Book review: Kurdish Reader: Modern Literature and Oral Texts in Kurmanji

3 06 2013

Khanna Omarkhali. Kurdish Reader: Modern Literature and Oral Texts in Kurmanji, with Kurdish-English Glossaries and Grammatical Sketch (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011), reviewed by Michael Chyet.

In recent years, a new crop of Kurmanji Kurdish readers has appeared on the scene, revolutionizing the study of the Kurdish language by providing new information on an old people. The most recent is Khanna Omarkhali’s Kurdish Reader: Modern Literature and Oral Texts in Kurmanji, with Kurdish-English Glossaries and Grammatical Sketch. Mention should be made of two others, both published by Dunwoody Press: 1) Deniz Ekici’s Kurmanji Kurdish Reader (2007), and 2) Laura Shepherd’s Advanced Kurmanji Reader (2009). In the introduction to Ekici (2007), I list and discuss what reading materials existed for the student before the appearance of this new generation of Kurdish readers.

Each of these Three new readers will meet the needs of a different level of study. I would recommend using Omarkhali’s reader for first year students: it provides an introduction to Kurdish literature, folk literature, and dialects. Ekici’s reader is an introduction to the modern journalistic language. I have already used it with second year students – with encouraging results, I might add.  Shepherd’s book is for the advanced student, as the title implies. It introduces the student to linguistic discourse.

Ms. Omarkhali’s reader includes examples of both the written language and of various spoken dialects.  Glossaries and English translations of most (but not all) of the texts are provided, as well as grammatical explanations and some exercises. In fact, two separate glossaries have been provided, one for the literary texts in part one, and the other for the oral texts in part two.  There are entire reading passages (such as Lesson III, text 4), whose vocabulary has not been integrated into the glossary: a justification for this is provided in the introduction, viz. “The distinctive parts of the book are the original Kurdish texts … [the] explanation for words in these texts has not been included in the Kurdish-English Glossary, because the texts are designed for independent reading.” However, the complete vocabulary of Sehîdê Îbo’s Kurdê Rêwî (Lesson VII, text 1), one of those original Kurdish texts, is included in the glossary. The rationale for this type of omission is lost on me. Suffice it to say that most of the words can be found in my Kurdish-English dictionary.

Several important twentieth century Kurdish writers are introduced to the learner: Mehmed Uzun, Nurettin Zaza, and Kemal Burkay are prominent names from Turkey. The poet Cegerxwîn, although originally from Turkey, fled to Syria (bin xetê = below the line), where he became famous. Eskerê Boyîk, Erebê Şemo [Arab Shamilov], Tosinê Reşîd, Sehîdê Îbo and Şikoyê Hesen are literary writers from the Caucasus (Armenia in particular), as well as the folklorists Heciyê Cindî [Hajie Jndi] and the brothers Celîlê Celîl [Dzhalile Dzhalil] and Ordîxanê Celîl [Ordikhane Dzhalil]. The linguist Qanatê Kurdo [Kanat Kalashevish Kurdoev], compiler of an important Kurmanji-Russian dictionary (1960), is also presented.

The passages from the written language include translations from European and classical literature. The excerpt from Antoine de St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince (Le petit prince) is very well chosen. Nevertheless, this touching piece was translated from the English translation, rather than from the French original. Someone has got to say it, and it may as well be me: translations of translations (far too common a phenomenon among the Kurds) are to be discouraged. Other writers represented in translation include the Persian Sufi poet Hafiz (14th century), the German poet Heinrich Heine, the ancient Greek Antigonas, and the Russian writers Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Lermontov.

Relatively few Kurmanji oral texts have been collected. From Syria there is nothing, other than those parts of Roger Lescot’s pastiche of Mamé Alan (1942) attributed to the informant Mîşo from Meqtel, of the Berazî tribe. From Kurdistan of Iran, other than one folktale appearing in Margaret Kahn’s dissertation (1976), what little has been collected is in the Mukri subdialect of Sorani (Central) Kurdish (Mann 1909) and Southern Kurdish (Fattah 2000).  The Khorasani dialect, representing the Kurmanji dialect of exiles from Kurdistan proper, has been studied by Tsukerman (1986).

From Iraqi Kurdistan, although Prym & Socin’s Botani texts (1890) from Zakho are the earliest, D.N. MacKenzie’s “group II” dialects in his monumental work Kurdish Dialect Studies (1961-62) represent the single largest corpus of Kurmanji oral texts collected to date. They are all in the Behdinani subdialect (Southern Kurmanji).  J. Blau’s Le Kurde de ʻAmādiya et de Djabal Sindjār (1975) supplements the material from Behdinan, while providing new material from Sinjar [Şingal].

Although the largest single part of Kurdistan is the part administered by Turkey, only a modicum of oral materials have been collected from these regions. They include: Prym & Socin (1890) from Tur ‘Abdin, Mardin; Makas from Diyarbakir (1900) and Mardin (1926); Le Coq (1903) from Zencirli (Islahiye, Gaziantep); Nikitin (unpublished) from Shamdinan, Hekkari; Lescot (1940) from Mardin; Ritter (1968-69) from Tur ‘Abdin, Mardin; and Dorleijn (1996) from Beytuşşebap (Hekkari), Hazro and Diyarbakir.(1)

From the Soviet era, there are a fair number of studies of the Kurdish dialect of one or another specific region of the U.S.S.R., often including orally-generated folkloristic texts (Bakaev 1962, 1965, 1973). There are also folkloristic and literary collections which include such texts (Rudenko 1986; Dzhalil 1978, inter alia).

In light of the dearth of such texts, the fresh oral materials collected by Omarkhali are to be heralded as a major advancement, despite the smallness of her corpus.  The materials from Turkey, Armenia, Russia, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan are based on interviews she conducted between 2005 and 2011.  Those from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are reprinted from Bakaev (1962, 1965); likewise the texts from Khorasan come from Tsukerman (1986).

The author of this volume, Khanna Omarkhali, is a Yezidi, and she has wisely given prominence to this understudied group. In addition to including pieces by Yezidi writers (Eskerê Boyîk, Sehîdê Îbo and Şikoyê Hesen), she rightly points out in the introduction that “the
majority of the Kurds in Armenia and Georgia are Yezidis whose ancestors were forced to move to these regions at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries to escape religious persecution” (p. 28). There are also oral texts from Armenia, and from the regions of Şingal
[Sinjar] and Tilkêf in Iraqi Kurdistan, which were collected from Yezidi informants, and reflect Yezidi customs.

The preface by Amir Hassanpour, which includes a map, provides a historical  context for the study of the Kurds, as well as showing how perceptions of them among foreign governments – and hence policies towards them — have changed over time.

Grammatical explanations, including verb lists and notes on dialectal differences, are additional aspects of the book which the beginning student of Kurdish will find indispensable.

I also applaud Ms. Omarkhali’s decision to write the book in English. Until the first Gulf War in 1992, English was not a particularly important language for Kurdish scholarship. From the early 1990’s until today, scores of studies in English have appeared on Kurdish history and politics. By contrast, anyone taking an interest in Kurdish folklore and literature would still do well to learn Russian, the first language of the author’s education. The Kurdish Studies program at Exeter in the UK (Kurmanji Kurdish Reader author D. Ekici’s alma mater) is another reflection of the new-found importance of English for studying things Kurdish. It is not a coincidence that all three of these new Kurdish readers have been written in English.

Because of the information on the Yezidis that this volume provides, and because of the new oral texts from all parts of Kurdistan and beyond, and thanks to the entry it provides to the study of Kurdish language and literature, Kurdish studies will be enriched by the appearance of this most welcome newcomer to the field.


(1) I am excluding Zeynelabidin Zinar’s Xwençe in 10 volumes, because by his own admission he has “doctored” the texts.


1962                                    Bakaev, Cherkes Khudoevich. Govor kurdov Turkmenii: fonetika, grammatika, teksty i slovarʹ (Moskva: Izd-vo Akademii nauk SSSR)

1965                                    Bakaev, Cherkes Khudoevich. I︠A︡zyk azerbaĭdzhanskikh kurdov (Moskva: Izd-vo “Nauka”)

1973                                    Bakaev, Cherkes Khudoevich. I︠A︡zyk kurdov SSSR: Sravnitelʹnai︠a︡  kharakteristika govorov (Moskva: Nauka)

1975                                    Blau, Joyce. Le Kurde de ʻAmādiya et de Djabal Sindjār: analyse linguistique, textes folkloriques, glossaires (Paris: C. Klincksieck)

1996                                    Dorleijn, Margreet. The Decay of Ergativity in Kurmanci: Language Internal or Contact Induced? ([Tilburg]: Tilburg University Press)

1978                                    Dzhalil, Ordikhane & Dzhalile Dzhalil. Kurdskiĭ folʹklor = Zargotina kurda (Moskva : Nauka), 2 vols.

2000                                    Fattah, Ismaïl Kamandâr. Les dialectes kurdes méridionaux : étude linguistique et dialectologique (Leuven: Peeters)

1976                                    Kahn, Margaret. Borrowing and Variation in a Phonological Description  of Kurdish (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Phonetics Laboratory, University of Michigan)

1960                                    Kurdoev, Kanat Kalashevich. Kurdsko-russkiĭ slovarʹ (Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe izd-vo inostrannykh i nat︠s︡ionalʹnykh slovareĭ)

1903                                    Le Coq, Albert von. Kurdische Texte (Berlin: Gedruck in der Reichsdrückerei)

1940-42         Lescot, Roger. Textes kurdes (Paris: P. Geuthner), 2 vols. 1. ptie. Contes, proverbes et énigmes (1940).– 2. ptie. Mamé Alan (1942).

1961-62         MacKenzie, D.N. Kurdish dialect studies (London & New York: Oxford University Press), 2 vols.

1900                                    Makas, Hugo. Kurdische Studien (Heidelberg: C. Winter’s                                                                                                     Universitätsbuchhandlung) contents: 1. Eine Probe des Dialektes von Diarbekir. 2. Ein Gedicht aus Gāwar. 3. Jezidengebete

1926                                    Makas, Hugo. Kurdische Texte im Kurmānǰí-Dialecte aus der Gegend von Märdîn (Petersburg-Leningrad: [s.n.])

1909                                    Mann, Oskar. Die Mundart der Mukri-Kurden (Berlin: G. Reimer),Kurdisch-persische Forschungen. Abt. 4: Kurdische Dialekte, Bd. 3, T. 2.

Unpubl.         Nikitin, Vasiliĭ Petrovich. Shamdinani Kurdish, edited by D.N. MacKenzie.

1887-90         Prym, Eugen & Albert Socin. Kurdische Sammlungen (St.-Pétersbourg: Commissionaires de l’Académie impériale des sciences, Eggers et cie et J.Glasounof), 2 v. in 4: 1. Abt. Erzählungen und Lieder im Dialekte des Ṭûr ‘Abdîn … a. Die Texte. b. Übersetzung.–2. Abt. Erzählungen und Lieder im Dialekte von Bothan. Gesammelt, hrsg., und übers. von Albert Socin. a. Die Texte. b. Übersetzung.

1968-69         Ritter, Helmut. “Kurmānci-Texte aus dem Ṭûr‘Abdîn,” Oriens, 21-22, p. 1-135.

1986               Rudenko, Margarita Borisovna. Literaturnai︠a︡ i folʹklornye versii kurdskoĭ poėmy “I︠U︡suf i Zelikha” (Moskva: Izd-vo “Nauka,” Glav. red. vostochnoĭ lit-ry)

1986               T︠S︡ukerman, Isaak Iosifovich. Khorasanskiĭ kurmandzhi : issledovanie i teksty (Moskva: Izd-vo “Nauka,” Glav. red. vostochnoĭ lit-ry)

1987-96         Zinar, Zeynelabidin. Xwençe (Stockholm: Weşanxana Çanda Kurdî), 10 vols.