Kurdish Culture

Kurds and Flowers

by Yassin Aref

Those who are suffering, going through a lot of difficulty—their lives are miserable, threatened by war and poverty, struggling to find jobs and to get food. It’s really hard for them to see the beauty in life and nature or to understand the meaning of it! While looking at something, this does not mean we have seen it, and seeing it does not mean we feel it!! I am not going to debate with philosophers about what is beauty:

  • is there anything by itself that can be either ugly or beautiful?
  • or is that only the best way we see it?

And no doubt, the way we see things is the best of the way we think, love, and believe. If you bring the ugliest baby, in the eyes of his mom he is the most beautiful one!! This is also true: maybe something looks very nice to my eye, but to your eye it is just ugly! In Arabic they say, “The sick one whose mouth is bitter (who has a sore throat), if you give him sweet cold water, it will be bitter for him.”


            As Kurds, we think our land is very beautiful, many say it is like paradise on earth:

  • high, high mountains covered with snow in the winter, and by flowers in the spring and summer
  • rivers, canals, sweet cold running water in most parts of it
  • flying birds with different songs, especially in the morning
  • all kinds of flowers, filling the air with perfume

But most of us never enjoyed it. Our situation and tragic life did not help us see that beauty, or feel it. Instead, for the most part, we covered [hid?] our culture, history, and literature (stories and poems). We reached the point that we were ashamed to talk about beauty or to try to tell any romantic story. This made most of our classic poets use the infinite love of God and the beauty of his Messenger to write about. People [in our literature] cried because of separation, they waited patiently for a meeting, they begged to seek a face, their hearts boiled for love, etc.—but all of this was a symbol for God’s meaning and love. Even most of the poems about bright eyes, black hair, a sunny face, a tall body, [   ], and beloved one, applied to the Messenger. And this was the only way for someone to express him or herself. I was fortunate; from my childhood on, I liked stories and loved poems, which really helped me to endure the hardships. I overcame them by reading poems about the beauty of my land, the love of my nation, saying the truth, facing death, opposing humiliation, having hope, looking forward and feeling great!

            I believe strongly that everyone should learn how he can see and feel the beauty of life and nature. Many people are very fortunate [capable], but they don’t know! [how to do this]. Let me tell you this story, maybe it will make clear for you what I mean when I say we all need to learn how we can see and feel the beauty of nature.

            I grew up in a village, and I lived with nature. There was not anything to prevent us from nature: drinking from springs and canals, cooking over a wood fire, eating from our farm, using fresh vegetables and fruits, looking for the shade of a tree and waiting for the cool wind in summer. Sitting and sleeping on the floor, walking in the light of the moon at night, listening to the symphony of the birds in the morning, riding a horse and donkey for traveling and moving. There was no electricity, no car, no TV, no phone, no mail—all this made my early life close to nature in my village. There was a spring that made a small canal, that everyone depended on for drinking and cooking, there was no running water in the village in any house.

As part of the culture, only women went to bring water for cooking and washing. But my mom was sick all her life, with no treatment, and had no daughter, so many times in the summer at night, when no women brought water, I used to go and bring water to help my mom. I would look at the moon following me, then stopping on my head, reflecting in the water—but I never felt this was something really beautiful until I read the poem of Abdullah Goran (one of the famous realistic Kurdish poets), about exactly what I was doing many times, as he said:

The spring looks like silver
Shining under the moonlight
You see the small pebbles and rocks
Moving under the water
Shining like pearl and coral

Since I read this poem, I started looking at the same spring as though it was silver, because of the yellow light from the moon, and I saw the small rocks and pebbles in the canal under the water as though they were pearl and coral. I started to enjoy my job of bringing the water, and I began tasting that [silver] water, which made me feel happy and good. And this is the role of the artist and poet: to show us the beauty of nature, and to teach us to see it and feel it.

            I never heard, read, or said the word “beauty,” I only remembered the flower [nergz] that is the simple symbol of love, beauty, and softness. From my culture, and from Kurdish poems, I learned to look at this flower as:

  • the blood of our murders
  • our land’s symbol
  • the sign of love and softness

Kurdish history is long, full of sacrifice, mostly tragic, but it’s clear that our struggle was for liberty, justice, and our rights. We are proud that we never occupied anyone’s land, and we did not deny any nation’s existence. But they murdered us on our land, in our homes, for being Kurdish. We walk our land very humbly; we look at the dirt (soil) as though it’s the body and bones of [all who] were murdered. We look at the flowers as our youths’ blood—that is why they’re red and sweet-smelling. This is what our poets told us: we can see the flowers everywhere because they murdered us everywhere, and we can see whole bunches of flowers together because they buried us in mass graves. I was a teenager when I imitated some Kurdish poets in their philosophy, and I wrote this poem (this is part of it):

Please, my dear mom,
Let me go to the mountains
To make the Kurdish dream come true,
Or die there and become a flower

Nergz, Symbol of Kurdistan

            As much as winter is hard in Kurdistan, as much as snow falls to cover the mountains and villages and to close the roads, and hide the hills and trees—people look for the nergz, the Kurdish lily that grows in spring, kissing the mountains and valleys, spreading perfume on the air, giving glad tidings that spring is coming. There are many books and collected poems about nergz. It’s the sign of new life, it’s the end of hardship. It’s the gift of the lover, smiling, shining to everyone—things will change, life is beautiful, and we will remain––telling of spring coming, making us feel good, giving us hope and teaching us to be kind and soft, to not carry anything but love. From March to May, wherever you go nergz are welcoming you—kissing every house, each store, all the cars—people sending them to each other, boys carrying bunches of them in their hands, girls putting [pinning] them on their chest. Everyone greets each other by nergz! When they rise and show it to you, that means love, best wishes, stay strong, look for change, the storm is over. People know and understand this without words; all they need to do is show the nergz.

            In 1986, I wrote a poem about this:    

I smell nergz, it’s telling me
Spring is here
I like spring, it’s started by Nawroz *
I love Nawroz, it’s the story
That shows me the road to liberty

* Nawroz is the Kurdish national day, the beginning of the Kurdish new year (3/21), and Independence Day.

We suffered a lot, and were lonely; no one accepted us; our existence, our being, had been denied; we did not get love from the West, we did not see sympathy from the East, [and because of this] our fathers worked hard to make sure our tough life and rough situation did not shape us because of the lack of love and sympathy. Instead they showed us flowers, gave us nergz, told us proverbs about flowers to soften our hearts and make us kind. There are many examples of teaching by flowers. I share with you three of these Kurdish proverbs.

1.  Gul naska (A Flower Is Soft)

            I know this is not our discovery, and you don’t need to study philosophy to learn it. All you need [to do] is to touch the flower, care for it—so why do Kurds think this is from their fathers’ wisdom? The answer is simple, just like Kurdish life: they are repeating this, and asking their children to take care of flowers, to train them to act soft, to help them see the beauty, to balance all the hardship and violence they see in their lives. This is human nature. When a person sees violence, his life is tough and he suffers; this makes his heart become hard. Anything we see or do will affect out hearts and thinking in one way or another! Today the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on psychiatric programs to train those who came back from battle to have a normal life, but there was no normal life for Kurds. Their schools, farms, mosques, villages, and homes—all were battlefields, they were attacked wherever they were! And yet they need to teach their children to love, and be kind. What they have is their experience, and the most kind and lovely thing they can see is flowers. They use flowers in their poems, stories, and proverbs to give an example of how much a flower is soft, how it will die in cold and hot weather, how it will fail under a “strong wing,” how if you care for it you can’t [withhold] “rain”—this is the only way to see a bright future and to get a “good scent” from it.

Taking care of flowers was a training school for us, teaching us how we could live and deal with women too! As long as women have been part of Kurdish culture, they have been flowers; the most famous names for women in Kurdish are names of flowers. There are thousands of such names. Each is the name of a girl in Kurdistan. It’s part of our culture that a man can’t be soft, like flowers, but must be strong enough to sleep in the snow, walk in the desert, run faster than the wind, protect himself from the wolf, and protect the women in his family too. But a good woman is the one who is very kind and soft, just like a flower.

But many men failed to keep flowers in their lives, one of them was my dad. The hardships and poverty, the war and calamity, took him over. I never saw my mom’s face bright, like Galabakh, Hero, or Nergz (names of flowers in Kurdistan), but she was a dying flower. Her sickness was apparent in her face, she was forty years old but she looked like she was seventy. I can’t blame my dad, who himself was a victim. The challenge was much bigger than his power and ability, but [at the time] I was sure that didn’t matter [or affect] what was happening [to my mother].

I am going to keep my flower [my wife] bright. I tried in Kurdistan, but it was not possible for me to keep my promise, and I had no choice but to flee (immigrate). I went to Syria, where it was not easy for a foreigner like me to live, then I came to America, where I thought I left suffering and fear behind. Poverty is over!, I thought, and we will be brighter than flowers! But all this remains as a dream, realizing that I have gone through more here than whatever I saw in my ruined country. And my wife’s life has become harder than my mom’s: left alone to suffer, be fearful, and worry, crying and always being sad, she almost lost her mind. Even for myself: how much I was proud that I was my father’s son, a son of mountains, thinking I could endure anything, that I would eat rocks and remain strong—but this is not a physical challenge. It’s invisible pain, it’s something we never heard of. It’s something that has affected my children and changed their lives, something that grays my hair. Now, when someone sees me, he gives my age at least 15 years older than the age I am!

But I do not worry about that, I’m a cultured person—a man doesn’t want to be bright and soft like a flower. But if he is really a man, he should keep his wife that way. My dear, I am sorry. I did nothing to cause you all of this pain—I really wanted to make you happy, to help you stay brighter than nergz, it was not my fault. We are just the victims of a wrong policy, as were all the Kurdish victims during our entire Kurdish history. I did not expect that your life in America in the twenty-first century would be harder than my mom’s in her isolated area in a third world country during the first half of the twentieth century. Please look forward, and never give up.

2. Agar gul nit drkish maba (If You Are Not a Flower, Don’t Be a Thorn)

            Many of us give or hear daily an excuse for not doing the good or right thing. The need for us to do good things [is obvious], and it is easy to give the reason—but everyone has [also] said “I can’t”! The best of my experience is that most of the time, there is no big difference between saying “I can’t,” or “I will do it later,” or “I will try,” or “Let me think about it,” or “I am sorry, but no”—all are really the same reasons. They are just polite ways to say NO! But this proverb closes the door on those who give excuses all the time. It tells them that it’s fine if you can’t or don’t want to do such and such good thing—but please at least stop doing bad things! Of course, no one has the right to say, “I can’t stop doing such and such thing,” because stopping something doesn’t cost you any physical activity. If you just have a sincere intention to do something or stop something, then it will be over and you won’t do it. When someone asked the Prophet about [doing] good things, or [giving] charity, saying such and such—by the end of their question He told them, if you can’t do these things, just save people from the harm that your “charity” does to them. It’s really great if every single one of us stops harming and abusing others—or at least stops being a “thorn,” as this Kurdish proverb says. Most of our pain and suffering will then be over.

            Yes, we need to be flowers, and brighten people’s lives, give them something that “smells good” and makes them feel good—but if we fail to do that, we must not be “thorns.” Kurds use this proverb a lot when someone who intends to speak some good words and mentions something nice to help make peace between two sides, says things that [actually] do not help—they tell him that if you are not a flower, then don’t be a thorn. If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say a bad thing. If you cannot help to build back relationships, don’t destroy them. If you can’t make something easier, don’t make it harder. If you don’t give, don’t take! I strongly believe that this is the first step, and every single person’s responsibility. We must start from ourselves. It’s simple and it’s easy. It’s possible; it’s the Kurdish way.

            I invite you: “If you are not a flower, don’t be a thorn.” But my wish and hope is that you go one step further and become a beautiful bright flower that everyone loves to see, someone who makes everyone feel good [because] you saw a chance [to do something good for others].

3. Ba gulek bahar naya (When You See One Flower, That Doesn’t Mean It’s Spring)

            Some years in Kurdistan, when the weather is mild at the end of February or the beginning of March, the nergz and other kinds of flowers will bloom. Some of them will take their chances and think spring is here—but all of a sudden, a storm proves they were wrong. From this, Kurds say that one flower can’t bring spring! And this proverb is used to tell people not to be extremely [overly] hopeful, and not to let one good word or one good act deceive you. Search deeper, and understand the nature of change, and the best of the perfect reasons; it’s through big changes, not the act of one individual!

[On the other hand,] cold, snow, and storms of winter can’t remove even one flower from the spring; no one is able to do everything by himself. Even the Messengers were not able to do what they did without their followers and supporters. No big leader made big changes without his army or good advisors; no artist or writer made a difference without his readers or supporters. It’s good to think positively and be hopeful, but it’s wrong to be extremely [overly] positive, and when you see one good man in the city, [it’s wrong] to think that there are no bad ones or cheaters there, or when you hear one good word [it’s wrong] to [automatically] think that person is excellent. No, it’s the Kurdish expression telling you to wait and search, find the reason, see all the signs before making your decision. Seeing one flower does not mean it’s spring! Don’t reject this proverb, and don’t be as emotional as this Kurdish lover/singer said:

It’s not true when they say
One flower does not bring the spring
My winter will become spring
If my flower [beloved one] is with me!

Such a “spring” is just emotional and personal, but real spring for everyone needs lots of flowers. Please, just be one of them. 

Posted 2/17/08

Previous Proverb * * Proverb Home * * Next Proverb


May 5, 2008

This site is maintained by Lynne Jackson of Jackson's Computer Services