An Island of Literary Freedom: Kurdish Writers in Soviet Armenia

The cover of Ahmedê E’gît, a historical novel by Karlene Çaçanî and published in Yerevan in 1958.

         In 2017, I wrote about the Kurdish-language children’s books published in Armenia during the Soviet period. While these publications are certainly noteworthy, they really only tell a part of the story of Kurdish book culture in Armenia. Within its context, the production of Kurdish-language printed materials in the Soviet Caucasus is a parable for the much broader phenomena of cultural survival, adaptation, and evolution. The people, publishers and politics involved are all part of a fascinating story that is often eclipsed by the dynamics of cultural production in the rest of Kurdistan. That much was evident from the response to a series of tweets I wrote in November 2019. In order to rectify this, I thought I’d take May 15, Kurdish Language Day, to shine a light on a few of these creative minds.

         I became acquainted with Kurdish publications from Armenia through the British Library’s holdings. Until recently, many of these works were uncatalogued or only partially catalogued, rarely available to researchers and readers interested in Kurdish literature. Received as part of an exchange with the National Library of the Armenian SSR, they were given shelfmarks, but not fully integrated into card or electronic catalogues. I addressed this in part when I worked as an Intern at the Library in 2015-16, and the job was finished in 2018 by our cataloguing intern Shkow Sharif. The vast majority of these nearly 90 titles can now be found on the Library’s online catalogue, although it takes being a bit savvy with the Library of Congress’ authorities and the peculiarities of its transliteration system to find them all.  

         The Kurdish materials from Armenia are fascinating for a whole host of reasons. To begin with, hundreds of titles were published from the 1920s onwards, including when doing so in the rest of the Kurdophone regions was either severely restricted or harshly suppressed. This made the Soviet Caucasus one of the few places in which a continuous and relatively unhindered flow of Kurdish publishing was possible. After Soviet authorities imposed the Cyrillic alphabet on Kurdish in 1945 (after 15 years of Latinization), it also meant that a sizeable proportion of Kurdish publishing was conducted in a writing system unfamiliar to the vast majority of Kurdophones, most of whom now use modified Latin or Arabic scripts. After independence, Armenian’s Kurdophone communities quickly opted for Latinization, bringing them into line with practices in most other Kurmanji-speaking regions. Kurdish children in Armenia are today taught using textbooks in this system, ensuring a generational shift. Nonetheless, Cyrillic-script works remain an important part of their cultural heritage. At the same time, they act as a testament to the wholehearted approval of Soviet authorities for the use of Kurdish as a medium of spreading Soviet thought and authority, in addition to expanding Soviet cultural clout.

A sample of the standard employed in Armenian Kurdish materials: the poem Dûrxin Destêd Xwe ji Welatêd E’reba by Şikoyê Hesen, from the 1961 publication Qalçîçek.

An Issue of Language

         In terms of language, too, the Armenian-produced Kurdish materials are a bit of an anomaly. While Armenia’s Kurdophone communities have long been Kurmanji speaking, their dialects have unique characteristics not found in related dialects spoken further to the south. You can see a number of the differences between some contemporary Kurdish dialects in this project launched by the University of Manchester in 2017, although the full extent of the divergences extant at the start of the 20th century might never be known. Nonetheless, the 1910s and 20s saw a series of populations movements, with some Muslim Kurdophone tribes moving south from the Caucasus into Anatolia, and some Yezidi ones going in the opposite direction. This must have had some impact on the dialect map of the region. One can only wonder what effect this had on literary production, given that a number of well-known authors operating in Soviet Armenia originated from Eastern Anatolia. Moreover, the lack of a clear, centralized Kurmanji standard prior to Soviet power meant that Soviet linguists and Kurdologists, together with literati and other Kurdophone intellectuals, were able to codify their own standard within the Caucasus.

I’m not a linguist, nor an expert in Kurdish dialects, and so I won’t attempt to go into speculation as to what the differences in morphology and syntax might be. At the very least, it is easy to see that Cyrillic texts clearly reflect slightly different phonological phenomena than do Latin- or Arabic-script ones (watch out for apostrophes!). One remarkable difference, however, is the use of the ending -êd for the oblique plural, which is also found in dialects around Zakho. This particle occurs as -ên in the Kurmanji dialects in between northern Iraq and Armenia, most notably in eastern Anatolia. Other writers have noted a heavy input of Armenian speakers in the first round of Kurdish literature produced in the Caucasus. The dynamics of translation, then, probably had an impact on the shape of the idiom in these texts. It suffices to say that the language, in addition to the process and the content of the works in question, was also unique.  

Strength in Numbers

         In coming back to the works at hand, it is easy to see that, where Armenian Kurds might have differed from their co-nationals to the south, they had quite a bit in common with other minorities in the Soviet Union. Kurdish was recognized as a minority language and Kurds were afforded various cultural and educational rights. Sunni and Shi’a Muslim Kurds, as well as Yezidis, all benefitted from such rights, ensuring a broad linguistic community within the USSR. This has been eroded in recent years, as the Armenian government has sought to identify Muslim Kurds and Yezidi Kurdophones as two separate minority groups (this article by Angelika Pobedonostseva-Kaya, in Russian, delves further into the thorny issue of self-identification). Regardless of the political, religious, ethnographic, or linguistic arguments for or against such distinctions, the fact remains that all Kurdophone groups collaborated with one another in the creation and development of Kurdish publishing over the course of the Soviet period.

A Kurmanji translation of a standard Russian anti-religious tract, published in Yerevan in 1933.

In 1932, a Kurdish section of the Union of Authors of Armenia was created. This organization provided text creators a voice in official circles. It also meant that novelists, essayists, poets and others could come together to support one another and to create a sense of community around Kurdish-language publishing within the Republic. It was all the more important given the fact that such creators’ texts were handled by the main publishing houses in Yerevan, rather than specialized Kurdish ones. A brief overview of the titles held by the British Library shows that the vast majority of the 87 titles in the catalogue were published by Hayastan/Ermenistan or by Haypêthrat, state publishers of Armenian works as well. A few were issued by Luys/Lûys, another primarily Armenian-language concern, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps too few titles were published in Kurdish to merit a separate publishing house. Perhaps the logic of centralized, state-directed production mandated a set number of publishers per Soviet Socialist Republic. Or maybe the repressive policies and exiles imposed by Stalin from 1937 to 1953 – during which time Kurdish publishing was halted and several Kurdophone intellectuals banished from Armenia – had a lasting effect on the continuity of Kurdish publishing in the region. Whatever the case, Kurdish authors relied on their Armenian comrades to expand the realm of printed Kurdish literary production, and, for the most part, it was a collaboration that bore fruit.

Individual Efforts for a Common Aim

         The real story, however, is the authors who, through individual and group efforts, created a core nucleus of Kurdish cultural production in the South Caucasus. Some of the earliest pieces produced in Soviet Armenia were translations of texts from Russian or Armenian, revealing the Soviet government’s enthusiasm for minority-language publishing as a means of propaganda. But one of the first Kurdish intellectuals to make use of these new-found spaces for publication was Hecîye Cindî, whose Latin-script Kurmanji reader was published in Yerevan in 1934. A Yezidi from eastern Anatolia, Cindî arrived in Armenia as an orphan during the First World War. He was first a schoolteacher and a journalist, gradually making his way into the world of fiction writing in the 1930s. Given his professional background, it is unsurprising that one of his first monograph publications was a reader based heavily on propagandistic and pedantic texts common in similar works across the Soviet Union. Cindî was persecuted harshly during the Stalinist terror, but managed to escape with his life, choosing to pursue a doctorate in Kurdish folklore in the 1940s, when he was officially prohibited from writing. For this reason, a number of Cindî’s later works, appearing in the 1950s-70s, focus on Caucasian Kurdish folk literature. These complemented his pedagogical writing, which picked up once again as soon as the official ban on his work was lifted.

         Cindî was more than just a writer and an ethnographer; he was also a recording artist. From the early 1930s, he worked as a news reader on Radio Yerevan’s Kurmanji program, alongside a host of other Kurdophone intellectuals. Among these was a fellow Yezidi, Emînê Evdal. Evdal hailed from the same region as Cindî, but, following the First World War and Armenian Genocide, he fled first to Tblisi before coming to Armenia in 1926. There, he worked as a teacher in villages on Elegez Mountain before moving to Yerevan to pursue studies in linguistics in 1931. Evdal’s first fiction book was published in 1924 (Casim û Tosin). The period from the 1930s through to the 1960s saw a plethora of his monographs on Kurdish literature, language, culture, and gender dynamics (Vekolîna li ser rolê jin di malbata qedîma kurdî), as well as educational materials. The 1960s brought more literary works, especially children’s literature (such as Berevok) and poetry (Şiêran û poêman and Gulizer, to name a few). By this point Evdal, was firmly identified as one of the Soviet Union’s leading Kurdish intellectuals.

         Radio Yerevan featured a number of other bright Kurdish writers and intellectuals, many of whom went on to produce considerable volumes of prose and poetry for the country’s Kurdophone communities. One of them, Xelîlê Çaçan, also known as Xelîlê Çaçanoviç Muradov, was a Yezidi who devoted the majority of his time to managing the radio program. He was also responsible for recording some 1400 Kurdish folk songs, ensuring the preservation and continuity of an oft-overlooked aspect of Kurdophone oral literature. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Çaçan gifted us with collections of folk literature (including Kilamêd Cimaeta Kurdan and Dû Poêm), and a novel (Morîyên Nenê, reprinted by Yenişehir in Latin script in 2017).

The Russian Connection

         Of course, Armenia’s Muslim Kurds were also active participants in the elaboration of a literary corpus. A few families even produced literary dynasties, with parents and children both contributing to the development of Kurdish verse and prose. Aramê Çaçan, for example, penned a book of poems entitled Xelîl û Guzel in 1962, while his son Karlênê Çaçanî went on to a prolific career as an intellectual and artist. Born in Dêrikê in 1929, Çaçanî came of age during the period of Stalinist repression. He studied in Elegez and then Yerevan, pursuing a career as a historian, as well as a journalist with Riya Teze and presenter on Radio Yerevan. From the 1950s through to the period of independence, he put out a number of books of poetry, many of which were translated into various languages. Some, such as Şêr u Kaw, were written for children, while others, such as Berbanga we’tenê min and Dil û weten were intended for adults. Thanks to the decisions of editors and translators in Moscow, Çaçanî’s oeuvre was disseminated to a wider Soviet audience at the end of the USSR’s days, but it does not appeal that his work was ever made available to Western European audiences.

         Another author, Erebê Şemo, also known as Arab Shamilov, faced perhaps the opposite situation. Born in eastern Anatolia in 1897 into a Yezidi family, he and his relatives fled to Armenia after the First World War. Together with Isahak Marogûlov, he created a Latin alphabet for Kurmanji in 1929, and later was one of the founders of the newspaper Riya Teze. Şemo is credited with having written the first Kurmanji novel, The Kurdish Shepherd (Şivanê Kurmanca). Although penned in 1929-30, it was first published in its Russian translation (Курдский пастух) in Tblisi in 1935. In spite of his close attachment to Bolshevism and the Socialist project, Şemo was not able to escape the Stalinist reckoning of the late 1930s. This explains why this pioneer of Kurdish literature and literacy in Soviet Armenia failed to published another literary work until nearly 25 years after his first novel. Two years after returning to the country from exile, he published the novel Berbang in 1958. This was followed by a three more fiction works in the next 11 years, including Jiyana Bextewar (Happy Life) and Dimdim, about the battle of the same name.

         Other Kurdish writers in Armenia were also Bolsheviks, or at least members of the Communist Party. Mîroyê Esed, for one, is an example of a member of the community who was devoted in both his service to Kurdophones conationals and to the Soviet authorities. Also known as Miro Asadovich Mstoyan, he was a teacher and lawyer, and was young enough to escape the worst of the Great Terror in 1937. In fact, during the Second World War he became the Secretary of the Communist Party in Elegez. He published his own books of poetry (including Hesina dil) and novels (Sîsê), but it was not, perhaps, his creative work that was his greatest service to the cause of Kurdish literature in Armenia. Rather, Esed’s long career as an editor of texts ensured that a steady stream of publications in Kurmanji were available to Kurdophone readers throughout the second half of the 20th century. He turned his hand to classical Kurdish production (including Melayê Cizîrî and Ehmedê Xanî); translations from a host of European and Caucasian languages; and to contemporary works by a variety of Kurdish writers from the Armenian SSR, including many of the people mentioned in this article. Behind every great writer is a great editor, and Esed was key to supporting countless voices throughout the history of Caucasian Kurdish literature.

International Connections

         In looking at writers unrestricted by borders, we would be negligent if we did not turn our attention at this point to Ordixanê Celîl, perhaps one of the most prolific Kurdophone historians and ethnographers that Armenia has produced. Celîl was a Yezidi who bridged linguistic, geographical and cultural gaps, both within the Kurdish-speaking world and outside of it. Educated in Yerevan as a linguist, he left the Caucasus for Leningrad in 1957, where he became a lecturer in Kurdish at the Oriental Institute. He too was from a family of literati and intellectuals, as his sister Cemîle and his brother Celîle, who stayed in Armenia and Georgia respectively, were also active in the field of Kurdish folk literature. All children likely owe a debt to their father, Casime Celîl, whose own work with Radio Yerevan and in the domain of Kurdish literature paved the way for so many later scholars and creatives. Celîl conducted his ethnographic research in the Caucasus, as well as in northern Iraq and among Kurdophone communities in Central Asia. In total, his oeuvre contains a treasure trove of works on the literary and lyrical history and traditions of the Kurdish-speaking populations of Eurasia. It gathers together anthologies of Kurdish short stories, poetry, songs and legends, preserving and commenting on them from the point of view of a Kurdophone, rather than a European Orientalist. Celîl also left us a book of his own poetry, proving that he was more than just an avid consumer of and commentator on the literary creations of others.

         Apart from scholars, translators too were an important part of this literary milieu. Fêrîkê Ûsiv, a Yezidi from outside of Yerevan, is an excellent example of their contribution. Ûsiv studied at the Pedagogical Institute. He took a keen interest in linguistics and history before signing on to work at Radio Yerevan’s literary section. In the 1960s, he pursued his passion for poetry, publishing his first book of verse, Çevkanî. The following decades saw a veritable explosion of poems in published form (consider Hesreta min, Gula Elegezê and Narê); a number of his pieces were put to music by Kurdish musicians. Ûsiv was a prolific versifier; so much so that, in 2015, the well-known Kurdish commentator Kawa Nemir called him the best Kurdish poet. But he was also active as a translator, bringing foreign literary works into the grasp of Kurdish readers. In 1973, he collaborated with Heciyê Cindî in order to produce an edited translation of the works of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. He rendered poetry by Byron, Goethe, Pushkin and Esenin into Kurmanji, granting Kurds in the Soviet Union a window onto the literatures of other people without requiring them to learn another tongue. Pushkin and Esenin were two of Ûsiv’s most cherished poets, perhaps indicating his own views on the importance of poetry as a means of expressing the culture, history and belonging of the Kurdish nation.

         The last writer whom I will address in detail is Eskerê Boyîk (here in English), perhaps Armenia’s best publicized Kurdish author of the 20th century. Boyîk, a Yezidi from Qundesazê, Armenia, is an economist by training. From the 1960s onwards, however, he has been particularly active in writing about Kurdish literature while also producing his own original works. His first monograph published in Soviet Armenia was Şiverê, a collection of poems in Kurmanji. The following 25 years saw a number of his poems (for adults and children), plays, and criticism produced in Armenia, Turkey and Sweden. This last location has ensured the reach, however limited, of Soviet Kurdish original production into the diaspora. In 1993, Boyîk left Armenia for Kazakhstan, where he stayed three years before moving to Germany permanently in 1996. He continues to be active, writing more pieces about the Kurdish (and specifically Yezidi) literary tradition in Armenia. A number of these titles have been published in Istanbul and in Duhok, demonstrating the pan-dialectal appeal of Caucasian Kurdish literature.  

Into the Future

         The men listed above are just a fraction of those whom we know to have contributed to Armenia’s Kurdophone literary boom throughout the 20th century. Indeed, many other names complement those already on this list. Eliyê Ebdilrehman, another of the migrants from Anatolia, got his start writing articles on literature for the newspaper Riya Teze before graduating to poetry and prose, as seen in his collection of short stories from 1959, Xatê Xanim. Qaçaxê Mirad, also born in eastern Anatolia, worked between Armenia and Georgia, writing poetry (such as Min çi dît) and literary criticism while contributing to Riya Teze and working at the pedagogical institute. And, also hailing from Georgia, Cerdoyê Esed left us with several books of poetry (including Sewtê dil and Ser R’ya Emir), as well as countless hours of recited Kurdish texts thanks to his time at Radio Yerevan. Although born in Armenia, Esed developed a great interest in traditional literary processes among the Kurdophone minority of his adopted country.

         There are other poets and novelists to mention – Ûsivê Beko, Simoê Şemo, Mîkaîlê Reşîd, Seîdê Îbo, Şerefê Eşir, Tosinê Reşîd, Ismaîl Duko, Hamoê Rizgo, to name a few – but I will start to wrap up here, rather than dragging on. Many more voices have yet to be heard, particularly those of women writers and poets. Of the creatives identified in this article, only one – Cemîle Celîl – is a woman. Clearly, there is still much work to be done to uncover the full diversity and richness of Kurdish literature from Armenia. The current study is based largely on the holdings of the British Library and is thus bound to be woefully incomplete. A more careful and comprehensive approach to all of the various publishing platforms – monographs, periodicals and samizdat creations – will undoubtedly reveal a far more complex and complicated picture.

Sources for Further Study

         Just who is engaged in producing such research? Studies of Armenia’s Kurdish authors in English are exceptionally hard to come by. Indeed, the marginal status of Kurdish Studies within the Euro-American academy, combined with the relatively marginal placement of Caucasian Kurdish issues within the body of Kurdish research, means that very little research on such topics is produced outside of Kurdophone regions. Within Kurdish-speaking communities, however, things are beginning to change. Many works produced in Armenia are now being transliterated, translated, and published by houses in Turkey and Iraq. Ordixanê Celîl’s work has long been available to readers in the Middle East, but now so too are writings by a number of other writers.  

The gradual easing of access to such works, whether in their original form or in translation/transliteration, has also given rise to greater academic interest across Kurdistan. In the former Soviet Union itself, a number of scholars have produced work on the topic, some of it reaching audiences outside of the region. The writings of Qanatê Kurdo, one of the most productive voices on the history and criticism of Kurdish literature in the Soviet Union, is gradually finding its way into Western European languages. Emerîkê Serdar, a Kurdish author currently resident in Armenia, has made a number of his biographies of the authors mentioned above available on his website. Mehmet Yıldırımçakar of Bingöl Üniversitesi, meanwhile, has not only produced valuable scholarship on a number of Armenian Kurdish authors, he has also translated texts for publication within the Kurmanji market. The popular press is also acquainting readers with cultural production among the Kurdophone communities of Armenia. Iraqi Kurdish artist Farhad Pîrbal has written a brief overview of Kurdish cultural production in the country. While I have yet to find an English version, a Kurmanji translation is available thanks to Ali Pakseresht. Similarly, a piece on the topic from the newspaper Riya Teze, Armenia’s oldest periodical dedicated to the Kurdish community, was reprinted in the Diyarbakır-based Kovara Bîr back in 2016. Indeed, website taking its name from this flagship broadsheet is a rich source of biographies about writers from the region, albeit not always arranged in the most user-friendly of ways.

Historical circumstance, or accident, can prepare the way for remarkable bursts of creativity. In the case of Soviet Kurds, the variable commitment of the Soviet authorities to the cultural rights of minorities, and the harsh restrictions faced by Kurdish speakers outside of the USSR, turned them into some of the most widely published authors in the Kurdish lands for large parts of the 20th century. Ironically, it was their writing, or their writing system, that has kept them relatively undiscovered by many Kurds and Kurdologists. As access to their works becomes easier, their rich and valuable contribution to the preservation and development of Kurdish literature is gradually being given the credit it deserves.

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