Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Romeo and Juliet with Turbans

At last! Here's the Turkish-Indonesian fusion project you've all been waiting for: a duet by a Turkish musician and Fithrie, a singer from Indonesia's rebellious Aceh province. Visit her site to watch the video: www.myspace.com/fithrie

I met Fithrie at the Kurdish Institute, one of my favourite places in Paris - part library, part literary salon, part backpacking lounge. Yesterday, I visited the library to do some research on "Mem u Zin", a kind of Kurdish Romeo and Juliet with sheikhs, emirs and ruby-red wine. It's probably the most famous epic in the Kurdish language, written by the wine-loving 17th century poet Ehmede Xani (also known as Ahmede Khani, pictured above) and is a great read, very Shakespearean, with lots of cross-dressing, political intrigue, bawdy humour and, of course, tragic love.

The epic begins with Xani explaining why he decided to write in kurmanji, the Kurdish language, rather than Turkish or Persian: "So that wise men cannot say: The Kurds did not choose love as one of their aims..."
Xani, a Sufi poet, was not just referring to romantic love but to divine or spiritual love, the love that encompasses wisdom, knowledge, understanding. He wanted to show that the Kurds, often portrayed as savage, plundering horsemen, weren't just grunting robbers but had their own culture, spirituality and beautiful language.

I learned all this from Sandrine Alexie, the incredibly helpful and knowledgeable librarian at the Institute, who has produced a beautiful French translation of "Mem u Zin" and written some excellent essays on Xani.

Which brings me back to Fithrie. She was at the Kurdish Institute to research parallels between the separatist conflict in Aceh and the Kurdish struggle. It made me think of a short story I once wrote about a guerrilla consultant who travels from conflict to conflict, advising rebel armies. The character of the itinerant guerrilla consultant came to me as I was thinking about the strange similarities of separatist movements around the world - all those people fighting not just for land, but for the right to speak and teach their own language and write their own stories. As Xani said ca. 1700:

"Unwise and ignorant they are not,
Just deprived and dispossessed."

(Translated by Eziz Bawermend, in Fire, Snow and Honey: Voices from Kurdistan, Gina Lennox, Halstead Press 2001)

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