BRUSSELS, Belgium – Fawaz Hussain, who first translated masterpieces like The Stranger and The Little Prince from French into his native Kurdish, was waiting for winter when the civil war thwarted his plans to return to his native home in Syrian Kurdistan.
The visit was supposed to be a homecoming that he had hoped to write about, completing the last part of an autobiographical trilogy that begins with his youth in Syria and his long exile in France and Sweden.
He had visited Syria every year to see his mother and siblings until the war broke out in 2011, preventing his return to Hassaka, near the Turkish border, where the Kurdish YPG has been fighting against the Islamic State group (ISIS).
“The situation is worrisome because ISIS is not far away,” Hussain said in an interview with Rudaw. “In my head, the Third World War has started already,” he said, speaking by phone from Paris.
Radical Islam did not really exist when he was growing up, he recalled.
“Nobody wanted to convert the whole world to Islam and nobody wanted to impose his religion. No one would grab his sword and go on his horse to spread Islam on the surface of the planet,” said the author and intellectual, who is a Sunni Muslim like the large majority of Syrian Kurds.
Before his passion for Kurdish, Hussain, 62, began a long love affair with the French language.
The passion for writing in French -- as well as translating masterpieces into his now beloved Kurdish – helps ease the weight of exile and the war in his homeland. It also adds to the long list of books he has authored in French and Kurdish.
Kurdish, he remembers, was banned by Syrian authorities “as something worse than opium.”
In primary school in Syria Hussain was not allowed to speak or read Kurdish. Nevertheless, he read his first Kurdish book, a text on grammar, when he was 14.
“Kurdish was a forbidden, dangerous language. If you had a Kurdish book it is as if you had opium on you,” he said.
“For some people Kurdish was the language of the peasants, a language that should be gotten rid of, like you get rid of filth and lice,” Hussain recalled.
“It was not until later in life that I realized how beautiful my Kurdish language is. I wanted to enrich it further and that is why I started translating French books into Kurdish,” added Hussain, who has also translated Kurdish books like “Siya Evîné,” by M. Uzun, into French.
The accomplished writer has come a long way from the small northeastern village of Kurdo, where he was born to a mother of 10. She did not want her young to grow up as Kurdish peasants: what she wanted for them was a good education.
As Kurdo did not have a school, she moved the family to the nearby city of Amude. There, at the age of five, Hussain first studied French with a priest at a private Catholic school.
He quickly fell in love with the language, beginning a lifelong love affair. At the University of Aleppo he chose to do a degree in French literature, even though people close to him advised studying medicine, engineering or architecture, since he had graduated with good grades in science from high school.
Recalling being accepted to the University of Bordeaux, arriving in Paris on August, 28, 1978, he called it “my second date of birth.”
“Only a few days after my arrival in Paris I was accepted by the Sorbonne. This is to show what happens when good luck smiles at someone!”
He did his PhD in modern literature, specializing in French romanticism.
He also obtained French nationality, but later moved to Sweden for several years with his Swedish wife, whom he had met in France. They had a daughter but later divorced, and Hussain returned to his beloved Paris.
In 1993 he wrote his first book, the novel “Siwaren ese,” while living in Sweden. It was a collection of short stories in Kurdish, and the French version came out under the name of “Le Fleuve” four years later.
In 1995, while still in Sweden, he translated into Kurdish “l’Étranger,“ or The Stranger, by Albert Camus. Then came “Le Petit Prince,” or the Little Prince, by Antoine Saint-Exupéry.
Back in Paris he started his trilogy. His book “les Sables de Mésopotamie,” or the Sands of Mesopotamia, published in 2007, covers the first 25 years of his life in Syria, until his arrival in Paris.
“La Prophecie d’Abouna,” or the Prophecies of the Priest, published in 2013, is the second part of his trilogy and covers the next 25 years of his life.
It was in 2011, the year that the war broke out, that he hoped to return home to work on the last part of the trilogy, covering the rest of his life.
Now, as he endures the pain of watching a war now in its fifth year, he thinks differently about Syrian Kurdistan, or Rojava. He would love to see an independent Kurdish state if one day Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran become completely democratic countries and allow for Kurdish self-determination, he said.
But he believes it is more realistic to hope for a federal Syria, where the Kurds can have their own language, in addition to Arabic.
“Before the war in Syria I was more Kurdish than Syrian, but after the war I became more Syrian than Kurdish,” he said.