Reviewing Sherko Bekas’ ‘The Secret Diary of a Rose’

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Sherko Bekas (Kurdish: Şêrko Bêkes‎) born on the 2nd of May 1940, was one of the most pre-eminent Kurdish poets of the 20th Century. Hailing from Sulaymaniyah in Bashur (Southern Kurdistan/northern Iraq) as the son of the Kurdish poet Fayak Bekas, Sherko was introduced to poetry and literature from an early age. He would go on to inspire a deeply oppressed and marginalized Kurdish nation to continue to have the courage of imagination and struggle for freedom.

It is near impossible to do justice to Bekas’ impact, nor to adequately praise the breadth and depth of his brilliance. However, a modest effort can at least introduce us to the key events of his life as well as the experiences and personal politics that resulted in this giant of Kurdish literature in attaining his lofty status as one of the greatest nationalist poets across Kurdistan. A good place to start is through reviewing his collection of poems in the book entitled The Secret Diary of a Rose. The poems were translated by Bingard Shirwan Mirza and Sherzad Hassan in 1995 with later editions also being available.

Bekas is easily considered by many as the greatest Kurdish national poet of the 20th century, and is responsible for creating contemporary Kurdish poetry and pioneering new visions and forms of poetic writing that veered away from the traditionalist practices of the past, including that of his famous father Fayak. Sherko’s poetry explored many themes including freedom, nature, romantic love, nationalism and more. His poetry often aligned with and reflected the struggles of the Kurdish people, their spirit of unwavering commitment to self-determination, the vast range of oppressions they experienced in their daily realities. He is deeply respected and beloved by the Kurds, especially in Bashur (South Kurdistan) and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) of Kurdistan where hardly a home exists which does not have a copy of Bekas’ poems.

Bekas had a difficult start to life, an experience which would define his later years. Bekas’ renowned father, Fayak passed away when he was only eight, which had lifelong implications for the young poet. Living in poverty following his father’s death, he managed to complete his high school education with much difficulty. By the age of 17 he published his first poems in Zhin newspaper. Bekas then joined the Kurdish resistance movement in 1965 and worked tirelessly in the movement’s radio station, The Voice of Kurdistan. He was forced into exile in Iraq for three years due to his political activism and anti-regime politics. In 1986 he was forced outside of Iraq, which was also the year in which he published his very first collection of poems. A year later he was married to Nasrin Mirza. From the period of 1987 to 1992 he resided in Sweden as a result of his ongoing exile. He eventually returned to Bashur in 1992, where he was offered a ministerial job which he soon after resigned from.

Bekas’ deep love for his people and Kurdistan was the key motivator in his poetics, which was often impacted and further strengthened by his political activism. Driven by this nationalist desire, he was soon referred to as the pre-eminent nationalist poet of Kurdistan. In 1987, he was quoted as saying: “I love Sulaimaniya, my birthplace, I will never stop loving Mehabad, Diarybakir (Amed)… I consider myself the poet of all Kurdish nation, the poet of revolution and Peshmergas, flowers, Kurmanji children of the South and North, I consider myself the mother poet of Kurdistan.”[1]

Counting

If you could count every single leaf

In this garden,

If you could count all the big and little fish

Of this ocean,

If you could count all the birds

during their migration

from the north to the south

and

from the south to the north,

then I would also promise

to count

every single victim

of this beloved Kurdistan!

Bekas thus falls firmly within the sphere of nationalist poets, a category of poets who have taken on, or been tasked with the responsibility of writing about the values, identity, history, and struggles of a nation. Nationalist poets emerged from the Romantics era towards the end of the 18th century onwards. The Romantics, which Bekas falls firmly within, were deeply connected and inspired by nature. As such, not a single poem in this collection can be read without some reference to nature.

Soil

With my hand

I reached for a twig.

The branch recoiled in pain.

When I reached for the branch

With my hand,

The stem of the tree began to cry.

When I embraced the stem

The earth quaked beneath my feet

And the stones groaned.

This time, when I bent down

And took a handful of soil,

The entire Kurdistan screamed.

Nationalist poets often inspire their people by drawing on events, myths, situations and struggles, especially heroic ones to foment a sense of collective unity and solidarity. Drawing heavily on ideas of freedom and independence, these poets draw on defeats and losses to inspire hope and a continued efforts towards collective liberation. The overwhelming numbers of poems in The Diary of a Rose that combine nature, love and freedom for Kurdistan in this collection is certainly astonishing. It is as if Bekas cannot bear to be away from his beloved Kurdistan and his poetry is the road through which he aims to reunite with this love. Some of his most poignant poems are those that speak of the pain of exile:

Tunnel

Beneath the surface of this exhausted

And wounded soul

The hours of exile

Connected to each other.

Every day they travel back and forth.

At the station of waiting,

At the station of farewell

Their restless doors

Continuously

Open and close.

Every pain that gets off

Is replaced by a hundred new ones.

Such a long tunnel of exile!

Where is it leading me?

Tears well up behind my eyes,

But it is leading me…

Leading me…leading me…

Bekas also pioneered the Ruwange (vision) style of poetry that broke with the more traditional and formal structure of poetry of the past, which relied heavily on rhyming and meters. His aim in pioneering this new style of writing was for “changing the structure of literary discourse in general, in both form and content, and finding new ways of expression while rejecting the language of dictionaries in order to avoid turning our inherited culture into a prison. It expounded upon our desires to be free to discover what has not yet been discovered, to mix local and global languages in new and creative writings, and to support freedom all over the world.”

This style of writing freed the poet from following strict styles and methods of poetry and instead allowed a greater degree of imaginative freedom and space for the poet to explore themes, objects, ideas with more creativity. The Ruwanga style, according to his translators Bingard Shirwan Mirza and Sherzad Hassan, “allows the poet to let his fantasies soar and even overcome the boundaries of language. The poet has nothing more than words to illustrate his philosophy. The same words must lend a melody to his thoughts, because a poem without music is like a bird without song’, says Bekas.”

In their introduction to the book, the translators write that, “a poet can open windows to the spring of life for us so that we can flee the chains of the present moment to those special moments of eternity, moments full of inspiration, which may even be beyond our imagination.” I would add further that as a humble novice of Bekas’ poetic brilliance, breadth and range of prolific writing, that while Bekas gives wing to the reader to escape the daily reality and mundaneness of life as a Kurd, he often takes on the burden of bringing the author back down to earth and allows them to plant their feet firmly back on the ground. The reader is presented with such poetic beauty and romanticizing of the everyday mundane, that the previously titanic task of freedom for Kurdistan seems attainable and within reach. His love of Kurdistan inspires, motivates, enflames the reader even though the reality of Kurdistan, its struggles for freedom and justice may have long ago extinguished this flame in the heart of the reader. Bekas, however, will not allow you to forget Kurdistan, the land of beauty, of stunning nature, of yearning lovers, and of hope, but also of loss, pain and exile.

Bekas also followed the Ruwanga practice by creating the “poster poem” style, in which he would write short, micro poems about the everyday, mundane objects and seemingly trivial matters and would explore meaning and mysteries of the world. The ‘poster poem’ style originated from sculpture and painting, and which aimed to present visually rich and meaning laden short poems with impact. Overall though, his poetry aimed to explore and develop connections between literature and freedom, and the translated poems in The Secret Diary of a Rose present a stunning plethora of topics and thoughts in this regard from Bekas.

Different

The same garden

The same tree

The same bench

But neither the same gardener

Nor the same leaves or branches

Nor the same lovers or loved ones!

The poems in The Secret Diary of a Rose, embody this style brilliantly. The book was translated to English by Reingard and Shirwan Mirza, with Renate Saljoghi, and has allowed not only a new generation of Kurds in the diaspora who may lack the linguistic skills to read and digest Bekas’ poems in Kurdish, but also western readers interested in exploring Kurdish poetry.

Bekas’ works have been translated into multiple languages including Arabic, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Italian, French and English. He was also awarded the Tucholsky scholarship of the Pen club in 1987 in Stockholm. Additionally, he was awarded the freedom prize of the city of Florence in the same year. He would often hold poetry readings in Italy, Russia, the UK, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Norway and Switzerland amongst others. He was made an an honorary citizen of the city of Milan.

Three key themes appear in Bekas’ poetry, personified through love, nature and freedom for Kurdistan. The following poems are just a random selection in which all three themes are vividly present:

Separation

If they deprive my poems

of their flowers,

one of my seasons dies.

If they deprive them

of my beloved,

two of my seasons die.

If they deprive them

of their bread,

Three of my seasons die.

If they deprive them

of freedom,

my while year dies

and I with it.

 

Love

I placed my ear

At the heart of the earth.

It told me of the love between itself

And the rain

I placed my ear

at the heart of the water.

It told me of the love between itself

And its springs.

I placed my ear

At the heart of a tree.

It told me of the love between itself

And its leaves.

As I placed my ear

At the heart of love itself

It told me of freedom.

Hope

If my love for you was rain,

I would already be standing in it.

If my love for you was fire

I would already by crouching in it.

Oh, my beloved Kurdistan!

My poem says:

“As long as there is rain and fire

I also will be alive.”

Bekas died in Sweden following a long struggle with cancer in 2013, but his poetry, imagination and linguistic brilliance continues to inspire new generations of poets, writers, academics and scholars across Kurdistan and in the diasporas. Bekas lives on in the imagination of a nation still struggling to attain freedom, whose nature and love, women and nation continue to be colonized, dominated and dispossessed. Long after Bekas has returned to the earth he felt so deeply connected with throughout his life, his poems will live on in the words of those who discover his insightful and poignant poetry or return to them like long lost friends returning from the parched terrain of exile.

Notes:

  1. Speech at Folkore Hois, the Whole Sky of my Borders, 8/8/1987

Author

  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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