Epic Romances

The Kurdish Romeo and Juliet, the legend of Mem and Zin throughout the ages

Mem and Zin is considered the masterpiece of the Kurdish epics, writes Şeyhmus Çakırtaş

Wednesday 22 March 2023 13:16 GMT
(Independent Turkish)

This article first appeared in our partner site, Independent Turkish

The romance of Mem and Zin, also known as Memê Alan or Mem û Zin, is one that is told across the regions of Mesopotamia. From the mountains of Taurus to the peaks of the Zagros, from southern Turkey to northern Syria, from the mighty Lake Van to Ağri in Turkey, Mahabad in Iran, and Rawandiz and Amedi in Iraq, the legend is known to everyone.

The tale of Mem and Zin has travelled as far as the deserts of the Middle East, the plateaus of the Black Sea, the olive-rich mountains of the Aegean, the salt waters of the Mediterranean, and the coasts of Andalusia.

This centuries-old love story is still being told and has withstood the test of the time. It is hard to say whether there is room for love in people’s lives anymore. It seems that the gradual materialisation of love has left an emptiness in human relations.

However, in pages withered by time, the magic of romance is expressed in epics such as Mem and Zin. The love of the eponymous couple, their devotion to each other to the death, and description of the spirit of the period make it an indisputably unique piece.

For this reason, Mem and Zin, a classic in its own right, should be placed alongside Romeo and Juliet when discussing the theme of love in world literature.

Although the geography of the romances are not alike, they both treat the subject of the torment of love. Both texts explore the enchanting spell of love and highlight the society, politics and cultural life of the period.

Mem and Zin was written in Kurdish by Ehmedê Xanî in the 17th century, supposedly inspired by a real event that occurred in Bohtan (modern-day Cizre) in the mid-14th century.

Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, was a play written by William Shakespeare between 1591-96, based on a long poem published in 1562 by the English poet Arthur Brooke, titled "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet". Shakespeare developed the play by adding many characters to the story and made the work his own in his handling of the subject.

The thread that runs through both works is that they are written in a timeless style that has cemented their place in the canon of world literature. It is the case of other classical epics such as Layla and Majnun, Kerem and Asli, Siyabend and Xece.

Mem and Zin is considered the masterpiece of the Kurdish epics. The tale deals with the enchanting agony of love, and has been known as ‘Memê Alan’ among Kurdish people for centuries.

The epic was passed on the generations in an oral tradition, brought to life by the dengbêjs or singing storytellers. It was immortalised in the retelling of Ehmedê Xanî, who wrote the legend in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish in the 17th century.

The publishing of the epic in Kurdish was also important in terms of the development of Kurdish as a literary language. With this work, Ehmedê Xanî left a significant legacy for the Kurdish language.

The epic is a love story but it also explores the sociopolitical life of the 14th century. The official and administrative structures of that period, the injustices experienced, and the vibrancy of Kurdish culture are all depicted.

The traditions of Nowruz (the Iranian New Year, marking the first day of spring) and the culture of Mir (Kurdish nobility) are captured in the lines of the work.

Although Ehmedê Xanî’s poetic masnavi, Mem and Zin, consisting of 2,650 couplets, has been translated into more than 20 languages and has taken its place in world literature, the work has not attracted the interest it deserves. The epic was banned and labelled as a harmful publication at times.

While the authors and poets of that period preferred to write in Persian, Arabic or Ottoman, Ehmedê Xanî opened a new path in terms of Kurdish language and society by writing in Kurdish. Considering the period in which it was written, it is clear that it has a quite rich vocabulary. Thousands of years of verbal culture of Kurds was captured in the pages of his book.

Ehmedê Xanî’s works are extant as manuscripts, stored in libraries and museums. The earliest known copy of Mem and Zin is in the Baghdad Museum of Manuscripts.

It is not exactly clear whether Ehmedê Xanî’s works were published during the Ottoman period. According to sources reviewed by Independent Turkish, Mem and Zin was first published in Istanbul in 1919 by Hamza of Müküs in the Arabic script of the original work. An edition in Arabic letters was published in 1958 in Damascus, and in Latin letters in 1962 in Moscow.

In 1968, the author and translator Mehmet Emin Bozarslan prepared a bilingual Kurdish and Turkish reader of the text for publication in İstanbul, and the book was subject to a legal investigation for a while.

Although there were researchers who worked on Mem and Zin and Ehmedê Xanî for a long time, their work remained out of the public sphere.

Work on Mem and Zin was revived when author Hüseyin Şemerhî prepared Mem and Zin for publication, based on manuscripts held in Baghdad. His edition was published in Istanbul by Nubihar Publications in 2009.

In 2010, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture printed Mem and Zin in Kurdish, based on Mehmet Emin Bozarslan’s edition. The publication of the Ministry of Culture, which was the subject of much criticism and praise, is undoubtedly important.

The publication of a book by the Ministry in a restricted language is itself remarkable, but the authenticity of the edition is under question. The Ministry has not published any further Kurdish works.

The late Prof. Kadri Yildirim, an expert in the Kurdish language, examined the edition published by the Ministry of Culture, in a study on the subject in 2011. He writes,

Towards the end of 2010, the Ministry of Culture published the manuscript, transcription, and Turkish translation of Ehmedê Xanî’s famous work Mem and Zin, which is the handbook of the Kurds. Undoubtedly, it was an important step that a ministry of the state had one of the masterpieces of classical Kurdish literature translated and thus the Kurdish language, which had been denied the right to exist through suppression and assimilation, entered a new phase with the official translation.

However, readers who take the book and examine it, encounter many strange things, translation errors, and serious mistakes, from the preface to the translation. This is because the text of the work in question was largely based on the translation made by Mehmed Emin Bozarslan in the late 1960s, which was banned after being censored.

Moreover, as this was not enough, the "translator", who could not form a single Kurdish sentence, made a serious lapse of judgement when he sought to underestimate the Kurdish language of Ehmedê Xanî. That another Kurdish classic should not suffer the same fate at the hands of an official institution is one of the main purposes of the writing of this book.

I remember first hearing the saga of Mem and Zin in childhood. Years later, after graduating from university, I first came across the book of the epic that was told to us. I would learn that the person who wrote it was Ehmedê Xanî.

Although six centuries have passed, it is important that a myth is kept alive through successive telling and re-telling both in writing and verbally. This work reveals that Kurdish is a language of literature and art. It is within this framework that Ehmedê Xanî composed his seminal text three centuries ago.

In this respect, Kurdish is a language of literature, politics, and trade. It is no more than this, but it is no less. Like all languages, it has its own character. And Ehmedê Xanî’s immortal work ‘Mem û Zin’ is a clear proof of this.

Translated by Kerim Celik and proofread by Meric Senyuz

Reviewed by Tooba Ali and Celine Assaf

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