The epics that kept alive Kurdish tradition

The epics that kept alive Kurdish tradition
Kurdish folklore and language has been passed through the generations using oral traditions, especially song.
4 min read
11 November, 2014
Kurdish novelist Mehmud Uzun [AFP/Getty]

Attend any Kurdish social gathering and the room is likely to fill with song, as party-goers perform centuries old tales of traditional heroes and villains.

These aren't just traditonal songs. These are epics that have been passed down the generations to become a cornerstone of Kurdish culture. According to Kurdish novelist Mehmed Uzun the survival of this form of storytelling is a result of the "human desire to share the simple joy of song.”

It has also continued in the face of poverty and severe political oppression. 

A rich repository

Faced with discrimination the Kurdish language might easily have been lost, but music helped keep the Kurdish voice alive. “The songs themselves

     Faced with such discrimination the Kurdish language could easily have been lost.

comprise of the richest and most accurate repository of the pure Kurdish language,” Uzun said.

Even in countries where the Kurdish language had been historically suppressed, Kurdish singers such as Abi Kadu, Afdali Zengi, Rifate Dari and Amedi Fermani Kake have managed to preserve an astonishing volume of Kurdish vocabulary, tales and proverbs that would otherwise have been doomed to extinction.

Even prison walls could not suppress this passion. Singer Ali Khan sung these ancient tales to fellow inmates every night of his 35-year detention at the notorious Diyarbakir Prison in south-east Turkey.

Most Kurdish folklore singers are from poor, rural backgrounds. Many do not necessarily understand the culturla and historical context to the music they sing, and nearly all are heavy smokers who consume horrifying amounts of tea. Their sole motive, Khan had said, was to ensure the stories were heard: “They never failed to impart wisdom, and give meaning to the Kurdish existence.”

Centre pieces

A 'performance', more like an occasion - usually begins with the singer sitting in the most prominent place in a room, surrounded by community elders. In front of them is a pot of tea and clutched in their hand a string of rosary beads. Throughout the entire performance they keep their eyes closed. It is as if they are in some remote, far-off land, singing to an entirely different audience - one only they can see. Their voices pierce the night, like the knives in one Kurdish song: “As one shot of the revolver was not enough to finish him, they stabbed him three times in the bullet wound.”

Generally speaking, Kurdish epics follow a familiar structure of classical storytelling of the East: courage, daring, chivalry, honour and pride feature prominently. However, they tend to be more varied and realistic. For example, epics such as Ali Ki Beti, Sulemani Mesti and Eskani Kasim, end with the protagonist succumbing to a gallant death, or a courageous hero meeting their match in another character.

     The clash of good and evil is often absent from the storyline of Kurdish epics.

Kurdish epics are distinguished from other Eastern tales, because the main character is not the only one performing heroic deeds, and all events do not revolve around him. 

Another key distinction is that the clash of good and evil is often absent from the storyline of Kurdish epics. The focus is not on which side the protagonist or foe is on, but on the unfolding story itself. A narrative rich with different perspectives and opinions, rather than moral or sentimental themes.

Love and loss

There is another twist to Kurdish tales as seen in the story of Fatima Salih Axa. The heroine is abandoned by her lover soon after they elope, and left to the cruel hands of fate. Fatima recounts her story in a sorrowful tone full of remorse over her choice of lover, not that she had fallen love. When the song is recited, it is performed with the same passion and zeal usually reserved for leading male characters.

Yet it is not all death and heartbreak. Resheto and Xazale is in effect a romantic comedy recounting Resheto’s adventures as he attempts to win over his sweetheart. He goes to endless lengths in the process tending her sheep or faking illness. It has a happy ending.

Kurdish songs have played their part too in the survivial of the Kurdish language and the unshackling of Kurdish voices, despite all the attempts made to silence them.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.