This month, Words Without Borders brings readers a selection of poetry translated from Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect spoken in Rojava. The autonomous Kurdish region of Syria has been in the news in recent months after the removal of US military units stationed there and Turkey’s subsequent invasion.
Throughout its history, Words Without Borders has advocated for increased access to writing from around the world in English translation. We exist for writers and translators, to provide a venue and a platform for their work and to foster cultural exchange. We strongly believe in the rights of literary artists to work and publish freely, and our decision to publish this selection of writers from Rojava reflects our commitment to ensuring their important art reaches international readers. When one of the poets featured here, Ciwan Qado, released his first book in 2003, it was officially against Syrian law to publish in Kurdish.
Publishing work from a disputed region or language comes with high stakes. Headline-grabbing conflicts in far-flung territories are often framed in US media as either-or propositions; news coverage frequently fails to address the fact that for many writers, acts as simple as publishing in one’s own country, in one’s own language, often present great dangers away from the battlefield. We must at times find appropriate literary responses to current events. We believe in literature’s unique ability to provide us with a diversity of perspectives, and we also believe in challenging our own paradigms through engagement with these writers.
To this end, we have worked with writer, publisher, and translator David Shook to present emerging poets in Rojava who represent a new generation; their ability to publish their work is possible thanks to the recent development of the autonomous Rojava territory. Shook—who currently lives in Iraq—has collaborated on this project with Zêdan Xelef, a Kurdish writer and translator whose own family has been caught up in the territorial disputes involving the Islamic State, the Kurds, and regional nation-states. Important to our decision to feature this writing was the presence of a guest editor in the region who had access to information on the conflict largely unavailable via Western media. Shook’s collaboration with Xelef was likewise crucial, ensuring that someone intimately familiar with the complexity of the Kurdish context was involved in and advising on the project.
WWB has consistently shown a commitment to supporting the right to cultural expression of artists working in disputed territories. In 2014, WWB published its first Kurdish-language feature; in 2015, we published a selection of writing by Palestinian authors; in 2017, WWB published an issue of work from countries riven by internal disputes; and in response to the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, we published poetry that grappled with the complexity of that event. These are but a few examples.
In deciding to bring this important work to readers of English, we consulted with colleagues engaged in the daily work of protecting writers in similar situations in order to grasp the full magnitude of this decision, particularly as it related to the safety of the featured poets, all of whom were eager to see their work published in English.
As Rojava confronts the uncertainty provoked by Turkey’s recent attacks and Syria’s unwillingness to recognize the autonomy of the region, we are grateful for the opportunity to provide this look at the verse of its poets. Shook’s illuminating introductory essay provides context on Kurdish-language literature and a brief assessment of the oeuvre of each of the three poets presented here.