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New Poems that Go "Beyond the Headlines" in Rojava

Posted on January 24, 2020

A poster supporting pro-democracy movements in Northern Syria, photographed on a street in Portland, Oregon. By Alan, 2018.

What is Rojava? In his introduction to new poetry from the region, recently published in Words Without Borders and aptly entitled "Beyond the Headlines," translator David Shook explains that this anonymous region of northern Syria, with its "publicly declared values of gender equality, environmental sustainability, and pluralism," recently faced a U.S.-condoned invasion from Turkey. Despite the uncertain future of Rojava:

These poems display the health and vitality of a literature that has already proved to be a potent medium for self-expression, a grounds for linguistic experimentation, and an important declaration of autonomy itself.

Teaching the Poems

You might begin with Cihan Hesen’s I speak to, a poem about speech and silence, longing and loneliness:

I speak to
The corpse of a dead poem
I speak to
The skin of the night 
I speak to
The bare fingernails of my weak hands
I speak to
The broken mirror in my dark and empty room
I speak to
Your orderly books
I speak to Loneliness
I speak to
The loneliness of my long shadow
But the hush feeling, silence sullen-faced fate reaches my ears
I too fall silent in the fire of silence

Battling her loneliness, the narrator addresses what little she sees in her "dark and empty room" – her own fingernails, a broken mirror, a shadow – before finally falling silent before an encroaching "sullen-faced fate."

The simplicity of the poem's language and immediacy of the narrator's emotions make it well-suited to bringing into the classroom, whether on its own or as the first poem in the larger collection from Rojava published this month (You'll find all the poems halfway down the page, under the heading "Where the Sun Goes Home: Poetry from Rojava.") To view the translation of the poem alongside the original Kurmanji, a dialect of Kurdish, click here.

David Shook writes that, "Cihan Hesen’s poetry is a poetry of longing, whether for a lover or her homeland. In fact, she often links the concept of a homeland to the idea of a lover." You might pair [I speak to] with other poetry that makes a similar analogy, such as "Sleepless Homeland," Carmen Boullosa's poem of longing for a Mexico uncorrupted by the recent drug wars; or Iranian poet Farogh Farozkzad's "I Pity the Garden," in which a dying garden represents the decline of a family and perhaps, also, a nation. 

Iman Mersal, author of "Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me."

To explore the poem's theme of sound and silence, you might pair with Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me from Egyptian poet Iman Mersal. Or, taking a more formalistic approach, you might teach [I speak to] alongside other rhythmic, anaphoric poems such as Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva's "To kiss a forehead is to erase worry", and Juan Gregorio Regino's Nothing Remains Empty, originally written in the indigenous Mazateco language and structured like a traditional chant.

The latter poem, Nothing Remains Empty, is a joyful, unambiguous celebration of the power of poetry to bring about renewal. [I speak to] is more ambiguous, performing an attempted invocation of this power only to finally "fall silent. " Other work that explores the power and limitations of words includes Osip Mandelstam's "I sing when my throat is wet", Maya Angelou's "Caged Bird", Japanese poet Sayaka Ohsaki's "Noisy Animal", Kendrick Lamar's "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst," and Paul Simon's "The Cool, Cool, River."

Kendrick Lamar at Øyafestivalen 2013. By Jørund Føreland Pedersen. License: CC 3.0 Unported.

Student poems inspired by [I speak to] might take the form of invocations---successful or not---of the powers of their choosing.

Exploring Recent History in Rojava

For context on the region's history, Shook recommends the following resources:

On WWB Campus, the essay "The Cleric and I" chronicles the fight against ISIS, in which soldiers from Rojava also participated, often partnering with U.S. forces. The Playlist includes:

We also recommend the video below, from a May 2019 Australian news broadcast: Syrian Kurds are building a democracy in the ruins of ISIS's Caliphate. Correspondent Yaara Bou Melhem presciently reported that the Rojava experiment in democracy "could be crushed in an instant." 

If you teach any of the poetry from Rojava in WWB, we'd love to hear how it went. Did you use any other writing or informational texts? How did your students respond? Let us know on the Contact page.

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