A Tribute to Sherko Bekas, The Kurdish Poet of the Century

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By Dr Amir Sharifi and Ali Ashouri

“My name is a dream, I am from the land of magic, my father is the mountain, and my mother the mist, I was born in a year whose month was murdered, a month whose week was murdered, a day whose hours were murdered. (The Cross, the Snake, the Diary of a Poet). Indeed this is typical of the poetic intensity and Prometheon  identity of Sherko Bekas, whose re-imagined magical childhood is turned into the cruel context which he immediately defies and corners to strike back. The quickest way to find out what the Kurdish people think about the poet is to ask them to name the greatest poet in their time. They would undoubtedly mention Bekas for his poetry and love of liberty and his land. In this sense Bekas can be compared with the great Iranian poet Ahmad Shamloo, the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmat, the Turkish poet, and Mahmmoud Darvish, the Palestinian Poet. Bekas is the poet of our century, a poet of lofty visions and noble actions, embodying the contemporary literary tradition of his nation and even the world at large. As a prolific writer he published more than twenty five books of authentic poetry in Kurdish in a myriad of genres ranging from poetry to epic, plays, and children’s literature, some of which have been translated into major languages. He remained a noble, creative, and brave poet of love and freedom to the end, eschewing power, compromise, passive suffering, and silent complicity in any forms of repression. The Kurdish nation lost their poet of the century on August 4. He was 73.

Sherko Bekas was born into one of the main cultural centers of Kurdistan, Sulaimani in 1940. His father was a highly praised poet and teacher from whom Sherko as a young child learned the passion for poetry and his homeland. Although he lost his father when he was only ten years old, as he had recalled in an interview, “…my father left a profound psychological motivation for me, inciting me to write and excel, especially because I was welcomed into society as a poet’s son”. He went to Baghdad to continue his studies. His first experimental verses appeared in Zhyan a journal edited by the prominent modernist Kurdish poet, Goran in 1950’s and 1970. Bekas’s literary and formative journey with Goran as his heir turned him into one of the greatest poets of our times for his stylistic freedom, literary boldness, social commitment, and innovative style of writing. However, Bekas went far beyond the aesthetic transformation to become in his own turn the master and father of the Kurdish modern poetry. Early on he participated in pioneering one of the leading Kurdish literary movements that initiated and inspired new and bold literary interpretations and novelties outlined in Ruwange (vision). As he had pointed out in an interview, this literary revolution was aimed “at changing the structure of literary discourse in general, in both form and content, and finding new ways of expression while rejecting the language of dictionaries in order to avoid turning our inherited culture into a prison. It expounded upon our desires to be free to discover what has not yet been discovered, to mix local and global languages in new and creative writings, and to support freedom all over the world.”(Safaa Dhiab, Masarat Magazine and translated by Chenwa Hayek, 2007) While Bekas was still loyal to  the metrical and traditional form in Tirîfey Helbes( Moonlight Poems 1968), and Kajawa Gerian ( The Crying Mule Litter),  Qasida Koch (The Ode of Migration, 1970)  and The Secret Diary of a Rose ( Trans Reingard and Mirza, Salioghi, 1997 ) reflect his choice of a new  style and literary horizon that came to profoundly affect, change, and shape contemporary Kurdish literary history.  In 1975, he introduced the “poster poems” with its novel verbal patterning and aesthetics in which the senses of seemingly trivial and mundane objects inhabiting his micro-poems open hidden realities and mysteries of the world through his aesthetic and linguistic variations.

The world to which the vital and vigorous mind of the poet was introduced was tumultuous and cruel, which in turn shaped the poet’s dispositions and approach to literature. After the downfall of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan, life became more dreary and darker for the poet who was being persecuted. The Bekas of 1970s and 1980’s was the poet of mass exodus, tales of heartache, and struggle with the fervor and fire of life and a revolutionary vision, a vision that he deemed essential for poetic sensibility and aesthetic transformation. He traveled to Italy and eventually in 1987 took sanctuary in Sweden where he was awarded the Tucholsky prize for his poetry. During his exile in Sweden, he published multiple volumes of poetry in Diwani Sherko Bekas (1974-1986). This altered personal life and that of his whole nation created endless and powerful explosions of poetry that enabled him to make sense of the estranged world of the exile. His literary work and contributions began to flourish as a member of the Swedish Writers’ Union and the Swedish Pen Club. During this period more than anything else, the historical significance of his work becomes more pronounced in his stream of poems about the reality of his homeland as he forges new images and draws on the immense capacity of his mother tongue to confront a chronology of carnages. The poet confronts a barbarous world of oppression and boldly and vividly represents the natural geography of plants, people, and places he has left behind. He is uprooted from his land, but his senses are deeply rooted in the memories of its landscape and the struggle and songs of freedom he composes for and as a Peshmerga. Even though he had left the land, wars constantly exploded upon his world in Sweden.
 

Counting

If you could one by one

count all the leaves in this garden

If you could count all the fish

Little and big

In the flowing river in your front of you

If you could one by one count

The migratory birds

during their migration season  

From the north to south

and from the south to north,

I would also promise to count

one by one

All the victims of this beloved land of Kurdistan! (February 1987)

Life in exile was formative for his literary career and fervent idealism which reaffirmed his commitment to freedom. In contemplating on the paradigm of exquisite poetry he calls it a “fine art, heavy, delicate as the wings of a butterfly and heavy like the imprisonment for the heart of a revolutionary. How can it not echo the decisive war between darkness and light, between the existence of the poet, in particular, and the forest of life, wishes and yearnings of people, between delicate techniques, delicate as the honeybee and silk worm? True poetry is fluid in the same way truth is heavy…”  Awena buchkalakan (Small Mirrors, 1988) reflect the evolution of this period where the poet and his poems are the voice of despair and struggle in a desolate and depleted yet hopeful world. These and many other poems are home coming or rather going home. Home here is not just his hometown that he loved so dearly but the entire Kurdistan “I love Sulaimaniya , my birthplace, I will never stop loving Mehabad, Diarybakir…I consider myself the poet of all Kurdish nation, the poet of revolution and Peshmergas, flowers, Kurmanji children of the South and North, I consider myself the mother poet of Kurdistan.” (Speech at Folkore Hois, the Whole Sky of my Borders, 8/8/1987).

The poet is not like the people but the people.
 

We were millions

An old tree

A young tree

We were seeds

The helmet of Ankara

In a bloody night came

To uproot us

They did,

They took us away long away!

On the way many old trees bent

In the cold many young trees died

They froze

Many seeds were trampled

They were lost and forgotten

Like a river in the summer we had little water

Like birds in the autumn, we became fewer

We ended up in thousands of homes

There were still seeds among us, the wind took them

The wind returned them

They reached the thirsty mountains

They hid among the rocks

The first rain

The second rain

The third rain

They grew again

We are now a forest again

We are millions             

The Small Mirrors reveal exceptional aesthetic ability  and variety, unparalleled facility with words, a poetry that is emotionally, historically, cognitively, and existentially accessible to the public through its rich yet simple everyday language. These poems whose style the poet recreates in “Flashes” lay bare the poet’s cherished native land whose nature and people are slaughtered before the very eyes of an oblivious world.  His gorestan chrakan( Graveyard of Lights) is the tragic chronicle of Anfal, the Kurdish holocaust in his own words, a long poem in the “panorama of humanity” and an effort “not to forget”.
 

Soil
With my hand, I reached for the branch

The branch recoiled from excruciating pain

when as I reached for the branch

The stem of the tree cried out in pain

when I embraced the trunk of the tree

The earth under my feet shook

Rocks moaned

when I bent down

and picked up a handful of the soil

The entire Kurdistan

let out a wail.
            Bekas  travelled widely to read his poetry for eager readers. We met him  during his first trip to the United States in 1990 after the publication of his comprehensive anthology of poetry. I co- translated into Persian (Amir Sharifi, Hassan Ahmadi and Talib Birzanji) the poems of his Small Mirrors, a number of which were recited ( now available on some sites) by the great Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamloo in a fund raising program organized for the Kurdish refugees in Iraq in 1991. Shamloo who was known to be reserved in his admiration for other poets called Bekas  “a rare and imagistic poet”.  He began the program with this poem in Persian.

 

Separation

If you take away flowers from my poems

One of my four seasons will die

If you take away the wind,

Two seasons will die

If you take away bread,

Three seasons will die

If you take away freedom

My whole year will die and so will I
 

            The authors of this article  interviewed Bekas during his first trip to California in 1990. We were inspired by the breadth and depth of his knowledge about the world literature and his vision for the future of the Kurdish literature. He spoke of the need for the Kurdish literature to become more universal in its verbal and aesthetic modes of expression yet to be anchored to the native source.  He expressed his reservations about translation to be able to approximate an original work. As a pioneer in the literature of the Kurdish tongue through his translations of the “Old man and the Sea” and Garcia Lorca’s “Blood Wedding” he had shown the immense linguistic capacity and capabilities of the Kurdish language to be universalizing and universalized.  Between life in exile and his return to his homeland in 1991, in his voluminous Diwans of poetry one see his gigantic endeavor to capture the entire history, epic heritage and struggle, and life of his people whose tragic fate and rich literature and culture, was disgracefully ignored by most Middle Eastern and Western intellectuals and authors, an issue that tormented the poet’s mind for whom “poetry could not be detached from humanity.” However, he knew that in the name of Kurds, with the elegance and nuance of his verse and vision, he would make the world see the splendor and power of the language in the midst of holocausts of Anfal and Halabja.
….

Right before eleven o, clock

Under the roof of a poverty stricken house in Halbja

There was a family…mother, father, a child

A few seconds right before eleven o, clock

The mother was rocking the cradle

The child was smiling

The father was listening to a song on a tape recorder

lying down

The clock struck eleven o’clock

The city was a bird, asleep, its neck under its feathers

No cooing pigeons, no chirruping

No murmur

No shrieking

No sound of breathing

No sighing

After eleven o, clock

Only one sound, one loud sound in that city

echoed in the mountains

And in the midst of poison

the boat of life was sailing

only one sound

after eleven o ,clock

the sound of the music tape in the room

playing the songs of rifles and Peshmerga

Sherko Bekas’s poetry never loses lyricism despite the fact that it is anchored to the immediate lived experiences and everyday language. He taps and uncovers the miracles and marvels of the Kurdish language and cultural history by turning every day words and grammatical constructions into the most abstract yet tangible and concretely present observations, literary images, and experiences.
 

The Wind

Your love is like “the wind”

When I want to be enflamed

It comes and extinguishes me

Your love is like the “wind”

Once I am enflamed

It comes and ignites me (1988)

 

He writes:

I was the host to the rain

In my room

When it departed,

It left me a flower

I was the host to the sun

In my room

When it departed,

It left a small mirror for me

I was the host to the tree

In my room

When it departed,

It left me a comb

But you Oh! Beautiful girl

When you were my guest

In my room

When you departed

You took the flower, the mirror, and the comb

But you left me
A darling poem(1987)
 

              After years of life in exile, in 1991 Bekas returned to his cherished home after the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government. He was elected to serve as the first Kurdish Minister of Culture; however, he resigned a year later, focusing on a cultural center called Sardam in Suleimaniya since 1995. His style of writing continued to evolve to transcend fixed boundaries of genres and politics. His poetry will continue to inspire the new generation of Kurdish poets and authors about the dynamic and dialogic interrelationship between literature and liberty. As he had pointed out “Humanistic literature cannot emerge from a closed or racist mind the ideology of hatred and discrimination cannot produce universal love.” In this context he grappled with cultural and political impediments to women’s liberty and pressed for a new understanding of their place in the Kurdish society. In his last work easta kechek nishteman mena (My Homeland is Now a Girl, 2011) the poet rebels against all sanctities and the masculine tempers of the time, and presuppositions to find a new mode of expression beyond any fixed genres and forms to envision “a woman as the homeland” whose freedom from oppressive conditions remain his preoccupation and identification with humanity and the nature of his poetic culture.

 

Now a Girl is My Homeland

Here she comes!

Oh lovers!

Here she comes herself!

In the fall leaves clothed

With nineteen yellow years

With nineteen dark lights

With nineteen green chalices

With the homesick autumn butterfly

She is on the way

She is coming to you

I beg you

When she arrives before you

I beg you

In the harkening sky

offer her your harkening bird

In your eyes, behold her closely with your eyes

reach into your bosom

With a kiss of the sight

offer her  the apple of your heart

She is the ode of a wild and cold wind

wounded on the streets and in your homes

So heart broken a wind

So hopeless a rain

A book repulsed by its own language

This is the tale of oppression

The spectacle of the deceptions and machinations

of hands and fists of yours all

Here she comes!

Oh lovers!

She herself comes

This beloved

With the land and burned flower of the land

 She has picked

Here she comes!

With her she brings the remembrance of a victim here

Here she comes!

Oh lovers!
To create freshness and incisive social vision, Bekas had to be in a perpetual state of change and rebirth; his works sought to evoke and rediscover the familiar and delve into unfamiliar worlds in his passionate sense of being, feelings, and things of the world, in his love for the nature and culture of his homeland.  Indeed in reading Sherko Bekas we come to know what it means to be a Kurd through his images in and through a vivid language, forceful metaphors and metamorphoses, and the indestructible power of life. His last testament prophesying his own death is the triumph of  such a life over his personal death. Kurds will continue to give their national poet of the century a fitting tribute; everywhere they have expressed their gratitude to Bekas and so will the mass of humanity when they come to know him. We as a nation have been fortunate to have had such a great poet to stand for and stand up for us. Bekas like one of the many migratory birds in his poems has now returned to his nest. His wish was to be buried in his hometown in the green landscape of his childhood in the Azadi (Freedom) Park at the foot of a monument that bears the names of the 1963 martyrs and in the midst of the living. He wanted his tomb to be turned into a corner for poets and lovers to celebrate and honor his life with what Kurds value most: poetry, music, and dance.

 

Last Testament
I do not want to be buried on any known hilltop or famous graveyards of my city

Firstly because they are all packed.

Secondly I do not really like overcrowded places

If the chief of the police and the municipality council of my city let me and find me deserving

I want to be buried in the Azadi( Freedom) Park at the foot of the Monument of the 1963 Suleimaniya Martyrs

That place is beautiful and I won’t be short of breath   

I want even when I am dead, to be near the men and women of my hometown

I like to listen to music, songs, and dance, and see the lovely sights of the park

Let  them bring my library, my poetry collections, and pictures to my tomb

Let there be a cafeteria and a small garden

So that poets, authors, and girls and boys in love are my guests

I want from now with the imaginative eye

See it all after my death

I want  to the accompaniment of  the tale of “ dilan u walla visi” and  the anthem of “ khwaya watan abad keh’   songs by Ali Mardan

and wrapped in the Kurdistan flag

To be buried  

At my funeral I want music to be played,

on my tomb I want the beautiful paintings of my hometown artists to be on display

I want after my death and in my name

Bekas, an annual award to be given

to the most beautiful selected poem of the year,

and the cost of this prize is to be covered by the inheritance that I leave behind.

Quelle: http://www.rudaw.net/english/opinion/12092013

 

 

 

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