Literature of Exile: Kurdish poets Kajal Ahmad, Sherko Bekas, and Abdulla Pashew

To be Kurdish is to be perpetually in exile. Originally a nomadic population in the mountainous region of southwest Asia, they fell victim to the nationalization movements of the post Ottoman era, their domain divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria. Not considered full citizens anywhere they have been considered traitors, terrorists and undesirables but never given their own state, with “Kurdistan” a roughly defined area spread over several national borders.

Despite, or perhaps because of their tumultuous history, the Kurds take great pride in their language culture and literature. Translator Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse describes Kurdistan as “poet’s heaven” noting the number of streets named for poets. “Young people in Kurdistan are very connected to poetry. It’s sacred for them. At a poorly organized reading, 200 people show up. At a well-organized one, 700 show up,”

Not surprisingly, Kurdish writers also see themselves as activists and freedom fighters, and many of them have been driven to live abroad, their literature full of fierce love for the homeland. Until recently, very little Kurdish writing was available in English, but over the past 2 decades a number of celebrated Kurdish writers have been translated.

Kajal Ahmad (b 1967) is a Kurdish heroine, both for her fierce allegiance to Kurdish independence and her feminism. She worked as a front-line journalist, writing poetry while embedded as a member of the Kurdish mountain fighters, the peshmerga. Her collected poems Handful of Salt evoke homeland and body, love and betrayal, dedication and corruption.

Despite her loyalty to her homeland Ahmad was harassed by some of her countrymen for her frank sexuality, and her refusal to wear the veil. Threatened by Islamic authorities she ultimately decided to leave Kurdistan behind, but her writings inspire a new generation of young Kurdish and Muslim women.

“What stays in the future are my poems. The scarf will go. I will go. My poems will stay. What I am is my poems. Everything else is far away,” Ahmad told LaBrosse when they met in Jordan where Ahmad currently lives.

Were I a Martyr

Translated by Darya Ali and
Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

I want no flowers,
no epoch of union,
no dawn of disunion.
I want no flowers
for I am the loveliest flower.
I want no kisses
if for a true wrist
I must hold some knight –
no epoch of marriage,
no dawn of divorce,
no widow’s fever.
I want no kisses
if, along with love, I become a martyr.
I want no tears
over the coffin or me, a corpse.
I want no cherry tree of sympathy
dragged to the walls of my grave,
no flowers or kisses,
no tears or miseries.
Bring nothing.
Hold nothing.
I die as a homeland without a flag, without a voice.
I am grateful.
I want nothing.
I will accept nothing.

Like Ahmad, Sherko Bekas (1940-2013) fought with the peshmerga against the Baath regime in Iraq, his poems serving as anthems for the Kurdish resistance. Under house arrest for 3 years, he sought asylum in Sweden from 1987 to 1992. His poems have been translated into Arabic, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English.

The son of an equally famous poet, Faiq Bekas, he remained a fearless and intransigent voice for Kurdish independence and for justice and human rights until his death in 2013. Of Kurdistan he wrote:

From this day on

She was a flute,

And the hand of the wind

Endowed her wounds with melodies

She has been singing ever since for the world

In the late 198s, Saddam Hussein dumped chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurdistan, killing over 100,000 people. Berkas, then in exile in Sweden, composed the poems of Butterfly Valley in response to these atrocities. It is a cry of mourning, and a demand for recognition of this heartless act of genocide.

Clothes

translated by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse and Halo Fariq

Bekas* used to say,
“Each joy I wear
Its sleeves are either
Too short or too long,
Too loose or too tight
On me.
And each sorrow I wear
Fits as if it were made for me
Wherever I am.”

* Translator’s note: Bekas here refers to the poet’s father, Faiq Bekas,

Abdulla Pashew (b. 1946) is the rock star of Kurdish poetry, drawing thousands to his readings. On his return from exile, at his first reading the electricity and air conditioning were mysteriously cut off, yet his audience stayed, in the dark and the heat, to hear his work. A fierce critic of corruption, he had made himself unwelcome to the dominant political parties and was forced to live abroad from 1973 to 1994. His poetry blends passionate love stories with outspoken political commentary and dedication to the Kurdish cause. Dictionary of Midnight collects almost 50 years of his poetry recounting the recent political history of Kurdistan and its struggle for independence.

Silence (translated by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse)

When I am silent
Don’t think that I’m unburdened or idle
Trust me
my cranium is a beehive, hectic 

I have told you so much about my homeland
Your soul is brimming with love for it
Do you want its cities and villages to brighten your eyes?
Do you want to touch its wounds?
Then
when I am silent
saddle my silence
put your feet in the stirrups and strike
You will see my whole homeland 

Exile, (translated by Mahsn Majiidy)

When exile breaks like a storm
over the open plain of my calm,
when sadness spreads its wings
and hangs, like a crow,
at my door,
I take up the frozen-winged sparrow
of my grief
I go, I go
till I find a child
and with the light of his eyes
I teach the sparrow to fly again
Yet, my love,
how often have I seen
when children grieve in this city
how, like little ducks,
they come to bathe
in the lake of your eyes

For more on Ahmad, Bekas and Pashew:

Four Kurdish Poets

Personal is political in Kajal Ahmad’s Handful of Salt

Sherko Bekas: Poetry is a continuous act of questioning and questions have no ending

Abdulla Pashew at the Poetry Translation Center

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

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