Kurdish Literature

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Kurdish is heir to a rich and extensive, but now mainly oral, literature extending back into pre-Islamic times. A large portion of the written literature has been lost to over eight centuries of nomadic dislocation into and through Kurdistan, leaving behind only fragments. Although now spoken by a minority of Kurds, Gurâni is claimant to the oldest extant literary pieces in Kurdish. Pahlawâni in general, and particularly Gurâni and its dialects, once enjoyed an unusual status as the language of high culture and literature. In all dialects of Kurmânji, Gurâni now simply means “lyric poetry” or “balladry.” This vernacular, along with its dialect Awrâmani/Hewrâmi, was in fact until early modern times the language of polite society and belles lettres in most of Kurdistan, irrespective of the dominant spoken local dialect. The Kurdish princely house of Ardalân (1198-1867) spoke Gurâni until its final removal. Not surprisingly, all of the oldest surviving literary pieces in Kurdish are in Pahlawâni.

Bâbâ Tâhir (ca. 1000-1060) of Hamadân is one of the very first poets in the East to write rubaiyats, the medium of Omar Khayyam’s fame. Bâbâ Tâhir’s rusticity and mastery of both Laki/Gurâni, Persian (and Arabic) have rendered his works unusually dear to the common people of both nations. His particular poetic meter is perhaps a legacy of the pre-Islamic poetic tradition of southeastern and central Kurdistan, or the celebrated “Pahlawiyât/Fahlawiyât,” or more specific the “Awrânat” style of balladry. Many Yârisân religious works and Jilwa, the holy hymns of the Yezidi prophet Shaykh Adi, are also in this Pahlawiyât style of verse. Bâbâ Tâhir himself has now ascended to a high station in the indigenous Kurdish religion of Yârisânism as one of the avatars of the Universal Spirit.

The lyricist Parishân Dinawari (d. ca. 1395), Mustafâ Bisârâni (1642-1701), Muhammad Kandulayi (late 17th century), Khânâ Qubâdi (ca. 1700-1759), Sarhang Almâs Khân and Mirzâ Shafi’ Dinawari (mid- 18th century), Shaydâ Awrâmi (1784-1852), Ahmad Beg Kumâsi (1796-1889), Muhammad Zangana Ghamnâk-i Kirkuki (early 18th century), Muhammad Wali Kirmânshâhi (d. ca. 1901) and the grand poetess, Mastura Mâh-Sharaf Khâtun Qâdiri Zand (1805-1848) are just a few of the better-known poets in Gurâni and its dialects of Awrâmâni and Laki. Of the Gurâni poet Muhammad Faqih-Tayrân (1590-1660) of the town of Makas survive many witty folk tales in his book “In the Words of the Black Horse,” as also a book of Sufi verse, “The Story of Shaykh of San’ân.” Faqih-Tayrân also composed in Kurmânji, and engaged Ahmad Jaziri (see below) in a lively exchange of versified correspondence in that dialect.

Nevertheless, some of the greatest works of Kurdish secular literature presently extant in toto are in the North Kurmânji dialect. Except for Ali Hariri, all other Kurmânji poets of whom we know and whose works are extant today began their careers after the beginning of the wars and deportations of the 16th century in Kurdistan.

Although works in Kurmânji are generally of recent writing, a Yezidi religious work, the Mes’haf i Resh, is in a classic form of Kurmânji (closer to Bâhdinâni than Sorâni), and could well have been written sometime in the 13th century. It is held to have been written by Shaykh Hasan (born ca. AD 1195), a nephew of Shaykh Adi ibn Musâfir, the sacred prophet of the Yezidis. If this date can be further authenticated, Mes’haf will be the oldest piece of literature in Kurmânji, predating anything else in that vernacular by hundreds of years.

Some of the earliest Kurmânji poets and lyricists whose works are extant are Ali Hariri, from the town of Harir near Rewânduz in the Hakkâri (1425-1490?); Mullâh Ahmad (1417-1494) of Hakkâri, the author of Mawlud, a collection of verse and an anthology;

Salim Salmân, who composed his romance of Yusif u Zulaykha in 1586; Shaykh Ahmad Jaziri, better known as Mullâ-i Jaziri (or Malây Jaziri, 1570-1640) of Buhtân, who is considered one of the greatest of all Kurdish poets; and Ismâ’il of Bâyazid (1654-1710), who compiled a small Kurmânji-Arabic-Persian glossary for the use of the young, entitled Gulzhen, and several poems.

The epic drama of Mem o Zin (more properly, Mami Alân o Zini Buhtân), versified in 1694 by Ahmad Khâni (1651-1707) of the Khâniyân tribe of Hakkâri whose forefathers had settled early at Bâyazid in northeastern Kurdistan, embodies a wealth of mythological and historical events in the national life of the Kurds and idealizes their national aspirations.

Mem of the ålân clan and Zin of the rival Buhtân clan are two lovers whose union is prevented by a certain Bakr of the Bakrân clan. Mem eventually dies; then, while mourning the death of her lover on his grave, Zin falls dead of grief and is duly buried next to him. Fearing for his life when his role in the tragedy is revealed, Bakr takes sanctuary between the two graves. Unimpressed, the people slay Bakr. A thorn bush soon grows out of Bakr’s blood, sending its roots of malice deep into the earth between the lovers’ graves, separating the two even after their death.

The heroic epic Ballad of Dem Dem is a mythologized story of the actual siege of the fortress of Dem Dem in eastern Kurdistan, defended by the Kurdish prince of Barâdost, Khâni Lap-zerrin “the Khân with the Golden Arm,” against the Safavid King Abbâs I in the 17th century. The epic is alive with vivid and graphic, but mostly symbolic, descriptions of the actual battles and the heroic resistance of the defenders. The association of the Khân with the siege is chronologically problematic, but the literary value of the epic stands out on its own. The spirit of the Dem Dem readily reminds one of the personal face-offs of the honor-bound heroes of the Trojan war, and of the stubborn and desperate resistance of the defenders of Massada to the last man and woman.

Charigars or bards, travel widely to bring to their audience the wealth of hundreds of chariga, versified epics like the Dem Dem and Mem o Zin, and other popular pieces of literature.

In comparison to North Kurmânji, South Kurmânji has only lately produced its own works of literature. In fact, none is known before the ‘early 19th century and the works of Mustafâ Kurdi (1809-1866), coming at least 1000 years after the earliest extant Gurâni works. The first substantial works in South Kurmânji, beginning with those of Hâji Qadir Koy’i of Koy Sanjaq in central Kurdistan (1817-1897), capitalize more on their patriotic themes than their literary value, which is at any rate hardly comparable with the works of the giants of North Kurmânji, such as Hariri, Khâni, or Jaziri. A major exception is of course Shaykh Rizâ Tâlabâni (1835-1909) whose wit, playfulness, and lampooning of those who crossed him (of which, judging by his works, there happened to be many) renders him a delight to read (Edmonds 1935).

Mention must be made of the discovery a few decades ago of a parchment containing many lines of Kurdish poetry in the South Kurmânji (Sorâni) dialect. The poem speaks of Zoroastrian Kurds being oppressed by invading Arab Muslims, who put out the fire temples and destroyed the old virtues. Much importance has been attached to this parchment, as it is held to date back to the original 7th-century Muslim invasion. This parchment is doubtless a forgery, as 1) it is in a Sorâni dialect that would not be developed for another 1000 years (Gurâni would have been the logical language, if the parchment were authentic), 2) the Kurds of central Kurdistan, where the parchment is alleged to have been found, were largely Christians at the time of the Muslim invasion, with the remainder being mostly Yârisâns (Zoroastrians and Jews constituted marginal populations); 3) no scientific examination of the parchment for dating and authentication has ever been presented, and no photographs of the piece are available to examine the alphabet used in its writing. Likely the work of a hapless nationalist hoaxter, the parchment was presumably meant to provide “history” for Kurdish written literature, particularly in the Sorâni dialect .

One reason that South Kurmânji did not produce written literature earlier is of course its closeness to North Kurmânji. Any work produced in latter dialect would have been readily accessible to the speakers of South Kurmânji. But also, it is only in the past two centuries that South Kurmânji has spread to occupy the crucial areas of central and eastern Kurdistan at the expense of Gurâni, thus gaining a large number of speakers and hence the potential and the status required for a literary language. In fact the greatest of the South Kurmânji-speaking princely houses, the Bâbâns, used Gurâni exclusively for their court language and literature until the beginning of the 19th century.

The present unusual importance of South Kurmânji is the outcome of several, equal unusual, historical events. The fragmentation of Kurdistan was a primary cause, as it rendered South Kurmânji the language of the majority of Kurds in Iraq and Iran. With the added relative freedom it received in Iraq for its development, South Kurmânji has flourished with a disproportionately large volume of printed material produced in those two countries in the last 75 years, while North Kurmânji has been stifled in its main domain in Turkey for this same period.

A brief survey of the works of the Kurdish poets whose works have been preserved shows that in the 1000 years up to the beginning of the present century, 19 have been written in Gurâni, 10 in North Kurmânji, and 8 in South Kurmânji-not a surprising statistic when one notes the former extent and importance of Pahlawâni. Despite its very late start, South Kurmânji has produced over four-fifths of the literary works in Kurdish in the 20th century.

This situation is rapidly changing again, as the ascendancy of the Kurds of Turkey again reasserts North Kurmânji traditional supremacy. Since 1992, the trickle of North Kurmânji language printed matter has been turned into a flood. Even a small volume of North Kurmânji printed material is steadily appearing in Turkey-home to 52% of all Kurds, and that of 80% of North Kurmânji-speaker. In the past decade and from their printing houses in Europe, immigrant Kurds, a vast majority of whom are North Kurmânji-speakers hailing from Turkey, have booted an avalanche of print matter to rival and in fact surpass anything produced in South Kurmânji (Sorâni) in the past many decades. It must be exhilarating to any Kurd now to see both primary dialects of Kurdish are finally marching ahead shoulder to shoulder in this regard. Introduction of the Kurdish language satellite television in Brussels, the MED-TV, which also uses North Kurmânji as its main dialect of broadcast, has meanwhile catapulted that all-important dialect of Kurdish into a whole new plain of activities the result of which in the past three years has been simply spectacular.

Over the course of the present century, the Kurdish language has come under a great deal of pressure. The publication of Kurdish has been forbidden in Syria and, until relatively recently, in Iran. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, even speaking Kurdish was illegal in Turkey, and punishable by imprisonment-an unenforceable state policy in force intermittently until December 1990, when president Ozal of Turkey announced the legalization of spoken Kurdish for domestic, and only domestic, use. When this was made law in the Turkish parliament in February of 1991, there were hysterical mass demonstrations in Ankara by academics who opposed the measure. Unimpressed, the Turkish government further liberalized the use of Kurdish language, allowing Kurdish language publications. This instantly meant the appearance of Kurdish language newspapers and magazines, even though under official supervision. Education, however, is still not included in these positive developments in Turkey, but there are signs indicating that a renaissance of Kurdish literature is on its way in Turkey, a country where over half of all Kurds live today.

In Iraq, on the other hand, a great body of published work in South Kurmânji has been produced with central government assistance and approval. A Kurdish University founded in Sulaymânia and later, largely relocated in Arbil, has been functioning for a few decades, providing has been functioning for a few decades, providing a bilingual curriculum in Arabic and Kurdish, and fostering literature written in South Kurmânji (i.e., Sorâni).

The Soviet Kurds, despite (or perhaps because of) their small numbers, were given an elementary and advanced education in Kurdish and other relevant languages of the Soviet Union for many decades. A number of better-known pieces of Kurdish literature also appeared in that country, but these were often targeted as propaganda pieces to attract Kurds from beyond the Soviet borders, rather than having been written just to benefit the small, widely dispersed population of Soviet Kurds. Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the emergence of new independent states in the Caucasus and central Asia, it is doubtful that the Kurds will enjoy the same generous treatment from their local, now sovereign, ethnic neighbors.

After gaining its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia deported en mass, first its Muslim Kurds, followed by the Yezidi Kurds. As it has turned out, the “admirable” treatment of the Kurds in Armenia was conducted from Moscow. From Erevan, Kurds have only received grief since Armenia’s independence. In Azerbaijan, on the territories of the former “Red Kurdistan,” the largest concentration of the Kurds in the CIS has seen itself evicted en mass from their ancestral homes by the Armenian forces invading Azerbaijan in 1991-1993. Leaving in refugee camps or squalid tenements in other parts of the CIS, there is need for trying to assess their “cultural and educational” state at this point.

In Iraq and Iran a modified version of the Perso-Arabic alphabet has been adapted to the phonetic peculiarities of Sorâni and is used for publications. The Kurds of Turkey have recently embarked on an extensive campaign of publication in the North Kurmânji dialect of Kurdish from their publishing houses in Europe, in the hope that it may trickle back to their deprived kinfolk in Turkey. They have adapted a modified form of the Latin alphabet for this purpose, first championed by Prince Kamurân Badir Khân in the course of 1930 when he embarked on its creation. The Kurds of the Soviet Union first began writing Kurdish in the Armenian alphabet in the 1920s, followed by Latin in 1927, then i Cyrillic in 1945, and now in both Cyrillic and Latin. Gurâni and Laki continue to use the Persian alphabet without any change. There is likely only one modern publication in Dimili-a newspaper, Tayrâ, published in Austria-and that employs the Latin-based alphabet of North Kurmânji developed by the European Kurdish diaspora. However, recent liberalization in Turkey may change this. Since late 199 1, a Kurdish news journal, Rozhnâme, published in Turkey, has carried two pages of news in Dimili, the other 38 pages are in North Kurmânji. Both use the same Latin-based alphabet as used for their European publications.

It seems that in the absence of a standardized pan-Kurdish language, an alphabet that least reflects the vocalic system of various Kurdish dialects would serve to reach a wider audience since it would mask dialectal differences. Any piece of Kurdish literature recorded in a Latin- or Cyrillic-based alphabet would achieve the reverse. These writing systems possess a relatively exact recording of short and long vowels ‘and diphthongs. The vowel-starved Perso-Arabic alphabet, on the other hand, does the job rather nicely by its vague or non-recording of many vowels, and inexact consonant representation. When and if a standard pan-Kurdish language is adopted, then a Latin-based alphabet may be appropriate.

Further Readings and Bibliography: Amin, Abdul-Kader (collected by), Kurdish Proverbs (New York, 1989); Edmonds, C.J., “A Kurdish Lampoonist: Shaikh Riza Talabani,” Journal of the Royal CentralAsian SocietyXXII (1935) Jaba, Alexander,Recueil de Notices et Récits kourdcs (St.Petersburg, 1860); Lescot, R., Textes Kurdes. Deuxe’me Partie: Mamí Alan (1 942); Nikitine, B. and E. Soane, “Tale of Suto and Tato: Kurdish Text with Translation and Notes,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 111 (London, 1923-25); Nikitine, B. and E. Soane, “Kurdish Stories from My Collection, “Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies IV (London, 1948);


Source: Prof. M. Izady, “The Kurds: A Concise Handbook”, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilization Harvard University, USA, 1992

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