Mem-u Zin (Ahmed-i Hani [Ehmede Khani, Ehmedi Xani])

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Mem-u Zin (Ahmed-i Hani [Ehmede Khani, Ehmedi Xani])

Mem-u Zin (Ahmed-i Hani [Ehmede Khani, Ehmedi Xani]) (1692)

The epic of Kurdistan, Mem-u Zin (Mem and Zin) stands out among Middle Eastern verse cycles as the first major declaration of Kurdish nationalism, a cause still pursued by a people whose ancestral lands passed to the control of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Derived from at least 18 strands of pre-Islamic ballads, the Romeo-and-Juliet love story confronts the Arabic and Persian hegemony by recounting Kurdish oral folklore in the Kurdish language. The 5,400-line narrative, rendered in distiches (couplets), expresses the ethnic traits that differentiate Kurds from surrounding Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Written by the poet and theologian Ahmed-i Hani (also Ehmede Khani or Ehmedi Xani, 1651-1707) of Bayazid, Kurdistan (present-day Hakkari, Turkey), the text captures the misery of the stateless, orphaned city dwellers of Jezira Bohtan on today's Iranian-Turkish border. The poet declares himself “a self-made man, not well bred … a Kurd, a highlander from the foothills” (quoted in Chyet 1991, 147). He dedicated his efforts to Kurdish children, who needed to read native-tongue literature at mosque schools in tandem with learning Persian verse and reciting the KORAN in Arabic. To simplify the reading and comprehension, Hani compiled Nubihara Bicukan (The spring of children, 1695), an Arabic-Kurdish lexicon, to accompany the epic.

Hani impresses on Kurdish readers their cultural legacy of disunion—“always rebellion and split” (43). In the preface, “Derde Me” (Our ills), he regrets disunity of leadership and the Kurdish lack of education. The absence of a padisah (sultan) renders the Kurds targets of rapacious leaders of the Arab, Ottoman-Turk, Persian, Russian, and Safavid empires. If Kurdistan had a king, “he would extract us from the hands of the vile” (43). When greater nations fight, Hani laments, it is the disorganized Kurds who bleed and die. Massacres reduce their numbers, restricting their establishment of a stable nation. In metaphor, Hani pictures the slaughter of Mem and Zin's death from grief. The couple lie in adjacent graves separated by a deep-rooted thornbush, an allegory of perpetual separation.

Mem-u Zin was first printed in Istanbul in 1919. In 1996, the Turkish government arrested the publisher Mehmet Emin Bozarslan for issuing a children's version of the book. After its translation into English in Australia in 1983, the director Umit Elci made a film version of Mem-u Zin (1991) that presented the tragic romance in both Kurdish and Turkish.


Chyet, Michael Lewisohn. “And a Thornbush Sprang Up Between Them”: Studies on “Mem u Zin,” a Kurdish Romance. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, 1991.

Ozoglu, Hakan. Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State.

New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.