Mem û Zîn Analytical Study*: 1.1 Khani’s life and work

Analytical Study of Mem û Zîn

By Dr Kamal Mirawdeli:

‘Love and Existence: Analytical Study of Ahmadi Khani’s Tragedy of Mem û Zîn’

PART I Khani and Mem û Zîn

Chapter 1: Khani’s life and work

Chapter 2: Izzedin Mustafa Rasul on Khani: Ahmadi Khani as a poet, thinker, philosopher and Sufist.

Chapter 3: Mem û Zîn’s publication and editions

Chapter 4: The form and genre of Khani’s literary work

Chapter One: Khani’s life and work

Khani was born in 1061 A.H, which corresponds to the Christian date 1650-1651. “In the concluding part of Mem û Zîn Khani clearly states that he was born in 1061 A.H” (Rasul, 1979, p.27). The Kurdish scholar Ala’addin Sajajdi was the first researcher to find out this (Sajjadi, 1973).  Again based on the clues given by Khani in his text (verses 5276-5279), the Kurdish poet and scholar Hejar Mukiryani, who was the first to produce a Mukirii (South Kurmanci) version of the story in verse in 1960, says that Khani was born in 1061, he became a writer when he was 14 years old and completed writing Mem û Zîn in 1105.  He also mentions that he died in 1119, (1707/1708) (Hajar, 1989, p. 15). Khani’s name is thought to have come either from his belonging to the Khanyan tribe whose location has not been clearly defined, or to the village Khan near Bayezid (Rasul, 1979, p.27). But there is a consensus among researchers that he was born in Bayezid where he studied at Muradiyah Mosque and his tomb is still to be seen above the city.  According to Soane (1912, p. 388), while staying there in 1691, he founded a large Kurdish school in which the principal language of teaching was Kurdish (Al-Doski, 2005, p.18). Apparently, he wrote his Arabic-Kurdish dictionary then to enable Kurdish children to read books and to open their minds, as he writes in his introductory verses in the book.

Kurdish religious teacher and Scholar ‘Elaeddin Sajjadi (1952) gives a detailed description about Khani’s life depending on personal investigation from Kurdish sources. He says that he lived in Bayezid, Orfa, Akhlat and Bitlis. But as Rasul correctly asserts: “It is not untrue if we say we cannot find a single written source which can shed light on the poet and his life. And this will make us return to the text of Mem û Zîn itself to find out after meticulous investigation some threads that explain some aspects of the poet’s life to us.’ Dr Rasul has done exactly this, investigating the geographical names mentioned by Khani in his work (Ibid. 28-35). His research confirms that Khani lived in Bayezid and Jezira which he mentions in his work, but he does not mention Bitlis. During Khani’s life Jezira was still ruled by a Kurdish Mîr (prince) who Khani hoped would advocate his nationalist project. (Ibid. p. 32). Rasul also finds out that several references to himself in the poem suggest that he did not belong to a big tribe or a wealthy and powerful household. He often associates himself with the common and poor people and champions their welfare.  Khani also had a great dislike of money and money worshippers. Khani’s political philosophy in the poem, Rsaul says, is to shun the princes and those in power. To support this conclusion, Rasul, inter alia, quotes these verses:

I am a peddler and not a goldsmith

I have nurtured myself and no one educated me

I am a Kurd, mountaineer, from outskirts

These words I have derived from a Kurdish heart

Stamp them with your good kindness

Listen to them with the ear of fairness. (Rasul, p.33).

But according to Al-Doski , Khani had a royal and scholarly background, his great grand father Mîr-prince Rostem (died in 1534) was Mîr of Qalai Sor and his father was a well-known Islamic scholar. (Al-Doski, 2005, p 18)  He was 14 when he started writing poems, and he was 20 when he became a clerical secretary for Bayezid’s princely court. (Ibid. P 24)

However, it is generally agreed that Khani was deeply versed in theology, Sufism, Persian literature, Kurdish literature and philosophy. In addition to his native language and its various dialects, he was fluent in Persian, Arabic and Turkish. His book is an embodiment of a formidable encyclopaedic knowledge on many languages, literatures, philosophies and sciences. It is his knowledge and veracious skills and abilities that had made him the most famous scholar and poet in Kurdistan in his time even before the content of his nationalistic ideas later made him an icon of Kurdish literature and nationalism.

The sources on Khani mention only three of his extant works: his literary work Mem û Zîn,  Nobari Bchukan (Children’s First Fruits), a traditional rhymed Arabic-Kurdish glossary, and E’qida Iman, (The articles of faith)  which is a methodological text on the Islamic Jurisprudence written in verse in Kurdish. Manuscripts of these works, according to Rasul, could be found (before the World War 1) in many Kurdish mosques and medrese in all regions of Kurdistan especially in the north. He mentions that in a visit to Jezira (in the 1960s) he himself was able to get a manuscript of Khani’s Mem û Zîn (op.cit. p.11). In addition to this some quatrains written by Khani in four languages (Kurdish, Arabic, Persian and Turkish) were found in a manuscript of the Russian Orientalist A. Jaba, which is kept now in San Petersburg (Ibid. p. 36).

The Russian Consul in Erzrum A. Jaba was the first Orientalist who obtained Kurdish literary manuscripts including Khani’s Mem û Zîn.  Alexander Jaba served as the Russian consul in Erzurum in the 1850s. During his period, he collected forty Kurdish texts from Mele Mehmude Bayezidi, who was a Kurdish mala (religious scholar) of distinguished background, who had come to Erzrum from his native Bayezid and became Jaba’s main source of information on the Kurds and their culture. In addition to the forty texts, published in Kurmanci in Arabic characters with French translation, Jaba’s collection includes notes on the tribes of Kurdistan, on eight important poets and on the science of grammar. (Jaba, 1860). At the request of Jaba, Bayezidi wrote the first brief overview of Kurdish literature. He describes Mem û Zîn of Khani as (‘kitebeki ‘ashiq ma’shuqan),’ a book of lovers and beloved’, and describes Khani as a poet who “has written a lot of ghazal (lyrical poems), es’aran (poetry) and beyt (poetic ballads) in Kurmanci. He has also written many ghazals and poems, and verses in Arabic, Persian and Turkish.” He adds that Khani is highly skilled in sciences and arts (ulum u fununan) and possesses a lot of knowledge. Among the poets of Kurdistan he is the most famous and successful. In fact, he is the most widely praised and favoured one among the poets.” (Jaba, 1860, p. 15 of the Kurdish text).

Jaba acquired a manuscript of Khani’s Mem û Zîn from Bayezidi, the contents of which he summarized in a letter to the scholar P. Lerch.  According to Kordoev, this manuscript of Mem û Zîn is housed in the Institute of Oriental Studies in Leningrad (Kurdoev, p. 79). Jaba also comprised the first major Kurdish foreign language dictionary. In his 1858 report on Jaba’s communiqué regarding Khani’s Mem û Zîn, the Russian Orientalist Lerch gives bibliographical information about Ahmadi Khani, followed by information about Kurdish dialects. The final part of the report is a summary of Khani’s Mem û Zîn.  Lerch asserts that the legend of Mem û Zîn is known throughput Kurdistan. (Chyet, 1998, p. 33). Martin Hartamn describes in his article ‘Zur kurdischen Literatur’ (Wieneer Zeischroft fur Kurde des Morgenlandes 12 (1898), 106 ff. cited by Chyet, p. 33] the various Kurdish literary works that were featured in a manuscript formerly belonging to a Kurd in Constantinople that he received in 1896 through the intermediary of a friend living there. Pages 224 to 403 of the manuscript were devoted to Ahmadi Khani’s work Mem û Zîn. According to Chyet, Hartmann discusses the meter of the verse, and the language, lamenting the difficulty of understanding certain passages due to the lack of adequate reference works. Hartman then mentions two other manuscript editions of Khan’s Mem û Zîn and discusses problems with them, attributing some to the difficulties of the copyist. (Chyet, p. 34).).

The scholar Y. Orbeli, in a study published on the Georgian poet Rustaveli, compares him to Ahmadi Khani saying: “When we say that a poet is so close to people as to give his heart to them we must mention three poets: the Iranian Ferdowsî, the Georgian Rustaveli and the Kurdish Ahmadi Khani.”  He mentions some of Khani’s verses whose message to the world is that the Kurds do not lack culture, and are not ruled by passion alone. He asserts that the source of the story is Kurdish folk tales and that all Kurds know the legend as Mem û Zîn or Meme Alan all over Kurdistan and they love it, the Kurdish singers sing it and the Kurds listen to it with their feelings and emotions. But he asserts that Khani’s Mem û Zîn is a creative work in itself and it is a much more accomplished artistic work than the original tale. He says: “Khani portrayed the scenes of Kurdish life one by one, in an encyclopaedic manner. He portrayed the life of his poor and oppressed people. And in his work he expressed his own political and class ideology.”  (Orbeli (1938) pp 5-6, cited by Rasul, p. 9).  A. Orbeli’s comments, as reported by Rasul, are too general and seem not to be based on an informed critical reading of Khani’s text.

Cheyet’s study of Mem û Zîn

A most recent scholarly study of Mem û Zîn in English is Chyet’s PhD dissertation printed in 1998. The dissertation entitled And a thornbush sprang up between them: Studies on Mem û Zîn: A Kurdish Romance, is a detailed diligent study of the oral traditions of Meme Alan or Mem û Zîn. He finds out, describes, translates and gives his opinion about different versions of the oral traditions, how they were collected and what has been written about each one. He only mentions Khani’s work in relation to the oral versions. He devotes a short chapter of 11 pages (pp. 52-63) to explore “the relationship between Ehmede Khani’s literary poem and the oral versions”. Chyet makes a quick but informed review of the hitherto published literature on Khani. His review shows that the few Orientalists who wrote about Khani were interested in the first place in his language and prosody and were frustrated by the difficulty of its language and content.

According to Chyet ‘the two most critical works on Khani are those written by two Kurdish scholars. Ferhad Shakeli’s book Kurdish Nationalism in Mme u Zîn of Ahmadi Khani [Sweden 1983, 65 p] and the relevant section of Amir Hassanpour-Aghdam’s doctoral dissertation The Language Factor in National Development: The Standardization of the Kurdish Language, 1918-1985. [Urbana, University of Illincis, 1989, 464 p]. Chyet gives a synopsis of Shakely’s work which is basically about the ideas of nationalism in Khani’s Mem û Zîn, concentrating mainly on the prologue of the poem. Chyet dismisses Shakely’s assertion, based on his interpretation of Khani’s own words, that Khani’s work is original as, according to Shakley,  ‘the language of M&Z , its sentence structure and grammar was not much influenced by any other language.” Chyet responds: “It is an established fact that Khani’s Mem û Zîn is very heavily influenced by Persian, both in poetic form and in vocabulary” but he does not elaborate any more or give examples. He also contends Shakaly’s view that ‘the stories of Las u Xezal  (another Kurdish epic poem) and Mem û Zîn are found only among the Kurds and in Kurdish.” Chyet writes that the story of M&Z is also popular among the Neo-Aramaic speaking Jacobite and Kurdish Jews, and the Armenians. (Chyet, p. 35-36).

Then Chyet summarises Khani’s nationalist views as Shakely presents them in five points: 1) the Kurds lived in misery because their land was under Ottoman Turkish and Safavid Persian occupation; 2) This situation could be remedied if the Kurds were to govern themselves; 3) The answers provided by religion were not satisfactory to him, in spite of the fact that he was a devout Muslim; 4) The Kurdish feudal lords were not interested in unity, but would even collaborate with the Ottomans or the Safavids against each other; they had little interest in the welfare of their own people; 5) The way to liberation was through unity, force and goodness.” After this summary, Chyet continues: “Shakely notes that Ehmade Khani was far ahead of his time in his views about Kurdish nationalism: Whereas he wrote Mem û Zîn in c. 1694, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the concept of nationalism came to the Middle East, or, I might add, Europe.” Then he comments that the bibliography of the book includes several articles from ‘obscure journals’.

Chyet is more pleased with Hassasnpour’s study, which he describes as ‘insightful’. Hassasnpour’s study of Khani is in the context of his academic study of the standardization of the Kurdish language between 1918 and 1985. Chapter four is devoted to the Kurdish literary dialects from the 15th century to World War II, in this context, Chyet states that “Ehmede Khani’s prominent position in this endeavour is very well covered “ in his insightful study.” According to Chyet, Hassasnpour-Aghdam’s study shows that “Khani was aware of the inferior status of the Kurdish language and suggested a series of strategies for circumventing this situation.” Chyet does not explain in which way or aspect Khani (or Hassasnpour thought that Khani) thought Kurdish language was inferior! The strategies that Haassnpour ascribes to Khani, according to Chyet, include: uniting the Kurds under a single Kurdish monarch, and the use of the language for scholarly purposes of literary, scientific, and religious nature, thereby raising the intellectual level of the people.” This again implies Khani thought that the Kurds were somewhat inferior to others in terms of intellect. “It was this in his mind that he composed his poem Mem û Zîn. In other words, (he quotes Hassanpour) “a prestigious language, together with a sovereign Mîr, was the hallmark of a civilized and independent Kurdish nation.” (Hassanpour-Aghdam, pp. 79-87).

Continuing his presentation of Hassanpour’s views Chyet writes: “Khani tried to achieve the goal of elevating Kurdish to the level of more prestigious languages through a series of bide’ts or innovations. One bide’t was the message which he imbued in rewriting of the folk romance M&Z: according to Hassasnpour-Aghdam, Khani intended Mem and Zîn to symbolise the two parts of Kurdisatn: the one occupied by the Ottoman Turks, the other by the Safavid Persians, the villain Bekir was a symbol of the lack of unity obtaining among the Kurdish principalities.” Chyet does not question the validity of this view. He comments: “If we read Khani’s Mem û Zîn in this way, it is the Kurds’ inability to unite which has kept Mem û Zîn, i.e, the two parts of Kurdistan, apart.  This is a gentle yet eloquent way to make people aware of what must be done to remedy the situation.” (p.37). Another bide’t of Khani, according to Hassanpour, was his work Nubehara bichukan (Childrens’ First Fruits), a short Arabic-Kurdish glossary written in verse, through which he successfully introduced Kurdish, in spite of its status as a minor language, into the Islamic education system. (37-38)

Again it is not explained here in what sense Kurdish was a minor language and how one small glossary book can successfully introduce a language into the Islamic educational system! Khani’s use of bide’t is important but Hassanpour has failed to understand its functionality within Khani’s enterprise and his assertion that Mem û Zîn represents the two parts of Kurdistan with Bekir as the symbol and cause of disunion is a fanciful supra-textual hypothesis for which there is no validation in the whole text. There is spiritual symbolism in the work and Khani is very conscious and articulate about his work. It is totally out of order to say he thought about the three mentioned heroes of the book as political symbols. But it seems that Chyet buys Hassanpour’s fantastic interpretation without questioning its validity. He even includes it as a conclusion of his own cursory attention to Khani’s work: “Khani used the story of Mem and Zîn as a metaphor for the situation of the Kurds.”

Chyet ends his bibliography review here. His assertion that the most two critical works on Khani’s Mem û Zîn are Farhad Shakely and Hassanpour’s interventions is amiss. The best ever study of Ahmadi Khani’s work, to my knowledge, is the massive encyclopaedic study of Mem û Zîn by the Kurdish scholar Professor Dr Izzedin Mustafa Rasul.  In comparison, Shekely’s work can be described just as a mimic of parts of this work. Rasul’s is a diligent penetrating methodological study for which he obtained the Doctorate of Science from Moscow University in 1977, the highest scientific qualification in the ex-Soviet Union. The study was published in Arabic in Baghdad in 1979 as “Ahmadi Khani 1650-1707 sha’iren we mufekkiren, feylesufen we mutesawwifen, Ahmadi Khani 1650- 1707 as a poet, thinker, philosopher and mystic. It has 510 pages. Some points of interest that Chyet says have been solved between Shakely and Hassanpour such as the dates of Khani’s birth and death had long been established by Rasul’s research.  I will say more about this work later.

Chyet describes the magazines and Kurdish sources he could not or did not bother to access as ‘obscure.’ This includes the publications and the scientific journal of the Kurdish Academy in Baghdad in the 1970s and early 1980s, although this was a formal institution in the capital of Iraq Baghdad and embraced a number of the most informed, able and productive scholars such as the late Mas’udi Mala, Dr ‘Izzedin Mustafa Rasul, late Professor Marif Khaznadar, Kurdish Poet from Mahabad Hemin Mkiriyani, Professor Kamal Mazhar Ahmad, writer and translator Shikur Mustafa, etc. The Academy was publishing a quarterly scholarly journal devoted to Kurdish studies. Among the prominent and lasting effective works of the Academy were its developing of the best available unified Kurdish orthography, a general grammar of Kurdish language and its publication in original Mukiri dialect of Oskar Mann’s collection of Kurdish folklore superbly edited and transcribed into modern Kurdish orthography by Hemin Mukiryani. Contrary to the arbitrary assumption of Chyet, the Academy was well known by Kurdish intellectuals in Iran, Turkey and to a greater degree, because of the freedom they had, by the Kurdish scholars in the Soviet Union.

Then Chyet devotes a chapter of his dissertation to study ‘The Relationship between Ehmede Khani’s Literary Poem and the Oral Versions.” (pp. 52-62) He rightly opines that there ‘are differences between the oral versions and the literary poem (this is how he calls Khani’s work in his study) to require that they be studied separately.” He asserts that although his study is about the oral versions only but ‘no consideration of (the oral) Mem û Zîn would be complete without mentioning Khani’s literary work, considered by the Kurds themselves to be their national epic.” However, he limits his focus of study to ‘outline the major differences between the two and address the issue of derivation, investigating whether the literary poem is derived from oral tradition or vice versa.” Thus, Chyet’ s focus is justifiably, within context of his study, on the investigation of the intersexuality between the verbal forms and the literary text of Mem û Zîn. But Chyet’s ‘study’ of even this aspect of Khani’s Mem û Zîn is cursory, external and superficial as it is not based on any concrete comparative textual analysis between Khani’s and any specific oral version.

Chyet starts well by approaching the differences between the written text and oral versions as those of aspects of texture and those of content. But he limits texture to form. He describes Khani’s work as “a long poem (2655 lines) in the Persian style, characterized by strict symmetrical structure, each line consisting of two hemistichs in hazaj metre. Each hemistich contains a fixed nine to ten syllables, with each line rhyming at the end of the first and second hemistichs but with no rhyme between consequetive lines.” (p.54) Later he mentions Lescot’s view that ‘Khani was influenced by the style of the Persian poet Jami, thus ensuring that the Kurdish poet’s work would be far removed from the story in oral tradition. Another difference identified by Lescot is that Khani portrays the main character Meme Alan (Mem in Khani’s work) in a much more positive way than it is the case in the oral tradition. (P. 56). The formal differences that Chyet himself identifies are: in oral versions texture is not a constant, and the language of the oral versions is unconscious. Most of the versions are in prose intersected with sung verse at key points, while Khani’s work is obviously in verse. Regarding content, Chyet describes the written order of the poem which he says “starts with a long introduction, in which he praises God repeatedly and discusses the place of the Kurds among the nations, in this section there is other philosophical discussion; the actual story of Mem û Zîn itself does not start until line 189. (p. 55). The differences Chyet finds between oral/written texts are: “The way (method and place) the lovers are introduced is different; in Khani they meet disguised in the opposite sex clothes. Then the girls Zîn and Stê find out the identity of Mem and Tazhdin through a fortune-teller. Then ‘after a description of the wedding of Tajdin and Sti, Ehmedi Khani’s Mme u Zîn continues in much the same way as the folkloric versions.” (p.56)


* ‘Love and Existence: Analytical Study of Ahmadi Khani’s Tragedy of Mem û Zîn’ by Dr Kamal Mirawdeli is published by the Khani Academy in association with authorhouse, uk. The hard cover, soft cover, or the electronic edition of the book can be ordered from:

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