Mem û Zîn Analytical Study*: 1.2 Khani’s life and work

By Dr Kamal Mirawdeli:

Ahmadi Khani

Ahmadi Khani

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

Chapter 1.2 (1.1)

Given that Chyet uses a method he calls ‘Oral-Formulatic Theory’ for the study of folkloric texts, a method, which it seems, pays attention to minor plot movements, (pp.145-220) his cursory attention to Khani’s work seems greatly inadequate reductive, and oppressive. Then he discusses which versions, the oral or the written one, were earlier or derived from the other one, depending for this on Shakely’s and Hassanpour’s opinions. Overall, Cheyt’s study of Khani’s work is formalistic, even superficial and external and it does not seem to be based on actual reading or even the most basic understanding of Khani’s text.

From the beginning Chyet mentions Khani’s work as a poem by the name of Mem û Zîn among many other (oral) Mem û Zîn- s and he refuses to make the distinction made by the Kurds themselves and other scholars who call the oral traditions by their known historical name which is Memê Alan, and use the name of Mem û Zîn to Khani’s work as this is the title Khani has chosen for his work. For example, he rejects this distinction made by French Kurdologists Roger Lascot and Joyce Blau. “They use the name of Memê Alan to refer to the versions in oral traditions, reserving the name Mem û Zîn for Ehmedê Khani’s masterpiece. (Roger Lecco “Introduction,’ Texts Kurdes Vol.2. Memê Alan, Beyrouth: Institut: Francais Damas 1942, p iii.) Chyet rejects this logical academic consideration by saying: “Although the distinction is valid, the Kurds themselves do not adhere to it. Both Memê Alan and Mem û Zîn are names in use among the Kurdish folk to refer to the story: because of the sad fact that most Kurds have been deprived of the opportunity to be educated about their language and culture, many are unaware that Ehmede Khani’s literary poem Mem û Zîn is not identical with the versions in oral tradition. Hence there is a gap between Lescot and Blau’s etic (=analytical) term and the emic (= native) terms employed by the folk.”  (Chyet, p. 53-54)

Chyet’s insistence on calling all the oral versions by the name Mem û Zîn and refusing to differentiate them from the original and official name of Khani’s work Mem û Zîn, has in fact created a lot of confusion in his own study and harmed his methodology.  His justification that the Kurds themselves do not adhere to it is strange. He does not say how he could allow himself to speak on behalf of the Kurds and it seems that those Kurds he wishes to represent are the uneducated, may be the inferior ones! On the other hand, both his assertions that the Kurds ‘have been deprived of the opportunity to be educated about their language and culture’ and that they were ‘unaware of Ahmadi Khani’s literary poem’ are not correct, first theoretically and then both historically and geographically. Theoretically, this absolute division between educated/non-educated is not valid. In small mountain villages and communities, general knowledge was always produced and shared via various venues of medreses, diwakhans, social interaction and oral transmission.  The Kurds of South Kurdistan (Iraq) have for the last two centuries, been at the heart of Kurdish culture and, at least since the First World War, have formally used Kurdish for expression, education, literature and culture, building up a massive literary tradition.

Also the situation of ‘uneducatedness’ Chyet talks about is the outcome of the creation of the Kemalist state in Turkey after the First World War which struck two deadly blows to the Kurdish language and culture in North Kurdistan: First by imposing a policy of linguicide (explained in detail in Hassanpour’s dissertation) and suppressing all sorts of the expression of Kurdish identity and culture, and second by closing down thousands of medreses in Turkey most of which were in Kurdish areas of Turkey. These medreses had been the centres of Kurdish language, literature and culture. As Rasul says many medreses had the manuscripts of Khani’s works including Mem û Zîn, before the Turkish state closed down these medreses and eliminated all opportunities for Kurdish language and culture.

Chyet uses a negative elitist approach. He suggests that not being educated at schools or state education system means being uncivilised and non-knowing, while his own study is about the rich and highly sophisticated oral culture that the Kurdish folks have throughout ages and despite occupation and repression managed to produce and preserve in the isolated and not so wealthy villages of Kurdistan. He rightly notes: “The low level of material wealth among Kurdish peasants is in some sense compensated by their extraordinary rich folklore, which is almost entirely an oral tradition. In addition to countless folktales, folksongs, folk dances, poems, riddles, and proverbs, there are a number of widely known folk romances in a combination of prose and sung verse which recount adventures told as true, perhaps the single best known example of this latter genre, at least among Kurmanci-speaking Kurds, is Mem û Zîn.” (p. 3-4). In fact the common name of the beyt is Memê Alan. Mem û Zîn refers to the tragic hero and heroine of the story who are commonly used proverbially in Kurdish society. Almost every couple of passionate lovers can be referred to as Mem û Zîn, in the same way as Romeo and Juliet can be used in England, and many Kurdish poets have in one way or another referred to Mem û Zîn in their love poetry.  Again, to say the Kurds themselves do not make this distinction is untrue. Kurdish scholars who have studied Mem û Zîn (for example Kurdoev, Rasul, Hejar, Peeramerd, Marif Khaznadar, etc) have always made this distinction using the name Memê Alan for the folkloric genre while using the title of Ahmadi Khani’s book simply as the logical and legitimate use of the title of his work for his work.

Another strange position of Chyet is again his refusal to accept that the oral versions of Memê Alan (Mem û Zîn) had existed in the South and East Kurdistan (or as he describes them Kurdish Sorani-speaking areas) and his insistence that the oral tradition was restricted to Kurmanci-speaking Kurdistan. If his assertion was based on thorough mapping historical surveys of possible oral versions of Mem û Zîn in south Kurdistan, then he could have a point but, if it is based on a lack of transcribed versions, then first he contravenes his own rule, for he wrote:“ It is important to bear in mind, however, that there was very little collecting of material from oral tradition before the middle of the nineteenth century, when the field of folklore began to develop as a by-product of the rise of nationalism in Europe. It is a mistake to assume that a story did not exist simply because there is no record of it from a time before stories were being collected.” (p. 57-58). Therefore it is a mistake to say the lack of attested or recorded oral traditions of Mem û Zîn in South Kurdistan (although this is not the case) does mean they did not exist.

However, Mem û Zîn’s oral tradition is strongly attested to in East Kurdistan. But strangely enough, this is an exception that is not accepted by Chyet! He writes: “this particular romance (Mem û Zîn) is not attested in oral tradition in the Sorani speaking area, with the notable exception of Rahman-I Bekir’s Mukiri version collected by Oskar Man in 1903.” On what basis does he make such generalized judgment?   Chyet continues in his study to repudiate everyone else who says that Mem û Zîn was/is known all over Kurdistan. In fact Oscar Mann’s collection includes two Mukiri (a sub-branch of South Kurmanci, which Chyet calls Sorani) versions of Mem û Zîn: a long one of 82 pages and one in just two pages (in the Kurdish edition prepared by late Kurdish Mukiri poet Hemin Mukiryani (Arbil, 2006).

Yes, we can say Rahman Bekiri’s version is an exception. It is an exception in its beautiful pure Kurdish language and unique Kurdish rhythmic beyt-genre, for those who can understand and appreciate it, it is incarnation of sheer beauty, grace and music flowing from the heart of love and the soul of intelligence, reflecting ideas and ideals of love and a delicate sense of right and wrong (often expressed by women) going back deep in history and Kurdish consciousness to original Zoroastrian ideas and beliefs. Oskar Mann has called his collection tuhfe,’ gold collectables’.  In his introduction to the Oskar Mann’s Kurdish edition the leading Kurdish Mukiri poet Hemin Mukiryani writes: “The second beyt of Oskar Mann is Mem û Zîn. It is the most famous Kurdish story. Is there anyone who is not aware of Mem û Zîn story or has not heard at least the names of these unfortunate girl and boy? It is mentioned in the poetry of our old and modern poets.” (p. 53) He goes on: “Rahman Bekir (the story-teller) says he told this story to Oskar Mann, and he recorded it, over four days.” Then Hemin comments: ”I have often heard this beyt from the contemporary shayers (beyt-bej, beyt-singer or illiterate troubadours). I think this beyt (Oskar Mann’s) is a very perfect one.” On the nature of the beyt, he says: “I believe Mem û Zîn is very old. It is much older than what we think of. But it has been transmitted across generations, renewed and its form has changed. But in spite of all these changes, it has clear indications of Zoroastrian religion and this shows the ancient roots of the story. Throughout the beyt of Mem û Zîn, there is a strong irreconcilable struggle between the god of good and the god of evil.”  (Hemn Mukiryani, 2006, p.54).

The third surprising issue in Chyet’s study is his onerous argument about which one was earlier: the oral tradition or Khani’s book. He writes: “ It seems more likely that Mem û Zîn already existed in oral tradition before Ehmede Khani composed his literary version, i.e, that he derived his version from folk tradition, rather than vice versa.”  To support this he quotes Hassasnpour-Aghdam’s statement that ‘the story of this work is adopted from a Kurdish folk ballad called Mem û Zîn or Meme Alan which is still recited by Kurdish troubadours today. The details of the plot, names, characters and setting are all Kurdish.” (Chyet, P. 58. Hassasnpour, p. 84). I find this surprising because anyone who has carefully read Khani once, must know that Khani speaks in much detail about himself and his authorship of his work, including explaining very clearly that he used Kurdish tales from Kurdewarî (Kurdish cultural countryside) and specifically mentions the story of Mem û Zîn in Botan and how he wants to resurrect these two lovers as a part of his project of Kurdish national revival based on language, literature, arts, science and love. Khani wrote:

 (321-330) Let me explain the sorrows of my heart in a story

And make Zîn and Mem a pretext for this

 That is why I want to extricate a new melody

 And bring back Mem and Zîn to life again

 These two lovers have been forgotten, sick and thin

 Like a skilled physician, I will find the remedy for their ailment

 I will revive these helpless despaired persons

 (325) A pain that has gone deep inside Mem’s heart

 Zîn whose inner soul hurts her

 A girl so pure, protective, innocent and free from charges of sin

 I want to make them renowned with method and style

 And both lovers obtain a high status in virtue

 In this manner I will make them triumphant

 Watchers would come to see them

 Girls in love would weep over Mem

 Boys would be amused by Zîn’s suffering

On the other hand, in his monumental study of Khani’s Mem û Zîn (Rasul, 1979), Professor ‘Izzedin M. Rasul has dealt in some detail with this issue, outlining Khani’s innovative and purposeful transformations of the folk tale of Meme Alan. Izzedin writes: “Before Khani wrote the story of Mem û Zîn in 1105 A.H., putting it in a poetical story-telling frame and giving it immortality, the story of Meme Alan (note he says Mem e Alan story not Mem û Zîn) was widespread in Kurdistan. It was about the tragedy of Mem, the son of the Mîr of Maghrib or Yaman in some versions, and Zîn, the sister of the EMîr of Botan (or his daughter in some oral traditions). This story was told orally. Khani derived his reasons and the prologue of his poetic story from this folk story. This chapter is devoted to the proving of this derivation.” (Rasul, p. 46) He quotes many verses from Khani’s work which refers to the presence of a second person in the story as a story-teller informing Khani of the development of the events. Then he emphasizes that Mem û Zîn of Khani differs from Meme Alan in several aspects including the content of the story, its form and aim.“ (P. 46).

Rasul says that some images and events can be found that were mixed up between the Mem û Zîn of Khani after it was written, and the folkloric Meme Alan. These oral traditions, despite their relation to Khani, are part of the folk versions of the story that exist in different Kurdish dialects especially in Northern Kurmanci dialect. There are oral versions in Mukiri, which is part of South Kurmanci, one of which was recorded by the German Orientalist Oskar Mann. Another [South Kurmanci] version is that of [the Kurdish poet] Peeramerd, which is derived from one of these [South Kurmanci] oral traditions, to which Peeramerd has added characteristics from his own method of writing (verse). (Rasul, p. 46)

Two points mentioned by Chyet as Shekely and Hassanpour’s discovery are clearly explained by Rasul. He had already mentioned in his book that the names of Mem û Zîn as exemplary lovers had been mentioned before by the Kurdish poet Melay Jazirî, who lived before Khani, and he gives the text of the verse which is:

I will not exchange a single hair of you for two hundred Zîns or Shirins

What would happen if you considered me a Farhad or a Mem?

And the fact that Jazirî lived before Khani is evidenced by Khani himself as he mentions Jazirî’s name as one of the poets he wants to bring back to life to celebrate the triumph of Kurdish literature under an imagined sovereign Kurdish Mîr. The other point Rasul mentions, for which Chyet credits Shakely, is the discovery of an apparent contradiction between Khani’s statement that his work is original and the child of his creation and his mentioning that he uses Mem û Zîn as a pretext for his project. Rasul finds a solution in the book for this apparent contradiction. (p.48-49). In fact, in my view, there is no contradiction here at all. Khani says that he tells the story of these two unfortunate lovers who had been forgotten, saying clearly that he makes them sublime in character and virtue (Lescot’s point of Khani’s positive portrayal of his character is less emphatic than what Khani himself says). But Khani’s originality is in the creativity of the work itself, in its method and style, ideas and its national, political and theosophical content. As we shall explain later, he has made Mem û Zîn an object of writing a national philosophical Sufist tragedy.

Rasul cleverly explains a verse in which Khani describes the linguistic discourse of his work. Rasul says:” Khani divides the content of Mem û Zîn into three parts. He quotes Khani:

(2480) A part of which is from the stories of Botan

A part of it is pretext, and a part of it is fabrication.

The original text:

Hndek j fsaneye d Buhtan

Hndek d behane, hn de buhtan

Here Khani cleverly plays on the pun of the word buhtan meaning both Botan, the Kurdish region where Khani lived and obtained the folk tale, and the word  buhtan, meaning ‘fabrication’ and the affinity of this word with the word  behane meaning pretext. Commenting on this interesting and significant revelation by Khani, Rasul says that if one ponders these three divisions carefully each of them can independently become the subject of a big research about Khani. His explanation for the verse is this:

  1. Part of his work is the stories of Botan: he means by this the folk story of Meme Alan in addition to other folk tales rife in Botan in his time.
  2. A part of it is pretext: Khani means (as in the verses quoted before) he wants to use the story of Mem and Zîn as a pretext to express the sorrows of his own heart. “The sorrows and concerns of his heart are his talk about life, history, Sufism, and science which all together represent Khani’s thought and philosophy.”
  3. Part of it is fabrication (buhtan) or artisanship or tekhne in Aristotle’s terms: This means there are invented and fabricated things, that is the literary devices in the story which he was obliged to use in order to produce the story as an art. (Rasul, p 52-53) This is along with using Kurdish for his work that Khani also calls bid’at (innovation). Calling his work or more precisely the Kurrdishness of his work bid’at has deeper ideological and political meanings than just a simple technical innovation. In Islamic theology bid’a is used in the sense of ‘heresy’ to describe the work of those Islamic philosophers who following the Greek tradition used reason and rational analysis as a method of discovering truth. Khani is aware that not only his language but also his whole creative and construction strategy might be regarded as heretical.

Thus Khani by cleverly playing with the puns of Botan/Buhtan /behane explains that there are three parallel texts in his work: the pre-text (the original Botan story), his manipulation and transformation of this structure for the presentation of his own ideas and themes (his main text) and his artistic method and style (his tekhne).

It is disappointing that none of the three researchers, Shakely, Hassanpour or Chyet, has acknowledged Rasul’s important contribution to the study of Khani although his work was published in 1979 and it is definitely not an obscure one. Dr Rasul is from a highly-regarded educated family from Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan region of Iraq. He became fluent in Kurdish and Arabic and versed in Islamic sciences and Kurdish literature since his early youth and was already an established writer before he went to Moscow on a scholarship to study Kurdish literature. (He published A School Arabic-Kurdish Dictionary in 1955). He got a PhD for his work ‘Realism in Kurdish literature’ in 1963, which was published in Arabic as Waqi’yye fi el-Adab el-Kurdi in Beirut in 1966. Then he taught Kurdish language and literature at the University of Baghdad. Part of his teaching was Kurdish dialects and he says he used Ahmadi Khani as the main text for teaching North Kurmanci dialect. This gave him opportunity to study the text inside out. He wrote his study as a result of his teaching. He had also studied in Syria for two years, giving him great opportunity to enhance his knowledge and practice of Northern Kurmanci dialect.  In 1976-1977 he stayed in Moscow for a post-doctoral study (the subject of which was Khani’s Mem û Zîn) where his work was discussed at the Oriental Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and received a D.Sc in literature for it in September 1977. Before that he had obtained a PhD in literature from the Institute of Orientalism of Baku University in 1963 for his dissertation “Realism in Kurdish Literature.” Since then he has been teaching and researching Kurdish literature. He is a prolific writer and scholar. His numerous works are known for their serious academic research and methodology buttressed by deep knowledge of Arabic, Kurdish and Persian languages and Islamic sciences.

Rasul’s book on Khani is a systematic study of all aspects of Mem û Zîn apart from the internal dramatic structure of the work itself. A list of the titles of his chapters is sufficient to demonstrate his broad vision and ambition. He has addressed: Khani and his life, his aim from writing Mem û Zîn, Is his work original or derived? Political, social and economic situation of Kurdistan (in Khani’s time), Khani and Kurdish national question, Kurdish civilization in Mem û Zîn and this includes study of: building and architecture, medicine, music, jewellery and clothes, foods and utensils, weapons, types of calligraphy and writing. In the second part he discusses Khani’s social ideas in relation to class, rulers, money and kinship. In another chapter he talks about the images of wedding, mourning, Newroz celebration and hunting in Khani’s work.  He devotes a chapter to tackle the style of literary representation in Khani, and the relevance of his ideas to literary criticism. Then Rasul studies in depth in different sections the aspects of astrology, philosophy and mystics, ontology, divine attributes, absolute predestination and dialectics in the ideas and expressions used by Khani in his work. He devotes a whole part to study Khani’s mysticism. This includes: asceticism and mysticism, mystic terminology, meqamat we ehwal: stations and states, reaching martaba and elimination in God, pre-existence of soul, jurisprudence and mystics, nafs and ruh: self and soul, the mannerism of mystics and Sufist literature. In the latter he addresses praises of prophets, divine love and wine. In the final part he talks about the question of unity of being and unity of revelation in Khani’s work.

Professor Rasul uses the methodology of extensive textual references, examples and explanations from Khani’s work to prove that it is a treasure of Kurdish ethnographic and civilizational elements and qualities, and that Khani was well versed in astrology, the science and art of music, calligraphy and book crafting and was an expert in Kurdish customs and way of life. But the greatest achievement of Khani is his philosophical and mystic ideas that he uses to establish his own philosophical vision of the world.  In order to do justice to Professor Rasul’s invaluable and ground-breaking contribution to Khanilogy, for this is in fact what he has established, I will translate in a separate part, the ‘Conclusions’ chapter of his study.

Martin Van Brussen rightly describes Khani’s transformative work on the popular folk legend Meme Alan. He writes “Khani made numerous changes in the basic narrative, overlaid the story with layer upon layer of symbolic meaning enriched it with mystical and metaphysical ideas and his views on politics.” (Vali, 2003, p 45)

In his book on the  ‘discourse of Kurdishness’ and his investigation of the  ‘efforts made by the Kurdish elite to construct a viable concept of Kurdish identity’, (Strohmeir, 2003, p. 1) Martin Strohmeir devotes his fourth chapter to Ahmadi Khani’s Mem û Zîn. He is interested in the historical functionality of the text as a medium of Kurdish nationalism. He writes: “Mem û Zîn constitutes the backbone of the argument that Kurds are a nation capable of attaining a high level of civilization, and possessing a language which can yield great literature”. (Ibid, p. 27). He offers a summary of the poem based on the available translations of parts of the text in German and English. (Ibid. p. 30). His summary is however is so simplistic that it is no more than a travesty of the dramatic and intellectual content of the work. Failing to base his judgment on the actual reading and understanding of the original text, Strohmeir too centres his partial discussion on the symbolic significance of Mem û Zîn for Kurdish nationalism. He writes: ‘Mem has been widely interpreted as a symbol of Kurdistan enchained and the story as showing the way to save the nation.” (Ibid. p. 33).  Following this assumption he relates the characters of the story to an allegedly conscious scheme by Khani to promote good characters against bad characters.  He concludes: “If Mem represents Kurdistan without love or freedom, the victim of injustice, then surely the author was implying that the Kurds must unite and rise against wrongdoers.’ (p. 33) But like Chyet, Strohmeir ends his presentation of Mem û Zîn by doubting the centrality of Khani’s version of Mem û Zîn because of the existence of various versions ‘of Mem û Zîn saying that “This difference [between Khani’s Mem û Zîn and oral narratives] was ignored by many later nationalists, who perhaps mistakenly assumed that Khani was the original author of the fairy tale known throughout Kurdistan.”  (p. 33).

As Izzeddin Mustafa Rasul has shown, the oral versions known mainly as Memê Alan are widely known by Kurdish communities and every literate Kurd is aware that Khani’s written version is a completely transformed original text. As we shall see, Khani himself has adequately dealt with this issue in the prologues and epilogues of his book.


* ‘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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