112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Kurdish Mem u Zin and the Boundaries of Identity

Leonard Koff, University of California, Los Angeles

Ahmad Khani’s court poem Mem u Zin (ca. 1695) speaks to a Kurdish cultural and religious identity we trace within the arc of Islamic connections with the ancient world.  This talk looks at two romance analogues — from classical antiquity, Pyramus and Thisbe, and from medieval France, Aucassin et Nicolette—and then at Aristophanes’ myth of love in Plato’s Symposium.  Against these possible sources and analogues Mem u Zin has not been studied. 

Proposal: 

Ahmad Khani (Ahmed-i Hani / Ehmede Xani [1651-1707]), the author of Mem u Zin (ca. 1695), indicates that he wrote his version of the Kurdish folktale of Mem and Zin, star-crossed lovers, to establish a literary tradition in Kurdish to rival those of the surrounding people: Arabs, Turks, and Persians.  In this he succeeded. The court poem Mem u Zin, based on the oral Mem Alan, speaks to a Kurdish cultural and religious identity we can trace within the arc of Islamic connections with the ancient world. In the 20th century, Mem u Zin has been—and is being—read as the first historical awakening of Kurdish nationalism, an example of the use of literary culture to give historical weight to current political goals: creating an independent Kurdish state in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. There is, of course, a certain irony in this: Kurdish nationalism was not Khani’s aim, but the use of Mem u Zin in contemporary politics has put a remarkable Kurdish poem at the center of strenuous bids for political independence, one triumphant consequence of which is a widening knowledge, within Iraqi Kurdistan and outside it, of Kurdish culture, whatever the final disposition may be of the Kurdish bid for independence. Indeed, today Mem u Zin is called the Kurdish national epic, although its genre is not epic or drama, a Kurdish Romeo and Juliet to which it is popularly likened, but a romance whose characteristics group it with other works in this category— Khani is not a Kurdish Shakespeare (“our significant author”) who gives to the Kurds their cultural legitimacy, although Khani’s court romance does. In anatomizing the boundaries of cultural and historical identity that Mem u Zin reveals, this talk looks at two romance analogues, the first from classical antiquity, a quite likely source—Pyramus and Thisbe—and the second from medieval France, not a source, but an illuminating analogue—Aucassin et Nicolette—and then at Aristophanes’ myth of love in Plato’s Symposium, a myth that Khani has reimagined as a cross-gendered court masquerade for which the invitees dress as their immediately visible other and are, in this way, made whole again.  Against these possible sources and analogues Mem u Zin has not been studied. Pyramus and Thisbe provides a possible source for certain literary features of Mem u Zin—the thornbush, for example, that separates Mem and Zin in their earthly death and that, according to Sufi logic, makes their eternal love possible.  Khani may have known the story of Pyramus and Thisbe through oral traditions to which the Islamic world is heir. Aucassin et Nicolette, a romance Khani could not have known, nonetheless provides a highly informative analogue for Mem u Zin’s social and spiritual themes and its reflection of the oral traditions on which the poem is based—Mem u Zin is a chantefable, a philosophical “song story”; the oral Mem Alan is literally not figuratively a song story.  In addition, the characterization of Mem, his pursuit of Zin (and her pursuit of him), like the characterization of Aucassin, his pursuit of Nicolette (and her pursuit of him), reveal elements of social satire, of transgression and transformation, and suggest that, like Aucassin et Nicolette, Mem u Zin reflects the taste of a sophisticated, playful, often parodic but deeply idealistic and (in the Kurdish work) spiritual culture. Finally, Aristophanes’ myth of love, which Khani would certainly have known (not in the Greek and probably not in the Latin, but most likely through its Sufi variations in Arabic or Persian) provides the context for the cross-dressing masquerade at which Mem and Zin meet and immediately know each other. Aristophanes sees love as ontological healing because people in love find their other halves from which they have been sundered. .... Remainder available upon request.

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