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Joyce Blau l'éternelle chez les Kurdes

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Hamit Bozarslan
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Clémence Scalbert-Yücel

The Real Agonies and the Nostalgic Reliefs: A Reading of Sherzad Hassan’s Novels

Hashem Ahmadzadeh

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  • 1 Sherzad Hassan was born in 1951 in Hawler. He obtained his BA in English literature and language fr (...)
  • 2 For detailed information about various interviews with Sherzad Hassan and his authorship see his pe (...)

1Many Kurdish literary critics consider Sherzad Hassan one of the most famous Kurdish authors of the last two decades in Kurdistan.1 Judging by the reception of his works in Kurdish media and their frequent republishing in Kurdistan, he is a well-perceived novelist by the literary critics.2 This article aims to shed light on the salient features of Sherzad Hassan’s novels. Through pointing out the main thematic and stylistic traits of Hassan’s novels, the article aims to categorize his works in the most proper and relevant literary style and mode. The article argues that Hassan’s novels embody naturalism, though with some modifications of the original traits of this literary school. The article also argues that the characters suffer from real agonies from which solace can only be found in a nostalgic dream-like condition as if the hardships in Kurdistan have not left them any real possibility for respite.

  • 3 Paul Gauthier (1955): « Zola on Naturalism in Art and history », Modern Language Notes 70:7, p. 516
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 Hannah Thompson (2004): Naturalism Redressed: Identity and Clothing in the Novels of Emile Zola, Ox (...)
  • 6 Richard Lehan (1999): « The European Background », Donald Pizer (ed.), op. cit., p. 66.
  • 7 Ibid.

2Naturalism as a literary style and mode has its origins in the late 19th century when positivism was the dominant discourse in various fields of social and human sciences. In fact, naturalism was the literary reflection of positivism and for some decades it was vastly spread worldwide. One of the pioneers of naturalism, Emile Zola, displays his embracing of positivism by phrasing the main traits of naturalism in the novel: « the choice of a commonplace contemporary subject, careful observation and painstakingly exact reproduction of nature. »3 Zola’s reference to Balzac as an « anatomist of the soul and the flesh »4 shows how Zola saw the novel as an « experimental » writing. « Zolian Naturalism is traditionally defined as a scientific method of investigation which is based on the objective observation of external reality and which takes as its object of study the often negative impact of the natural and social environment on the lives of men and women. »5 Despite the fact that naturalism as a literary mode and style crossed the European borders to become a worldwide literary phenomenon it called mainly Europe and America home, in France between 1870 and 1890,6 while in America « naturalism dominated literature »7 from the last decade of the 19th century up to the end of World War II.

3The central position of science in the nineteenth century Europe and the overemphasizing of the biological laws, e.g. Darwinism, and sociology, e.g. Comte’s ideas and Marxism, highlighted the development of naturalism as one of the main literary modes of the late second half of the nineteenth century. If the rather optimistic scientific and experimental aspects of naturalism lost its centrality in the following century, its atomized observation as a style kept its importance in the works of other authors and in other literary schools and modes.

The traces of Naturalism in Sherzad Hassan’s novels

  • 8 Fredric Jameson (1996): The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, London, Ro (...)
  • 9 Jose M Diaz Lage (2002): « Naturalism and Modes of Literary Production in George Gissing’s New Grub (...)

4Among the main characteristics of naturalism, the destiny of the characters in the novel plays a central part. Jameson, analyzing Gissing’s The Nether World, refers to the resignation of the characters as the central idea of naturalism. In a naturalist work, the characters are doomed to fail and as Jameson states « do not attempt to become another kind of character from the one you already are! »8 Several of Sherzad Hassan’s characters painstakingly suffer the deepest agonies. It looks like they are condemned to a hard life and are unable to overcome the problems they face. Hassan’s characters belong in a deeply divided society with rigid social and class gaps. But instead of hoping to free themselves of such a society by overcoming its restrictions they only complain about it and as a last resort, they take refuge in their inner nostalgic worlds. Their passivity and appeal to the past comply with a general feature of naturalism as has been pointed out by Marxists. As Jose M Diaz Lage has argued, naturalism « employs an anti-capitalist, antibourgeois rhetoric, but its syntax relies on capitalist, bourgeois ideology. »9 Sherzad Hassan’s characters are all condemned to fail. They either die or get defeated, or when facing death, they get lost in their hallucinations.

5In Pedashti Karmamaza Kuzhrawekan (the killed gazelles slope) a poor villager, Bayiz, falls in love with Hamin, the daughter of a rich man. Bayiz’s social position –he is only a singer, and a Darvish– bars any prospect of marriage with Hamin. The only way they can be together is to leave the village for the city, and live in clandestinity, which is what Bayiz and Hamin eventually do. There, they face a hard life where Hamin contributes to making a living by working as a cloth washer for the wealthy inhabitants of the city. Bayiz hunts sparrows outside town and sells them to the restaurants. One evening, after hunting as many sparrows as possible, in fact, better than any other day, Bayiz gets back to an empty home. The presence of nature and its destructive effect on the life of the characters in this novel is exposed in rich details. As a devastating flood strikes the city, Bayiz madly starts looking for Hamin everywhere without finding any traces of her. When he returns home he sees that the flood has destroyed it. While it is true that the social conditions made Bayiz and Hamin leave the village to settle in the city, it is finally nature which causes Hamin’s death by means of a flood. Bayiz’s failure in leading a happy life with Hamin has its roots in both social factors, e.g. the class society, and the roughness of nature, e.g. the flood leading to Hamin’s death, which results in Bayiz’s madness.

6In Tami Sar Xarand (the fog on the canyon) we witness a deep romantic relationship between Farhad and his « mad goat » that has been depicted in all details by the narrator. Nature is ubiquitous in this novel. Farhad tells us about his profound love for the « mad goat » in detail.

  • 10 Hasan Sherzad (2005): Sarjami Barham 2 (Collected Works 2), Hawler, Aras, p. 261.

I used to keep my secrets for myself. During the nights I took my secrets under my torn duvet and I shared all of them with my mad goat. And I used to tell all my secrets with the mad goat to Shirin.10

7When Farhad meets Shirin early in the mornings at school it is difficult for him to distinguish between Shirin and the mad goat.

  • 11 Ibid., p. 266.

When I looked carefully at Shirin’s hair I mixed Shirin’s image with the one of the mad goat. I wanted to hug Shirin and kiss her […], but I did not dare do that.11

8Farhad’s love for the mad goat finds its climax when he notices that the new shepherd, Siyamand, has beaten the goat.

  • 12 Ibid., p. 276.

One night when I took the goat out of the coop I noticed that she was limping… I started crying loudly. I noticed that that bastard [the shepherd] had beaten her with his stick and had broken her leg. Nobody cared about curing her leg. She did not smell the good odor of the caves. I touched her thighs and I could see that they were not as fat as before. No, this goat is not my mad goat. She was as sad as me that night. She was looking at the moon like a human being and cried. Both of us could not stop crying for the lost past glories.12

  • 13 Ibid., p. 76.
  • 14 For a short but well formulated account on Naturalism and its main background and principles see Sm (...)

9The failure of the protagonist is clearly seen in Sherzad Hassan’s famous novel, Hasar u Sagkani Bawkim (the yard and my father’s dogs). The main character in this novel, the eldest son, murders his father whose totalitarian disposition has led him to imprison all family members in the yard. Nobody, even the animals, was allowed to do anything against his will. Encouraged by his siblings the eldest son is drawn to murder, assuming this act will lead to the liberation of the yard and its inhabitants. However, the killing of the father unleashes anarchy to such an extent that the son comes to regret what he has done. His mother and siblings end up banishing him from the yard, as they now hate him. Although he had assumed his father’s death would liberate his siblings and his father’s many wives, they unexpectedly side against him and blame him for the resulting anarchy. Stricken by remorse, the son leaves the yard for his father’s grave and asks permission to live there from the cemetery caretaker. As he expresses regrets for his actions he lies beside the tomb, which is surrounded by his late father’s dogs. The son’s hallucinations are in fact an unambiguous admission that he has become a part of the graveyard and he does not see or hear anything else but the women in black attire mourning and the barking of the greedy dogs. He gives up and acknowledges « it is the end. The end. »13 Determinism pervades the son’s grasp of what he has done. He views all struggle for liberation as hopeless. It reminds the reader of the feelings of defeat in the protagonists of Germinal by Emile Zola.14

10In Zhinek ba sar Minarawa (a woman upon the minaret) the protagonist, Shadi, which literally means happiness, loses her virginity with her cousin Bahram, in a small shed in the back of his garden. According to traditional Kurdish social values, it is culturally taboo to have sexual relations outside marriage. As the plot unfolds, the reader sees how Shadi suffers from the consequences of this unwanted event. The grotesque aspect of the narration shows itself from the very beginning in the ironic name of the protagonist. Being called Shadi (happiness) is the absolute opposite of her miserable and sad life. Bahram, following his sexual encounter with Shadi and fearing the social consequences flees abroad and after a while stops writing to Shadi altogether, who has kept this secret for herself. At last, she opens to Homar, an old Kurdish guerilla who suggests her to marry him. Homar eventually dies, from a poisoned wound he received when he was a fighter. Shadi who now lives in a house close to the historical minaret of the city refuses to leave her house even though it is meant to be destroyed by the authorities, which plan to build a shopping mall in that area. They argue that the minaret is falling down and must, therefore, be destroyed along with the surrounding houses. Shadi stays to prevent the destruction of the minaret, and no talk nor bribe can convince her to act otherwise. Bahram comes back from abroad to talk her into following him. Shadi’s last conversation with Bahram and her hallucinations when she imagines throwing herself down from atop the minaret is the final stage of her miserable life. It is through this long conversation, which, in fact, takes the form of a monologue by Shadi, that the reader learns the painful life of a girl that has had a sexual relationship outside of wedlock.

11Shadi is a painter and has studied at the college of fine arts. Nature is omnipresent in her paintings. The theme of her paintings after the death of her husband and when she stubbornly keeps living in her house in order to prevent destroying it and the minaret attract criticisms from her friends:

  • 15 Hasan Sherzad (2011): Zhinek ba sar Minarawa (A woman upon the minaret), Silemani, Ranj, p. 94.

But Shadi, why all these paintings? What are all these dead butterflies? What are all these autumnal landscapes and falling leaves? All these odd and crumbled minarets? All these destroyed districts full of crows and owls?15

  • 16 Elizabeth A. Marchant (2000): « Naturalism, Race, and Nationalism in Aluisio Azevedo’s O mulato », (...)

12A detailed depiction of the environment and often a grotesque description of the characters is a known « naturalist » technique.16 This technique has been widely applied in Zhinek ba sar Minarawa. Shadi, after her sexual experience with Bahram, suffers from deep anxiety. Her fears and frightened thoughts have been masterfully observed and described by the narrator:

  • 17 Sherzad Hasan, Zhinek.. op. cit., p. 46.

[There is] a feminine fear that has surrounded you since your childhood. The fear of losing it [virginity]. You should never play a game that involves jumping or leaning forward. Running and going fast are taboo. Cycling, riding a donkey, playing with ropes and naughty boys, can result in losing your virginity, which is the most important capital of a girl. « Losing your virginity » opens all gates of hell for yourself and your tribe. Now it is over. It did happen. Poor Shadi!17

13Sherzad Hasan’s novels do not necessarily follow the principles of scientific determinism in explaining the roots of the various social problems that surround the life of his characters. However, he successfully places the social problems in their socially constructivist context.

Taking refuge in the nostalgic past

  • 18 Hasan Sherzad Sarjami Barham 2 op. cit., p. 109.

14A common disposition of the characters in Hassan’s novels is their nostalgic approach to the past. Having been largely devastated by the hardships and real agonies of life, the characters retreat in their past and its idealized tranquillity. This feature of Hassan’s novels cannot be easily classified within the frames of naturalism. The murdering son in Hasar and Sagakani Bawkim laments over his parricide. He takes refuge in a past where the father was a beacon of order for the yard and its inhabitants. In Pedashti Karmamaza Kuzhrawakan Bayiz becomes insane as a result of Hamin’s disappearance and the destruction of their home and wanders about in the company of other madmen in the city. When the authorities decide to gather and send all the madmen to the capital, Baghdad, Bayiz is in the military vehicle about to be deported when he hears a Kurdish folkloric song, who makes him cry. The song brings Bayiz back to the nice and quiet time of his childhood, where he used to sing for the villagers and make them happy. On the night that he was looking for Hamin despite the brutal and deadly effects of the horrible flood, the memories from the village and his past life were filling his mind. The worst punishment for Bayiz is the impossibility go back to his village, « his lost paradise ». Living in this old city is hard because at the same time he must make a living and hide, and also protect Hamin from the wrath of her relatives and the feudal lord’s men?18 The memories from the past and the traditional songs act as a plaster over Bayiz’s wounds. Back in the village, Bayiz had won the heart of Hamin with his songs. He knew that the village lord wanted to ask for Hamin’s hand although he already had three wives. Having lived in the city for about thirty years without being able to go back to the village also frightened Hamin who had made Bayiz promise to bury her in the village. Bayiz, now at the verge of deportation with the other madmen, hears a song that brings him back the last days of Hamin’s life and the very evening he lost her forever. The ballad, sung in a very sad tone, reminds a crying Bayiz of Hamin’s will to be buried in her village:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 216.

Please do not bury me here when I die
Take me back to our village, to the desert
I will never forgive you
If you do not bury me on the « lovers’ hill »
You know that I did not live there for a long time
Let us go back there when we die
Then come to my grave in the spring and bring me a couple of daffodil bunches, and put them beside my feet
No, do not do
that, please
Put them beside my head so that I can smell them as much as possible
I know, Bayiz, that I will not see the village again
I know we will both die in exile and even our graves will
remain strangers
I know that.
19

15For Shadi, who has tied her destiny to the minaret and insists in staying in her house, despite all the risks, the minaret functions as a nostalgic symbol of the past. The detailed depiction of the minaret and its frequent apparition in Shadi’s paintings proves its importance as a symbol of the stability and tranquillity of the past.

16For Farhad, Tami Sar Xarand’s protagonist, returning to his childhood years allows him to distances itself from a very lonely and tedious present. The role legends and romances played in shaping Farhad’s character is obvious from the way he remembers the past. Going back to his homeland after many years of exile and facing the ongoing destruction of his city, Farhad takes refuge in the stories his grandmother used to tell him when he was a child:

  • 20 These are all romantic epics originated in the cultural heritage of the Middle Eastern peoples. The (...)
  • 21 Hasan Sherzad, Sarjami Barham 2 op. cit., p. 248.

Oh, dear lovely grandmother! It was your stories that broke my neck [drove me crazy]. Your stories deceived me for good. Your first story of love and travel filled my mind with fantasy and made me calm. They were full of hope and disappointment, full of happiness and the longing for love. […] It was your fault my little brain was filled with tales and legends. Even at nights, I would dream about those places that you created for me. You taught me the stories of Shirin and Farhad, Las and Khazal, Khaj and Siyamand, Khurshid and Khawar, Layla and Majnun, Mam and Zin, Kura Kachal and Kchi Pasha.20 The way you told them made me feel I had become Farhad, Las, Siyamand, Majnun, Mam. I became the undefeated hero of all your stories.21

  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.

17Eventually, the mad goat falls down from a cliff and dies. Farhad dreams of her and sometimes thinks that the goat invites him and tells him « if you really like me then let us die together. »22 Farhad refers to the death of the mad goat as a « suicide ».23 After the goat’s death, Farhad gets seriously ill. In order to cure him, his grandmother takes him to the mountain on horseback. On their way to the mountain, Farhad, sitting on his grandmother’s arms, asks her to tell him a story. While his grandmother obliges, Farhad notices that her body is getting heavier over his back. The grandmother is dying as she is telling her story. Listening to his grandmother’s stories also reminds Farhad of his deep love towards Shirin who used to be the only one that he could share his secrets with.

Conclusion

  • 24 Richard Lehan, op. cit., p. 65.
  • 25 Ibid.
  • 26 Woodburn O. Ross (1949): « John Steinbeck: Naturalism’s Priest », College English 10:8, p. 434. DOI (...)

18A close reading of Sherzad Hassan’s novels shows that they have the main features of naturalism in its wide meaning. Classifying Sherzad Hassan as a naturalist writer is quite relevant if by « literary naturalism » we, like Richard Lehan, mean « a spectrum of ideas controlled by a literary method but used variously by a group of writers ».24 At the same time, Sherzad Hassan cannot be deemed a naturalist writer if literary naturalism is « a coherent and self-sustained doctrine uniformly used by the same group of writers. »25 The scientific aspect and its positivist approach to the social and individual matters are not necessarily represented in Hassan’s novels. One cannot see the obvious presence of the scientific traits of naturalism in Hassan’s works. However, his novels, as far as the failure of the characters and the presence of nature are considered, are good examples of naturalist works. What Woodburn O. Ross says about John Steinbeck can to an extent be applied to Sherzad Hassan’s writing: « Steinbeck’s writing is outside the strictly scientific, naturalistic tradition, in that it is not objective. Steinbeck loves whatever he considers “natural” and is keenly sensitive to its emotional values. »26 The fortune of Hassan’s characters tends to shows that they cannot enjoy the possibility of individual freedom. In other words, drawing on naturalism and Zola’s treatise, Hassan’s characters (un)consciously are subject to a kind of determinism, as they are (un)willingly involved in the fatal, implacable and cruel events of life.

  • 27 Elizabeth A. Marchant, op. cit., p. 447.

19As a matter of fact, a literary style and mode can be partly imitated or adapted in another cultural context. The early naturalist works of the late 19th century and early 20th century were widely imitated in different parts of the world. The Brazilian novelist, Aluisio Azevedo adapted the naturalist novel and selectively employed « naturalist techniques and their underlying scientific principles ».27 Likewise, Sherzad Hassan’s example shows that the naturalist mode of literature can be stretched to a later period.

20It seems that Sherzad Hassan has, consciously or not, applied naturalism to dramatize the « hard times » of his characters in Kurdistan. Donald Pizer in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism argues that:

  • 28 Donald Pizer (1999): « Introduction », Donald Pizer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to American Real (...)

Naturalism thus seems to appeal to each generation of American writers as a means of dramatizing « hard times » in America – hard times in the sense both of economic decline and of spiritual malaise, with each generation also incorporating into this continuing impulse or tradition of naturalism the social and intellectual concerns of that age: Freudianism and Marxism in the 1930s, for example, or the Vietnam War in more recent years.28

  • 29 Ibid.

21Naturalist themes and impulses according to Pizer are found in many American writers, from Faulkner and Hemingway to Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Norman Mailer and James Jones.29 Sherzad Hassan, with his detailed depiction of his characters and their mental universes alongside an atomised description of nature, lends himself to the analysis of naturalism. Escaping from the real world, which imposes painful agonies on the individuals, and looking for a kind of relief, Hassan’s characters take refuge in a nostalgic world.

Notes

1 Sherzad Hassan was born in 1951 in Hawler. He obtained his BA in English literature and language from Baghdad University in 1975. Since his graduation he has been working mainly in Silemani within various branches. As an active author he has by now published four collections of his short stories and five novels and novelettes. Some of his works have been republished several times in Kurdistan. Aras publishing House in Hawler republished all his short stories and novels in two volumes in 2005. In 2012 Ranj Publishing House in Silemani republished another collection of his already published works in two volumes. He has also been active in the field of translation and has by now published about 20 translated works from English into Kurdish. Besides his literary activities he has been actively contributing to various civil society organisations in the field of children’s and women’s rights in Kurdistan.

2 For detailed information about various interviews with Sherzad Hassan and his authorship see his personal web site: http://www.sherzadhassan.com/.

3 Paul Gauthier (1955): « Zola on Naturalism in Art and history », Modern Language Notes 70:7, p. 516.

4 Ibid.

5 Hannah Thompson (2004): Naturalism Redressed: Identity and Clothing in the Novels of Emile Zola, Oxford, Legenda, European Humanities Research Centre, University of Oxford, p. 4.

6 Richard Lehan (1999): « The European Background », Donald Pizer (ed.), op. cit., p. 66.

7 Ibid.

8 Fredric Jameson (1996): The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, London, Routledge, p. 91.

9 Jose M Diaz Lage (2002): « Naturalism and Modes of Literary Production in George Gissing’s New Grub Street », Atlantis 4:2, p. 73. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41055071.

10 Hasan Sherzad (2005): Sarjami Barham 2 (Collected Works 2), Hawler, Aras, p. 261.

11 Ibid., p. 266.

12 Ibid., p. 276.

13 Ibid., p. 76.

14 For a short but well formulated account on Naturalism and its main background and principles see Smethurst, Colin, Emile Zola: Germinal, Glasgow, University of Glasgow Publications, 1996.

15 Hasan Sherzad (2011): Zhinek ba sar Minarawa (A woman upon the minaret), Silemani, Ranj, p. 94.

16 Elizabeth A. Marchant (2000): « Naturalism, Race, and Nationalism in Aluisio Azevedo’s O mulato », Hispania 83:3, p. 447. DOI: 10.2307/346009.

17 Sherzad Hasan, Zhinek.. op. cit., p. 46.

18 Hasan Sherzad Sarjami Barham 2 op. cit., p. 109.

19 Ibid., p. 216.

20 These are all romantic epics originated in the cultural heritage of the Middle Eastern peoples. These epic stories mainly end with the death of the lovers.

21 Hasan Sherzad, Sarjami Barham 2 op. cit., p. 248.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Richard Lehan, op. cit., p. 65.

25 Ibid.

26 Woodburn O. Ross (1949): « John Steinbeck: Naturalism’s Priest », College English 10:8, p. 434. DOI: 10.2307/372552.

27 Elizabeth A. Marchant, op. cit., p. 447.

28 Donald Pizer (1999): « Introduction », Donald Pizer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 14.

29 Ibid.

Auteur

Université d’Exeter

© Institut français d’études anatoliennes, 2018

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