This article by Professor Philip G. Kreyenbroek first appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica on April 15, 2010.
Mem-Ê Alan (Kurdish romance), probably the best-known Kurdish tale, and the one most often regarded as representative of Kurdish verbal art generally. Versions of the tale were reproduced in most of the early works on Kurdish oral literature (see Pryn and Socin, 1890; Von le Coq, 1903; Mann, 1909; and Makas, 1926). It has now been shown (Chyet, 1991b, pp. 27-28) that, in its popular form, the romance is particularly closely associated with Kurmanji-speaking areas (although a Mokri version from Mahābād was reproduced by Oscar Mann). However, a written version of the tale by Aḥmad Ḵāni (d. 1770), entitled Mem û Zin, became the most famous work in classical Kurdish literature, which apparently also led to a wide appreciation of the popular tale throughout the Kurdish-speaking lands. Neo-Aramaic and Armenian versions of the work have been collected (Chyet, 1991b, p. 27), and Aḥmad Ḵāni’s literary work has been translated into Sorani Kurdish (Hažār, 1960).
In popular performance, the romance is usually told in a mixture of prose and poetry (conte-fable), a popular type of performance in Kurdistan and neighboring lands (see Chyet, 1991b, p. 27-28). Various oikotypes, or groups of variants specific to region versions, have been shown to exist (Chyet, 1991a, passim). The core of the tale of Mem and Zin is a story of star-crossed lovers, which serves as a foil for a range of miracles, adventure stories, and other tales which vary in different oikotypes and, to a lesser degree, in each individual performance.
The male protagonist of the tale is Mem. He is the heir to the ‘City of the West,’ which belongs to three brothers who remained childless until the Prophet Khidr (Khizr) helped one of them to have a child. A horse of miraculous properties (Bor, or Bozê Rewan) is often said to have been given to Mem when he was still very young. The heroine is Zin, the daughter of the governor of Jazira Botân (the region of modern Cizre in Turkey), which is far away from the City of the West. It is then told that, one day, fairies (pari) realize that a boy and a girl exist who are more beautiful than anyone else on the earth. They want to see the two together, and by means of magic they take Zin to Mem’s bedroom while she is asleep. When the two protagonists wake up and each discovers the presence of the other, they cannot agree in whose room they are. When this question is settled, they talk, exchange rings, and chastely go back to sleep. Zin is taken back to her own home in her sleep. On waking, both protagonists think they dreamt the encounter, but the rings prove that it was real. They discover that they have fallen in love. Zin, who is engaged to be married to another man, becomes sick with love, but she is powerless to do anything. Mem prevails upon his parents to let him go to Jazire Botân to look for Zin. Before reaching the city, he has various adventures, which he survives with the help of Khidr.
Mem’s antagonists throughout story are Bako, a male figure sometimes said to be a sorcerer, and a female accomplice (his daughter or sister). In most versions of the tale, when Mem arrives in Jazira Botân, he is forced by custom to accept the hospitality of Chako, the man to whom Zin is engaged, and his two brothers, one of whom is the brave and noble Qaratâjdin. As the purpose of his visit becomes clear, his status as a guest of his rival’s family leads to much soul-searching on both sides, since various aspects of the central concept of honor come into play: as hosts, the family is obliged to do everything in their power for their guest (who is prevented by custom from simply going away), while as a fiancé, Chako is honor-bound to defend his engagement. Eventually Mem is poisoned by Bako, and Zin dies seven days after him. They are laid in one grave together, but a rose bush grows between them, and its roots separate them even after death. This fundamental storyline allows the storyteller (degbêj) to address a range of romantic, adventurous, and moral topics.
The protagonists are often assumed to represent Kurdish cultural ideals but, as Chyet (1991a, p. 81) has remarked, Mem is portrayed as a beautiful, highly sensitive youth without most of the typical features of the warrior-hero. Zin’s active and more or less public commitment to the man she loves in the latter part of the tale also runs counter to the cultural norms accepted in Kurdistan. It would seem, therefore, that the figures of Mem and Zin represent idealized alternatives to the harsh realities of Kurdish life, rather than exemplary heroes to be emulated by ordinary Kurds.
M. E. Bozarslan, Mem û Zîn, 2nd ed. Istanbul, 1975.
C. and O. Celîl (Dzhalil Dzhalilov and Ordukhan Dzhalilov), Zargotina K’urda (Kurdskiǐ fol’klor), 2 vols., Moscow, 1978.
M. Chyet, “‘And a thornbush sprang between them.’ Studies on Mem û Zîn: A Kurdish Romance,” unpubl. Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1991a.
Idem, “A Version of the Kurdish romance Mem û Zîn: with English Translation and Commentary,” in Corolla Iranica: Papers in honour of Prof. Dr. David Neil MacKenzie, ed. R. E. Emmerick and D. Weber, Frankfurt, 1991b, pp. 27-38.
A. von Le Coq, Kurdische Texte, Berlin, 1903.
E. Ev’dal, “Məm y Zine,” in Folklora Kyrmança, Yerevan, 1936, pp. 293-301.
Ha’âṝ, Mam u Zînî Kòanî, Baghdad, 1960.
R. Lescot (ed. and tr.), Mamê Alan, Epopée kurde, Paris, 1999.
O. Mann, Kurdische und Persische Forschungen IV.II.1-2:Die Mundart der Mukri-Kurden, 2 vols., Berlin, 1906-9.
H. Makas, Kurdische Texte im Kurmanjî-Dialekte aus der Gegend von Märdîn. 3 vols., St. Petersburg/Leningrad, 1897-1926.
ʿA. Sajjādi, Mêžūy adabî Kurdî, Baghdad, 1952.
(E. Prym and) A. Socin, Kurdische Sammlungen, 2 vols., St. Petersburg, 1887-90.
M. B. Rudenko, Mam ī Zīn (with Russian translation), Moscow, 1962.
E. M. Rasul, Aḥmad-î Ḵānî, Baghdad, 1979. N. Zaza, Memê Alan, Damascus, 1957.