Kurmanji is a main Kurdish language; and this book (Oxfam, High Wycombe, October 2008, 59p) is, according to its preface 'intended primarily for the use of officers and others whose duties leads them to the southern districts of Kurdistan.' The British military presence in Iraq, 1919--the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, as it was--is one of those ghosts of history still very actively haunting the present. And what a weirdly vivid through-the-chinks portrait this book provides of the sort of world a British officer stepped into (or expected to step into) amongst the Kurds. Here are the sorts of 'common idiomatic phrases' and verb tables the book offers:
akuzhim it I will kill you.
(but) dabe bikuzhim it I shall (probably) kill you.
diz le kewda hatin a khwarawa thieves came down from the hills.
rutit akam I strip thee
rutim akai Thou strippest me
rutian akan They strip me
lai imda I strike
lai imda I struck him
laim ida He struck me
la'ian manda We struck him
laiman ianda They struck us
This is what we get instead of the blander 'cat sat on the mat' or 'pen of my aunt' style phrases other books might offer. Of course it's amongst other things a way of interpellating a whole country, a whole people, as violent and barbaric. In that respect it feels, oh I don't know, rather modern; as a primer in the ways in which Western Europe continues ideologically to construct a notion of meso-oriental existence. Laiman ianda, indeed.
Best of all are the translation exercises that come at the end of each chapter. The idea is that the reader translates the phrases sentence by sentence; but to read these little paragraphs as mini-stories is to enter a modishly postmodern world of oblique, and strangely touching, narrative. Some examples:
TRANSLATION EXERCISE 5: Last year the Persians sold their women for money. Who bought? I know not, but I know that the man who bought a woman bought also sickness. The animal tax of the Jaf will be much this year. The mare which Hama bought he did not buy with his own money. This year grazing was scarce in the warm country and everyone sold his own sheep cheap. I do not know my own mind, what can I say?
Haunting, no? We discover a fair bit about Hama.
TRANSLATION EXERCISE 2:The girls of the Jaf are not pretty, pretty girls are in Sulaimania. Hama's wife was a girl from the Jaf. Take the horses out to grazing. He was from Sulaimania and went to Bana. Bring that big horse here and give it to Muhammad. Kill that cat. I am from Erbil. Where is the son of that woman? In the house of the horsemen.
What had the cat done wrong, we wonder? I daresay say it has something to do with Hama's bitterness at his grinding life and unpretty wife. Finally, this one:
TRANSLATION EXERCISE 7: The Persians are cowardly, they were not formerly so, their work is evil, and their mind is black, so they became cowards and are still cowards. Had they been manly, they would not be wretched today. The Hamawand used to be robbers, now they are ploughmen and labourers and soldiers. The Turks would have been here now if they had been wiser. If in youth I had been lucky, I should never have been here. May he become blind! Would that I were in London now!
It's the twist at the end that makes this one; a soldier's lament on a distant, hostile and thankless posting. If my creative writing students wrote stories half as affecting I'd be a happy teacher.