(Trans. Mimi Khalvati & Choman Hardi)
Enitharmon Press 2008 £4.00
Kajal Ahmad, born in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1967, is one of the leading Kurdish women poets, and her work is sympathetically translated here by Mimi Khalvati and Choman Hardi, under the auspices of the Poetry Translation Centre.
Hardi tells us that the original Kurdish is exquisitely musical, and these are musical translations, with the sense of effortless ease that a good translation has. Ahmad finds subtle parallels between her oppression as a woman in a patriarchal society and her subjugation as a Kurd in Iraq.
In ‘The Lonely Earth’ (portrayed as “she”), it is not difficult to see in the sun, that “big thief”, a bullying Iraq
who burns with the many beams he has taken
and who looks at the moon and the earth
Ahmad’s poetry can be read on several levels, retaining a traditional, lyrical mode, while subverting the language of ancient Kurdish (male) poets.
The voice is one exiled from the real action through gender or ethnicity, yet what is remarkable is that the tone is not bitter or elegiac, but humorous and full of ironic mischief. In ‘Birds’, she tells us that Kurds, “[A]ccording to the latest classification…/ now belong to a species of bird”, and she employs a register of pseudo-ornithological language to bring the point home. In the English, the fortuitous rhyme sharpens it: “Yes, Kurds are birds!” The ending suggests that the old literary traditions, the old poets, no longer serve the needs of the present-day Kurdish nation. These birds “build no nests”, and even when they land they do not “visit Mewlana to enquire of his health/ or bow down to the dust in the gentle wind, like Nali.”
‘Kinder than Miriam’, written when many women outlived their sons, who had been killed by the Iraqi dictatorship, sees Ahmad begging her countrywomen to be stronger than Miriam/Mary, and to participate in the struggle.
In ‘Stone is better’, Ahmad uses the Kurdish landscape—“Our geography is rocky/ … /It is also stubborn” to demand “a new era and a new people/ a people who are poets and an era that is poetry.” Amen to that.