TCS: Under Any Shred of Sky – Kurdish Poetry

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“The poet is more than a poet in Kurdistan.” – Abdulla Pashew

” . . . it is morally wrong for one people to dispossess,
subjugate or exterminate another people.”    – Jared Diamond


When a people have been fighting for their survival for generations, what is most portable of their culture — poetry and music — become vital touchstones, deep connections to the past, and carriers of their fragile hopes and dreams for a homeland at long last, where the bloodshed, loss and betrayal have ended.

So when I went in search of the Kurds, I did not look for their political figures, or their military leaders, or even for their spiritual authorities.

I looked for their poets.

And found too many to count.

But translation is an uncertain light for reading poetry, so I singled out these two particular poets, because their English-language translator, Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, and her team of co-translators, seem to have clarity while still holding true to the mystic, not easy qualities to balance.


Kajal Ahmad

(translations by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, with Darya Abdul,
Mewan Nahro Said Sofi, Ali Najm and Barbara Goldbert)


Among innocent kisses
the first button of my pink shirt
fell off.
Later, sewing,
her glasses like lasers fastened over her eyes,
the needle in her hands, like her fingers,
threatening, she spat out,
“Don’t you put this in a poem!”


The vague mirror of my time
broke because
it made what was small big
and what was big small.
Dictators and monsters filled its face.
Even now as I breathe
its shards pierce the walls of my heart
and instead of sweat
I leak glass.

Ah, You Don’t See Me

The other world through the window
of my current life is olive trees
and fog as far as the eyes can see.

Sadly, you don’t see me, even
when I sweep olives from the trees
in autumn, even after I wash
them with exile,
sprinkle them with lemon water
and rock salt, season
them with my pain and journey,
even when I place those olives
in a clean, translucent jar

you don’t see me. My hands break.
You don’t see how, with the trees,
I go bare and blossom,
blossom and go bare.

When I become a bird,
and grow wings, I will
either fall from above, or
fly from below.

Ah, you don’t know:
with a lover as ruthless
as my homeland
I live untouched.
Like a cactus
I grow thorns
from heartbreak.

Handful of Salt

Every day, hoping
he would leave, I poured
a handful of salt in the shoe
of the irresolute man
I once loved greatly.

I knew, so far as I could
tell, that this visitor
would kill me and my poems.
His timing was unfortunate.

(Handful of Salt – Kurdish folk wisdom: place a handful of salt in the shoes of a guest who has overstayed. It is a host’s subtle signal for the guest to leave.)

A Single Strand of Hair

A single strand of hair falls
on my forehead. I don’t,
as my mother did, kiss it,
touch it to my eye and
smooth it back.

Each time, I pluck
the strand from the root
and press it
in an old book.
I don’t want anyone
to miss me
except the old heroes.

I don’t want
any darling apart
from pen, page, line.

(Single Strand – Kurdish folk wisdom: when a single strand of hair falls into your face, kiss it and touch it to your eyes. Then, you will see the one you love.)

Were I a Martyr

I want no flowers,
no epoch of union,
no dawn of disunion.
I want no flowers
for I am the loveliest flower.
I want no kisses
if for a true wrist
I must hold some knight –
no epoch of marriage,
no dawn of divorce,
no widow’s fever.
I want no kisses
if, along with love, I become a martyr.
I want no tears
over the coffin or me, a corpse.
I want no cherry tree of sympathy
dragged to the walls of my grave,
no flowers or kisses,
no tears or miseries.
Bring nothing.
Hold nothing.
I die as a homeland without a flag, without a voice.
I am grateful.
I want nothing.
I will accept nothing.

Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse on Were I a Martyr:

“As Abdulla Pashew, another famous Kurdish poet, has said, ‘The poet is more than a poet in Kurdistan.’ Unlike in America, where the poet seems to belong mostly to other poets, Kurdish poets are public figures. Every personal choice means something. No personal choice is private. When Ahmad married, talk flew. She had betrayed her nation: she had married a Jordanian. Her husband, though a life-long resident of Jordan, descends from Diyarbakir, the heartland of the Kurdish ethnicity. Ahmad added in a recent interview, “And what if I had married a Jordanian? How is that a betrayal of my Kurdishness?” When Ahmad began to cover her head, once more talk flew. She has caved to the pressures of a male-driven society. She can no longer claim to be a feminist. It makes her more of a feminist to cover and say these things. It makes her less.

What Ahmad wants is to be a moment of nothing in this crowd of competing desires.”

Ahmad’s poems are from Handful of Salt, © 2016 by Kajal Ahmad, translated by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse – The Word Works

Handful of Salt is the first collection of her work published in English-language translation.

Kajal Ahmad was born in 1967 in Kirkuk, a disputed city in Iraq with a strong Kurdish population. A poet, journalist, feminist and social critic, she has published four books: Benderî Bermoda (Thanks to Bermuda – 1999), Wutekanî Wutin (title untranslated – 1999), Qaweyek le gel ev da (This is What the People Said – 2001), and Awênem şikand (Awesome Broke – 2004). Ahmad worked for over a decade as the Editor-in-Chief of Kurdistani Nwe and at times has worked as a TV host for KurdSat. She worked as a front-lines journalist, embedding as a member of the peshmerga (“those who face death” – the military forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq). In the mountains, alongside the fighters, she began to write poetry.


Abdulla Pashew

(translations by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse and Abdulla Pashew)

The Unknown Soldier

When a delegate visits a foreign country
He brings a crown of flowers
For the grave of the unknown soldier.

If tomorrow
A delegate came to my country
And asked me,
Where is the grave of the unknown soldier?

I would say:
At the bank of each stream,
Under the cupola of each mosque,
At the threshold of each house,
Each church,
Each cave,
Under every mountain’s boulders,
Under every garden’s branches.
In this country,
Over any fist of earth,
Under any shred of sky,
Don’t be afraid, bow your head
And set down your crown of flowers.

A Winter Image

Tonight, I touched
the dictionary of midnight.
Its words ran from me
like ants.

The child I saw this evening,
shaded by the mosque’s wall,
cloaked in hunger, a scarecrow
who attacked God,
is my guest tonight.
He has made a bed of my ceiling,
wiping the stars
from the sky with his fragile fingers,
blocking the roof’s window,
keeping the loose hair of the moon
from tumbling down.

My little guest,
why do you strike out?
What do you want from me?
Come down!
At dawn,
I will unwind the knotted way,
I will break the coffer of the skyline
and fetch for you
the golden loaf.

Come down.
Do not slaughter the stars,
do not slam the roof’s window.
Be patient.
I will set fire to the slogans on the city’s arches,
I will set fire to the fingers of cowardly poets
and the thrones of the city’s terrible mansions.
At dawn,
I won’t forget.
I will unwind the knotted way,
I will break the coffer of the skyline
and fetch for you
the golden loaf.
Come down.
Do not slaughter the stars,
Do not slam the roof’s window,
my little guest,
come down.


When exile breaks like a storm
over the open plain of my calm,
when sadness spreads its wings
and hangs, like a crow,
at my door,
I take up the frozen-winged sparrow
of my grief
I go, I go
till I find a child
and with the light of his eyes
I teach the sparrow to fly again
Yet, my love,
how often have I seen
when children grieve in this city
how, like little ducks,
they come to bathe
in the lake of your eyes

For Hundreds of Years

For hundreds of years,
my own house in ruins,
I have served like a blind cat in the corners of the Sultan’s kitchen.
For hundreds of years,
my own gate unguarded,
I have stood sentry at the thieves’ door.

For hundreds of years:
one day, I am
a stable boy for the Governor of Baghdad,
another, textiles in Tehran,
another, sackcloth
to scour the Sultana’s hips,
and yet another, a broom to sweep Damascus clean.

For hundreds of years,
like a handful of grain,
the mill of history ground me down.
Anthills appeared all around me,
ants swarmed over me.

For hundreds of years,
my cranium has been a minaret:
open to any loud mouth.
For hundreds of years,
my homeland has been a nargila
for anyone to put between their two teeth and sip at.

For hundreds of years,
in front of the world’s gate
I have been a pair of patched sandals.
I have fit any foot.
For hundreds of years,
torn, they threw me away.
For hundreds of years,
patched, they wore me yet again.

I am a wounded back:
I rose against the whip.
I am a reckless flood:
I rise against shores
that have become confining.
I don’t pool,
I don’t rest.
I am on edge.
My tranquility was a light:
a hurricane snuffed it out.
I am no longer mercy.
My mercy was an ocean.

They put their mouths to it and they drank it down.
I don’t pool,
I don’t rest.
When I am a single grain, what chance do I have?
…………It’s me or the ant.
When I am a drop of blood, what chance do I have?
…………It’s me or the leech.

Only a whore would say
the grain and the ant are brothers.
Only a whore would say
blood and the leech are brothers,
the fish and the spear,
the mouse and the saddlebag.
The hand and the stinger are brothers,
the whores say,
the rope and the neck,
the razor and the hair.

Come, people,
ask prey, ask pain,
ask, for God’s sake,
does a dagger exist that heals the wound?
Is there a hunter who doesn’t devour his prey?

Oh, people, ask the hay,
has it seen a cold fire?
Ask the bird,
has a snake ever jutted his jaw into the nest
intending to kiss?
Come on, ask the oak,
has it seen an axe that doesn’t cut wood?
Come on, ask the donkey,
has it seen a wolf that won’t tear him apart?
The whores say
there is a snake with sweet poison.
The whores say
there is an axe who is brother to the woods.

I am a wounded back:
I rose against the whip.
I am a reckless flood:
I rise against shores
that have become confining.
I don’t pool,
I don’t rest.
I am on edge.
My tranquility was a light:
a hurricane snuffed it out.
I am no longer mercy.
My mercy was an ocean.
They put their mouths to it and they drank it down.


When I am silent
don’t talk to me
Don’t shake the twig of my tongue
until the fruit is ripe

I am not the only one who is silent

the boulders
even as they expose their chests to thunder
are mute

the grass
as it stretches its blades toward the light
is mute

When I am silent
Don’t think that I’m unburdened or idle
Trust me
my cranium is a beehive, hectic

I have told you so much about my homeland
Your soul is brimming with love for it
Do you want its cities and villages to brighten your eyes?
Do you want to touch its wounds?
when I am silent
saddle my silence
put your feet in the stirrups and strike
You will see my whole homeland

Pashew’s poems are from Dictionary of Midnight, © 2018 by Abdulla Pashew, translated by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse – Phoneme Media

Abdulla Pashew is a contemporary Kurdish poet. He was born in 1946 in Hewlêr, Iraqi Kurdistan. He studied at the Teachers’ Training Institute in Hewlêr, and participated in the Foundation Congress of the Kurdish Writers’ Union in Baghdad in 1970. In 1973 he went to the former Soviet Union, and in 1979 he received an M.A. in pedagogy with a specialisation in foreign languages. In 1984 he was granted a PhD in Philology from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences. For the next five years he was a professor at al-Fatih University in Tripoli, Libya. He has lived in Finland since 1995. Pashew published his first poem in 1963 and his first collection in 1967. Since then he has published eight collections, including Berew Zerdeper (Towards the Twilight), which was published in Sweden in 2001. He is fluent in English and Russian and has translated the works of Walt Whitman and Alexander Pushkin into Kurdish. Arguably the most popular contemporary Kurdish poet, he draws audiences in the thousands when he reads publicly. His eight collections of poetry have been so sought after that bootleg copies proliferate.




  • Coffee mug – Kurdish fighters
  • Kurdish refugees at Bardarash refugee camp north of Mosul, Iraq
  • Pink button
  • Mirror shards
  • Olives
  • Salt
  • Empty journal
  • Kurdish village in Iran
  • Bouquet of flowers
  • Kulera bread
  • Eyes of Kurdish boy
  • Syrian Kurdish house bombed by Turks
  • Kurdish village in Hawraman in 2015

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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