The oft-repeated fact that the Kurds are ‘the largest people without a state of their own’ does not only lead to their exclusion from political and cultural narrative, but can equally lead to the Orientalist assumption that the Kurds must be inherently revolutionary, progressive, feminist, or even anarchistic. In his study of ‘Rojava: Revolution, War, and the Future of Syria’s Kurds’, political scientist Thomas Schmidinger demonstrates that the Kurds’ existence outside state recognition and protection has not exempted them from the interlocking hierarchies of clan, tribe and family, nor the hierarchies of gender, age and class. At the same time, though, this existence has brought with it the potential for new modes of disruptive social organisation to emerge, as witnessed in the bold, imperfect establishment of federal autonomy in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).
A corresponding poetic tension animates the work of Kajal Ahmad, a female Kurdish poet from Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Having faced ostracisation and hostility in her native Iraqi Kurdistan, Ahmad knows well that Kurdishness alone does not constitute a sufficient response to state hierarchy. Her work constitutes a passionate refusal of lazy binaries – between dominant man and silenced woman, colonising state and powerless minority, wicked oppressor and noble Kurd. Rather, Ahmad’s poetic voice is formed from and speaks out of that seemingly silent, negative space, demonstrating the insufficiency of these binaries in expressing the political, cultural or social realities of Kurdistan.
On the one hand, therefore, the Kurds’ stateless and transient existence means they can be reclassified as “a species of bird,” forming a polity with its own unique characteristics born of the fact that the Kurds “go from country to country/and still never realise their dreams of settling.” It is the very fact of their exclusion from the state which has hardened the Kurds to weather the “dust in the gentle wind,” she writes, in an image which evokes the Kurds’ traditional nomadic way of life, repeated forcible displacement resulting in challenging and productive coexistence with other social and ethnic groups, and the troubled, remade identity of latter-day Kurdish Gastarbeiters, political exiles and refugees travelling to Europe. In a line which recalls Abdullah Öcalan’s critique of state formation, Ahmad suggests that if the Kurds were able to ‘settle’, they might well find themselves forming a ‘colony’ of their own. This continued tension and exclusion is as necessary for productive political organisation as it is for genuine poetic expression. As in the Kurdish political movement’s tradition of self-criticism, ‘settling’ is never an option.
In counterpoint to reclaiming a condition that might be taken as negative, Ahmad also critiques that which is reductively assumed to be positive. Counter to any unthinking valorisation of Kurdishness, she takes aim at gender norms and repressive conventions as bound up in Kurdish culture. ‘I don’t/as my mother did, kiss [my braid]/touch it to my eye and/smooth it back,’ she writes in a subversion of Kurdish folk tradition. At times, Ahmad’s critique of passive Kurdish femininity closely reflects the terms set out by the militant Kurdish movement, as with her line ‘Like a cactus/I grow thorns/from heartbreak,’ redolent of the Kurdish women’s movement’s doctrine of the thorny rose taken as representing an inherent right to self-defense.
But Ahmad’s restless criticism extends still further, into a refusal to fit into expected modes of resistance, what we might term a critique of the state and patriarchy. This is a woman who chose to don the hijab and move to Jordan, thereby ostracizing her from the very feminist community in which she had found voice. As this biographical fact suggests, Ahmad’s work – like all true poetry – cannot be readily mustered to propagandistic ends, and nor is her work exempt from its own critical eye. Ahmad has “no darling” save “pen, page, line,” and this alignment places her beyond both repressive systems and those working politically to overthrow them.
Ahmad’s ability to accept tension and transcend ready binaries find rich expression in her poem ‘Were I a martyr’, a bold engagement with an over-determined political term claimed by both the Kurdish political movement and many of those regressive state and Islamist forces which have long repressed the Kurds. Writing “I die as a homeland without a flag, without a voice/I am grateful/I want nothing/I will accept nothing,” Ahmad both articulates and challenges the paradox through which, in the Kurdish movement’s terms, there are those who ‘love life so much they are willing to die for it’.
In this way, the speaker’s sacrifice places them beyond conflict, beyond repression, beyond simple binaries, in a moment of pure being and expression for which countervailing political and social forces have no reckoning. When she writes “I want no flowers/For I am the loveliest flower,” her perspective is not crudely apolitical, but marks her bold and urgent commitment to the poet’s role as a voice in the wilderness, produced by the Kurdish political struggle, but yet transcending it.
Kajal Ahmad’s collection in English, ‘Handful of Salt’ (2016), is available for purchase online here.