The roots of literary identity

Joanna Bocheńska


The roots of literary identity in the prose of a Kurdish writer Mehmed Uzun.

(The paper was prepared for the conference: Central Asia: The Local, the Regional, the Global, Jagiellonian University, Kraków,12-14th September 2005)


Mehmed Uzun (1953-2007) was a Kurdish writer from the Turkish part of Kurdistan, since 1977 living in exile in Sweden. In 2005 he came back to Diyarbakir where he died in 2007. He was an author of number of novels and many essays and articles dedicated to Kurdish culture, especially to the role of it’s oral tradition. He was twice persecuted by the Turkish system of justice. In 1977 he was accused of editing bilingual language (Kurdish-Turkish) magazine. According to the Turkish regulations of that time he was accused of using the non existing language – Kurdish. In 2002 after publication in Turkey another of his novels, the indictment was based on the statement that Mehmed Uzun and his writings intended to divide Turkey.


Once he started writing he decided to choose Kurdish (Kurmanji dialect) as the language of his prose. It meant coming back to the roots of Kurdish culture and language which he had to abandon during his school years in Turkey, where Kurdish was forbidden. The idea was to raise from dead the world of his childhood, the world of nearly lost Kurdish culture and to talk about it with it’s own language, using elements of it’s folklore oral tradition and showing it’ s forgotten history. The most significant in Uzun’s works is undoubtedly the influence of folklore, especially the oral tradition of storytellers. In the Introduction to the Kurdish Literature Mehmed Uzun puts a great stress on the oral tradition in Kurdish culture. Following Basil Nikitin, he argues that the role of oral tradition was crucial in creating the special character of Kurdish folklore. Because of the political and social conditions, and first of all because of illiteracy of Kurds in Turkey the impact of written word has never been so considerable. Kurdish authors, unlike Persian and Arab ones, did not worked out strict literary rules and the poetry remained a little undisciplined. (Uzun, Istanbul 2004:44)


It seems that the most inspiring for Mehmed Uzun was the personalities of dengbêj and çirokbêj – Kurdish storytellers. The etymology of dengbêj comes from Kurdish words deng – voice and verb gotin (at present tense: dibêjin) which means to tell, çirok adequately means story. Song and stories of dengbêj and cirokbêj were told during long evenings or national holydays and always had a big amount of listeners. Based on improvisation and immortal fantasy they included legends, fairytales, proverbs and songs deeply rooted in the Kurdish folklore tradition. Dengbêj were free because they could not have been controlled by ruling Ottoman or Turkish authorities. Their stories played the role of collective memory, dictionary of rarely spoken old Kurdish words. Dengbêj – often outstanding tellers - were guided not only by emotions but also by some unwritten rules of this kind of creation and undoubtedly by great talent of telling stories and just arousing somebody’s interest. Their words were always meaningful and played the role of commentary to the current events, used to give hope in the hopeless situation.


In book entitled My Dengbêj Mehmed Uzun tells about his own inspiration of some, more or less legendary, storytellers (Apê Qado, Evdalê Zeynikê, Alihan, Rifatê Darê, Ehmedê Fermanê Kiki) who he had met or whom about he had heard. They were the last representatives of dying in the XX century tradition of çirokbêj and their stories. The Kurdish novelist often admits that they were the most important teachers on his way to literature. Telling about Apê Qado, Uzun underlines that dengbêj used to create a kind of bridge between the past and the future. Updating the old motives and legends they reminded the past in order to understand the present and make possible the understanding of the future. It is possible because, according to Mehmed Uzun, people’s experience and adventures that create the essence of stories are in fact universal and in some way eternal. They live in spite of and in defiance of borders and times. They are alive thanks to human voice and words which become immortal in the process of creation. (Uzun, Istanbul 2001:, 25)


But there are also other elements of dengbej’s heritage. First one – it is immortal human desire of sharing sorrow and joy with somebody. In spite of the poverty and hopelessness of the social and political reality dengbej like Apê Qado, Alihan or Ehmedê Fermanê Kiki always wanted to share experience and thoughts with other people. Maybe for them this desire was even stronger then the feeling of cold and hunger. Telling stories seems to be a kind of struggle to stay alive. (Uzun, Istanbul: 53-74) The second issue is the therapeutic ability of words and of the process of telling stories. Essay about Alihan whom M. Uzun met in Diarbakir’s prison presents the sad life history of a poor peasant, tragic storyteller. Not considering the triviality of the crime he was accused of robbery and convicted to 35 years of hard Turkish imprisonment. He lost his wife and children and the only thing he had been able to do was telling stories. Sitting in the cell and drinking never ending tea he was incessantly telling the old Kurdish story of Siyabend and Xecê. Well known story, words and the process of telling it, not bothered even about listeners, seemed to be a kind of cure for him. (Uzun, Istanbul; 53-74)


For Uzun dengbêjs are also a source of the richest and the most meaningful Kurdish language. Trying to learn it, Uzun spend many days listening to Rifatê Darê – the Kurd from Syria who told him well known Kurdish stories using it’s different variants, as well as different words and different style of talking. Undoubtedly the most significant impact of dengbêj’s heritage is reflected in Mehmed Uzun’s novels. Dengbej Evdalê Zeynikê and Ehmedê Fermanê Kiki became main hero of the book One day of Evdale Zeynike (Rojek ji Rojên Evdalê Zeynikê), directly dedicated to Kurdish storytellers. However the most mature example of M. Uzun’s inspirations seems to display in the novel Calling of the Tigris river (Hawara Dîcleyê), where fictional dengbêj Biro leads readers to the duchy of Cazira Botan and tells the history of it’s inhabitants and legendary Mir Bedirhan and Kurdish uprising in 1846. The construction of the novel is based on the Kurdish tradition of şevbuhêrk – evenings during which the dengbej’s stories had been told. Each chapter of the novel is a kind of such evening with Biro as a narrator. Alike dengbêj’s stories it also contains small lyrical pieces which create rhythm and new meanings. In this way the old tradition of folklore storytelling is transformed and replaced by the modern novel. Alike dengbêj who tried to updated the past Mehmed Uzun wanted to update Kurdish tradition in order to make it meaningful also nowadays and not only for Kurdish audience. So the national Kurdish storytellers become the part of one of the oldest human traditions – the tradition of telling stories. Thanks to Uzun’s novel local heroes of small, sometimes completely undeveloped Kurdish regions become the part of global heritage. According to the novelist they are brothers of Homer and Shekspare. (Uzun, Istanbul 2001; 12)


It is necessary to mention also other inspirations of the writer which are the history of the Kurdish nation and the Kurdistan region and the multiculturalism of this place. Mehmed Uzun tried to study Kurdish history carefully. He seeks for it’s crucial and most significant moments which can help to develop the plot of a novel. In The Shadow of Love (Siya Evînê) he tells about Memduh Selim, one of the founders of Xoybûn organization and about the Kurdish uprising on the slopes of Ararat which broke out in 1927 and was arranged by this organization. The Well of Fate (Bîra Qederê) presents the history of Celadet Ali Bedirhan – member of big and famous Kurdish family, descendants of mir Bedirhan, legendary prince of Cazira Botan. Living in exile C.A. Bedirhan established and edited two very important Kurdish magazines Ronahî and Hawar, which were devoted to Kurdish culture – especially language and literature. Calling of the Tigris River (Hawara Dîcleyê) – the biggest Uzun’s novel tells the story of Cazira Botan and mir Bedirhan. In all cases history is not only the background but seems to give readers a very important message. First of all history needs to be anew analyzed in order to show also the point of view of the defeated nations.


But Uzun’s novels are also a kind of textbook of Kurdish history. He tries to present it widely, carefully and first of all he cares for other possible points of view. It is related to the Uzun’s fascination of multiplicity of nations, religions and even languages of this region. Armenians, Therkies, Jews and many other representatives of contemporary Turkey’s minorities become supporting heroes of his novels. They have original names and histories and this way they tell about their own culture. Uzun shows Muslims in opposition to Christians and Yezidies. In Calling of the Tigris River (Hawara Dîcleyê) and in many esseys he refers to the rich history of Mesopothamia, stressing the role of Schliman’s and Layard’s discoveries. All this leads to one but very important concept that the land of Mesopothamia or Kurdistan – today part of different countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) can not be the heritage and home for only one (in conjecture Turkish or Arabian) nation. It is important to see and respect it’s variety and diversity. (Uzun, Istanbul 2002) For Mehmed Uzun, Kurdish writer for a long time living in exile, seeking for his own language, folklore and history seemed to mean seeking for the sense of writing and being a novelist. For years not published in his own country, remaining completely unknown to the prevailing uneducated and miserable part of Kurdish society in Turkey, Uzun had struggled for living as a writer. Telling someone, telling stories and recalling the past turned out to be the solution and cure not only for old and dying tradition of storytellers but also for a modern novelist who always seeks for his own identity as a man and a writer.



Mehmed Uzun:

Zincirlenmiş zamanlar, zincirlenmiş sözcükler, Gendaş A.Ş, Istanbul 2002.

Kürt edebiyatına giriş, Gendaş AS, Istanbul 2004

Denbêjlerim, Gendaş AS, Istanbul 2004

Hawara Dicleyê, Avesta, Stenbol 2002

Rojek ji rojên Evdalê Zeynikê, Avesta, Stenbol 2002