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from the January 2020 issue

Beyond the Headlines: Poetry from Rojava

By the time I moved to South Kurdistan in the late summer of 2018, I had been watching the development of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), commonly known internationally by its Kurdish name, Rojava, for several years. Like many others, I was excited to see how its libertarian socialist government would take shape, and inspired by its publicly declared values of gender equality, environmental sustainability, and pluralism. As a poet and translator, I was eager to learn more about the region’s literature, and soon I met the collaborator who would make that possible.

When Zêdan Xelef and I began translating these poems from Rojava in late spring of this year, we could not have imagined the severity of what would begin unfolding little more than a month ago, when a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan resulted in the launch of the euphemistic Operation Peace Spring, a military invasion of the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. In recent years, organizations from the BBC and the New York Times to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights have monitored Rojava’s evolution and the unique circumstances of the conflict within Syria that have permitted its creation.

In the midst of this rapidly changing situation, we are presenting three poets from Rojava. Cihan Hesen, Ciwan Nebî, and Ciwan Qado offer a humanizing glimpse into a region so quickly reduced in public forums to political analysis and partisan assertions. It is our hope that these translations showcase the vibrant literary culture that doesn’t reach Western headlines. Because of current events, there does exist a more bellicose and patriotic strain of contemporary poetry from Rojava. While these poems have their place in society, we generally found them to require onerous explanation, to be less grounded in imagery, and, from a literary perspective, to seem less compelling. The poems in this selection do not directly address the politics of Rojava today. They do, however, reflect the passions and preoccupations of its residents, whose history of persecution over the past decades makes the very act of writing in Kurdish a defiance of repression.

As in much of his work, Ciwan Qado’s poems in this selection, especially “[I need to wake up at 3:00 in the morning and go to work],” express a longing to return to the less complicated days of childhood. The setting of Ciwan Nebî’s poem appears to be a war-torn Syria, shots ringing through an abandoned city. It is worth noting that, like the madman of his poem, Nebî himself has remained in Qamishlo. Like Qado's, Cihan Hesen’s poetry is a poetry of longing, whether for a lover or her homeland. In fact, she often links the concept of a homeland to the idea of a lover—a substitutive image that recurs in the work of Kurdish poets Abdulla Pashew and Sherko Bekas, among others. In this sense, these poets’ work belongs to the contemporary Kurdish tradition, which spans several variants that are not mutually intelligible. Pashew and Bekas, for example, write in the Sorani variant used throughout much of the autonomous Kurdish territory of present-day Iraq. Translation into Kurmanji has made their work popular in Rojava and Bakur, as the Kurdish region of present-day Turkey is traditionally known, where shared cultural history and values resonate across linguistic differences. At the same time, these poets’ work engages with the poetry of the wider region, and of greater Syria especially, where two of these three poets pursued their tertiary education. Multilingualism is widespread in Rojava, where many speak Arabic, as well as Turkish, Persian, and other variants of Kurdish, and literary translators, including Zêdan, labor nobly to bring more books into Kurmanji from the languages of the world.

Read a letter from WWB editors on our decision to run this feature of poetry from Rojava

When Qado’s first book, The Blind Snake, came out in 2003, publishing a Kurdish-language book was officially against the law in Syria, where minority populations have long endured intense legal discrimination, including arbitrary revocation of citizenship, prohibitions on property ownership, and even a ban on speaking Kurdish in their own homes. Since official publication was impossible, the popular book circulated in samizdat, passed from reader to reader. By the time Hesen and Nebî had written their first books, Rojava had achieved its de facto autonomy, and they were able to publish their work after an end to the ban on Kurdish-language publications.

The Kurmanji variant of Kurdish—a dialect continuum comprised of at least three major families—is spoken in northern Syria as well as several neighboring and nearby countries, and has fifteen million speakers. Its written literary tradition dates to the seventeenth century, and it has long been a vehicle for the transmission of oral literatures, including the songs and prayers of the Êzîdî. In Rojava, the language uses the Latin script; historically, much early literature was written using the Arabic script, and, among the relatively tiny population of speakers in Armenia, even Cyrillic. Our translation process for these poems was intensive. Following Zêdan’s work to create initial cribs, we labored together over every line, often at a Sulaimani café named for the classical Kurdish poet Nali. Zêdan would often read the original Kurmanji aloud, as I would the English translation, and bringing the poems to life in speech proved an important method for editing our translations and doing our best to replicate the rhythm and pacing of the originals.

It’s important to note that Rojava is not entirely or exclusively Kurdish; we have chosen to use its Kurdish name because of its ubiquity in the international community. The region’s diverse population is about 40 percent Arab, and includes smaller communities of Armenians, Assyrians, Chechens, Dom, and Turkmens, among others, as well as a small but notable population of immigrants from the West. Our initial selection of poems has focused on the emerging poets writing in Kurmanji because it is their work that most engages with the idea of a cohesive cultural identity forged from a combination of Rojava's recent political autonomy and the unique culture its residents aspire to create. While these poets may claim multiple identities, they consider themselves poets from Rojava. It is our hope that in the future we can expand this portfolio to include work written in Arabic, Syriac, and the territory’s other languages.

In Kurdish, rojava means both “sunset” and “west,” and among Kurds in the other three contemporary nation-states with significant populations, the region has often been referred to as West Kurdistan. The word is comprised of two parts—roj, the word for “sun,” and ava, meaning “dwelling.” As Zêdan recently explained, in both a “literal and spiritual sense it means that the sun goes home.” Today, the ambitious, idealistic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces an existential crisis. These poems, meanwhile, display the health and vitality of a literature that has already proved to be a potent medium for self-expression, a grounds for linguistic experimentation, and an important declaration of autonomy itself.

© 2019 by David Shook. All rights reserved.

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