By Mehmed Uzun
One of the symbols of my childhood, which traces me like a shadow, is my grandmother. Strikingly tall, with strong facial features as would be found in a historical portrait, her dresses standing witness to a forgotten history, eyes as sources of warmth and enthusiasm and a voice as soft as velvet, she became one of very few people who made an imprint on my life. My mother was the only daughter among her seven children. That indescribable warmth and affection characterizing the relationship between mothers and children in my country existed between them also. Theirs was an intense love and tenderness, a constant protection and watchfulness, an endless flow of happiness…My grandmother lived in the same town with us, but in a different neighborhood. Nevertheless, she used to come to our house, which had a big garden with peach and pomegranate trees, at every opportunity, to stay for days, even for weeks. She always brought countless presents for her daughter and me, the first grandchild from her. Those days transformed our routine existence and were as colorful as the flowers of the pomegranate trees. Best dishes were cooked, many beautiful and colorful dresses were tried, visits were paid and guests were received. My mother’s face radiated the lively colors of a ripe peach.
I, myself, on the other hand, most liked the short nights of those unforgettable days…the nights of colorful epics and stories. My little room, with its wide window, never received enough light from our little oil fires, but the epics and stories used to fill it with dazzling brightness. I used to wish that those nights would last until infinity and repeatedly told my grandmother that I didn’t want to sleep. But I always fell asleep; nights always ended and a new day came. Then I had to wait impatiently for the following night. And my child’s wisdom understood that certain rules were more powerful than myself, independent of my wishes and desires. When she was with us, almost every night before I went to sleep my grandmother came to sit by my bedside and stroked my hair with long hands that had sharply defined veins. I would grasp the situation immediately: a new, exciting and colorful story was about to be told. Then, I would push my pillow aside and, with a silent smile, put my head on her knees. After this elegant and quiet preparation, the legendary words of the stories, originating from the depths of history, would follow. And so, lining up the words like pearls…she used the Zaza dialect of old Kurdish which is very close to Zoroastria…she would take me to a different, bright world. The colorful and mystic words would inspire the rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, to come alive, and I would cheerfully abandon myself to their mildly cold, but comforting waters. And calmed by the soft, light waves, I would enter the tunnels of sleep…
Walter Benjamin once wrote: “Who can find today people able to tell worthy stories? Can the dying produce robust words which can be handed over like a ring from generation to generation? Whom does a proverb help today?” As our household did not sufficiently keep up with historical and social developments, we were not aware of the validity of such statements. But I had somebody who shook my child’s spirit and heart with rousing stories.
Those short and colorful nights haunt me now all the time. Inevitably, most of those words, which gleamed like pearls in the dark, could not escape the fierce waves of time hence…they vanished. However, one memorable expression survived as part of my destiny: “welate xeribiye”. My grandmother, who would be transformed into a fairy inhabiting her epics, tales, and stories, would constantly repeat these mysterious words: welate xeribiye… welate xeribiye… welate xeribiye…
These words were indeed mysterious; they referred to countries not seen and not visited: the Caucasus Mountains, the deserts of Yemen, Greek Islands, the Maghreb… All these places were welate xeribiye, mythical places Kurds went to, but from which they never returned, countries which maintained their curiosity and unbridgeable distance. Their names became an integral part of Kurdish literature.
Of course, I didn’t know then that those countries, places, names were part of the sad reality of the Kurds. For me, they were simply fairylands of giants, legendary heroes, and formidable wars. How could I have known that those warm and beautiful words were describing pain, tragedy, unbearable longing? I needed time to absorb and understand, I needed to leave behind the innocent world of my childhood and assimilate social and cultural facts, to become conscious of my national identity and personality, and to study my own history which had been suppressed and faced oblivion. I needed time…its lessons and its guidance.
Years later, when I spent my youth in jails, I discovered that the Caucasus Mountains, the deserts of Yemen, Greek islands, and the Maghreb countries were places of exile for the Kurds. They had been sent there individually or as families or, in most cases, collectively. Having been rooted out of their own country by force, they had been driven by the Ottomans to far away lands which they had neither heard of nor known. And since 1923 the new Turkish Republic had continuously resorted to exiling Kurds in order to break their struggle for independence and divide and enslave them. Wave after wave, without interruption. By separating families, relatives, tribes. By destroying villages, settlements. In the snow of winter, in the heat of summer. Without a pause.
During the endless prison nights, I learned that the road to welate xeribiye was covered with Kurdish corpses; that caves and passes were littered with them; that tears grew into springs; and that the heart-rending screams blended with the voices of eagles. In those nights of imprisonment, I listened to the tragedies, pains, longings, and sufferings of those sent to welate xeribiye from the tones of Kurdish dengbej. I heard the stories of unhappy souls and hearts in poignant folk songs and ballads.
Then I discovered the real meaning of welate xeribiye… Exile: severance from roots and native land; condemnation to an unknown and foreign life; oblivion; endless longing and nostalgia. Behind those two words, which my grandmother used to pronounce with gleaming eyes and a velvet voice, a terrible grief was hidden.
The roads which led to welate xeribiye opened up for me, too. In the summer of 1977, I joined the two hundred-year-long caravan of exiles. On a hot summer night, in complete darkness, I crossed the border and took my first step into the gloom of welate xeribiye. My head was full of dreams and fantasies. Uncertain of the future, I spent the summer of 1977 in Damascus, the Syrian capital which had been the center of many Eastern and Arab civilizations. Apart from being a meeting point for East and West, and a source for the maturation of different cultures and civilizations, Damascus has also been a place of exile for the Kurds. The full history of welate xeribiye is buried in this city. The tomb of Salahaddin Ayyubi, the Muslim leader of Kurdish origin, who fought the Crusaders and who was both friend and enemy of Richard the Lion, is to be found in Damascus. Many past Kurdish leaders, intellectuals, writers, and prominent political figures are also buried there. Those dirges of sorrow and loneliness, of oblivion, of alienation, which can no longer be sung, are buried in the ruins of Damascus’ slums. The following words by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, who spent much of his life as an exile, are relevant to the Kurdish exiles of Damascus: “Exile is a graveyard.” The patch-like cemetery of the Kurdish shanty towns, piled on each other on the hills outside Damascus, is a graveyard of exiles. The last Kurdish emir, Bedirhan Beg, who was banished first to Istanbul, then to Crete, and finally, after a rebellion in 1844, to Damascus, lies there in his magnificent tomb. His grandson, writer and linguist Celedet Bedirhan, who spent all his life in exile and who is the founder and publisher of cultural journals that are of great importance to Kurds, lies right next to him. Poet Kadri Can, who composed the memorable laments for his city of birth, childhood and his mother tongue…all of which kept drifting away from him…sleeps in a modest tomb near Bedirhan. Publisher and thinker, Memduh Selim, the hero of my third novel, a man of enlightenment and unbreakable moral principles, a positivist, an incurable romantic, who was exiled in 1923 and never returned until his death in 1976, rests there quietly, as usual…So many, so many are there…
That summer in Damascus, during the early hours of the sunrise, when there was nobody around, I used to climb up the hills to go to that cemetery to look at the silent tombstones, and pray for them to find their tongues.
Next to that cemetery, there is a mosque named after another famous Kurdish exile, Mevlana Halid. Poet and thinker, and founder of the Nakibendi Sect, Mevlana Halid’s fate was no different than that of Bedirhan. As their tombs share the same place now, they had shared the same longing and painful life. Driven into exile, Halid had kept alive in his poems, the memories of his country, Kurdistan, and his pretty town, Suleymaniye. And he had sent these compositions back to his land through the moon, the sun and the winds. In this mortal world, in this world of injustices, where, in the words of the famous exile Ovid, “human beings are each others’ wolves”, Mevlana Halid had made friends with the sun, the moon, the stars, and the wind. Is it possible not to hear the longing and pain in these lines?
“The heart is shedding tears of blood, o morning wind come please… “Ah, go and visit Sehrezor on my behalf. “The heart is covered with mist of anxiety like Mount Gudrun O eyes, let your tears of separation turn you to Sercinar.”
Ehrezor, Mount Gudrun, Sercinar – the lands where Mevlana Halid spent his childhood – are now in is poetry memories that banish time and space. Forbidden by foreigners to return to his country, and condemned to an alien life, he had had to find ways of survival: consequently he had preserved the colors, life, taste, air, and smell of his country; he had immortalized the memories of his childhood and pushed the boundaries of intellectual and literary creativity. The unbearable burden of exiledom and the pain of homesickness made him an immortal Kurdish poet and personality. The cost of this immortality was the transformation of his life into a nightmare of deep grief and nostalgia, of a continuous awareness of death and loneliness.
Was it only this immortal Kurdish poet of the 19th century who paid that price?
While writing these lines, which cannot in any way describe Mevlana Halid’s longing and creativity, I think of another exiled writer – Ovid. This poet of the Roman Empire fills my little study with his greatness. A short while ago, I read “The Last World”, the excellent novel by the Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr who belongs to the traditions of Central European Literature and is a disciple of Broch and Musil. This work, which could also have the title “The Other End of the World”, tells the story of Ovid, dissolute writer and master of love and art. It describes his unhappiness and longing and the struggle for creativity. It laments exiledom as humanity’s bleeding wound. Ovid, who was exiled to the Black Sea coast – “the other end of the world” – by the Roman Emperor, Augustus, was condemned to complete isolation. Silence and slow death completed the poet to oblivion, to stifle the voice which had ridiculed all forms of power and absolutism. Did he achieve his aim?
Today, 2,000 years since the question was first asked, the answer is still no. Ovid, master of Mevlana Halid and all exiled artists, could neither be silenced nor obliterated. On the contrary, exile immortalized him. His voice and creativity conjoined the tempestuous waters of the Black Sea to reach the present. He finished his famous work, “Metamorphoses”, with these lines: “I created a work capable of resisting fire, iron, the wrath of God and the destructiveness of time…Because of it I shall wander above the stars and live forever…and, for as long as the Roman Empire exists, people, everywhere, will talk about me.”
Exile is a separation, a grief. It is inhuman, a heavy punishment. It imposes leaving behind a memorable part of your life. Involuntarily, by force… Both Ovid and Mevlana Halid lived in the shadow of their memories. They did not live in a present time, but in the past, in the time they had left behind. Echoing the title of Marcel Proust’s famous work, they went searching for their lost past. They were not interested in what was happening, but, in what had happened. It is for this reason that Ovid, Dante, Mevlana Halid, James Joyce, recreated so brilliantly the memories of Rome, Florence, Sarezor, Dublin, their respective places of origin, in their works. By recreating the past, they made themselves the immortal names of the future.
This state of mind, I believe, is a common destiny: the future of a man who has been driven away form his land and from the people he loved, faces the past all the time. Spirit and heart murmur the songs of the past. Eyes search for the faces of those left behind. Wrapped by the curtain of intense loneliness, nights become filled with visions of the past. These phenomena can be summed up by the following proverb: “the past is worth the universe!…”
Some time ago, while chairing an event about exile and exiled writers under the banner “Literature Beyond Boundaries” at the Cultural Center of Stockholm, I asked the following question to around forty writers from different countries and cultures: “Did you ever dream about your host country during the first five years of exile?” None of them had done so. All their dreams had been about the country they had left behind and about their experiences there.
My own experience is the same. After leaving Syria, I came to Europe, the main destination of exiles in our time. As I was waiting to apply for asylum at the Immigration Office of Stockholm Airport, my mind and heart flew, like two white pigeons, back to my country: to the loved ones I had left behind; to my grandfather’s grave which I would never visit again; and to my old friend Ape Xelil, a witness to the recent Kurdish history whom I had met in prison in the 1970s…In my new country, I jealously claimed the colorful memories and painful experiences of my former life, the faces that shaped my personality – everything from a past that had drifted away from me. Aware that I was living my new life in the shadows of my memories, I tried to make the shadows visible. And, during the first five years, I had no dreams about my host country or my new life. Mostly, my dreams were reminiscences of my childhood; of my grandmother who told me stories of welate xeribiye; of my grandfather who used to bring me colorful candies. The rest were nightmares about the police, prison, torture, the use of force…Later on I appropriated all these for the hero of my third novel, Memduh Selim, who died after fifty-three years of exile. He, too, must have had such dreams and nightmares during the countless nights away from his native land.
As the exiled Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, who now lives in New York, says: “An exiled writer or intellectual is a creature who is predominantly attached to the past, for whom exile dominates his life.”
I developed a similar view as I tried to bring life to Memduh Selim’s lost life. For a broken heart who had to leave his country for wanting a happy and free life, what else but nights ruled by the sparkling colors of heaven and the red flames of hell?
The worst calamity that can befall a man is being uprooted from his country in punishment. The Swedish writer Olof Lagercrantz, who produced an impressive work on Dante, “From Hell to Heaven”, says as follows: “One of Dante’s most painful experiences in exile was being subjected to continuous slander; there was no one to defend him against the falsification of his work and of its negative interpretation at home, in his country.”
It is this feeling of bitterness which prevents the past from becoming the past and which keeps it alive all the time. The difference between, on the one hand, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and on the other, Herman Broch, William Saroyan, Nazim Hikmet, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, lies here. Fitzgerald and Hemingway, these great writers of La Generation Perdu, chose exile. The others were forced into exile. For La Generation Perdu, exile was an adventure, a source of inspiration, a vortex for an exciting and enthusiastic life. They could return to their countries whenever they so wished. For them, exile was not the consequence of censure and oblivion but the path to popularity and fame and fun. For Broch, the great master of the German language, running away from the Nazi terror; for the Armenian-American writer Saroyan, who survived the Ottoman genocide; for the great Turkish poet Hikmet, who had to abandon his country after many years of imprisonment; for Faiz, the greatest poet of the Urdu language, who escaped from the primitive terror of the illiterate dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, exile was the price they had to pay in order to live, a compulsory, one-way journey. For this reason, we cannot observe in Broch, Saroyan, Hikmet, and Faiz the same sense of fun as presented in the works of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In the works of the former we see the personalization of a painful history, of a deep sorrow, of homesickness that demands to be expressed, of the lamentation of those savagely driven to death, by and of the penitence of those who could not follow their example.
The Kurdish poet Erebe Semo, famous for his ingenuous trilogy, is one of the writers I read with great pleasure. This writer, who fled the Ottoman genocide and settled in Caucasia only to be exiled to Siberia during the Stalin period, wrote most subjectively about the following themes: shame for having been condemned to a worthless life; abandonment of the ones he left behind; the compulsion to communicate universally the values of both his new and former lives, and the imperative to demonstrate that he still existed, and was able and competent. In the death camps of Stalin, these themes became the core of his work.
He frequently makes references in his novels to things lost and gained. Exile is conditioned by these two words. Like Erebe Semo, I, too, went through a “period of loss” in my new country. First of all, I lost my mother tongue, my motherland, as Albert Camus puts it, my most sacred possession. My mother tongue suddenly became useless, meaningless, and a burden. It stopped protecting me; it stopped giving me a sense of security and strength. I could not express myself. Deprived of my mother tongue, I lost my identity and personality. I became someone different, an unidentifiable but “needy” stranger. I became a member of the “aliens” category, of a peripheral group which I had not sought and which in itself was alien to me. My life, experiences, and thoughts lost all meaning and value. All those ideals for which I had risked danger and, indeed, served jail sentences, turned out to be of no consequence. I found it extremely difficult to understand why I had been imprisoned. I was ashamed to explain my reasons for coming to my host country. All my values, which were so self-explanatory and unquestionable, were lost. I discovered that they were not applicable to my new country. I lost my profession and my citizenship, I lost my rights to return freely and to publish in my country. I lost the love, the support, and the encouragement of my friends and circle. I lost the color of the buds of the pomegranate tree in our garden, the taste of peaches, and the sound of swallows that used to visit us every spring.
“As you know,” said Gombrowicz, in the early 1960s, in his letter to writer and publisher Maurice Nadean, who put so much effort to introduce exiled writers to France and the world, “my literary life is difficult. As a lonely and helpless exile, I have a tough struggle.” I, too, exiled and lonely, entered a tunnel of perdition where a different, but harder struggle rules.
In order to come out of it transformed and renewed…
If I have to list my gains as simply as Erebe Semo, I should start by saying that I have gained a new language – one which enables me to express myself differently and to enjoy new opportunities without subjecting me to the pain, restrictions, and contradictions of my mother tongue. With its help, I acquired a new country, culture, and literature. I was introduced to new people, habits, values, experiences, languages, cultures. With the help of my new country, I became acquainted with the rest of Scandinavia. I gained access to the whole world, its people and traditions. I acquired freedom of choice. I realized that beyond myself, my people, and our problems there was a vast world, that we were not the center of everything, that other peoples, too, were just as worthy. I discovered, to my astonishment, that I had similar feelings and experiences as those of an Arab, a Lithuanian, a Czech, a Uruguayan, a Pole, a Chinese, a Congolese. I understood that all dictators were alike, that everything must be judged by humanitarian values. I learned modesty. I learned how not to be a hero, but admit shortcomings. I developed an infinite curiosity and an enthusiastic desire for knowledge. I acquired a universality, the identity of a world citizen. I took possession of a world literature, the wealth of which would forever enrich my heart and console my spirit. I learned the art of wandering between languages and cultures, and distinguishing with greater competence, the shades of colors. To my great surprise, I recognized that everything on earth is related to one simple reality – humanity….
Have I really acquired all these? Can one who travels through the tunnels of chance, evolution, and change tell with any certainty? I am not absolutely sure; I assume I did.
With these gains, I rediscovered my mother tongue. Re-learning my banned language, I understood it better, and embraced it with a deeper and warmer love. I returned to my banned culture, distorted history, diminished roots, assimilated identity. For the first time, I considered my fragmented country as an entity with a colorful mosaic. I established with it, above and beyond the cold, crude political and ideological jargon, a humane relationship. I decorated the pages I wrote in the cold winter nights of Stockholm with its invisible shadows. I tried to write those pages as a world citizen and a Kurd and thus establish a bridge between my language and the world. I dedicated my novels to her dear children. I fell in love with her once again…
What I am trying to say, by including my own little and insignificant experience with those accumulated over two thousand years, is this: the grief of separation can be enriching, revitalizing. It can be an irrepressible source of creativity, an opportunity to bring together peoples, cultures, languages; it can be a stimulating “agora” of peoples where everybody contributes with their traditions, tastes, and colors.
As Rilke said, separation and exile are both wilting and budding, both oblivion and immortality, both a human tragedy and a colorful parade of humanity where time and space are forgotten. Within their depths, yesterday, today and tomorrow meet cultures, and traditions conjoin, and an endless legend, describing the history and future of humanity, unfolds.
The meeting of different languages and cultures, the exchange of experiences between people from different traditions can be a source of enriching creativity. Are not most of the writers we love and read with excitement members of the “colorful parade of humanity”? Polish-born Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English; the Irish Samuel Becket, master in both English and French; the giant of Yiddish, I.B. Singer; the Moroccan, Sadik Hikayet, who committed suicide in exile in Paris in the early 1950s; V.S. Naipaul, an Indian from Trinidad writing in English; the Arab poet, Adonis, in exile in Paris; the Czech Milan Kundera…Countless others…
I believe that new thoughts, ideals, and forms come into being through migration, following the encounters with new cultures and languages, with spiritual and social upheavals, with cultural contradictions and changes. It is at these encounters that the aspiration for world citizenship blossoms. Polish-American writer Czeslaw Milosz states that “the duty of literature and poetry is to remind us that we are human beings.” Of course this is so. However, what is needed is the desire to be a citizen of the world and to accept the responsibility this imposes. Such a desire, such responsibility, evolving out of change, creativity and cultural intercourse, are the foundations for a colorful, democratic, and humane existence. They can confront and contain absolutist and totalitarian realities – which are merely the expressions of a dark and suffocating monotone – with new and democratic realities.
Here, I have to quote Gombrowicz again: “Exile is a grave.” If the desire and will to become a citizen of the world are not acquired in the host country and its cultural environment, then exile really becomes a graveyard. Without the understanding that, despite the odds, exile is an opportunity, it would be impossible to be creative and impossible to give new life to the past. Exile tends to turn into a real graveyard when one is isolated from society and imprisoned within the boundaries of a ghetto. Living in the past permanently is not the same thing as creating it anew. There is a great difference between blinding nostalgia and creative fantasy. Living with the shadows of memories in order to foresee and shape the future is different from stubbornly pursuing a life style which has fallen out of time. Wasting away in enclosed centers of exile at the peripheries of big cities by persistently recalling the wonders and glories of the past has nothing to do with creativity…In Vladimir Nabokov’s essay on expatriate writers, Danilo Kis describes the Russian exiles to Europe after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as “… bitter and secluded lives, overwhelmed by inner contradictions and quarrels; full of hatred and rancor brought from the past and far from integrating with the new society and the world, cornered at the outskirts of Berlin and Paris.” For these aristocrats, scientists, intellectuals, writers, workers, students, unassailable to change and gradually dying, exile meant defeat and destruction… A graveyard inhabited by the living.
I will end by remembering my grandmother again. Welate xeribiye that she talked about is, unfortunately, for us Kurds, the focus of our cultural and intellectual work, a motherland. Our century is a tragic era of achievements, genocides, transformations, destructions, and migrations. For us Kurds, these sufferings are all the more prominent. Hence all our significant cultural and intellectual work has been created in exile. Like Jews and Armenians, Kurds have lived welate xeribiye as an opportunity, a place where their language, literature, art, and culture could be protected and developed. As a son of a people who printed their first newspapers, journals, and books in exile and established their modern institutions there, I would like to finish this essay by saying that I, too, have been living in welate xeribiye – an experience that has given me both grief and sanctuary.
Mehmed Uzun is a Kurdish writer from Kurdistan in Turkey who lives in exile in Sweden.