Ferhad Shakely (born 1951) is a prominent Kurdish writer, poet and researcher. He is one of the founders of modern Kurdish poetry in the post-Goran period. He was born in 1951 in the province of Kirkuk in Iraq. He began publishing poetry in 1968. In the early 1970s he studied in the Kurdish department of the Baghdad University. He joined the Kurdish national movement under the leadership of Mustafa Barzany in 1974 and went to Syria in 1975. He lived in Germany from autumn 1977 to summer 1978. Finally he settled in Sweden in the same year. In 1981, after studying for one year at the University of Stockholm, he went to Uppsala University where he studied Iranian languages. He is now teaching in the same university. He published a Swedish-Kurdish Journal between 1985 and 1989 called Svensk-Kurdisk Journal. Moreover he published a literary Kurdish magazine, Mamosta-y Kurd (31 issues) between 1985 and 1996. In 1992, he published Kurdish nationalism in Mam and Zin of Ahmad Khani, a literary history that was translated into Swedish, Turkish and Arabic. Many of his poems have been translated into Persian, Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, English, French, Italian, Icelandic and Danish.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Ferhad Shakely,
Lecturer at Department of Linguistics and Philology in Uppsala University
Considering the fact that you were born in Southern Kurdistan, why did you choose Sweden to continue your studies?
I didn’t choose Sweden. It was my destiny that I ended up in Sweden. As a young man, I was an active member in the Kurdish liberation movement in Iraqi Kurdistan and, consequently, I became a Peshmarga (Kurdish freedom fighter) in 1974. When, in the spring of 1975, the movement collapsed I returned to my studies at Baghdad University. The Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein was unbearable, especially for the Kurds, and more especially for a young poet and journalist like me. I was still engaged in Kurdish politics and left for Syria and Lebanon. Two years later I got tired of politics and left for Europe. First I went to (West) Germany and then Sweden. Here in Sweden, I studied some different subjects, but, then, wanted to study something close to my previous studies at Baghdad University, namely Kurdish language and literature. I enrolled in the department of Iranian languages at Uppsala University. A few years later I was appointed as a teacher in Kurdish language and literature at the same department.
What importantly specific topics do your Middle-East studies cover?
My first interest is in Kurdish language and literature and Sufism, particularly the history of Sufism in Kurdistan. It is almost impossible to do research on Sufism without commanding Arabic and Persian language and literature that, fortunately, I do. Even in my work with Kurdish language and literature I am extremely dependant on Persian and Arabic.
Looking at the Middle East of today one thinks that the people and the countries there are as far from each other as different continents, but less than one century ago the Middle East consisted of nearly one unit of culture and civilization. It is not possible to study the culture of one of the people of the Middle East without being interested in the whole Middle East with its various ethnicities, cultures, societies and history.
How much do the academic and research centres in Sweden pay attention to east studies?
Compared with the big countries and powers of Europe, Sweden is a small country and has less interest in the issues of the eastern parts of the world. But we should immediately remember that the Swedes are ambitious people in knowledge, science, trade and global politics. The Swedes’ contribution to these fields is, proportionally, much more than expected from their real size as country and people. When I mention the Orient here I don’t mean only the ME, but also India, Japan, China and other regions in the whole Orient.
At the Swedish universities and research centres departments most of the Oriental languages, cultures, politics and civilizations are studied. There are many outstanding Swedish scholars in the different fields of Oriental studies. There is among the Swedish youth a great interest in Oriental languages. Thousands of them speak Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew and so on and so forth.
To conduct studies or even to do research on Oriental topics doesn’t necessarily mean that one appreciates or loves the culture or the issue in question. In many cases there are political, military, intelligence or religious purposes behind the interest shown by research centres. But, let it be between us; where in the world is the case different?
Have you conducted any research on the Persian culture and language?
My field of research is mostly Kurdish culture and Sufism. But for me Kurdish culture and civilization are inseparable parts of the historical Iranian culture and civilization. I have studiedd most of the dead Iranian languages: Old Persian, Avesta, Parthian, Manechian and Pahlavi. I also studied modern Persian, Balochi and Tajiki languages and, moreover classical and modern Persian literature. My studies on Kurdish literature are not isolated from the history of other Iranian languages and literatures. When, for example, I write about the poetry of the Kurdish Sufi poet Mala-y Jaziri (1570-1640) it is always present in my mind how much he was close to classical Persian and Arabic poetry. I can easily trace many of the thoughts and metaphors of Hafiz and Jami in his poetry.
Have you travelled to Iran yet? If not, would you like to?
Yes. I have been in Iran several times, both before and after the Islamic revolution. I love Iran and I appreciate its culture, music, literature, food and nature. I would like to visit Iran every year if I could.
What are your recommendations to the students who are fond of Iranian studies?
I think you mean foreign, and especially Western, students who are interested in Iran. My fist recommendation would be: don’t believe what you read in or hear from or see in the mass-media in your country or in Western Europe and America, regarding the Islamic world, including Iran, Kurdistan or Bosnia, just as examples. Western mass-media is a racist media and is completely hostile to most of Oriental cultures, particularly Islamic, cultures. Therefore it is of utmost importance for a young student from Sweden or Italy or Portugal to use his/her own mind and own evaluation and not to be manipulated by the mass-media.
Moreover they should understand that the Iranian culture and civilization are not limited to the political borders of Iran of today, but comprise the historical Iran that one day extended far beyond the borders of today’s Middle East. It should be clear also that Iranian culture is not confined to Persian culture, but it is a whole body, a whole world consisting of many other components: Kurdish, Tajik, Balochi, Pashto and many other (dead) Iranian languages, dialects and cultures, with extensions and links into other cultures like Arabic, Turkish, Greece, Armenian, Assyrian, Indian and Chinese. To love the people, the culture and the language that one studies is also essential to understanding them.
Given the fact that you are a poet yourself, which works of the Iranian poets draws your attention?
Fortunately I had the opportunity to study and read both classical and modern Iranian literature. The greatest and the most important one for me is, of course, Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi. I never get tired of reading his poetry, but also his prose, time after time and year after year. There are many other great and brilliant names in the classical period, of which I can mention Farid ad-Din ‘Attar, Hafiz, Sa’di, and Jami. In modern Iranian literature there are many poets, but not all of them are interesting for me. I like reading the poems of Nima-Yushij and Sohrab-e Sepehri. Ahmad-e Shamlou is certainly a great poet, but for me, his poetry is not as deep as that of Sepehri. Reading and tasting poetry is, I think, a very subjective case that varies from an individual to another.
Have your poems been translated into Farsi? Which book of yours would you like to be translated into Farsi?
A selection of my poems are translated into Farsi and printed in a book entitled Godar-e Tariki. The translation was made by the Iranian Kurdish poet Kambiz Karimi. A few other poems of mine were also translated by other people and were published in various magazines, newspapers and anthologies. Two or three of my essays on Kurdish literature and the Naqshbandi Sufi order in Kurdistan are published in Iran.
It is my hope that most of my poetry books (up to now eight books) will be translated into Persian. I wish also that my only book of short stories The Smell of Darkness and my other writings on Kurdish literary history, Sufism and the history of thought in Kurdistan will appear in Persian translation. My book “Pricking with a Needle: Our Unequal Relations with the West from a Cultural and Political Perspective” is, I think, worth being translated into other languages, since it displays an attitude and a viewpoint that is different from the official Kurdish political discourse often read or heard from Kurdish mass-media.
Does the Kurdish culture share any common grounds with that of the Persian?
Kurdish and Persian are the two greatest languages in the family of Iranian languages. I know some Iranian scholars consider Kurdish and other Iranian languages as dialects of Persian. This is no more than a nationalist, or chauvinist, way of thinking. There are, naturally, many aspects of similarity between Persian and Kurdish cultures, especially the literature. Reading Kurdish classical poetry I don’t see any barriers, any borders, between the two literatures, except the language. It is worth mentioning that many of the classical Kurdish poets wrote their poems, beside Kurdish, in Persian. We know also that up to the beginning of the twentieth century most of the correspondence among Kurdish poets, sheikhs, Mullahs, Sufis and political leaders was in Persian, although they wrote their poems in Kurdish. Mawlana Khaled Sharazuri-Naqshbandi (1779-1827) was a great scholar and Sufi leader, of whom we have nearly 300 letters. All his letters are either in Persian or in Arabic. We don’t have access to a single letters by him in Kurdish, although most of these letters were sent to his Kurdish deputies. But it is remarkable that he wrote his poems in Kurdish.
The common features between Kurdish and Persian cultures are not limited to the formal aspects I just mentioned; language, metaphor and similes. There are also many similarities in the contents of these two cultures.
When we come to the modern literature, the crack between the two cultures becomes wider and wider. This depends presumably on the political developments in the area that led the people of the Middle East and their cultures away from each other.
Can these two cultures complete each other in a conjoined manner?
The people of Middle East have almost the same cultural and spiritual background. This is apparent in their poetry, their music, their traditions and their worldview. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to the situation at present.
The Kurds live in many different areas and countries, with various people and cultures: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian, Azerbaijani, Georgian…etc. The Iranian people and cultures are the closest ones to the Kurds. What makes it possible for Kurdish and Persian cultures to coexist and live together harmoniously, is the political environment and the opportunities for the two people to know and understand each other. It is very essential for these cultures to coexist, that the people feel they live under the same terms of equality and justice. It is not late at all to bridge the differences between our cultures and communicate culturally with the other cultures of the Middle East and even with other cultures in the world.
How much do you believe that representing the Middle-Eastern culture in different communities can contribute the people of Europe and the Middle East?
People everywhere want to avoid conflicts and wars and to live in peace. The role of culture is of utmost importance in this context. But, obviously, finding bridges for various cultures to cross to the other sides is not easy. Different political ideologies, political systems and economic interests constitute real obstacles to achieve such an ideal objective that, I am almost sure, every poet, every singer, every painter and every lover longs to see and experience. Culture, contrary to politics and trade, is the most beautiful and the easiest way for people and countries to take to reach each other.
In our so called “modern world” policy-makers have a great dominance and large impact on various aspects of lives and relations of their people and subjects. They (mis)use their power for the benefit of their ideologies and political objectives. Mass-media is even more malicious in this regard. Mass-media channels in the West are controlled and ruled by capitalism and by ideologies that are mostly racist. Commercialism decides what art and literature should or shouldn’t be allowed. And in our region, that one day was called “the third world”; mass-media is a machine for enhancing the power of the state and the men of power. It is also racist in a way. Censorship doesn’t allow the real voices to be heard.
In such a condition, where all the ways are sown by snares and traps, what shall we expect a poor and powerless poet, musician or scholar to do? Still they try to adjust themselves to the rules and contribute with something, a text, a melody or an essay, to reshape this world. But the results are far from the limits one desires to reach. The picture seems to be a little bit dark, but it is not unrealistic, I think. This doesn’t mean that we have to give up hope of better and friendlier relations between the people of the Middle East and those of Europe or elsewhere in the world. And if we think of the best qualified and brilliant envoy that can pave the way between these people and represent their souls and spirits, then it is only culture. Cultural relations are the most long-standing relations amongst people.
How can violence be reduced in the Middle East?
There is violence everywhere in the world. In most of the cases the roots have to do with injustice; political, social, economic, religious, cultural… and so on and so forth. The Middle East is one of the regions in the world with much turbulence: economic, political, religious and cultural. A very simple and easily understood reason could be found in the fact that the region has been the cradle of three important religions in the history of humanity. Moreover, many of the great empires in the history and many of the most important civilisations were born in the Middle East. Thinking about the situation in our time, we should add new factors, namely the discovery of oil, the interference of British and French colonialism (in the first half of the twentieth century) and American imperialism (in the last sixty years). Obviously the principle of “divide and rule” that was followed by the colonialists is still present, but it is applied by new and more evil methods.
Western powers are determined to keep their grasp on this region at any price, as long as oil is produced here. They do their best to use and exploit the existing contradictions and conflicts amongst the people of the Middle East. But the question is: why should these people and their representatives, political or social, be so simplistic that they walk into the traps set by imperialism for them? We cannot exempt ourselves from the guilt. We are not guiltless either.
There are in the Middle East of today two important, and complicated, political issues that represent thorns in the sides of the people and rulers of the region: the Palestinian and the Kurdish questions. There are also, of course, besides these two great issues, other issues, ethnical and religious. All these conflicts and questions can and should be solved. It is not impossible to do so, had been there good intentions and the determination to overcome the problems.
Supposedly, conflicts, contradictions and problems are natural parts of the life and the existence of the human being, since the time of Abel and Cain. Therefore is your question realistic since you think of “reducing” and not “exterminating” violence in the Middle Eat. This region is a mosaic, a Multicultural and multi-ethnic mosaic. Its beauty cannot be seen or felt if one or of its colours and fragrances is omitted.