Kurdish Written Literature

By Philip G. Kreyenbroek

Written, “elevated” poetry traditionally played a less prominent role in Kurdish society than folk poetry (q.v.) did. The number of written literary works in Kurdish is far smaller than in its surrounding cultures, but it is comparable to that of Pashto (q.v.). The written literary output in Kurdish consisted mostly of poetry until the 20th century, when a prose literature developed in both major dialects of Kurdish as a result of social and political developments.

By Philip G. Kreyenbroek

Written, “elevated” poetry traditionally played a less prominent role in Kurdish society than folk poetry (q.v.) did. The number of written literary works in Kurdish is far smaller than in its surrounding cultures, but it is comparable to that of Pashto (q.v.). The written literary output in Kurdish consisted mostly of poetry until the 20th century, when a prose literature developed in both major dialects of Kurdish as a result of social and political developments.

For a long time Kurdish was not used as a written language; those who aspired to contribute to the elevated, written culture of their times wrote in Arabic, Persian or, later, Turkish. Kurdish poetry and prose narratives were transmitted orally. However, the form, language and imagery of the earliest known Kurdish written poetry effortlessly follows the models offered by Arabo-Persian poetry, which suggests that the tradition had been perfected before the known early poets appeared.

Our knowledge of the early history of written Kurdish literature is still imperfect. For a long time our information derived solely from data published by Alexandre Jaba (1860) on the basis of information from Maḥmud Efendi Bāyazidli. Later David N. MacKenzie (1969) established the real dates of death of two of the poets concerned, showing that Bāyazidli’s information was inaccurate. It would be unsafe, therefore, to rely on the rest of Jaba /Bāyazidli’s information.

The early poets. The first five poets mentioned by Bāyazidli (‘Ali Ḥariri, Mallā-yē Jezri, Faqi-e Ṭeyrān, Mallā-yē Bātē, Aḥmad Ḵāni) are thought of as the chief exponents of the Kormānji school, which used the Kormānji sub-dialect of Jazira/Bōtān as a literary language. It is often claimed that the founder of this school was Mallā-yē Jezri (taḵalloṣ, or pen name, of Shaikh Aḥmad Nešāni, 1570-1640), who was deeply influenced by the Persian poets, notably Ḥāfeẓ (q.v.), whom he sought to emulate (Uzun, I, p. 20). His vast oeuvre includes qaṣidas (odes) and ḡazals (lyrics), some of which remain popular to this day.

Faqi Ṭayrān “The birds’ jurist” (pen name of Moḥammad Faqih of Mukis, 1590-1660; see Kurdo, I, pp. 70-89; Blau, forthcoming) is said to have been a disciple of Mallā-yē Jezri. His work includes qaṣidas and ḡazals, and he was the first known Kurdish poet to use the maṯnawi (couplet) form for narrative poems. Among his extant works are Ḥekāyatā Šēḵē San’āni (The story of Shaikh Ṣan’ān), Qawl-ē ḥasp-ē raš (The poem of the black courser), and Qeseyā Bar Sis (The story of Bar Sis).

Very little is known about ‘Ali Ḥariri. Some poems have plausibly been attributed to him (see Kurdo, I, pp. 57-64). Otherwise all we know is that, together with Mallā-yē Jezri and Faqi Ṭayrān, his name is included in the list of venerable predecessors whom Aḥmad Ḵāni praised in his introduction to Mam u Zin (q.v.)

Aḥmad Ḵāni (1650-1707) is probably the best known and most popular of the classical Kurdish poets, largely on account of his famous Mam u Zin (Lescot, 1942; Ḵāni, 1996). This work, a long romantic epic, is sometimes seen as the Kurdish equivalent of the national epics of other nations and bears some resemblance to Romeo and Juliet, describing the impossible love between two scions of noble houses whose families did not allow them to marry. It was inspired by the Kurdish popular epic Mamē Ālān, and possibly by Neẓāmi Ganjavi’s Layli o Majnun. Apart from this major work, Aḥmad Ḵāni wrote Nubehārā pečukān (New spring for children), a rhymed Arabic-Kurdish word-list intended for the use of Kurdish school students, and a religious work entitled ‘Aqida imānē (Faith in the religion).

About the life of Mallā-yē Bātē we only have the unreliable data provided by Jaba and Bāyazidli. He is known to have written a mawlud, that is a poem on the birth of the Prophet Moḥammad; perhaps a version of the Kurdish romance Zambilferōš (The basket seller); and, as was recently discovered, a didactic poem about morality, expediency and good manners, which must have been so popular at one time that it became part of the oral religious literature of the Yezidis (see Kreyenbroek and Rashow, forthcoming).

Gurāni poetry. Around the 16th century, in the area roughly equivalent to the Persian province of Kordestān, the Ardalān family achieved a degree of independence from the Safavids. They acted as champions of local literary culture, promoting the development of a written literature in Gurāni (see GURĀN), a language whose origins differ from those of Kurdish, but which is widely regarded as a dialect of that language. Gurāni, the religious language of the main branch of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq (q.v.; see also MacKenzie, 1965), now also became the language of the court, and thus of a significant section of Kurdish written literature.

Gurāni poetry was more strongly influenced by local poetic traditions than its early Kurmānji counterpart, using a decasyllabic meter with a caesura between two rhyming hemistiches, which is typical of the folk poetry of the region (MacKenzie 1965; Mokri).

The founder and first representative of this Gurāni school was Yusof Yaskā (d. 1636), who wrote ḡazals. Among his disciples were Shaikh Aḥmad Taḵti Marduḵi (1617-92), Shaikh Moṣṭafā Bēsarāni (1641-1702), and Aḥmad Begi Komāsi (1796-1877). Ḵānā Qobādi (1700-59) composed the Ṣalawāt-nāma, a eulogy on the Prophet Moḥammad and Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Ṭāleb, and a well-known version of Širin o Ḵosrow. A famous Gurāni version of Layli o Majnun was later written by Mollā Bolād Khan (d. 1885). The last and best-known member of the Gurāni school was Sayyed ‘Abd-al-Raḥim Mollā Sa’idi Tāwgozi (ca. 1806-82), whose pen name was Ma’dum or Ma’dumi, but who is better known as Mawlawi. His religious poetry in Persian, Arabic, and Gurāni was strongly influenced by classical Sufi literature, with love imagery playing an important role. The prominent Kurdish female poet and scholar Māh Šaraf Ḵānom Mastura Kordestāni (1805-47) was long thought to have written only in Persian, but her Gurāni poems have recently been discovered.

Sōrāni poetry. To the west of the Zagros in Iraqi Kurdistan, the princely dynasty of Bābān (q.v.) increased its power during the latter half of the 18th century. In 1781 Maḥmud Pasha began to transfer his capital to a new site, Solaymāniya,. His successors continued this policy, and ‘Abd-al-Raḥmān Pasha (r. 1789-1802) actively promoted the use of the local dialect of Kurdish, which came to be known as Sōrāni, as a literary language.

The oeuvre of ‘Ali Bardašāni (d. 1812) consists partly of adaptations to written Sōrāni of the great works of Kurdish (particularly Kormānji) oral tradition. He also composed qaṣidas and some of his ḡazals became part of the popular tradition and were set to music.

The reign of ‘Abd-al-Raḥmān’s grandson, Aḥmad Pasha, saw the rise of the Nāli school of poetry, whose center was Sulaymāniya. These poets helped Sōrāni achieve the status of a significant literary language. The founder of this school was Mallā Ḵedri Aḥmad Šaweysi Mikāʾili (also known as Mallā Ḵedri Šarazur, 1800-56), who is generally known by his pen name, Nāli. Like Mallā-yē Jezri, Nāli used Perso-Arabic poetic forms such as the qaṣida and ḡazal, which until then had not formed part of the Kurdish poetry of the area. His works include poems praising the rulers and mystical verse, but he is best known for his lyrical poetry. Sālem (pen name of ‘Abd-al-Raḥmān Beg Ṣāḥebqerān, ca. 1805-69) helped to develop literary Sōrāni. He used the hazaj meter (see ‘ARŪŻ), which proved well suited to Sōrāni poetry.

In 1851 the Bābān dynasty was overthrown and many poets left Sulaymāniya. Sōrāni poetry, however, continued to develop, mainly in Kirkuk and Persian Kurdistan. The greatest poets of this period were Ḥāji Qāder Mallā Aḥmad Koyi and Shaikh Reżā Ṭālebāni. Ḥāji Qāder Koyi (ca. 1816-94) left Kurdistan for Istanbul, where he became familiar with Kormānji language and literature and came into contact with foreign ideas. The language of his qaṣidas is simple and his work reflects his interest in social affairs. He criticized traditional attitudes, and his poems contain references to features of the modern world. His poetry became immensely popular in Kurdistan.

Shaikh Reżā Ṭālebāni (1813-1910) introduced satire to Kurdish poetry. He traveled much and lived eight years in Istanbul. Apart from satirical poetry, Ṭālebāni’s work contains autobiographical elements; romantic love and religion (particularly of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq) are frequent themes. His style and choice of vocabulary were more forceful than was customary in Kurdish “high” poetry.

The poetry of Mallā Maḥmud Maḥwi (1830-1906), son of Mallā Oṯmān Balḵi, is more lyrical in tone. A central theme is that of the human beloved helping the lover attain to divine Truth. The poetry of Ḥāreq Mallā Ṣāleḥ (1851-1907) also shows strong Sufi influence.

Meṣbāḥ-al-Diwān (‘Abd-Allāh Beg Aḥmad Ebrāhim, 1859-1916) lived in Persian Kurdistan, where his work became influential. The great tragedy of his life was that his wife, Noṣrat Ḵānom, left him. This personal tragedy is prominently reflected in his work, which thus departed from the accepted tradition of describing an ideal state of affairs, and it was much criticized by classicists.

Women began to play a role in Kurdish intellectual life in the 19th century. Mastura Kordestāni (see above) became well-known, as did Mehrabān (1858-1905), Sira Ḵānom of Diārbakr (1814-65), and Ḵātun Ḵoršid.

Kurdish nationalism. Kurdish intellectual life changed in many ways towards the end of the 19th century. Emerging nationalist aspirations led to the development of a Kurdish press, which was published outside the Kurdish regions. In 1898 the first Kurdish paper, Kordestān, was published in Cairo by two brothers, Medḥat Pasha and ‘Abd-al-Raḥmān; it was later forced to move to Europe, where its last issue was printed in 1902. In Istanbul, the monthly Rōji Kord (Kurdish day) changed its name to Hatāwi Kord (Kurdish sun) in 1913. In 1916 Ṯorayyā Badr Khan published the Turkish-language weekly Jin (Life), which demanded independence for the Kurds, and the weekly Kordestān in 1917-18.

The Partition of Ottoman Kurdistan. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, Kurdish nationalists had high hopes for an independent Kurdish state. These expectations came to nothing and Ottoman Kurdish lands were divided between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, where the Kurds formed minorities in states preoccupied with establishing the ethnic and cultural identities of the majority.

Turkish exiles: the “Hawar school.” The repressive policies of the Turkish Republic forced Kurdish intellectuals into exile. Damascus and Beirut became centers of Kurdish intellectual activity, which led to the development of a modern Kurmānji literature. The brothers Jeladet (1893-1961) and Kamiran Bedir/Badr Khan (1895-1978) played a prominent role in these activities. They developed a Kurdish orthography in Latin script, which is still used today. This was first used in the periodical Hawar “Cry for help” (Damascus, 1935-43), which became the focus of Kurmānji cultural aspirations and achievements. Further periodicals included Ronahî “Light” (Damascus, 1941-44), Roja nû "New day” (Beirut, 1943-46), and Stêr “Star” (Damascus, 1943-45). These publications reflect a strong preoccupation with Kurdish culture and identity. Besides the Bedir Khan brothers, the Hawar school included the poet Cegerxwîn (pen name of Şêxmûs Hesen, 1903-46), Osman Sebrî (1905-93, see Uzun, I. pp. 248-54), and the poets Qadrîcan (1914-74), Raşîd Kurd (1910-68), and Nûredîn Zaza (1919-88). When Syria became independent after World War II, many collaborators of Hawar left that country and continued their activities in Paris.

Kurdish Literature in Turkey. The use of Kurdish in any form was strictly forbidden in the Turkish Republic almost from its inception, and no Kurdish literature was published within its borders until the late 1960s. In 1961 a new constitution brought about an atmosphere of freedom that led to a renewed interest in Kurdish culture. The period 1962-68 saw a number of Turkish/Kurdish literary publications, including Mûsa Anter’s Birîna reş “The Black wound” (Istanbul, 1965) and M. Emîn Bozarslan’s edition and Turkish translation of Mam u Zin (Mem û Zîn, Istanbul, 1968). Bozarslan was jailed for publishing this book, however, and Mûsa Anter spent several years in prison because of his literary activities (he was murdered in Diārbakr in 1992). In 1967 there was a general wave of repression of manifestations of Kurdish identity. Apart from a number of short-lived magazines in the mid-1970s, no significant works in Kurdish were published in Turkey until the 1990s.

In 1991 the Turkish government recognized the existence of the Kurdish language. This again led to a wave of literary activity, although in practice conditions remained very difficult. Some Kurdish works that were originally written in the Diaspora were now published in Turkey, and several Kurdish or Kurdish/Turkish magazines appeared (Roj-name “Newspaper,” Istanbul, 1991; Newroz “New day,” Istanbul, 1991; Govend “Round Dance,” Diārbakr, 1991; War “Camp,” Istanbul 1997). Many of these were banned, to reappear soon afterwards under a different name. A further liberalization of official attitudes towards Kurdish in 2002 may help to promote Kurdish letters further, though at the time of writing it is too early to tell.

In Iraq: The fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 eventually led to the foundation of the state of Iraq (under British mandate, 1920-32), which included part of the Kurdish territories. The first printing press of Kurdistan was set up in Solaymāniya in 1919, and the British promoted the use of Sōrāni as a written language. The 1920s saw the emergence of several Kurdish newspapers and many Sōrāni translations of Western works.

The poetry of this early period was still classical in form, but patriotism and social affairs played an increasing role, and purely personal elements became more prominent. Significant poets included Piramērd (Ḥāji Tawfiq, 1867-1950), Aḥmad Moḵtār Jāf (1897-1935), Ḥamd Fattāḥ Beg Sāḥebqerān (1878-1936), ‘Abd-al-Waḥid Nuri (1903-46), and Zawār (‘Abd-Allāh Moḥammad, 1875-1948). The 1930s saw a departure from classical poetic forms, and the emergence of free and syllabic verse, e.g., in the work of Gorān (‘Abd-Allāh Solaymān, 1904-62). Later poets include Sālem (Shaikh Sālem Aḥmad Azabāni, 1892-1959), Delzār (Aḥmad Moṣṭafā Ḥama Āḡā, b. 1920), Bēkas (Faḵi ‘Abd-Allāh, 1905-48) and his son Šērko Bēkas (b. 1940), Kāmrān Mokri (1929-89), and Kākay Fallāḥ (b. 1928).

The emergence of literary magazines in the 1920s furthered the development of a Sōrāni prose literature. This largely consisted of short stories, which often had social or political themes, e.g., Ademîzad le sayey derebegî “Man in feudal society” (1945) by Ḥosayn Ḥozni Mokriāni (1893-1947). The first Sōrāni novel was Jani gel “The Suffering of the people” (1973) by Ebrāhim Aḥmad (b. 1914).

The ups and downs in the relations between the Kurds and successive Iraqi governments affected literary output. In 1959 a chair of Kurdish Studies was established in the University of Baghdad and literature flourished, but a time of repression followed soon afterwards. Then, in 1970, Kurdish was recognized as the second official language of Iraq; the same period saw the foundation of the Kurdish Academy of Sciences in Baghdad, and there were many Kurdish literary periodicals. By the mid-1970s, however, the Kurds had once more fallen foul of the government. Important works of the period 1974-92 were Moḥammad Mokri’s (b. 1952) novels Heres “The avalanche” (1985) and Tole “Revenge” (1985), as well as Helo “The eagle” (1986) by Šērko Bēkas.

The setting up of a more or less autonomous security zone comprising in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1992 initially led to a great deal of literary activity, with a strong focus on political and social issues. The tensions between political groups in 1994 and the resulting partition of the security zone caused disillusionment among writers and intellectuals, many of whom fled the country. Those who stayed were often highly critical of the authorities. On the other hand, the heightened sense of Kurdish identity resulting from the events of 1992 led to serious attempts to develop closer links with Kurds outside Iraq.

In Persia. The only period of independent Kurdish literary activity in Persia before the Revolution of 1978-79 was that of the short-lived Autonomous Republic of Kurdistan (the Mahābād Republic, January to December 1946). Kurdish became the official language; the poets Hemin (Moḥammad Amin Šayḵ-al-Eslām Mokriāni, 1921-86) and Hažār (‘Abd-al- Raḥmān Šarafqandi, 1920-91; qq.v.) were recognized as “poets of the nation,” and several newspapers and periodicals were published.

After 1946, however, expressions of Kurdish identity were on the whole discouraged until well into the era of the Islamic Republic. From 1959 to 1963 the influential weekly Kordestān was published in Tehran under the auspices of the Persian government, but it was distributed only outside Persia.

After a difficult start the cultural rights of the Kurds found increasing recognition in the Islamic Republic. Around 1984, the first literary works in Kurdish appeared: Aḥmad Qāżi (b. 1935) published Baqabēn (The bond), a collection of satirical short stories, and Hāwār (‘Ali Ḥasaniāni, b. 1939) published Šāri wērān (The Ruined city), which deals with social problems. The same year saw the publication of the cultural magazine Sirwe (Morning breeze), founded by the poet Hemin and subsidized by the local authorities. Sirwe became a forum for expressions of Kurdish identity, including short stories in Kormānji and Sōrāni, and thus furthered the acceptance of Kurdish as a literary language in Persia. In 1986 a conference of Kurdish intellectuals was held in Mahābād. The process of recognition and liberalization appears to have continued slowly but surely, leading to further publications and to the official recognition of Kurdish as a language of instruction in schools in the Kurdish areas in 2002.

In Armenia. Although numerically small, the Kurdish community of Armenia was very active in the field of literature in the Soviet period. Both poetry and literary prose show the influence of Russian literature. The literary journal Riya taze (New way) was published in Yerevan from 1930 and published the works of such literary figures as Emînî Evdal (1906-64), Hejiyê Cindi (1909-90), and the poet Casimê Celîl (1908-98).

In 1935 Erebê Šemo (Arab Shamilov, 1897-1979), published the autobiographical novel that became instantly popular; an expanded version was published under the title of Berbang (Dawn) in 1958. Şemo’s works further included the novel Dimdim (Yerevan, 1966), which was based on a famous Kurdish storyline, as was Semand Siyabendov’s (1909-98) Siyabend û Xecê “Siāband and Ḵajē” (in Cyrillic script, 1959, in Ar. script, Baghdad, 1980). The literary journal Behara taze “New spring” (Yerevan, 1980-90) published poems, short stories, and novels by writers of a younger generation. Armenian independence and the conflict with Azerbaijan Republic led to the expulsion of Kurdish Muslims from Armenia, which led to a decline of Kurdish literary life.

In the Diaspora. In spite of the achievements of the Armenian Kurds, Kormānji literature developed mainly in the Diaspora. After the end of the French mandate in Syria, France became the first center of Kurdish literary activities in Europe. In 1950 Kamiran Bedir Khan became Professor of Kurdish Language and Culture in Paris. While the first wave of Kurdish immigrants in Europe consisted mostly of intellectuals, some two decades later many Kurds came there as immigrant workers. In the course of time, these Kurds re-discovered and explored their cultural identity by literary means. There was a strong Kurdish literary movement in Sweden, where a number of Kurdish periodicals appeared. Most of these were aimed at a Kormānji speaking public, but Sōrāni journals are also published there. Mehmet Tayfun Malmîsanij (b. 1952) is actively developing a written Zaza literature. Prominent Kormānji writers include Mahmut Baksi (1944-2001), and Mehmed Uzun (b. 1953), whose work was translated into several languages. In 1983 the Kurdish intellectual tradition in Paris was strengthened by the foundation of the Kurdish Institute, which brings out the semi-annual review Hēvî/Hîwa “Hope” (first published 1983), and from 1987 onwards the bulletin Kurmancî, which focuses on the modernization of the Kurdish usage and orthography and aims to contribute to the development of a Modern standard Kormānji.

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By Philip G. Kreyenbroek, 23/02/2005, IRANICA