Ahmedê Khanî and the first Kurdish nationalism

Posted on December 30th, 2005 by piling


Ahmedê Khanî was borned in 1651, in the province of Hakkarî (Northern Kurdistan). He lived in Dogubeyazit (north of Wan), where he died in 1706. He was at the origin of a literary school, the school of Dogubeyazit, which had a production durgin all the 18th century. His mausoleum rises not far from the old palate of the Kurdish princes, Ishak Pasha’s palace. And still nowadays, Kurds from all countries come to visit it. More than a simple poet, Khanî is considered there as a great sheikh, a baba.

The legend of Mem and Zîn, extremely popular in Kurdistan, is perhaps the oral continuation of an antique Anatolian tale. There could have many oral versions moreover, for feudal Kurdish chiefs had often their own poet or bard (stranbêj or dengbêj), who had memorized a huge number of works, from lovers’ song (delal) to heroic epics, as then the famous Memê Alan, dated from the 15th-16th centuries, which is the folk version of this story. But beside this oral and folk literature, an academic and written literature began to appear since the 15th century, for example with the poet Ali Hariri (15th century). These poet of courts were naturally influenced by the great figures of arab and persian literatures, and especially by sufis’ works, for Kurds’islam was widely marked by mystic (and often “heretic”) movements.

When Ahmedê Khanî (1650/51-1706) decided to versify the legend of Mem and Zîn, his choice is not without meaning. Before, other poets had composed in Kurdish. Thus, the elegant and refined princes of Jazirah’s court (this city is precisely the place when Mem and Zîn’s story happens) had welcomed the poets Melayê Cizirî (1570-1640 ?) and Feqiyê Teyran (1590-1640 ?). Khanî, in his prologue, mentionned both writers and praised them.

Bîna ve riha Melê Cizirî
Pê hey bi kira Elî Herîrî
Keyfek we bi da Feqihê Teyran,
Hetta bi ebed bi mayî heyran

(I would awoke Melê Cizirî’s soul, I would make Elî Harîrî come back, I would make so happy Feqihê Teyran, that he would be filled with wonder, for ever ; 250-252, VI).

But he is aware to achieve an absolutely new work, that exceeds the framework of the young Kurdish literature. Because his aim is more than literature, but to claim a national culture as a factor of unity. This “kurdicity” to defend is an astonishing concept in the Ottoman world within lived Ahmedê Khanî, where the subdivisions of millet separated people by religions and not by languages. Then a Kurdish sunni muslim, like Khanî was firstly the member of a tribe pledged to a prince who recognized symbolically Ottoman sultans ou Iranian shahs’ authority, according to the circumstances. A Kizil Bash or Alevi Kurd was openly or secretly revolted against Ottoman sultan, and accepted only the Kizil Bash leader, then the Shah of Iran, as temporal and spiritual power.

But Ahmedê Khanî knew that these Kurdish tribes formed only one people, a nation shared between empires, a nation wearing in perpetual fights from any kind of benefit for itself :

Bi’fkir ji Ereb heta ve Gurcan
Kurmancîye bûye s,ibhê bircan
Ev Rûm û Ecem bi wan hesarin
Kurmanc-î hemî li çar kenarin
Herdu terefan qebîlê Kurmanc
Bo tîrê qeza kirîne amanc

( Look ! From Arabia to Georgia, Kurds are like a citadel. From everywhere, they are a shield for Turks and Persians, and both side take them as target, with their murderous arrows ; v. 220-222, chap. V).

Against that, he saw only one solution : a Kurdish prince who would be able to federate and lead tribes. But with a stroke of genius, Ahmedê Khanî guessed that a political unity would not be enough without the support of a cultural one’s. For Khanî, culture is the main mean to strenghen a national feeling. And then, “if a Kurdish prince emerges among us” :

“S,ûrê hunera me bête danîn
Qedrê qelema me bête zanîn
Derdê me bi bînitin îlacê
Ilmê me bi bînitin rewacê ?”

(“The sword of our science would be strenghened and appreciated the value of our pen. Will our pains find their remedy, and our wisdom spread ?”; v. 197-198, chap. 5).

The modernity of his intuition culminates when he compares a language without a state with an illegal money :

Ger dê hebuya me serfirazek
Sahibkeremek suxennuwazek
Neqdê me di bû bi sîkke meskûk
Ne’dma wehe bê rewac û mes,kûk
Her çendî ku xalis î temizîn
Neqdern-i bi sîkkeyê ezîzin

(If we had a Master, generous, with good words, our money would be struck, and won’t stay doubtful, out of legacy; even a pure and golden coin is valueless if unstruck ; v. 199-201).

Two centuries before the raising of nationalism and persecutions, Ahmedê Khanî foresaw that a language without an official status would stay clandestine, and that the most powerful factor of unification for the Kurdish society is its language. This belief could have influenced the choice of Mem and Zîn’s story, which was widely spred in all the leves of Kurdish circles, and then could reach the greatest number of people.

If Ahmedê Khanî wished that his work would be known by all the Kurds, he aimed too particularly a special public : writers and scholars, who, at this time, were more inclined to versify in Persian or in Ottoman than in Kurdish. His choice to write in Kurdish by treating of mysticism and philosophy is important, for Kurdish is a “new child” a nûbar in the higher level of mystic and philosophic literature. But as he says, “this child is purely mine, not a stranger, and I love him” as it told in this extraordinary and moving statement :

Nûbareye, tifle, nûresîde
Her çendî nehin qewî guzîde

(this book is our first-borned, it is our elder child)

And what he explained : it is better to drink and eat the products of its own garden than to steal in neighbours’ one :

Lê min ji rezan ne kir temettu’
Manendê dizan bi kin tetebbu’

And then so rustic and simply dressed that this child could be, he is the most precious, for he is Kurdish :

Nûrestê hediqeyê fuade
Masûme, efîfe, xanezade
Nûbare eger s,êrîn eger tal,
Metbûe ji rengê new’ê etfal
Lin hêvî heye ji ehlê halan
Teqbih-i ne kin evan tefalan
Ev meywe eger ne pir lezîze,
Kurmancîye, ew qeder li kare.

(He, the new branch in the garden of the heart, he is virtuous, innocent and of good lineage; and I pray scholars to not deprise this child. Even if this fruit is not juiced, he is a pure Kurd ; v. 340-343, chap. 7).

Facing bravely some disdain from Persian and Ottoman languages, he revendicated to have made a patriotic act, by “filling an empty place” :

Xanî ji kemalê bê kemalî
Meydanê kemalê dîtî xalî
Yanî ne ji qabîl û xebîrî
Belkî bi teessib û es,îrî,
Hasil : ji înad, eger ji bêdad,
Ev bi’ete kir xîlafê mu’tad

(Khanî, in literature is not perfect, but he found that this field was empty; then, not by ability nor experiment, but by patriotism and love of people, by perseverance and need, he created this new work ; v. 235-237, chap. 6).

So the Legend of Memê Alan became Mem and Zîn, and if this chef d’oeuvre is the most famous in Kurdish literature, and if its author is considered like the greatest Kurdish writer, it is not a coincidence. In one step, Khanî reached the highest level of islamic literature, with this lover’s epic of 2655 couplets, which is, by the genius pen of its creator, a lovers’ story, a poem of mystic love, and the vivid and colourful tale of the daylife in a Kurdish princes’ court, at the 17th century.

Sazê dilê kul bi zêr û bem bit
Sazendeyê is,qê Zîn û Mem bit
S,erha xemê dil bi kim fesane
Zînê û Memê bi kim behane
Nexmê we ji perdeye derînim
Zînê û Memê ji nu vejînim

(Let’s the melody of wounded hearts, sometime high sometime low, play Mem and Zîn’s song, with Mem and Zîn, I will tell the story of painful hearts, I will make a such music with these notes, that I will revive their souls; v. 320-322, chap. 7)

Posted in Culture, History, North Kurdistan | 18 Comments

18 Responses to “Ahmedê Khanî and the first Kurdish nationalism”

  1. Dyaoko says:

    very informative post , thanks , I never had any chance to learn about Ahmade Khani , I used to hear his name here and there .

    I wish there was more online resources about him .

  2. piling says:

    If you find a Soranî translation, let’s read it, it is a beautiful and romantic novel !

  3. Justice says:

    excellent thank you.

  4. zering says:

    Excellent piece of history and ahmed xani’s biography….Nice job and keep up the good work

  5. Sorgul says:

    Thank you Piling, i enjoyed reading it very much 🙂

  6. Hejar says:

    It is a sheer ignorance and confusion to call Ehmedê Xanî a Kurdish Nationalist, because at the period he lived the consept of Nationalism (according to its different connotations) did not
    exist in the Middle East. But,
    Kurdish nationalsm (which is fragmented) have rightly shed light
    on his ideas to put forward kurdish distinct identity.
    Ehmedê Xanî,with his patriotic (not nationalistic) ideas have the the same high place in kurdish mind as Ebolghassem Ferdewsi for IraniansETC…

  7. piling says:

    Let’s read what I write exactly : I said that at his time, THOUGH nationalism did not exist as a concept, and even nations did not exist, HE, because he was especially aware (or by a poet’s intuition ?) expressed a Kurdish nationalism in very modern views (nationalism means We, Kurd, exist as a nation and we want to have our own independance). Patriotism exist only toward a state. At this time, Kurd had no state, Xanî did not even write “Kurdistan”, but just wrote “Kurmanc”.

    Firdewsî did not. He did not claim an Persian king and did not talk about a Persian nation. He just praise and want to make reborn the Persian and Iranian culture in Islamiyya (as Suhrawardi) … and he offered his Shahnameh to Mahmuf Ghazna, a Turk.

    Sheref Khan Bitlisî was nearer to Firdewsî : praising the Kurdish princes and culture, but not claiming an independant kingdom. Just giving a right place of Kurdish princes in “adab” and history of dynasties.

  8. hana rasouli says:

    Hi and thanke you all for what you are doing.

    I always wanted to have the book of (MAM U ZIN) from the big Kurdish writter Ahmed Xani. but I don’t know how and where I can get this special book.
    PLEASE help me and let me know how can I have this book.

    Thanke you

  9. piling says:

    It depends on the country where you live, in fact.

  10. makwan Jaff says:

    hi I admire for what you doing and I really like to read that book of ahmede Khane mem and zen but I dont know where to get it I live in USA, PA could you help me and let me know where should I buy it.

  11. makwan Jaff says:

    umm one thing I dont get! did Ahmede Khane wrote a book about mem and zin or he just wrote a poem but there is acually a novel about them?

  12. piling says:

    Firstly : do you want to read it in kurmancî or in a translation ? It had been translated in Turkish, Soranî, Arab, etc…

    Secundly : Xanî made with Mem and Zîn’s tale a novel in verses (very common in the 17th century). Then it is like a long poem-novel.

  13. makwan says:

    well English would be nice if not then sorani would be good. please let me know if you have it for sale if not. it’s cool but can you tell me where to get it in USA

  14. piling says:

    There is no translation in english, but in sorani. You could find one on Sara Distribution, I think.


  15. Ahmade Xani, gereke em kurd vi binasin u hurmata vi gereka taibeti bibit. Biji Kurdistan

  16. Hevallo says:

    Please find Ehmede Xani’s ‘Our Trouble’ with an image of his tomb in Bayazid at the bottom.

    This poem is extraordinary when taken in account the time it was written, before nation states, and also how little things have changed for Kurds since then.

  17. Hevallo says:

    Please find Ehmede Xani’s ‘Our Trouble’ with an image of his tomb in Bayazid at the bottom of the page:


    This poem is extraordinary when taken in account the time it was written, before nation states, and also how little things have changed for Kurds since then

  18. Hevallo says:

    Sorry please ignore the above comments.

    Please find Ehmede Xani’s ‘Our Trouble’ with an image of his tomb in Bayazid at the bottom.


    This poem is extraordinary when taken in account the time it was written, before nation states, and also how little things have changed for Kurds since then.

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