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Singing Lands of Freedom

By Cécile Oumhani

Echchaâb yurid isqât ennidhâm!  The people want the fall of the regime! Each word rhythmically chanted by the crowd. A slogan ringing in Tunis in January, now resounding in cities all over Syria, as protesters bravely face snipers and security forces every day, every evening.

Echchaâb yurid isqât ennidhâm!  Tears run down the cheeks of my poet friend as the Parisian plane trees shed a few pale leaves on the huge Syrian flag stretched across the square. There are no olive branches in Paris for the protesters to carry in token of peace.  Only the word Silmiye! Silmiye! Peaceful! Peaceful!  And we chant it repeatedly.

The lament of the duduk and violins in the loudspeakers . . . then a voice rises. So familiar . . . I shiver. My poet friend sighs beside me, as we hold on to our side of the immense flag fluttering in the breeze.  My memories of Şivan Perwer, the Kurdish bard, go so far back into the past.

His voice echoed in my mind for many years, powerful, enthralling. There was a time when I would play his cassettes over and over again, almost compulsively, at home, in my car, wherever I was, although I did not understand a word of Kurdish.  I can’t have heard him on the visit I made to Turkey in the early eighties. By then, he was already in his German exile, with most of his songs banned in several Middle-Eastern countries.  It must have been in Berlin, probably in one of Kreuzberg’s bars.  The presence of the wall, its barbed wire and sinister watchtowers, made the pain of exile more acute, isolating us from the rest of the world. In winter, the city seemed to melt away, inexorably wrapping itself in thick, icy fog. Dusk fell as early as four o’clock; endless hours of darkness and solitude, which only conversations and music in a favourite kneipe could assuage.  Momentarily . . .

I did not understand a word of Kurdish. And yet his songs meant so much. His voice rose in longing for his lost land, a proud representative of his culture and his language brutally silenced.  Each of his words opened bright visions of territories I had never seen, vast sandy steppes and somber mountain ranges stretching to the horizon. I discovered how present a land could become through the sheer power of music.  Like in those dreams where we sometimes revisit long-lost places in all their moving details.

A deep voice of infinite richness rising above the melancholy duduk and airy notes of the tembur . . . . It not only told tales of absence and estrangement, it also celebrated life, determination, and the courage to resist.  Since then, Şivan Perwer has become a world-acclaimed artist, relentlessly singing the memory of his people, traveling from one country to another, like his ancestors, the dengbêjs, the traditional Kurdish bards who recited age-old romances and epics, walking from one village to another.  His ballads and poems are the poignant testimony that words and music can transcend loss and destruction.  Living evidence that no security forces, no jails can ban the lands of freedom from our minds.

When his name appeared on a Facebook page, in the midst of the Arab awakening, I feverishly clicked on the link to his new song, “El selam wel hurriye,” dedicated to the protesters of the Arab awakening.  Here was his voice again, not only in Kurdish but also in English and Arabic. The dengbêj who had shown me into unknown territories at a time when, locked in absence and exile, we longed to go back to what seemed a forbidden land, is now singing about Tunisia. Here he is, paying tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself afire last December; to Hamza Al Khateeb, the young boy tortured and assassinated by the Syrian security forces in May.  A song of liberty and hope ringing across North Africa and the Middle East, a song no security forces, no jails will ever be able to silence.

Echchaâb yurid isqât ennidhâm! The people want the fall of the regime!

Hurriyat! Azadi! Freedom in Arabic, freedom in Kurdish.

The huge flag heaves in the wind, as in unison with the protesters, and the rally draws to an end.  The lament of the duduk fills the Paris square, shortly followed by the violins, before the voice of the bard sings once more, deep, powerful, a symbol of hope for the protesters. Only after the final notes of his song do we start folding the immense flag. Till next time.

Published Jul 7, 2011   Copyright 2011 Cécile Oumhani

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