Sherko Bekas

Kurdish poet owes his life to his verses

Sherko Bekas, a prominent contemporary Kurdish poet and former culture minister of a local administration in northern Iraq, is currently in Istanbul. Considered the greatest Kurdish realist poet in modern Kurdish literature, Bekas talks about his bitter life story, full of challenges and death threats

Turkish Daily News -Vercihan Ziflioğlu

One of the greatest figures in modern Kurdish poetry and recipient of the Tucholsky Scholarship, awarded by the Swedish PEN Center, Sherko Bekas, is currently in Istanbul.

Bekas was invited to Turkey by the Institute for History and Social Sciences (Tarih ve Toplum Bilimleri Enstitüsü) as part of the third International Istanbul Poetry Festival and told the Turkish Daily News about the hard times he experienced during the reign of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's former leader, and the death fatwas (decrees) issued against him by radical Islamist organizations.

Bekas, who spent his youth in the mountains and caves escaping Saddam Hussein's forces, said, “I fought against Saddam not with my weapon but with my pen and my emotions.” Bekas, who said, “Under bombardment and while bullets were buzzing around me, I was defying death with my verses,” has won awards totaling millions of dollars thus far. The people and political parties of northern Iraq unanimously nominated Bekas as culture minister during general elections in 1992 and he served in that position for one year and three months. “While I was sitting in my chair with official delegations coming and visiting me, I was scrabbling verses on files on the desk,” he said. He resigned from office because for him, “The chair of poetry was superior to that of politics.” Bekas said, “The language of poetry is beauty and love, and poetry is oppositional by nature. Politics and poetry cannot be buddies on the same path.”

The 68-year-old poet said he is happy to have been invited to Turkey. “We are all brothers and sisters and I am attending this festival to give voice to love and fraternity,” he said. Bekas will read his poems in the small square surrounding Galata Tower on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. accompanied by several Turkish and international poets.

Poem struck by bullet

“I suffered big pains in my early years. And that pain is reflected in my poems,” said Bekas. June 24, 1986 was the most painful day of Bekas' life. “I was hiding in a mountain refuge. Then, all of a sudden, a bombardment began. I just could not understand how it happened, but I was scattered by the wind of a helicopter and hit a wall. One of the bullets struck a poem I was writing a few minutes earlier and another one grazed my head.”

Bekas said he lived in “hell” during Saddam's reign. He described the massacre of thousands of people with chemical weapons in Halabja, Iraq as a “tragedy for humanity.” “Brother bodies, all dead, were lying on the ground,” said Bekas, and added that those episodes would never, ever, be erased from his memory.

“I wrote my first book of poetry in the refuges of the mountains where I was hiding,” he said. His younger days passed as a macabre dance because he spent those years under death threats. “My first book was the fruit of the years of struggle,” he said. Despite the death threats, Bekas, with the enthusiasm of his young age, secretly came down from the mountains and read his poems to villagers in the surrounding villages. “Sometimes I used to sit on a rock and villagers would gather around me. While they were listening to my poems, I was enjoying the very pleasure of freedom and being among the people,” said Bekas. For many years, he lived far away from his wife and children. Saddam Hussein even threatened to arrest him them. “This was an indescribable pain,” said Bekas.

Death fatwas by radical Islamist groups were hung on mosque walls

Bekas was not only threatened by Saddam's tyranny. In 1970, the master poet undertook a pioneering role in a new literary movement in northern Iraq. The motto of that movement was, “Anyone who holds a pen, unite for women's rights!” This motto led to Bekas being included on yet another death list. “Radical Islamist organizations called for my head because I defended the rights of women. They hung fatwas on the walls of mosques,” said Bekas. He added, “I was trying to breathe while on a thin line between life and death. The only jot of life for me was the poetry.” His companions, who were well aware of the fact that their friend was faced with death threats, secretly transported Bekas abroad. “I was then an exile from my homeland. I was a bird in a cage. I had wings, but just could not fly.” Bekas said he fled through Iran and Syria to Florence, Italy, thanks to an invitation by Amnesty International in 1986. “My arrival in Italy was a big event. My posters were hung in streets and prime time news reported that I was in Italy,” said Bekas. “I escaped from name, fame, post, chair, bullets and everything. My only shelter and companion is my pen.”

Born in Sulaimaniya in 1940, Sherko Bekas is the son of well-known Kurdish poet Faik Bekas. Bekas wrote a total of 31 books. His poems have been translated into more than 40 languages. Known as the greatest living realist Kurdish poet, Bekas is the recipient of many national and international awards, including the Tucholsky Scholarship from the Swedish PEN Center in 1987. Between 1993 and 1994, he served as the culture minister of northern Iraq. He became the president of the Serdem Culture Center in 1998.

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