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Literature Emerging from Ehmedê Xanî’s Masnavi Mem û Zîn

Yaqob Tilermenî

It is not easy to find written works belonging to the language of a nation spread across multiple states of the Middle East, and to refer to these works across the language’s dialects with the claim that “This is the first written story in this language, that is the first work to be considered modern literature.”
Upon considering the research on this topic, and upon examining the written sources and prepared anthologies of Kurdish literature and Kurdish art, it is clear that those who wrote and researched these sources been unable to overcome the difficulty of this task. Because Kurdish, the language of this literature, is not a language with a single dialect. In addition to the dialects spoken in Turkey—Kurmanjî and Kurmanjkî (or Zazakî)—and the dialects spoken in Iraq and Iran—Soranî and Goranî/Hewramî, which are identical to Kurmanjkî (Zazakî)—each of these dialects themselves feature an array of vernaculars.
It is worth noting that the literature of the language in question belongs not only to Kurds living in Turkey, but also to all Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the former Soviet bloc, as well as those scattered across Europe, the United States, and Australia. For this reason, we must discuss all works written with the Latin, Arabic, and Cyrillic alphabets. The works focused on here are those that were written with the Latin alphabet or else that have been transliterated into the Latin alphabet and translated into the Kurmanjî and Kurmanjkî (Zazakî) dialects of Kurdish. The fact that Kurdish literature is a literature of exile—that the first Kurdish/Kurmanjî newspaper was published in Cairo in 1898; that the first journal was published in Damascus; that the first novel was written in Armenia; that novels, stories, and poetry have been written in Sweden; or that the logistics of publishing works in Kurdish have been located in Istanbul since the 1990s—can be seen as another reason why it is far from a monolithic literature.

Kurdish literature is not a literature without roots. Located at the genetic roots and DNA of this literature is Mem û Zîn (1692). This literature, in other words, extends from the present to several centuries in the past. But factors like being without a homeland (the fragmentation of the homeland), the fact that Kurdish people are scattered across different hegemonic cultures, the diverse dialects of the language, and the perpetual state of oppression, have prohibited the emergence of a common, joint Kurdish (Kurmanjî and Kurmanjkî/Zazakî) literature. In spite of this, works by madrasa-educated poets, ranging from classical Kurdish literature like Ehmedê Xanî to Melayê Cizîrî, Feqîyê Teyran, Elî Herîrî, Melayê Bateyî, and Ehmedê Xasî, author of Mewludê Kirdî (Kirmanjkî Mawlid), the first known written work in Kurmanjkî/Zazakî published in Diyarbakır in 1899, have reached us in the present, mitigating—if only somewhat—the negative consequences of fragmentation and suppression. In this sense, just as Gogol’s “The Overcoat” is significant for Russian literature, so too is Ehmedê Xanî’s masnavi Mem û Zîn (Mem and Zîn) a significant and foundational work of Kurdish literature.
With the writing of the first works of Kurdish prose in the nineteenth century, many of the materials of Kurdish oral literature, such as stories and fables, were recorded in writing. Mela Mehmûde Bazîdî (1799-1867) made the first effort in this regard, rewriting the versed Mem û Zîn by Ehmedê Xanî in prose of his own.
The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century was a period which witnessed struggles over distribution of territory, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Kurds’ efforts to survive. Between the time when Mela Mehmudê Bazîdî wrote his stories and the start of the twentieth century, there are no extant written short stories.
Fuat Temo’s Çîrok (Story), considered the first modern short story in Kurdish, was published in the first two issues of Rojî Kurd (Kurdish Sun). This first Kurdish short story—shoddy though it may have been—breaking from the stories written in the traditional style of the East, was published in 1913, 57 years after Bazîdî’s Mem û Zîn. Rojî Kurd, in which Çîrok was published, also featured essays in prose as well as poetry written in classic form.
After Çîrok, the first modern short story in Kurdish (in the Kurmancî dialect) was Celadet Alî Bedirxan’s Ber Tevna Mehfûrê (The Carpet Loom), first published in Hawar (Outcry), though it had originally been written in 1927. Approximately seventy short stories like this one appeared in Hawar, by authors including Celadet Alî Bedirxan’s brother Kamuran Alî Bedirxan, Osman Sebrî, Qedrî Can, Nûredîn Zaza, and Mistefa Ehmed Botî. The journal also featured translations and adaptations. In addition to this story, poetry and prose essays by writers like Ehmedê Namî, Cegerxwîn, Nûredîn Zaza, Qedrî Can, and many others can be found in Hawar.
More than eighty stories were published in Ronahî (Luminescence) between 1942 and 1945, while twenty-nine were published in Roja Nû (New Day) from 1943 to 1946. Several of these stories have recently been collected into books. Two of the writers, Qedrî Can and Nûredîn Zaza have emerged as two significant short story writers in Kurdish. Both writers were forced to migrate to Syria for political reasons, and even in Syria, they were still arrested many times as a consequence of their activities. With his short stories and poetry, Qedrî Can is a representative and pioneer of the break from classic Kurdish literature. The stories he wrote are imbued with novel narrative style and foresight, despite the feudal lifestyle they describe; the poetry he wrote offered an alternative to classical Kurdish poetry, written with rhyme and prosody. The other short story writer, Nûredîn Zaza, was dubbed the Chekhov of the Kurds by Celadet Alî Bedirxan, editor-in-chief of the journal Hawar.
Another name who published short stories, poetry, and fables in these journals was Osman Sebrî. His short stories, poetry, and fables, written according to the conditions of his period, may have been encountered by the readers of his time, but his short stories are arguably worthy of being listed among the world classics. Sebrî’s stories, however, were compiled in a book very late—only in 2007. The writings of Celadet Alî Bedirxan and Kamuran Alî Bedirxan, the two brothers who published the journals Hawar, Ronahî, and Roja Nû, are the foundational works of modern Kurdish (Kurmanjî) literature. In recent years, the stories and poetry by these two writers was compiled into book format.
The writers of this period offered all sorts of literary works in the field of Kurdish letters. During this time, Kurdish writers of the Soviet era, who were primarily Yezidi, gathered particularly in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and took advantage of the period’s possibilities to produce significant works in a variety of genres. In addition to Erebê Şemo, regarded as the father of the Kurdish novel (Şivanê Kurmanca), Eliyê Evdilrehman, Emerîkê Serdar, Sîma Semend, Tosinê Reşîd, Xelîlê Çaçan, Wezîrê Eşo, Heciyê Cindî, Fêrîkê Ûsiv, and many other writers whose works remain uncollected, paved the literary way amongst themselves for a Kurdish literature that was standardized, deep, and fluid.
While this was the case in the Kurmanjî dialect of Kurdish, spoken by the largest Kurdish social groups, Kurmanjkî (Zazakî) came far behind these forms of literature as the result of internal and external historical causes. The first newspaper to begin publishing exclusively in Kurmanjkî (Zazakî) is Newepel (New Page) newspaper, which began its life on 15 March 2011, with the efforts of writer, poet, translator, and researcher Roşan Lezgîn, along with a group of volunteers. The first journal to come out exclusively in Kurmanjkî (Zazakî), pioneered by Malmîsanij, an important writer, linguist, and researcher, was Vate (Word), published by the Vate Research Group starting in 1997. The first short story written in Kurmanjkî (Zazakî), Engiştê Kejê (Kejê’s Fingers), was written by Malmîsanij and published in the journal Tîrêj in 1980. And the first novel written in Kurmanjkî (Zazakî) was the 2000 novel Kilama Pepûgî (The Song of the Cuckoo Bird) by writer and publisher Deniz Gündüz.
Many university students who came to Istanbul as a consequence of the political dynamism in Turkey in the 1960s attempted to publish some journals and newspapers amid the period’s political tumult. Because the Kurdish language was prohibited, these students published the journals and newspapers Dicle-Fırat (Tigris-Euphrates), Şark Postası (Post of the East), and İleri Yurt (Progressive Land) in the Turkish language. Sometimes the writers would stick Kurdish words into their Turkish-language stories as a way of puncturing the language prohibition. This was the case for much of the 1970s as well. In 1979, the journal Tîrêj was published entirely in Kurmanjî, and partially in Kurmanjkî (Zazakî), offering works of Kurdish literature after a long period of silence. Under the pseudonym “Flît Totanî,” Kurdish poet and short story writer Rojen Barnas published his short stories and poetry in Tîrêj. Mem Ronga, Arjen Arî, Berken Bereh, and Malmîsanij all published their first Kurdish poems in the same journal. While other written works by Mem Ronga have not been discovered, Arjen Arî and Berken Bereh published many books after 1990. Similarly, Meyro, a collection of short stories published by Mehmed Emîn Bozarslan in 1978, never reached readers as a result of the political conditions of the time.
Young people who migrated from Turkey as a consequence of the 12 September coup d’état settled across Europe and set about attempting to bring to the Kurdish language the political work they had been doing in Turkey and Kurdistan. It is clear that Sweden was where these migrant intellectuals were able to take most advantage of the positive circumstances of their migration. Thus, writers like Mehmed Uzun, Mahmut Baksi, Firat Cewerî, Hesenê Metê, Mustafa Aydoğan, Silêman Demir, and Malmîsanij managed to pen works written in the Kurdish language. Though these favorable circumstances continued in Europe through the beginning of the 1990s, they had no reverberations in Turkey as a result of the effects of the military coup. However, the Mesopotamia Culture Center, founded in Istanbul in 1991, began publishing the journal Rewşen (Brightness) a year later, while the first weekly Kurdish language newspaper Welat (Country) began publication in 1994; these two cases attest to the fact that important steps were being taken in the field of Kurdish literature.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Istanbul became a site for the work of Kurdish intellectuals, and the same city of culture served as home for them at the turn of the century. Novels, short stories, poetry, essays, plays, travel guides, and other genres of books by many writers—those living outside of Turkey, such as Bavê Nazê, Tosinê Reşîd, Kamîran Haco, Fawaz Husên, Firat Cewerî, Malmîsanij, Hesenê Metê, Şahînê Bekirê Soreklî, Helîm Yûsiv, M. Alî, Lokman Polat, Enver Karahan, Îbrahîm Seydo Aydoğan, Evdile Koçer, Fêrgîn Melîk Aykoç, Fatma Savci, and Gulîzer; those who wrote in the Soranî and Goranî dialects, such as Hesenê Kizilcî, Ferhad Pîrbal, Cemîl Saîb, and Ahmed Muxtar Caf; and those who live in Turkey, such as Çiya Mazî, Roşan Lezgîn, Adar Jiyan, Yaqob Tilermenî, Fevzi Bilge, Lal Laleş, Yıldız Çakar, Dilawer Zeraq, Hasan Kaya, Şener Özmen, Selahattin Bulut, Dilber Hêma, Felat Dilgeş, Sedat Yurtdaş, Berken Bereh, Rênas Jiyan, Sîdar Jîr, Îrfan Amîda, Ramazan Alan, Mehmet Dicle, Lorîn S. Doğan, Şêxmûs Sefer, Bahoz Baran, H. Kovan Baqî, Cîhan Roj, Ciwanmerd Kulek, Welat Dilken, Mîran Janbar, Kawa Nemir, and many others—were published in Istanbul up until the 2000s. After the State of Emergency (OHAL) was lifted, the cities of Kurdistan, especially Diyarbakır, became centers of Kurdish literature and publishing.

Note: The information related above regarding the Kurmanjkî (Zazakî) dialect was compiled from articles and interviews by writer and publisher Roşan Lezgîn. (E.N.)