The diverse world of Kurdish literature – Interview with ECHO-Library

Republished from echo-library.

At the start of the summer we were lucky enough to receive funding to slowly start to build up our collection of Sorani-language books. Through the marvellous network that is the land of booklovers and literature enthusiasts we reached Kaveh, a Kurdish journalist currently living in Germany and Sara, the founders of Kitêbhên, an online bookstore dedicated to Kurdish literature in its two most widespread dialects: Kurmanji and Sorani.

Our librarian Becka took the opportunity to satisfy her curiosity about this fascinating language group and its literary evolution. Many thanks to Kaveh and Sara for their insight!

  1. How old is Sorani – has it always been a written language? Out of all the Kurdish dialects is there one that has traditionally been more prominent than the others?

Sorani is the Kurdish dialect mostly spoken in the Iranian (Rojilat) and Iraqi (Bashur) Kurdistan, whereas Kurmanji is mostly used in the Turkish (Bakur) and Syrian (Rojava) Kurdistan; however, there are many others Kurdish dialects such as Zazaki and Ghalori.

As far as our limited experience, knowledge and research is concerned, Sorani has been written as one of the main dialects of the Kurdish language, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century, a period which marked the beginning of the emergence and growth of new intellectuals in all parts of Kurdistan.

ECHO’s book of the week earlier this year was the legend of the fort of Damdam – an heroic epic that retells the rising of the Kurds under the leadership of the one-handed Amir Khan against the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas in 1608.

The first Kurdish printing house was established in 1909 in Istanbul. But during the reign of Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, Iraqi Kurdistan also had two printing houses. The first was a printing press set up in 1918 by Huseynê Mukriyanî (1943-1883) in Aleppo and transferred to Rawanduz (Iraqi Kurdistan), and the second was a printing press by Migerson, a British colonial representative, which was moved to Sulaymaniyah in 1920 (this was during the time Iraq was under a British so-called Protectorate, ed.). Between 1918 and 1928, 11 magazines and periodicals were published in Iraqi Kurdistan alone. One of them is “Jian” (“life”) newspaper, which is the oldest Kurdish newspaper in terms of continuity and has been able to survive for nearly 100 years.

These publications were all published in the Sorani language and their authors were mainly men from the bourgeoisie. In the late 1930s, newspapers in Sorani were also published in Iranian Kurdistan. “Nishtiman” (English: homeland), published by the petty bourgeois intellectuals of Kurdistan between 1943 and 1945, is one of these newspapers, which was able to publish 10 issues. During the one-year rule of the Republic of Kurdistan (from January 22 to December 15, 1946) in Iranian Kurdistan, several newspapers and magazines were published in the Sorani dialect such as Kurdistan (Newspaper), Helaleh (Magazine), Mindalan (Children’s Magazine) and Awat (Magazine). During the same period books in the field of history, language, literature and even religion were published in Sorani. 

The fall of the Republic of Kurdistan in Iran in 1946 coincided with another round of repression against Kurdish people in Iraq. In this time, began a period of historical stagnation in the Kurdish press and publications that lasted until the 1970s. This recession included both Kurmanji and Sorani dialects. However, the novel “Peshmerga”  by Rahim Ghazi was written in this period (1949): a novel that according to many was the beginning of the modern Kurdish Sorani novel.

In the 1980s, coinciding with the Iranian revolution and the political coup in Turkey, the Kurdish press and publications underwent another transformation. Simultaneously with the Iranian revolution in 1979, we witnessed a short spell of press and publications. After that, following the central government’s attack on the experience of democratic self-government, books and the press once again went into hiding.

In Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991, the same year autonomy was established in Iraq, , we have witnessed the unprecedented growth of the Sorani Kurdish language and  literature. From 1991, Kurdish became the official language of the Iraqi Kurdistan government and from 2005, of Iraq. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the language of scientific, academic, and industrial centers officially became Sorani Kurdish. In Iran, after the revolution, only cultural works were allowed to be published, but in 1997, at the same time as political reforms in this country, the Sorani Kurdish press and publications came to life again. Over the past 20 years, the press, literature, and even the Kurdish language have grown as large as the entire written history of the language.

Homer’s Iliad in Kurmanji translation – part of our library collection

What is published today under the title of Sorani books and literature is mainly the product of publications and cultural centers of Iraqi Kurdistan. But Iranian Kurdistan publishers have also managed to publish hundreds of new Kurdish book titles despite the restrictions.

  1. Sorani is one of the several Kurdish language dialects, however from our experience in Greece Sorani and Kurmanji speakers do not necessarily understand one another. How different are these dialects, how did they evolve and how come they use different alphabets?

Yes, there are many differences between Sorani, Kermanji and other Kurdish dialects. This difference is not only in the accent or the grammar, but in the case of Kurmanji and Sorani, they are basically written with two different alphabetic systems. There are so many differences that some linguists believe that we should speak of “Kurdish languages”  and not “Kurdish dialects”. The fact is that there is no single Kurdish language. The reason is the special political position of the Kurds in the Middle East and the non-governmental nature of their language. The traditional Kurdish alphabet is Aramaic, but under the influence of a forced change in the form of the Turkish language, the Turkish Kurds also changed the Kurmanji alphabet, which is their dialect, to Latin alphabet. Kurdish is currently written in at least three different alphabets: Latin (Turkish and Syrians Kurds), Aramaic/Arabic (Iraqi and Iranian Kurds), and Cyrillic alphabet (Russian and Armenian Kurds).

However, the differences in the Kurdish language are not so deep that Kurds from different parts of Kurdistan cannot understand each other. Those who know one of the Kurdish dialects well are able to understand and communicate with other speakers of other Kurdish dialects. However, the Kurds in some countries, especially in Turkey, have experienced severe assimilation, which has led them to either not learn Kurdish or to have difficulty and with many restrictions. This is also true for some Iranian Kurds, especially in the Kermanshah and Ilam regions. Insufficient knowledge of the mother tongue makes it much more difficult for them to communicate with speakers of other languages ​​than for those who have spoken their mother tongue from the beginning.

  1. Most Kurds from Syria do not read Kurmanji as it was forbidden to study in their native language. Is it the same for Sorani? What was it like for you growing up speaking/studying Sorani?

I come from an unassimilated part of Iranian Kurdistan. Compared to other regions in Iranian Kurdistan, such as Kermanshah and Ilam, there have been fewer restrictions on speaking Kurdish. But like other Kurds, we were deprived of education in our mother tongue at that time, Kurdish school teachers had to speak farsi to Kurdish children. However, during the reform period (1997-2005) there were limited opportunities to teach Kurdish in public institutions, and we could voluntarily learn one hour a week in Kurdish. Most of my generation learned Kurdish in the same way, but now the government has allowed Kurdish to be taught in some Kurdish schools (as part of a Persian literature textbook) on a trial basis.

As for Iraqi Kurdistan, most of whom speak the Sorani dialect, they have fewer problems than Iranian Kurdistan. The Kurdish language was not banned in the worst periods of Iraq, i.e. during the Ba’athist rule.

In general, it can be said that Sorani has not been severely restricted or banned as for the Kurmanji Kurdish. The non-official banning of the Kurdish language in Iraq and Iran did not imply the same hard repression of the speakers of this language.

  1. How does the presence of different dialects affect the Kurdish struggle for autonomy?
a quote from Ocalan on the walls of Lavrio’s self-organised Kurdish camp

This is an interesting question. The Kurdish struggle has been waged primarily through language and in language. Kurds have historically been subjected to repression, massacres and even genocide. During the contemporary era, in response to this repression, they have organised themselves and resisted. This resistance has taken different forms and the Kurds have been forced to take up arms at times.  At times, despite military strikes and formal warfare, central governments have waged the most radical possible peaceful struggles, such as long marches, and repeated general strikes.

Arguably, the most important part of this resistance is through the literature and through dance. The poet Rasul Gamzatov argues that the lower classes are alive in their poetry, dance and song, despite their repression at the hands of those ‘above’ them in the social and economic hierarchy.

Many of the lands that have historically been an integral part of Kurdistan are now other Arab and Turkish cities. The Kurds have historically paid dearly for autonomy. The last time after the referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan was in September 2017, the Iraqi Kurds lost 40% of their land compared to the pre-ISIS era. The Kurdish city of Afrin in Rojava was also occupied by Turkey in 2018. The Iranian Kurds, who had experienced democratic self-government in 1979, were later forced to withdraw from Kurdish cities.

a map showing the rough dispersal of the Kurdish population

The Kurds lost a lot of territory, but what they did not lose was the language. It seems that the people of Kurdistan have taken refuge in the language with each failure in material relations with the other. The multiplicity of Kurdish dialects, the richness of the language, the unique literary genres, and the lack of trust in official history have allowed the Kurds not only to preserve but also to expand their language in an exceptional situation outside the government machine. The Yazidi Kurds, who have been attacked 72 times by massacres and once by genocide throughout history, have preserved their independent narrative of these massacres through “Hoora”, a special form of Kurdish verbal music. This is also true of the religion of Yarsan. All religious rituals of Yarsan are performed through recitation and playing the Tanbur. This cultural and linguistic richness has helped the Kurds in their experience of organizing a democratic movement. 

  1. Tell us about your project Kitebhen – what inspired you to start it?

The name of our project is “Kitebhen”. Kitebhen is a compound word in Sorani Kurdish. “Kiteb” means book and “hen” means “to bring”, that is: the one who brings the book. Kitebhen is actually a project to physically transport Kurdish books to Europe. Although the Kurds are one of the largest minorities in many European countries, they do not have access to diverse Kurdish books. There are now some projects for the distribution of Kermanji books in Europe, but not for Sorani. Our project was first and foremost a response to this need, which eventually became the idea of ​​establishing an online Kurdish bookstore where different dialects of the Kurdish language could be accessed simultaneously.

We started our work to make Kurdish books, and especially Sorani books, more accessible to the Kurdish audience, but we also have an idea of a bookstore in the sense of a place beyond just exchanging books. Our dream is to find a place, in the future, where to set up a multilingual bookstore, a place where you could access and talk about Arabic books while looking for English books, discuss with different people and exchange ideas and experiences. 

Kitebhen bookshop in Berlin
  1. Which of the Kurdish dialects do you have in stock?

Currently, you can access books in Kurmanji, Sorani, Zazaki and Kalhori dialects on the Kitebhen website. A few books in German, English, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic are also available. 

7. You recently sent us a selection of Sorani books for the library. Can you pick one of the books you sent and tell us a little about it and the author?

Bakhtiar Ali, Frankfurt 2017

One of these books is a novel by Bakhtiar Ali, a Kurdish author, which has been translated into many languages. “The last pomegranate” won  in 2018 the Nelly-Sachs Prize in Germany. It can be said that this book, despite its elitist aspects, is one of the best-selling Sorani novels in history. Like many of my contemporaries, it is through this novel that I became acquainted with Bakhtiar Ali’s novels, literature and even the Kurdish language. Written in the style of magical realism, the novel tells the story of Iraqi Kurdistan during and after the country’s devastating wars. Many reviews of this novel have been written and published in various languages.

  1. One of the oldest-known Kurdish female writer was poet Celale Xanima Loristani who died in 935. Could you tell us a little about the role of women in Kurdish literature?

One would probably not be surprised to say that Kurdish women, like other women in the world, do not have an equal place in literature. Literature, language and thought have always reflected the patriarchal nature of most societies and Kurdistan and the Kurdish language are no exception. Despite the pioneering of poets such as  Mastoureh Khanum Ardalan-Kurdistani  (1805 – 1848)  or the collectors of Hapsa Xani Naqib (1891-1953), the presence of women as writers was low until the second half of the twentieth century.

It should be noted that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Iranian Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan were mainly rural areas and the majority of them, especially women, were deprived of opportunities to become literate.

However, the content analysis of some of the press of the early twentieth century, especially the “Jian” newspaper, the oldest Kurdish newspaper, has repeatedly emphasized women’s rights. In the same newspaper, Gazideh Aziz Khanum, who is the director of the girls’ school in Sulaimaniyah, has published articles about women’s rights.

The active and systematic presence of women as writers in Kurdish society dates back to the 1970s. From this period onwards, we have witnessed the constant presence of women writers in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although many of them entered the intellectual arena as poets, over time they struggled to gain equal status by entering other arenas.

There are now female figures in all areas of literature. The works of poets such as Choman Hardi and Ava Homa have become internationally renowned. However, the share of Kurdish women in the Kurdish library, for example, is small compared to the share of Persian women in the Persian library. Although women in the social sphere are constantly fighting for social justice and equal struggle and have succeeded in changing their position, it seems that their position in the literature does not correspond to the real changes.

  1. Who is your favourite Kurdish writer and why?

I think I would say Sherko Bekas (1940-2013). Sherko Bekas’ poems have been translated into many languages. Sherko Bekas speaks the language of the world, his poems transcend linguistic boundaries. Many believe that Sherko Bekas, the great poet of Iraqi Kurdistan, played an important role in the evolution of the Sorani Kurdish language. He published dozens of poetry collections on topics such as nature, women and freedom.

  1. Who is the one Sorani-language writer that you would like to see in translated to reach a wider audience?

We would like to see more works by Bakhtiar Ali translated. At the same time, we would like to see the works of writers such as Sherzad Hassan (*1951) in front of a wider audience because of their critical content of the patriarchal society. We also want works by female authors such as Ahlam Mansour (1951 – 2013) to be translated. But perhaps most importantly, we would like to bring more Kurdish legends and fairy tales to a global audience. One of our desires in Kitebhen to re-collect old myths and folktales and turn them into children’s books.

  1. How do you see the future for Kurdish literature?

The Kurdish language and literature are evolving again, as they did in the first half of the twentieth century. Thousands of Kurdish books were published during the so-called Peace Years of Turkey (2010 to 2013). In the last twenty years, despite numerous restrictions and the Iranian government’s efforts to reduce politics to culture, Kurdish publishers have managed to publish hundreds of Sorani books. Kurdish is an official language in Iraq, as mentioned. It is the main language of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, its media, administrative and educational system. Since the establishment of self-government in Rojava and northeastern Syria, Kurdish children have been attending Kurdish-language schools. Given this set of conditions, it can be assumed that Kurdish literature is just beginning.

  1. Anything else?

I would like to insist on the fact that the project of Kitêbhên seemed important to us because, as it has been said, Kurdish is a language that has been, and still is, repressed in the different regions of Kurdistan. What we are doing would not have been possible without the work of all those generations who sometimes risked their lives to keep the Kurdish language and literature alive. We are particularly happy about the encounters made possible by this project, such as with your mobile library in Greece, and with individuals around the world. Several people have sent us books they have written, sometimes they introduce us to books in our bookshop by telling us a personal story about them. So thank you to everyone who has participated in setting up the project!