This fascinating commentary is from the Times Literary Supplement, April 29, 2016 and demonstrates how vital poetry can be as a part of life and struggle.
It is by Michael Singer, an army Medical Officer deployed on Operation Shader as part of the British Army training mission to Kurdish northern Iraq in the fight against Da’esh.
There is a saying here, that if two fish fight in the Tigris it is the British who are behind it. Given the size of our small team, tasked with training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, such anachronistic suspicions, harking back to an era of British imperial influence, now seem risible. But this area of Kurdish Iraq is one with an understandably long memory of such things, shaped by too often being on the receiving end of the intrigues of empire.
The Tigris valley now has a far more pernicious influence in the form of ISIS, which occupies the city of Mosul and a number of towns just to the west of our location. Their advance down this historical corridor, in a paroxysm of murder and destruction, was finally repelled by the combined efforts of coalition bombing and a determined fightback by Peshmerga forces. The result is a largely static frontline, the approach to which is punctuated by pockmarked checkpoints guarded by weary but friendly Peshmerga who, given the opportunity, will happily show you images of the enemy dead interred for posterity in the black gloss sepulchre of a smartphone. Beyond lies a dismal swathe of machine-contoured earth the colour of cinnamon, shadowing the Tigris valley for 1,000 km and periodically reshaped by the detonation of 2,000-pound bombs which, even at a distance, make your viscera heave. The infiltrating system of trenches and wire, littered with the detritus of attack and counter-attack, is one which, in the mud of a cold spring morning, conjures another Western front.
Troops from the all female Sun Brigade of Yazidi Peshmerga
But there is another front in this conflict. As ISIS (or Da’esh, as they are termed here), on encountering any culture, reach for their guns, the Kurds in turn – to follow the adapted saying – reach for their culture. Initially, this has taken the form of a strengthened sense of national identity and resilience, not least as expressed in poetry, as in their national anthem “Ey Reqib” (O Enemy). Unlike many anthems, it is not an expression of pride written at a time of national triumph but one of defiance, composed while the poet, Yunis Reuf, popularly known as Dildar, languished in prison, a captive of the Ottomans. Dildar (1918–48) was born in the mountainous north-east of this region, an area which has produced Kurdish writers and poets from the seventeenth-century poet and philosopher Ahmad Khani down to Haji Qadir Koyi, a later champion of enlightened thinking and literacy. The contemporary poet Abdulla Pashew’s “The Unknown Soldier” sums up the price of a land whose every rock has been fought over.
In my country,
On any spot of land,
Under any cloud in the sky,
Do not worry,
Make a slight bow,
And place your wreath of flowers
In contrast to my last tour of duty in this region (Basra, 2003), the current one is proving a rewarding experience, not least because of the opportunity to work closely with locals who appear genuinely glad you are here. The accelerated bonds produced between soldiers facing a common enemy is well-known cliché, but in every operation there are moments of shared repose which serve to dissolve the constraints of social convention – a sort of cultural short-circuit. One such meeting was with a Peshmerga called Farman, whom I met proudly admiring a newly issued assault rifle which was about half his height. I greeted him in broken Sorani and was surprised when he replied in estuary English. A meandering discussion about Kurdish literature, poetry and song followed. Whatever else the downfall of Saddam may have brought about, the lifting of Ba’athist censorship has enabled a blossoming of Kurdish writing over the past ten years.
Though shy by nature, Farman is a writer and singer of Kurdish music, who started at the age of twelve performing for the Kurdish diaspora in Streatham, south London. He returned to this region in 2013 and now gets by performing at weddings and cafés to the accompaniment of electric organ or the more traditional tembûr. With wages usually several months in arrears, most Peshmerga have a second job when not at the front, but to our constant surprise they still turn up to train and fight whenever called to do so. Farman’s repertoire, though traditional in style, covers subjects as conventional as unrequited love and as contemporary as the economy and the victims of the current war. It includes elegies to those who have died in flight, drowning in their bid to cross the Mediterranean. But when among his comrades, the most popular tunes are his paeans to the Peshmerga – “those who face death”. These are always well received and have the ability to animate a group of tired fighters training in a cold, steady drizzle in a way that we, with our translated encouragements, can only long for.
Slowly catching the attention of his fellow Peshmerga who begin to gather round, weapons slung and cigarettes lit, he starts to sing. Quietly at first, retaining a youthful self-consciousness, he soon gets into his stride, encouraged by the increasing accompaniment of the clapping crowd, who by the end, arms linked, have broken into a dance. Sometimes another Peshmerga will dare to join in, to the delight of everyone, as we are now in for a treat. The resulting lyrical exchange – part duet, part duel – is a tense one and clearly hard fought (even to those who can’t fully comprehend it). The result rarely seems in doubt, with the youthful and diminutive Farman usually emerging victorious. The encounters hold a particular appeal for some of our younger soldiers, attuned as they are to a similar style of adversarial performance in rap music.
The songs, Farman explains to me, are in the main poems. Some he writes himself, but often he trawls bookshops for poetry whose metre will lend itself to song. “If it is beautiful to read, you can sing it”, he says. Their use is always preceded by a search for the poet and a request for permission – nothing to do with copyright, Farman says; simple politeness. The poets rarely refuse an airing of their work. Bardic traditions survive, even in the face of the current conflict and what I suspect are the more insidious distractions provided by digital entertainment. Farman is more optimistic about the digital age. Far from sounding the death knell of traditional culture, he argues, it will be its saviour. He is already something of a YouTube celebrity in Kurdish circles, under his performing name of Farman Belana; announcements of his local performances on Facebook have led to crowds of Kurdish youths thronging the cafés of Kirkuk.
Though my own work here offers few opportunities for café culture, I can still hope for an opportunity to sit for an evening and listen to a traditional minstrel, a stranbêj, or bard – dengbêj. Perhaps though, as Milman Parry found during his studies of the gular bards of Eastern Europe in the 1930s, the greatest threat to such performances is literacy. The spread of the written word seemed to negate the skills needed for their recollections. If Farman is correct, the internet could be a means through which the traditional poetry and songs of Kurdish resistance are assured of their survival. Maybe this conflict will yet throw up an oral epic to be recalled by him and the digital dengbêj of the next generation.