I Stared at the Night of the City, Ali challenges the reader to go beyond the surface level of the story and explore the deeper meaning of the characters and events. The magical realism style of the novel makes it a complex and rich experience, where the reader must carefully follow the plot to understand where the line between reality and imagination lies. It explores the struggle between power and creativity, and the importance of preserving imagination in a world where it is constantly threatened. Throughout the novel, the reader can witness how the oppressive regime in Iraqi Kurdistan affected every aspect of people’s lives, including their imagination and the freedom to express themselves. The story also sheds light on the struggle of Kurdish intellectuals and artists who were trying to protect the values and culture of their nation amidst the chaos of war and political instability. Ali’s poetic language and philosophical approach makes this novel a unique piece of literature that invites readers to reflect on the meaning of life, love, and freedom in the context of oppression and conflict. The novel offers a powerful critique of the political systems that fail to recognise the importance of human values and the power of imagination in shaping our collective destiny.

I Stared at the Night of the City is not just a novel but a profound philosophical and cultural analysis of the Eastern world. Bakhtiyar Ali, through his multi-dimensional characters and intricate storytelling, shows us how the oppressive macro ideologies have shaped our societies, leading to the lack of change in the Eastern world for over a century, and the continued prevalence of dehumanising ideologies and political pressure on individuals. Ali’s message is clear: the only way to break free from the endless cycle of war and death is by establishing new values and perspectives based on the defence of the minor truth and alienated imaginations. It is through this approach that we can truly embrace our individuality and create a better future for ourselves and our society, and acknowledge the harsh realities that exist within Eastern culture.