Kurdistan has a culture of storytellers. Whenever men sit together to drink, have tea or smoke a nargila, conversation turns to stories about the people around them. Often, the truth is embellished to make the story nicer, or more terrible. Kurds love stories; but they are losing their love for books.
In Kurdistan one has to search for readers. You can perhaps find them scanning the newspapers at the kiosk or looking at books at a book fair. People read less and less. They might get the fast news from the Internet or by watching TV. And if they do read books, they want something simple: A detective, a love story or a practical book on how to stay healthy.
Of course, there still is a small group that does read, that wants the biographies, the history books, the political analyses and the novels. But that group is getting smaller all the time.
One of the reasons is that neither writers nor journalists in Kurdistan are interested in their readers. They write for themselves, for their family and friends, for their colleagues or for their political friends.
It is a different world altogether when one writes for his or her readers. Because then, before even starting anything, the writer has to wonder about what those readers might be interested in. For that reason, a writer has to know who his or her readers are, and what they would like.
Without readers, without being read, journalists and writers do not really exist. The journalist can make reports that give a good impression of what is happening in society. But if that is not read, why go in so much trouble? If a writer writes a beautiful and classic novel, but it does not sell, he wrote it in vain. So, the story did not interest people, the book title was not catchy enough or the book was not promoted well. There can be many reasons.
Writers in Kurdistan hardly seem to worry about their readers. They find a publisher, or they publish their books themselves. It is not about income, it is about seeing your words in print. But because they don’t consider their readers, they will hardly be sold.
Promotion is an important tool to attract attention. Books sell in the West mainly because of it. Only if the writer is invited to a TV show to talk about his or her book, the main bookshops will promote it, as they know that people buy what they see on TV. It is here, in these shops at the train stations, the airports and in main shopping streets that most people buy their books. Here, books that were not promoted on TV will only be available on order. That makes the difference between selling one thousand, or tens of thousands of books.
Book promotion does not exist in Kurdistan. When I presented the first of my books translated into Kurdish with a public debate, this was something new. Still, it hardly happens. The whole idea of a readership that has to be seduced to read is foreign to the Kurdish book market.
Yet, for writers and publishers to stay in business they will have to consider this. And they have to try to find new markets, new reader groups.
This process starts at home, and at school. When I was young, my parents would read me stories before I went to sleep, and would give me children’s books to read myself. At school, reading books was part of the lessons. I used to go to the public library and weekly take at less three books back home. I loved reading, and I still do.
Children have to learn about books when they are young -- about the love of reading, about finding other worlds behind the letters and about discovering the fantasies of others. That needs to be part of upbringing. It is a job for parents and schools. In Kurdistan there are no libraries at school, there is no attention for books in the lessons, and no bedtime stories. The result: Kurdish children do not read.
That means they are lost as readers: If you do not read books as a child, chances are very slight you will read them as an adult. The result could well be a country where reading books is a lost tradition. A nation that does not read books will eventually lose the ability to understand the world around it, to image change, to be open to the unknown.
So, it is important to cultivate among children in Kurdistan this love of books. And to bring books to the classrooms and to the bedside. To translate good children books into Kurdish, and even better, to write and publish them here. Children’s books are as important as all the other books, because children are the future readers.
Judit Neurink is a Dutch journalist and writer, living in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2008.This is an adaption of a speech she gave at the Erbil Writers Union recently.