The Poetry of Truth: An Interview with Abdulla Pashew

Ziad Rashad:  If you could begin the interview, what question would you ask yourself?

Abdulla Pashew: In my poem “Kazewaya,” I say, “I have passed many questions, yet / Many are to come...”  Daily, I ask stacks of questions while another pile accumulates at my mind's gate, waiting to enter. Everything I say, everything I do, I ask myself, “Have I done this right? Have I said this right? Did I do this right?” With so many questions in mind, how am I to choose?

ZR: Two years ago, when politicians apologized to the Kurdish nation, you stated that the intellectuals should also apologize for participating in the civil war by pen, through their work—they who suddenly began to celebrate unity. Why did you take this stance?

AP: In 2002, I performed a poem of mine that said: “I cannot read a poem about bravery when its writer is a coward, I cannot talk about generosity when the owner is stingy and small. I laugh at any drama about unity when the author has taken sides.” I still think if intellectuals don’t monitor politicians and those who trade in politics, the war for money and power will never cease to flow through the veins of this nation. I can only evaluate intellectuals in a greater philosophical sense by their behavior. Even if someone reads many books, or writes many poems and novels, he is not an intellectual if his actions are not thoughtful. 

Those who made themselves mouthpieces for the authority, aren’t they guilty of stealing? Those same ones who agitated for the various parties as Kurds killed Kurds in civil war, are they any less guilty than those who had the power to stop the war?

ZR: What do you regret in your literary life?

AP: Fortunately, I haven’t written anything I regret so far. Before I take a step, I look carefully in front of me. I make my own calculations. Consciousness surrounds me. Since my early youth, politically speaking, free-thinking has been the torch at my feet. Everything I have written reflects this guiding principle. Yes, I’ve written some strongly worded poems about women that perhaps shouldn’t have been so strident. But I wrote these poems on certain occasions for specific people; these poems don't reflect on women in general. When I was in Kurdistan, though I was in love all the way down to my bones, I didn’t know much about women. I only had the opportunity to learn all the things women could be once I was abroad. There a woman could be a friend, wife, sister, or lover. I don’t think I have written any poems revealing anger or irritation since I moved abroad.

ZR: Which writer, Kurdish or other, has influenced you most?

AP: I take pleasure and sense from every good poem. So, it doesn’t matter if the poem belongs to Hardi or Goran, to Whitman or Pushkin. Anything that gives pleasure forges its own influence.

ZR: How do you see the current situation in Kurdistan: to what extent is there freedom? Don’t you think that you’ve been given a lot of space to write these poems? If they were written by anyone else, might the poet have been silenced?

AP: We live in a region that doesn’t contain democratic values. Even now, we don’t have a plan to plant and cultivate the forms of democracy and create a united country with a civil government. Government is party and party is government. The primary circle of authority is surrounded by a red line, which the voice of criticism can't breach. The Kurdish media is laughably party-affiliated. In this state, wages, food, water, air, electricity, academic degrees, professions, careers: all belong to the authority. Everything involves bribery. The gap between the poor and the rich has lowered the standards for everything.  The relatives of those in power take what they can from their nation. Intellectualism and education has never, in any other time, been so impoverished. Amateurs have systematically, diligently, taken over the Kurdish language in order to destroy its unity. Anyone who intends to break apart a nation, should not be allowed employment. In Kurdistan, no one works. If cadres and party members have power derived from corruption and a little bit of literacy, they are suddenly an expert linguist, a journalist, a poet, a composer, an advisor, an athlete, an MP, a head of a bank, a doctor!

Yes, many times I have been told, “You say whatever you want and anything you say is accepted.” This is true, but also not true. Anyone can say and do what I say and do if he pays for the choice as I have my entire life. No authority has given me the power to do what I’ve done. Abstaining from material and financial power, I have gained moral power. Without the support of my fellow citizens, I don’t think I could have done this. 

When I turn to the past, I see forty years of writing and argumentation: this has become my wealth. It has created for me a small name and a great trust with the people. Even now, I hold my hand on my heart, afraid to lose that wealth.

ZR: What do you think of poems that are ambiguous or can only be understood by an elite group of people?

AP: I don’t know whether it is a fortunate or an unfortunate thing that I don’t have any such poems! It might be a shortcoming. I’m not against any sort of poem. I’m always aligned with the idea of colorfulness; Kurdish poetry is enriched by colorfulness.

ZR: During the trial of Shiekh Saeed Piran, one of his judges said the Shiekh was not the only one responsible for Kurdish rebellion. Ahmed Xani’s Mem u Zin was another factor. I think it was Mayakovsky who told his enemies: I will destroy you with my poems. Do you think that poetry can have this role, that it can take on enemies and foment revolt? What kinds of messages does poetry carry today?

AP: In our Kurdistan, poems have always had a moral power that no one can ever take away. True, in every age there has been poor poetry, but the poetry of truth will always antagonize injustice and unfairness. I also say, with the process of democratization the role of poetry has been curtailed.

ZR: When do you usually write? Do you believe in inspiration and revelation?

AP: I don’t have a specific time and place when I write poems. However, I’ve written most of my poems at the night's end. Night is the mother to my poems and insomnia their nurse. But inspiration alone is not enough: writing poetry requires the right tackle and craft in every word, sound, comma, and dot.

ZR: In your perspective, what should the relationships between political parties, and between the authority and intellectuals, be?

AP: All of Kurdistan’s political parties are totalitarian; they are modeled after the communist parties. They don’t differ from those that existed in Baghdad, North Korea, Cuba, and Damascus. What I’m talking about is the rule of law and that doesn't have any correlation with our system. We still don’t have a party modeled after the European parties that can draw distinctions between members and government officials.

During the Soviet period, there were many poets and writers whose work was published and translated into many languages with money stolen from the people by corrupt party members. Yet, when the Soviet Union dissolved, these writers were forgotten with the regime. Mandelstam, Gomilov, and Pasternak were the ones who became the unforgettables. And all of the party’s writers and intellectuals died in anonymity. The Soviet Union’s writers are a good example for us to learn from.

ZR: Have you written your memoirs or do you not intend to do that?

AP: It takes stability to do that. Until 1997, I was a refugee. Until lately my archive and my library have been scattered all over, every book in a different corner.