Mem û Zîn Analytical Study*: III, 3 – Khani’s Mem û Zîn as a unique genre of tragedy

Portrait of the characters Mem and Zîn

By Dr Kamal Mirawdeli:

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

Part III, Chapter 3: Khani’s Mem û Zîn as a unique genre of tragedy

In the light of the Aristotelian theory of tragedy I will try in this chapter to explore and analyse the defining dramatic nature of Mem û Zîn as tragedy by exploring and examining the following elements:

  • Uniqueness of Khani’s experience and enterprise
  • Source and object of imitation (dramatic recreation)
  • Spectacle and katharsis
  • The Object of his tragedy (poetic recreation)
  • Structured plot and super-structure orders
  • Characters and choices
  • Formative themes

It is the intended and achieved originality, innovativeness and uniqueness of Khani’s experience and enterprise, which makes it difficult to categorize exclusively within a certain genre. However, as it can be noticed from the framework and structure I have outlined above, in line with the Aristotle’s theorization of tragedy, it would not only be possible to describe Mem û Zîn as a tragedy, it would also, as we shall see, provide us with an effective methodological devise to define, understand and evaluate Khani’s work.

Khani, as an encyclopaedic intellectual and accomplished poet, has deep self-consciousness – socio-politically, historically and methodologically – about the nature and significance of his enterprise and product. Therefore, in addition to the two prologues we have already analysed and explained, he offers further preliminary insight into the nature of his enterprise when he begins to construct his dramatic story.

Uniqueness of Khani’s experience and enterprise


a. Mem û Zîn as a Sufist poetic experience

The initial setting of the story, its opening lines that define the first dramatic moments of his creative experience, show that Khani approaches his object primarily as a Sufist one. It is within the praxis of Sufist spiritual intoxication, discovery, journey and destiny that Khani embarks on his dramatic recreation of the past in the present, and the present in the past. The language, the vocabulary, the atmosphere and the sensuality are all Sufist. In the tradition of Sufi poets he addresses Saqi, the cup-bearer, to provide him with a divine cup:

(286) O cup-bearer, pour into heavenly cup the wine that resembles immortal soul

So that we refresh the mind of soul for a while

With this soul-nourishing wine                  

Pour into my glass the water, which makes the inner soul see,

Delight the sad heart and intoxicate the crazy mind


(290-294) Pour into my crystal glass this squeezed purified juice

Melted sapphire and transparent gemstones

The ruby juice and golden wine

Fill in the cup with your diamond drops

From sweat like rosewater

So that the cup of the hearts would glitter

The party of joy would be constructed


(295-299) In that conference of addicted drinkers

Let the addicted be drunk anew

Possibly from the infinite profusion

One drop will be a blessing for me

The pleasure of the fermented wine

The purified drops of the alluring vines

Would affect the self in such a way

That a disturbance would occur to the heart

That is such an ecstasy would hold the soul

Such a desire would reach the heart


(300-304) That would open my chest for me

The purification of the heart would be obtained

I would be co-singing with nightingales

The dead bird of the heart would fly

And would sing its songs without veils

At times would groan like nightingales

At times would bleat like little birds

Send forth sighs at dawn

Together with the morning breeze


(305-309) A hundred of heart buds would break

The lilies would wake up and talk

Flowers would grow from thorn-bushes

Red roses would shed dew tears

Nightingales laugh despite their mates


Wine-bearer, give me rosy wine

Let rise the sound of def and the echo of qanun

Let the spies and police not see this

Happiness reign, sorrows go away         


(310-314) Worries would leave the sad heart

I would transform and be a new being again

Be drunk and boast of exaggerated claims

Be intoxicated and say crazy things

Be unworried whatever I might utter

Be insane and pour out diamonds

Become over intoxicated and reveal the intimacies and anxieties of my heart

Without words, I would reveal the inner secrets

I would be melodious like a flute

And twitter like a parrot


(315-319) Until all the revelations would unveil to me

And all the maqams would evince to me

Sha’ba would come out of heart’s station/song with delicate melody

Gasht and Shanaz would gulgasht (tour among flowers)

Without sound, from the depth of heart like aheng melody

 I sing a hundred ways, like cheng (a musical instrument).

Khani is not on the threshold of a religious practice but a poetic one. He is going to write a poem. But his approach to his object, the narrative of love, is a mystical one.  He thinks that the real journey of love can only be a spiritual one. To experience this, through the recreation of the love of Mem û Zîn, he needs to prepare himself spiritually so that he can have access to the intricacies of love. For this purpose he needs to enter or obtain the state, hal, of a Sufist, to release himself from his worldly and physical life and make his inner being free to see the unveiling of truth. This state does not come to him spontaneously. He is not a lover. He, at this stage as a composer, is not a Sufist. He is a conscious teller of a story of love, which by its nature entails a mystical understanding.

So in the tradition of Sufist poets he resorts to wine and the service of wine-server to put himself in the Sufist moment of drunkenness, ecstasy and inner awakening where a totally new spiritual world would be born, and what normally looks crazy and extraordinary, feels real and beautiful there.  Soul-nourishing divine wine, beauty, music and sensuality are ingredients of this inner world. It is in this inner world that his states (ahwal) will be constructed. The Sufit in the state of his drunkenness is under the sign of the state. The highest point of intoxication becomes, dialectically, the point of most lucid and sober wakefulness. When a person’s love is strengthened, his drink becomes endless. When this trait persists in him, the drink no longer makes him drunk, but he achieves awakening into the real, passing away from every portion of delight, unaffected by what comes down upon him, unable to be moved from where he is. In Khani’s poetic experience even an element of madness is desired to awaken the Muse and enable him to say what cannot be expressed through the normal language and gain knowledge and speech through the science of unveiling and attaining the stations of Sufi lovers:

Without words, I would reveal the inner secrets

I would be melodious like a flute

And twitter like a parrot

(315) Until all the revelations would unveil to me

And all the maqams would evince to me

It is noticeable that Khani clearly, through the use of his verbal tenses, explains that these states, stations, and revelations (unveilings) have not been achieved yet. He appeals to the divine wine, even a drop from the God’s abundance (overflow), to help him to ascend these stations and achieve the bliss of full intoxication in a way that he would be liberated from his existential worries and be as free and unrestricted as a mad man to say what he likes to say without fear of the watchfulness of reason as well as religious police. In this conceived liberated psychological inner world, he would “reveal the inner secrets, be melodious like a flute, until the revelations would unveil to him and stations would be attainable’, that is he would have achieved his full poetical potential which would only comes with total freedom of soul to drink, sing and love. This state is necessary to prepare the heart for a full Sufist experience of love and this experience can be provided by telling the story of the ishq, the passionate love, of Mem û Zîn.

Let the melody of my heart be tied to the rhythm of zir u bem

and let Mem and Zîn establish this passionate love.

b. Source and object of imitation and method of dramatic recreation

The way Aristotle identified mythical past and folk heritage as treasure sources for models and outlines of tragic actions, Khani resorts to a not-so-distant folk tale of his people and society, selecting a widespread story which has an enduring place in the collective Memory of his people to engage his instinct, intuition and intellect in the natural desire for epistemic discovery and understanding and emotional and intellectual pleasure of recreating life in one’s own idealistic image and in accordance with one’s own rationally recognised laws of necessity, probability and beyond.

(321) Let me explain the sorrows of heart in a fsane (folk tale)

And make Zîn and Mem a pretext for this

I will elicit the hidden melody

And resurrect Mem û Zîn

These lovers and ashiqs have been ill

Today, as a skilled doctor,

I will cure their ailment

I will bring back these helpless people to life

The pain of the suffering Mem


(325) The agony in the heart of Zîn

That innocent and pure honourable lady

Sinless and beyond suspicion

I will make them famous with tarz û uslûb (style and method)

So that the lover and beloved will excel (in goodness)

In this manner I will make them triumphant

Watchers would come to see them

Girls in love would weep over Zîn

Boys would be amused by Zîn’s suffering


(330) Co-sufferers [of love] would recover by them

Those who are free from pain, would be amazed

Open-minded, well-intentioned, good-natured and conscientious people

Would all talk well about my work and say “beautifully constructed”

People can be changed with love and those who from the beginning of life

Have been looking for love

Let them come and listen to this narrative and get comfort out of it.

Perhaps Khani, being sensitive about his audience, his time and the possibility that his work would be received with ignorance and criticism, his critical awareness has left nothing to be clarified about the nature of his enterprise. Here in these few lines Khani reveals a lot:

1. Source:

He chooses a native Kurdish folk tale with tragic characters for his dramatic recreation. In the end of the story, too, (2473-2500) Khani again deals with the source, language and object of his work. In just two lines he cleverly plays with the associates of the word Botan, his native country, to identify three strands of his poetic construction:

Some from the fsane (tales) of Botan

Some pretext, some fabrication

In this way he identifies the original Botan story of Mem û Zîn, his transformation of the object to a vehicle of his psychological, spiritual and political constructs and his poetic method or what Aristotle has called tekhne.

2. Language:

Khani speaks about the langauge he used in this way:

 I mixed Kurdish, Arabic, Dari and Tazi 

As fun and game

Buhti, Muhammadi, Slivi

Some jewels, and some gold and silver

Diamonds, stones and glass

Some are transparent, some are dark

I created a play like children

And brought them to qeyseriya (closed markets) and markets

Some are stories; some are samples (mithal) (2478-2483)

Buhti, MuhaMemdi and Silvi are, among others, the combination of Kurdish dialects of his time that he has used.

3. His motive is subjective:

He seeks his own katahrasis for his state of sadness and despair. He turns Mem û Zîn into a musical instrument zir w bem through which he airs his melody of sadnes

4. Another motive is national:

He wants to revive these two popular love symbols of his nation.

6. He imitates admirable actions and treats his characters as object of tragedy:

Khani reveals his methodological strategy in developing his work as a tragedy: Aristotle says tragedy characters should be better than average reality persons. It should imitate admirrable actions. Here Khani explicitly states that his aim from reviving the story is to portray the noble character of the lovers, demonstrate their innocence and moral integrity and make them ‘excellent’ dramatic characters. He does this by means of (artistic) ‘method and style’.  By making his characters the main elements in the construction of his story and present them better than they were treated in the real life and after death.

7. Dramatic effect and purpose (spectacle and catharsis):

Khani in fact provides a dramatic structure and mode for his story. But why does he do this? What is the purpose of his drama? Further explanation comes in the next verses: (328-335):

(328) In this way I will make them celebratory again

So that the watchers would come to see them

Lovers would cry for Mem

A’shiiqs would be amused by Zîn’s pain

Those who share the pain would be cleared by [watching] them

Those who have no trouble, would be perplexed

People with clear heart and mind

Pure-natured and conscientious ones

All would praise our work

And say: ‘It has been well-recorded.”

Here Khani clearly defines two more Aristotelian elements of tragedy: spectacle and kathrasis. Here, I believe Khani anticipates the readers to see the drama of the lovers, if not on stage, then through their own imagining of the actions, dialogues and monologues of the characters. He does not talk of readers of his book, he talks about ‘nezerbazan’ which exactly means ‘onlookers’ or watchers who would come (da bên) for looking (tama’shaye). He also anticipates the effect of the watching on the audience. Lovers will cry for Mem and be saddened by the suffering of Zîn. This would have a catharsis effect on those who share the pain of the characters. His exact words are these: ‘hemderd bikin b wan sefayê’. Hem is a prefix equivalent to the English prefix ‘co’. Derd means suffering or disease. Biken means ‘to do, to achieve’. Sefayê means ‘recovery, well-being, being cleared.’ What Khani says is nothing less than Aristotle’s concept of ‘catharsis’ as the main effect of tragedy on the audience. Khani adds to this outcome the feelings of awe and astonishment and also critical assessment of the performance.

In the other verses Khani talks about lovers who would ‘come to hear the story ‘hikayet’ so that this would make them ‘comforted’. (feramoş). Khani says he will achieve this dramatic representation and impact through ‘method and style’. An important aspect of his method and style, as we shall see, is that the plot, the organization and operation of the events, the representation of the characters and the consequence and suspension of the events are in a way that can easily be acted on the stage.  Khani’s elaborated description of the landscape and scenery provides complete ‘direction’ guides for the play. The creative use of dialogues, direct face-to-face conversations, and especially monologues and soliloquies are some of the significant techniques of the work. The whole tragedy is an ideal work for theatre or cinematic production. The events and heroes as Khani indicates are to be watched and shared by the audience to enable empathy and catharsis. The emotions and inner dimensions, qualities and conflicts are all externalised, are enacted and presented for seeing and hearing. All these are part of the method. And most importantly the method is informed by philosophical ideals and interpretations. By healing the wounds and pains of the lovers and showing how unfair and cruel was the way they fared in life, Khani in fact expresses the essence of the idea of katahrsis as it has been presented by both Plato and Aristotle.

On the other hand, an essential part of the method is the language itself. It is formally in masnawi verse but this is not, as Aristotle has rightly established, what makes even a poem. It is the nature of the recreation of life in tragedy, through metaphor, music and logic of existential necessities and human (rational) probabilities entangled in the play of free will on the one hand and difficult choices and fateful coincidences and random accidents, on the other, that establishes the greatness of tragedy as a genre that surpasses other modes and genres of verbal construction.

7. Object of imitation (recreation):

This is the essence and content of Khani’s work, his pretext for expressing his own philosophy of life and love. After explaining the language and the way he has put his work together, (2478-2483), Khani sums up the purpose of his work:

But the aim of this conversation (drama)

The purpose of so much effort and activity (dramatic action)

Is to show the beauty of love

To establish the perfection of ishq

Ishq is the mirror through which God is seen (Ayinaii Khuda nima)

Has quality of the sun, owns light. (2485-2488)

This is the main Sufist purpose and message of his work, as we shall explain later.


c. Khani’s critical assessment of his work

Khani’s aim in recreating Mem û Zîn is much deeper and greater than just affording a kathartic effect to those who would have opportunity to share the characters’ experience of suffering through seeing the performance of the tragedy or reading or hearing it.  His project is multi-dimensional. It is first of all an innovative original work of literature taking as its pretext, object, the love story of two forgotten or misrepresented historical love icons. But this is only a pre-text. What else does Khani want to say and achieve apart from idealising his love heroes?  How far is it an original work?

(337) This record, if good or bad, I have exerted lots of hard work,

It is a fresh first product, a baby of little weight, weak

But I have not gone to try the tastes of other fruit gardens

Like a thief, look for other people’s possessions,

This shoot is the growth of my own heart’s garden

It is pure, immaculate, self-made, and fresh

A fresh produce, sweet or bitter, like a new child, has its own character

I hope that right-minded and pure-hearted people will not label these children ugly

If this fruit is not juicy to the right degree,

Just recognize it is Kurdish. I could only do so much

This child even if not pretty, she is my first child and very dear to me

This fruit, even if not sweet and delicious, is my child and very much loved by me 

She, her clothes, shoes, earrings, are made by me, I have not borrowed them

These words, meanings, phrases, constructions, structures, signs, subjects, topics, narration, symbols, eulogies and approaches

Style, attributes, interpretations and sounds

I have never borrowed from foreigners

They are all the product of my thinking; they are virgins, new brides, never touched before


I hope that those who keep secrets would not scorn and ridicule me

I am a dealer not a goldsmith

I am self-nurtured not trained, am an ordinary Kurd not a Mîr,

I have brought up these topics of Kurdish way of life:

With the care of your benevolence endorse it, listen to it

Those who are interested, when they listen, let them be generous and hide its faults

Don’t insult the poet; if you can, say good things about him

Don’t be surprised by his mistakes and deficits

Explain them with a sense of partisanship

Khani offers here a whole agenda of a literary critical discourse: 

1. His role as author/originator:

He emphasizes his role as author and creator of his innovative work. He stresses the originality of his work emanating from the fact that it is the product of his own brain and effort, it is his child, it is Kurdish, its subject matter is the revival of a Kurdish love story, and its aim is to portray Kurdish way of life, eternalize the pure love of two Kurdish lovers and protect their reputation after their death, to give an example of true love that will comfort and cure and change those who have been looking for love since the beginning of life. Khani emphasizes the significance of ownership. This work is his creation and he alone is the one who owns it and responsible for it.

2. His philosophy of life:

Khani clearly states that he wants to use the pre-text to reveal his own inner thoughts and express his philosophical vision of life, creation and love.

3. His audience:

Khani is self-conscious about the audience he writes to. The work is in Kurdish and those who read it or rather listen to it will be Kurds. He wants them not to ridicule the work because it is in Kurdish or has faults and deficits. He wants them to appreciate his hard work, his good intentions and his patriotic sense. He wants them to be partisans in their support and emphasize its good aspects and beautiful construction.

4.  His methodology, artistic construction and style:

Khani reveals that he is familiar with various forms, techniques and styles of literary construction and he consciously and creatively makes use of an astonishingly wide range of aesthetic and poetic devices, styles, forms and crafts.

5. The role of art:

By asserting that through his work he will be able to change people bring back Mem and Zîn to life, Khani asserts the power of art to eternalize the image and life of human beings and the ideals of love and justice and educate and change others.

This introduction reveals a lot about the structure, construction and modality of Mem û Zîn’s diverse but semantically and logically complementary discourses.

There is the theme of the original love story, the pretext. But this has been transformed with Khani’s extraordinary creative and erudite genius into a first class tragedy incorporating at every level of the narrative three parallel interwoven texts: the literary creative text with its firm, well-structured unified dramatic plot; the ethnological-nationalist text presenting Khani’s knowledge and view of the problems, customs and national culture of his own nation; and then the all-pervasive and paramount theosophical-philosophical text expressing Khani’s extraordinary erudite and intellectual coherent view of life, love, politics, creation and the world.

I will try in the next parts to give a succinct presentation of each of these texts within the compact literary dramatization of Mem û Zîn’s tragedy.

* ‘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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