The Dengbêj: Keepers of Kurdish Memory & History

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

“He was a dengbêj of the country. His voice moved the mountains, it was like thunder, and it made the stagnant smelly waters of the lakes flow and the leaves of almond and pomegranate trees leaf out. He was a man of gatherings, love songs, and dancing. With his voice, he cured wounds, warmed the hearts of the lonely, widows, and orphans, embellished the dreams of fiancées and of those girls for whom the bride price had already been paid. He was not only the dengbêj of people, but also of birds, animals, and wild beasts. His voice directed the flocks of sheep to the pastures, the ghazals to the waters of Murad and Firat, and the small and big birds to the highlands. No dengbêj in Kurdistan could compare to him. He sang the songs tirelessly day and night for months and years. His voice resembled the opulence of the spring rivers, the subtlety of the Firat and Dicle waters, which flowed incessantly, reaching the mountains and heavens.”

(Mehmed Uzun, Rojek ji Rojên Evdalê Zeynikê, 27, translated from Kurdish and cited here)

Kurdish culture and history is rich with a vast panoply of oral traditions that continue to permeate and influence the daily reality, experiences, and interpretations of the world that the Kurds embody. Much of Kurdish identity, culture, nationalism and modern worldview owes itself to the preliterary era of Kurdish history, carried across the eons through the tenacity and literal memories of the often illiterate dengbêj. Despite the lack of a relatively developed written history, traditions and literature, Kurdish oral traditions have proven tenacious and resilient, surviving despite decades of state repression and violent assimilationist policies of the regimes that have oppressed the Kurds. Considering the extensive systemic attempts at linguicide and culturicide towards the Kurds, not only the survival but the revival of dengbêj tradition in contemporary Kurdish culture is symptomatic of the deeply entrenched liberationist psychology within Kurdish societies across Greater Kurdistan.

Scholars of Kurdish studies in their analysis of the establishment of Kurdish national identity have focused on a number of different fields including history, culture, geography, language, literature and so on. Little comparative work has been done in relation to oral traditions which for the most part, aside from a revival in the 1990’s, had been increasingly falling to the wayside. The analysis of the dengbêj tradition can be valuable in adding a further aspect of how Kurdish culture and traditions have been instrumental in forming a unique Kurdish nationalist identity. Nevertheless, this oral tradition, like many other oral traditions globally, is facing a steady decline that is concerning and should be addressed by Kurdish society urgently.

Dengbêjî should not be viewed as an outmoded and dying artform, primitive and unwilling to carry itself across the treacherous road of modernization into contemporary society, but rather as the song of an oppressed people long denied a voice, a place, and the right to their very existence. Dengbêjî is as indigenous and integral to Kurdish identity as the Zagros and Qandil Mountains.

The Dengbêj Oral Tradition

The dengbêj refers to Kurdish folk singers and storytellers, whose singing were sometimes though not always accompanied by musical instruments. The Kurdish word ‘deng’ translates to [voice] and ‘bej’ means [present tense of gotin, to tell], with the dengbêjan being the plural of dengbêj.

The dengbêj would sing long tales and epics of love and war, with their mourning ‘stran’ (songs) being the most famous and popular of all others. The dengbêj would be apprenticed to a master for years, taking on the task of memorizing hundreds of tales, stories, poems and epics. Often unaccompanied by musical instruments of any form, the singers had free reign in storytelling, verse creation, use of language, and were not bound by any formal structures. Often the most talented dengbêj would not only simply adopt the epics of other singers they admired, but would also create their own stories and formulate new styles. They would thus essentially become master story tellers, carrying the archival memory of the Kurdish nation and serving as a repository, a living library of their traditions, myths, culture and rich oral literary works spanning hundreds of years across the ages. The dengbêj often drew on the social realities surrounding the performers to create new stories, parables and epics, and thereby adding to the repository of experiences, struggles, events and social realities of the Kurds. In the words of Roger Lescot:

“These professional poets, who over the course of years furnished their memories as apprentices of certain old masters, assumed the task of conserving the traditions of the past and, if some new event were to occur, the celebration of the heroic deeds of the present. … They sometimes faced each other in competitions which were held regularly until quite recently. Every emir or chief of an important tribe maintained one or more of these bards, whose songs, because of the contemporary allusions they might contain, sometimes also had political connotations. Thanks to their unlimited repertoire and matchless gift of improvisation, these men transmitted, from the remotest centuries until today, poems with thousands of verses.”

The dengbêj were therefore more than just ‘storytellers’ or ‘singers’ across Kurdish society and history. Not only did they serve as a living, archival repositories as mentioned above, but they are also collectors and carriers of thousands of stories, songs, legends, historical events and as living references to history, culture, and literature. Mostly illiterate, though increasingly educated in religious madrasas, the singers relied on constant performances to keep songs in their memories. In the absence of modern technologies such as radio, television, and internet the dengbêj would fill long cold winter nights through storytelling and narrating a multitude of epics to their rapt audiences. They would immortalize epics around famous local romances, blood feuds, rebellions and wars.

The Dengbêj as Librarians of Memory and Culture

The dengbêj have been important tools in carrying and preserving Kurdish culture and identity, especially in the Kurd’s nationalist struggles since the mid 19th century onwards. The dengbêj tradition is thus an important aspect of Kurdish culture and identity for the Kurds, representing a powerful connection with the past, but also seen as the carriers and the bridge between that past and modern struggles for preservation of Kurdish identity, nationalism, and culture.

The rich oral tradition of the Kurds allowed them to preserve their separate cultural identity while faced with the horrific assimilation policies of the states that occupied the Kurds. Certainly books could be burned and entire libraries destroyed, but the living memory, the stories that carried on through the oral traditions from one dengbêj to another, from master to apprentice could not be so easily destroyed. In the modern nation-state narrative and Eurocentric model of statist system, the oral tradition came to be seen as increasingly a representation of uncivilized, uncultured, backward, and feudal traditions. For the Kurds in Bakur (Northern Kurdistan, southeast Turkey), this view was heavily adopted by the Turkish regime towards the Kurds whose position as ‘Mountain Turks’, pervaded all official state policies towards them.

In contrast, the revival of the dengbêj tradition, however evolved or transformed it may appear in modern times, owing primarily to modern technologies of television, cassettes, recordings, CDs, videos, cultural homes, and festivals ensures that it is increasingly viewed by the Kurds as no longer a “relic of the past, but as vibrant elements of contemporary reality.”

The oral tradition itself has been faced with an onslaught of the hegemony of written text and technologies which has increasingly marginalized or often in some cases entirely destroyed certain oral traditions. In E. Anne Mackay’s seminal text Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and Its Influence in the Greek and Roman World, a dual schism is developed between the past oral-based traditions of art and literature to the modern version of written texts and literature. She elucidates this delineation poetically by noting that:

“Many Western scholars, immersed in texts as a way of defining their identity and making their living, drew an unambiguous line in the sand: on one side stood the well organized and highly drilled forces of literacy and authored texts, on the other side the rag-tag guerrilla bands of orality and the textless works of illiterate bards.”

The powerful imagery on which Mackay draws above highlights the stark contrast that exists in Kurdish history in relation to the other cultures that existed alongside, but often dominated and erased Kurdish culture and literature: the Turkish, Persian and Arabic literature, which often drew on and at times outright appropriated Kurdish folklore, poetry, mythology, culture and history to add to their own repertoire of literary traditions which were readily written down and hence immortalized as their traditions, their stories, poems and parables. The space between oral traditions and the oppressed and subjugated minorities whose language and cultures have been forbidden, shamed, and outright banned represents a long and drawn out struggle between dominant cultures, coloniality, subjectivity and their existentialist struggles for visibility and survival. Consequently, it is not surprising that for Kurds, oral literature as conveyed by the dengbêj “is regarded as the autobiography of society, which is why dengbêj are also considered historians.”

However, the maintaining of this autobiography of Kurdish society has been nothing short of a revolutionary struggle to maintain and keep the voice of the Kurds alive. At times various singers were charged and fined per word sung. Others were feared into silence forever as their counterparts remained in prisons and tortured. In the words of the Bakuri Kurdish novelist Mehmed Uzun:

“People living in a reality dominated by fear learn, due to such conditions, the art of speaking a little and telling the essence. This art is, at the same time, the most important inheritance passed on to us by human history. What has been left is scarcity and the core meaning of words. Wordiness and language diversity have been lost. And the main feature of common human heritage is that which remains, the essence.”

In other words, societies such as the Kurds who have been under constant existentialist pressure have been forced to develop survival mechanisms and tools that would allow them to carry on their traditions and identity clandestinely and outside of the scope of the norms and mechanism of official state control and practices. Perhaps for some the dengbêj occupy an uncomfortable and an increasingly shrinking space between a dying oral tradition and the transition to literary text. In the era of 30 second TikTok videos and rapidly shrinking attention spans, perhaps the dengbêj with their long, epic tales of woe and sorrow, of lost loves and heroic deaths in epic battles, of mourning and lamenting face the existentialist crises it has long averted. Nevertheless these very tools and technologies could also serve as revitalizing the unique aesthetic of the dengbêj tradition.

The Dengbêj in Modern Kurdish History

Many well-known dengbêj have existed whose songs and epics have been recorded and can still be enjoyed by modern Kurds. Karapetê Xaço (or Gerabêtê Xaço) (1900-2005) for instance was an Armenian singer of traditional Kurdish dengbêj music, who was considered as one of the most talented dengbêj of the modern era. The dengbêj Evdalê Zeynikî’s (1800-1913) fame and talent has reached epic and mythical proportions, including being immortalized in modern Kurdish literature. Likewise the dengbej Şakîro (1936-1996) is also considered one of the most prominent and famed dengbêj of modern times.

Since the establishment of Turkey as a nation-state in 1923 following the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, a heavy crackdown on non-Turkish identities was implemented, including towards the Kurds. Speaking Kurdish and representations of Kurdish identity was heavily discouraged from the 1920s onwards and resulted in a number of brutal state policies, pogroms, ethnic cleansings, displacements, executions, and imprisonments. As Kurdish nationalist sentiment increased in light of the increasing brutality and refusal of the newly formed Turkish state to democratically accommodate the Kurds, the dengbêj and oral tradition began to play an essential role. Specifically in the 1930’s and 1940’s, through the work of the Bedirxan family the oral tradition began a revival, particularly in Rojava (Western Kurdistan, north Syria). Ironically, the French Orientalists were also instrumental in promoting and preserving the Kurdish oral tradition. Nevertheless the general approach towards the dengbêj tradition was one of repression and silence by the regimes involved.

In Turkey, following the 1980 military coup d’état, a heavy ban on Kurdish language and culture was imposed. This ban severely affected Kurdish singers and musicians, who were often fined, imprisoned and tortured. Arguably, no group of artists were as brutally affected by this ban than the dengbêj who relied on keeping the thousands of memorized songs and epics alive through their regular performances. Many dengbêj were silenced for decades at best and at worst forever through state violence towards the Kurds. In the words of Simone Schwarz-Bart, a French Guadeloupean novelist and playwright “The tale is, in large part, our capital. I was nourished on tales… when an old person dies, a whole library disappears.” In the case of the dengbêj who were silenced for decades or were terrorized to permanently give up their art, a thousand cultural motifs within the rich mosaic of Kurdish culture as informed by geography, time, history and migration were lost forever. Thankfully, the literary works of various contemporary Kurdish novelists such as Mehmed Uzun (1953-2007), Yaşar Kemal (1923-2015) and Mehmet Dicle (1977-) have been instrumental in the rekindling the popularity of the dengbêj in popular Kurdish culture and literature.

The dengbêj tradition, on the other hand serves an entirely different role now than it did in the past. In the recent past it has served increasingly as a tool for ‘cultural resistance and language revitalization.’ However, for some elements of Kurdish society it has also represented a feudal and uncivilized aspect of Kurdish society and culture. Traditionally the dengbêj were often placed in the service of, or literal servitude of Princes, Emirs and Bags (beğ) or Aghas (ağa), representing primordial relations, poverty, dependence and oppressive class structures between the peasant masses and the elite, upper echelon of Kurdish society. Local feudal landowners would take on a dengbêj to serve the landlord as entertainers for guests, weddings and celebrations or who would often be tasked with composing poems glorifying and extoling their masters. In exchange for their services, protection, shelter and food would be provided to the dengbêj, who for the most part were driven to the service due to extreme poverty. Many dengbêj remain in poverty in modern times and lack widespread fame or patrimony required to keep them afloat financially.

In Turkey, in the late 1990s and early 2000s and in a bid for Turkey to join the European Economic Community (EEC) which imposed strict human rights and democracy standards on the country, a loosening of the ban on Kurdish culture and language emerged. This resulted in the very first Kurdish-language TV channel being established, universities to start teaching Kurdish language and literature, as well as cultural centers such as the Dicle-Firat Cultural Center which was heavily focused on revitalizing Kurdish music and art. A number of Mala Dengbêjan (Dengbêj houses) were established including most notably in Wan (Van) and in Amed (Diyarbakir) which were profoundly influential in the institutionalization of the dengbêj practice and tradition through the painstaking process of locating, archiving and recording thousands of songs and stories. This important cultural process was spearheaded by the European Union’s Grant scheme for the promotion of cultural rights in Turkey in 2007. Unfortunately, since 2015, much of the positive changes and the openings for expression and representation of Kurdish cultural and linguistic freedom have been reversed and Kurdish cultural centers closed down.

The art of dengbêjî has also been a heavily male dominated sphere with few female dengbêj able to break through cultural and traditional barriers. In Northern Kurdistan for instance, the dengbêj tradition was kept alive through the various café who clandestinely would have and invite dengbêjs to their locale, despite repeated crackdowns by the state. The tradition was apparently “kept alive by this milieu of men, particularly elderly men” who visited the dengbêj cafes, especially the Café of Mehemedê Hezroyê, or the Café of Dengbêj in Amed in the 1980s. Nevetheless a number of female dengbêj have been able to make a name for themselves including Sûsika Simo, Zadîna Şakir, Fatma Îsa and Aslîka Qadir. These women were born in Armenia to Kurdish and Yazidi families and make their voices heard through Radio Yerevan.

Aslîka Qadir (1945-) is perhaps the most well-known for her song “Welatê Me Kurdistan e” (Our Country is Kurdistan) in the Serhat Region. In a powerful interview Aslîka Qadir narrates the difficulties of expressing Kurdish identity and the struggle of Dengbêjan in the Soviet Union:

“Like everywhere else, we couldn’t mention the word of Kurdistan in Armenia. According to the laws in the Soviet Union, all nations were siblings and the Kurds had to see the Soviet Union as their country, not Kurdistan. If Kurds had said that they were from Kurdistan, they would have been arrested, killed, and exiled. We first secretly sang “Welatê me Kurdistan’a (Our country is Kurdistan)” song. And this song made a positive impact on the revolution among the people. Yes, with the voice of a Kurdish woman, we openly declared that “Welatê me Kurdistan e, ci meskenê me Kurdan e” (Our country is Kurdistan, it is the place of Kurds).”

To see the struggles of Kurdish women to become a dengbêj in light of both traditional cultural values that barred them from participating in this art from, and the severe state repression of Kurdish identity speaks of the double struggle of female Kurdish artists, singers, poets and scholars.

Concluding Thoughts

Nevertheless, despite the positive efforts to revitalize the dengbêj tradition including recording and saving thousands of songs, the future still remains precarious for this ancient artform. The tradition is mostly enjoyed by an ageing and mostly elderly population. The younger generation of Kurds have failed to develop an emotional connection to the dengbêj oral tradition. The romanticized and nostalgic correlation with the dengbêj tradition that holds an older audience in its thrall to date have not transferred across to the younger generation. Furthermore, many of the masters and key singers are also aging and the traditional socio-economic structures that maintained the dengbêj tradition are no longer present, resulting in fewer apprentices and a distressing shrinking of the artform.

Considering what the dengbêj tradition and singers have done for preserving Kurdish language and identity, there is a significant debt owed to this artform that deserves a serious focus and conservancy. To return to the words of Mackay:

“Indeed, if these final decades of the millennium have taught us anything, it must be that oral tradition never was the ‘other’ we accused it of being; it never was the primitive, preliminary technology of communication we thought it had to be. Rather, if the whole truth is told, oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species, as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality… even the electronic revolution cannot challenge the long-term preeminence of the oral tradition.”

The Kurds cannot afford to lose this primordial artform, not only because it is the keeper of its ancient memory and experiences but because it represents an element of Kurdish culture which has been long fought for, survived state repression and erasure, colonization of Kurdistan, the ravages of modernization and more. The preserving of this oral tradition is integral to Kurdish national identity and culture. Here the words of William Butler Yeats are pertinent:

“Folk art is, indeed, the oldest of the aristocracies of thought, and because it refuses what is passing and trivial, the merely clever and pretty, as certainly as the vulgar and insincere, and because it has gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgettable thoughts of the generations, it is the soil where all great art is rooted. Wherever it is spoken by the fireside, or sung by the roadside, or carved into the lintel, appreciation of the arts that a single mind gives unity and design to, spreads quickly when its hour is come.”

The dengbêj tradition is thus the soil upon which all other forms of Kurdish culture: identity, literature, language, music, poetry, resistance, and survival are rooted.


  • 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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