Our Kurdish Poets

Responding to the ideological needs of the Kurdish national liberation movement, which gained momentum in the late nineteenth century, Kurdish classical literature gradually gave way to a new, more flexible version of classical poetry known as “neo-classicism”, which represented a transitional period from official classical poetry to modern poetry. The theory and practice of modernisation was introduced through new literary trends in Turkish literature effected under the influence of European modernisation movements.

The vanguards of this new trend in Turkish literature were Taufiq Hikmat, Namiq Kamal and others. Their work largely influenced Kurdish intellectuals within the Ottoman administration before and during the First World War. These intellectuals became very familiar with the modes of Turkish national revival and took from it what befitted their own nationalistic ideas and ideals: to revive their indigenous literary forms and traditions to preserve, promote and purify their national language, to introduce liberal ideas of progress and modern civilisation, to establish various media which are necessary to perform these tasks, such as opening schools for teaching the mother tongue, setting up cultural societies and associations, establishing printing presses, magazines and newspapers in the Kurdish language.

Many of these intellectuals returned from Istanbul to Southern Kurdistan with Sulaymanya as its capital and embarked on a vigorous national-cultural enterprise. These included the Kurdish poet and journalist Peeramerd, the Kurdish writer and politician Rafiq Hilmi, the linguist and politician Colonel Taufiq Wahbi, the Kurdish journalist and historian Hussain Hozni Makriyani and his brother Gew, the Kurdish historian and politician Amin Zaki Bag and some others. The common ideal which was giving them energy, enthusiasm and hope was the ideal of an independent Kurdistan joining the community of the free nations of the world and the modern processes of human civilisation.

It was at this political/intellectual juncture that the modern national romantic tradition in Kurdish poetry emerged in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The vanguard of the movement was the Kurdish poet and thinker Shekh Nuri, Sheikh Salih, who introduced the stanza form to the official Kurdish poetry, a form which was a very common feature of Kurdish folk literature. Other poets Rashi Najib and Abdul Rahman Bagi Nifus had an initially important role in the movement. But it was Abdulla Goran of Halebja (the name Goran should not be confused with the Goran School of Poetry) who took up, developed, consolidated and completed the modern school of Kurdish poetry.

Ironically, Goran found that this modern poetic trend coming to Kurdistan from Europe via Turkey, had nothing to add to the rich variety of poetic forms found in Hawramani literary tradition in particular and Kurdish oral poetry in general. Therefore he returned to the original sources of his national tradition to revive and develop extant poetic metres most suitable to the articulation of his new ideas and themes. Goran was in a privileged position to achieve this task. For his poetry was not just an external preoccupation, it was a cause synonymous with everything he valued and loved in his life. Furthermore, his living experience of Hawraman, the land, the people and the culture had provided him with a powerful background and verbal resources to embark on this bold enterprise.

This background Goran sums up in one single expression: “Kurdistanian love”. His poem “Kurdistan” articulates what this love is and how it shapes his thoughts and defines his aesthetic values:

Kurdistan: you are my abode, my abode
of thousands of years,
I have been nurtured by these valleys,
summits and hummocks,
My breath is full of the fragrant breeze of
your highlands,
My lips are satiated by your snow waters,
My gaze is used to the sight of your
silvery twilights
Reflecting on evening snows,
My ears are habituated to the music of
your waterfalls
Pouring down from high quarters above
snow to green landscapes
My tongue bloomed with your beautiful
speech,
With words of your mountain songs,
The words of folk tales told around
fireplaces,
The words of your children ‘s lullabies.
When blood stirs in my veins
It does so under the power of your love, I
know.
Your love, my mother and mother of my
fellow race
Was bequeathed to me from my
ancestors,
And it will be inherited by sons and
grandsons,
As long as a Kurd survives in these high
mountains.

This is Goran’s first love, first spiritual attraction. But beauty here is more than just a description of the beauty of nature. It is a holistic beauty inspiring a holistic love. A new modem version of sufist love. It is also an historical love inherited from time immemorial. It is eternal because it represents the. spiritual relationship between man and land, between the beauty of nature and man’s capability of knowing, realising, appreciating and loving this beauty. It is this love, which generates linguistic expressions in various forms and genres: folk stories, songs, epics and lullabies. Their love and this expression of love is eternal because it expresses man’s need for having an abode, a home, a country where he/she can maintain cultural continuity, build civilisations and dream of a better future.

But as a progressive poet, Goran does not yearn for a natural beauty devoid of effects of modem civilisation. How can he do that while his country has been deprived of any signs and traces of modern civilisation, which, of course, could contribute a lot to the progress of his country and the prosperity of his people? Therefore, instead of nostalgically looking back to a remote past, he progressively looks forward to a day when a fusion between the beauty of nature and the beauty of civilisation, its achievements in form of bridges, railways, schools, hospitals, casinos, cinemas, markets, will turn his homeland into an earthly paradise.

However, even without these, he thinks, his Kurdistan has enough beauty to gratify spiritual desire:

Even though you are deprived of all these
beauties
There is another beauty which is
Kurdistanian
A sort of beauty which the artistic hand of
God has designed
And not the talent of a craftsman
A sort of beauty which never grows old
In winter, spring, summer and autumn
It is the beauty of your formidable
mountains
Your deep and still valleys, high summits,
slippery clefts and narrow ravines
Green meadows, sporting streams, thick
forests
Villages lying and plains stretching from
round hillocks
Cave-dwelling creatures, and the fish in
blue ponds
Colourful birds and magnificent
butterflies.

Thus every sound, every colour, every creature, every motion and manifestation of life in his homeland is a part, small or big, of a greater unity, a greater whole which constitutes “Kurdistanian Beauty”. This beauty becomes the first and most enduring inspiration to Goran, saturating his heart and mind with happy sensations, love of life and desire for progress and freedom. But just like Mawlawi, what characterises Goran’s attitude to the beauty of nature is his firm belief that human beauty in the form of a woman’s beauty is superior to the physical beauty of nature. In fact it is only through human beauty that natural beauty can make any sense.:

But nature is forever without light
In the absence of the woman’s smile.

Goran’s love for nature (not as an abstract entity but as his motherland) and for women constitute the two pillars of his poetic experience. They represent the bright side of this experience. But in fact these were only a compensation for a much gloomier aspect of his life. His lack of love and attention. His bereavement for the death of his older brother. His instability and uncertainty about his own future and destiny.

As a young man Goran was sad, very sad. He was pessimistic to the point that he conceived of death as a welcome saviour and final solution to all his problems and miseries. It seems that after the murder of his elder brother in 1991 and thus his unwilling abandonment of his education in Kirkuk to return to Halabja and care for a big family, he started to suffer from melancholy from which he never became free all his life. In a highly charged emotional piece of prose published while he was only 17 years old, a year after the death of his brother, Goran regrets his lost opportunities to get educated and stand up to the challenge of his age, the age of knowledge and science. He addresses “death” in these terms:

Oh death, Oh death!
Why don’t I attain you?
By God,
death for me is the fulfilment
of my heart’s desire
and the termination
of all sorrows.

Nature and women are Goran’s haven. He endeavours to build a “dreamland”, where beauty of nature, women and civilisation come together in a world of peace and constant progress. But can he do that within the constraints and limitations of the conventional classical poetry? No. Classical forms and formulations were too parochial for his deep, all-embracing melancholy on the one hand, and his bright, beautiful, broad dreamland on the other. In a poem entitled “Zalm” he writes:

Though the rhyme is too narrow
For my wide-ranging gloom
A breath of despair is enough for
(Expressing) a life of sadness.
I wish my sorrows were like the Zalm
Waterfall.
I exhausted my tears, while
It is ever flowing and flowing

Nature, thus, is where Goran finds inexhaustible resources of endurance and continuity. In relation to this, his “classical” language becomes aware of its limitations. He deeply feels a need for new vocabularies, new metres, and new melodies. Although it was Turkish new poetry which attracted the attention of Goran to the possibility of new stanza forms of poetic expression, especially themes related to inner experiences and subjective concerns, Goran, ironically, found that his own native folk tradition is rich with these diverse poetic constructions which had been used for hundreds of years by ordinary Kurdish men and women to convey their experiences and portray their feelings and impressions. What was of paramount significance for Goran at the beginning was the content of his poems, i.e. his individual experience of sadness and despair, his dream of love and progress. That is why he started by trying to subject the classical form to a bold experience and inject this thematic content into classical forms, stretching them to their maximum limit of flexibility and malleability. Hence, even in his classical type poems, the reader feels some strong, sincere sad undertone streaming through his couplets, striving to flow unrestricted, unabated, like the Zalm Waterfalls.

Goran soon realised the inadequacy of the classic tradition to articulate the horizons of heart, the dimensions of dream, the depths of desire and the serenity of sorrows. Hence, under the influence of Sheikh Nuri Shekh Salah, he started to experiment with new poetic forms, reviving the traditional metre of Kurdish folk poetry, which he called “Keshi Panja” – “Panja (fingers) metre”. Naturally he was sceptical about the nature of this enterprise. On the one hand, he was not sure of the merit of his new products. On the other hand, the new in any society long used to established traditions of discourse provokes hostility or at least apathy, misunderstanding and underestimation, which alienate the artist.

Goran records this situation in a letter to the Kurdish poet and journalist Peeremerd. Goran resorts to the wisdom of Peeremerd, the old man, the patron of Kurdish revivalism in order to get some indications about the merit of his experimental adventure. In his letter dated the 4th of April 1932, Goran gives interesting details about the genetic movement of Kurdish new poetry. He describes his new poems as the birth of strange babies with 100% Kurdish blood but unrecognised and illegitimated by literary opinions immersed in alien non-Kurdish classical traditions. He begs the old man of Kurdish wisdom, Peeramerd to assure him that what he has begotten are legitimate creatures of his creative love and not ‘ginni’ or devil offspring’s as some detractors wished to label them. However, Goran’s enterprise succeeded. He managed within a relatively short creative life to establish the new school of Kurdish poetry. Soon a constellation of poets joined this new celebration of language, love, beauty and patriotism. Dildar, Kamaran Mukri, Jamal Sharbazheri, Dilan, Bakhtiyar Zewar, Ahmad Hardi and Ibrahim Ahmad added eternal melodies to the tradition of the new Kurdish poetry.

But like any other aspects of Kurdish life and civilisation, the Kurdish poetic process has been subject to the vicissitudes of politics. As the national oppression of the Kurdish people intensified after Baathist chauvinists took power in 1963, the Kurdish culture entered a long period of decline. It was only after the agreement of March 1970 between the Kurds and the Iraqi government and during the four years of peace which followed this agreement, that the Kurdish poetry had a vigorous phase of growth and progress. A new radical literary trend was born. It was called “Rwanga”, Vision.

The young writers who published a manifesto explaining their new bold enterprise called for a revolution in language to liberate literary articulation from any traditional restrictions, the birth of new ideas, themes and forms in poetry and story-writing. They adopted the Kurdish Zoroastrian motto: Good words, good thought, good deed. It was for the first time that new literary form emerged in both poetry and short stories. Language became more and more self conscious, more and more condensed, more and more figurative and even complicated. The prose forms of poetry, allowing free and powerful flows of thoughts, became fashionable. Experiments with combining various genres, drama, lyrics, and novel, in a single literary work appeared. In terms of content, more powerful themes of patriotism and national aspirations together with greater focus of the inner and existential life and concerns of individuals became rife.

The Kurdish poet Sherco Bekes, who had a leading role in these new experiences, has since become the greatest Kurdish literary figure. The flow of his poetic works have been continuing unabated, going from strength to strength, from one stunning poetic achievement to even more stunning ones. It is a pity that the ingenuity of his long works, rooted in the tradition, culture and history of the Kurdish people, his very original, rich and powerfully expressive language, and the diversity of his wide-ranging rhythms and metres, make it very difficult, if not impossible, to have a good translation of his poems.

Other poets who started within the tradition of Rwanga and continued to generously and effectively contribute to the modern Kurdish poetry are Abdulla Pashew, Latif Halmat, Hasib Qaradaghi, Rafiq Sabir, Anwar Jaf, Jawhar Kirmanj, Muhammad Baqi, Saadulla Parosh, Abdulrahman Muzuri, Muayyid Tayyib and many others from a younger generation. Again the Kurdish literature entered a period of decline after 1975 when the Baathist regime renewed its colonial chauvinistic aggression against the Kurdish people. Most of the prominent Kurdish writers were forced to escape and live in exile in Europe and other countries.

A number of them were executed, martyred or imprisoned. But the eternal flame of Kurdish poetry has never waned. Europe, for example, has become a haven for a massive production of Kurdish culture with more than one hundred magazines, periodicals and newspapers being published in different European cities. The celebration of life, freedom and love goes on. No power, however cruel and great it might be, can kill language, especially when language becomes fully conscious of its identity, power and mission.

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