Is the rosebud of your face, so like a rose,
Among the roses, the rose garden
— “Yearning for the Innermost Rose”
Anytime I see a mullah before his people
I see his turban
Wrapped tight with blood
— “Fruitful Revolution”
IT IS LATE October in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, where winter has just shown its nose with a gentle rain. It is Friday, the first day of the Middle Eastern weekend. Early in the morning, my colleague Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse and I drive toward Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), where the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) is headquartered, where our host Ali Bapir, its founder and leader, expects us at 10:00 a.m. His secretary and longtime friend, Mr. Hassan, had told us that Bapir has reserved the entire day for us to discuss his relationship with the cult Kurdish jihadi poet Khider Kosari (1969–1993). This will be our second meeting, a part of a larger research project that Alana and I lead at Kashkul — the center for arts and culture at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani. That project, Crux, aims to understand how devotion becomes violent and how violent devotion can become peaceful.
Bapir, who once led an army of 10,000 jihadis, formed his present party in 2002. After his release from a United States military prison, he demilitarized his party and pursued politics through democratic means — a case study that could serve as a model for the reintegration of the Taliban into the government in Afghanistan. The United States and Britain first learned of the leader through his opponents’ accounts; they did not speak to him directly until after he was captured. Upon the KIG's formation, the US attacked its base, located in the town of Hawraman, near the Iranian border. Soon thereafter, in 2003, an American unit captured Bapir and flew him, blindfolded, to Baghdad in a helicopter. There he served 22 months in the same prison as Saddam Hussein. He was tortured severely and witnessed atrocities no less heinous than those at Abu Ghraib: “When I was being tortured, they would pull me to my feet by my beard,” Bapir recalls. Surprisingly, Bapir articulates his experience without a tinge of resentment, demonstrating an acceptance of his past that he says is informed by his religious values.
We are here to ask Bapir about his relationship with Kosari, the official poet laureate of the armed Kurdistan Islamic Movement (KIM), from which the KIG branched off. Both men were born and raised in Raniya, nicknamed “the gate of the Kurdish revolution” in 1991. Kosari, who as a young man had lived a comfortable if unfulfilling life, returned to devout Islam when Bapir recruited him to join the KIM in the late 1980s, serving as a poet and peshmerga until his assassination in 1993.
I first heard about Kosari as a teenager, from a friend who lent me a cassette of the poet reciting his work. At that time, the narrative of one “Islamic nation” fascinated and inspired me, and I was captivated by the way that Kosari’s poetry envisions a nation for the Kurds that is at its core as Islamic as it is Kurdish. In the context of a devoutly Muslim and devoutly Kurdish household, I had wondered how I might embrace both causes. Instead of bedtime stories, my father, an active member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, lulled me to sleep with Quranic exegesis by Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood. My mother spent afternoons teaching Tajweed, the science of Quranic recitation, to dozens of female high school and college students in our neighborhood. By the time I was 15, I had memorized almost one-third of the Qur’an, about 200 pages. In that context, Kosari made perfect sense to me, and to many others like me.
With his Kurdish turban tilted toward the back of his head, its tails draped over the right side of his chest, Kosari performed his poetry for hundreds of his fellow jihadi peshmergas at political rallies and mosques. He would often inaugurate events by reciting his poems from memory, his fierce gaze fixed on his awed audience. Videos of these readings are viewed by thousands on YouTube. In the online videos, the movement of Kosari’s hands is so synchronized with the meter of his poetry that the two seem interdependent; if his hands were tied behind his back, he might not be able to recite a single couplet. On his death, Sherko Bekas, who was arguably the most well-known secular poet in Kurdistan, famously remarked, “A god of poetry died.”
As both a proud Muslim and a proud Kurd, Kosari was a role model to many members of the community I grew up in. The Kurdish desire for an independent homeland and Kurdish jihadism are often treated as binary opposites. In fact, Kurdish nationalism at times manifests itself within the jihadi discourse, which theoretically embraces an extensive, borderless theocracy while rejecting the Western idea of the secular nation-state. Despite the presence of Kurdish militants among jihadi groups in the last three decades, scholars have yet to analyze this seemingly paradoxical union. Kurdish jihadi poetry may hold the key.
In both Kurdistan and the Islamic world, poetry has served as a crucial vehicle for political and religious expression — especially as a vehicle for recruitment. In their essay “Poetry and Jihadi Culture,” Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel write, “This [jihadi] culture comes in a number of forms, including anthems, documentary videos, and polemical essays, but poetry is arguably at its center.” Although the rejection of national borders has been a central theme of contemporary jihadi poetry, Kosari’s work demonstrates that the genre can also foment nationalist ambitions.
The poet’s rise coincides with the height of Kurdish Islamism and Kurdish nationalism in 1991, the year of the Kurdish revolution in Iraq. The Islamists played a major role in achieving semi-autonomous status for the Kurdish region in the country’s northeast. Imported from the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Islamism was introduced to Kurdistan in the early 1980s, and with the endorsement of international Islamic charities, began to replace the Sufi Islam pervasive in the region before the arrival of Islamism.
As a powerful propagandist for the KIM, Kosari successfully recruited a great number of jihadis to the movement during the Kurdish Civil War. In this capacity, he posed a significant threat to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two political parties that still predominate in the KRG. The poet was captured and assassinated by a military unit of the PUK on December 27, 1993. After the capture of KIM’s leadership, Kosari and two friends, including Ali Bapir’s brother Wahid, fled to a nearby village in the mountains. After a day spent huddling in a villager’s house, Wahid and Kosari decided to leave. Not long after leaving the village, Kosari changed his mind and returned on his own to meet his fate. As PUK peshmerga entered the house where Kosari was hiding, he attempted an escape, but was nevertheless shot. The soldiers found him bleeding on the ground but still alive; they fired their kill shot and left. But the poet refused to die. At hearing the gunfire, Wahid returned to check on him. He recalls: “On his deathbed, Kosari begged me, ‘Bring the recorder. I have more poems left in my chest.’” The next day, the villager who had sheltered him loaded his corpse onto a tractor to be returned to his family in Raniya. His family buried him that same day, in the cemetery in nearby Kewa Rash, Black Mountain.
Kosari’s poetry can be divided into two distinct phases: the poems he wrote prior to the 1991 Revolution, which are more classical in form and content, and those written after the Revolution, which are more lyrical and contemporary in form, typically in free verse. One constant feature is his inventive use of imagery. In his poem “Yearning for the Innermost Rose,” initially recorded on a cassette, Kosari relies on Kurdish classical tropes, intensified by a repetition that my co-translator and I have endeavored to preserve in English. The poem, which recalls Sufi love poetry, begins:
A rose is distant
More stunning than the rose
Is the rosebud of your face, so like a rose
Among the roses, the rose garden
A rose whose color has left, oh, rose red.
Although Kurdish-language pronouns have no gender, the word gul (rose) is feminine, and elsewhere in the poem Kosari employs language reserved exclusively for women, clearly indicating that the object of his affection is human, rather than divine. After the poem’s amorous conclusion — “Deep night dawns without sun, candle, / lit only with her light” — Kosari concludes the original recording with a question he then answers himself, seemingly in repudiation of his earlier romantic impulse. “Do you know who is most unconscious? The one who falls for sleep any time he sees a warm blanket.”
His poem “Let Us Be One in Name and Heart,” written after the Revolution, is, by contrast, part religious tract and part political propaganda. In a video online, Kosari recites the poem from memory before a crowd of militant jihadis, and the physicality of his performance charges it with a riveting urgency. After beginning with a sequence of images meant to evoke the idea of unity, obliquely referring to a Hadith about the body of Islam, the poem takes a sudden turn toward violent agitprop:
Let us all
Be a name
And a purpose
We are the exalted history of a manuscript
Let each one of us
Be a sip of water
We are the wave, energy, and movement
Of a single flood
Let each one of us
Light a match
Be the sun’s ray and radiance
Together we will slaughter
Each one of our enemies one by one
One flag and One worshiped
And one message
In one charge
One victory after another
Even with a hundred lifetimes one dies only once.
Both Kosari’s nationalistic and jihadi identities are reflected in his poetry. It is hard, if not impossible, to say which one dominates. Was he more nationalist or jihadi? A nationalist peshmerga, or a jihadi Islamist? According to prevailing Kurdish thinking, peshmerga cannot be jihadi. Likewise, contemporary jihadi thought excludes the possibility of a jihadi nationalist. But Kosari’s poetry proves that that is exactly what he was. The transnationalism espoused by jihadi movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS is notably absent from his verse, as the KIM’s intention was to topple the anti-Kurdish Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein, not “a non-Muslim West.”
Even before 9/11 and the establishment of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Kosari imagines a caliphate. At the same time, he advocates for an independent Kurdish nation-state. In his poem “Fruitful Revolution,” dedicated to a former mullah, Kosari expressively articulates his thirst for both a theocratic state and an independent Kurdistan. The poem ends:
Anytime you see my poem
Weeping on my deathbed
That breath will come
Bringing freedom once and for all
It’s coming, it’s coming
Village by village, it’s coming
By His will
The time is coming when the flag
Of Worshipping Just One
Will stand, planted in Kurdistan.
Kosari proposes a distinct vision: the establishment of a Kurdish nation-state that serves, in my view, as a new metaphorical Medina, a utopian theocratic capital where the movement can regroup before expanding its caliphate. Kosari articulates this vision with a distinct voice; not only does he write his free verse in Kurdish, he even uses Kurdish-language terms to refer to specific Quranic terminology. His decision to voice jihadi aims in Kurdish rather than Arabic — both the language of the Qur’an and the lingua franca of the Islamic world — further proves his nationalist dream. Sayyid Qutb, a key architect of modern jihadism, espouses the concept of hakimiyyah, an Arabic term derived from the Quranic word hukm, which means “to rule,” which for Qutb implies “that Islam is religion and state.” In this poem, Kosari delivers the “good tidings” of a coming Kurdish state where only God’s flag flies. In the line here rendered “Of Worshipping Just One” the poet prefers to use the Kurdish word yektaparsti to express the Arabic term tawhid, which conveys the concept of oneness and union essential to the spirit of Islamic monotheism.
Though Kosari’s primary intended audience was Kurdish, his poetry does invoke jihadi figures who transcend national boundaries, a technique employed by many of his Arabic-language contemporaries. Midway through his long poem “On Behalf of My Poetry,” which uses variations of the phrase “I want my poem” to begin each strophe, he exemplifies the strategy:
Be soft and calm but strong enough to break a spear
Like Abdullah’s pen,
A grenade’s thunder in Hassan’s jugular poems.
Speak up at the assembly, like a man.
Be a shepherd like Moses.
Don’t bow before Pharaoh on the throne of the deal
Like his right-hand man.
The Abdullah referenced by Kosari here is Abdullah Azzam (1941–1989), perhaps the first ideological proponent of transnational jihad. Hassan Ibn Thabit was Prophet Muhammad’s companion and poet. Kosari also mentions Moses, considered one of the most respected prophets in Islam. In addition to these international and historical figures, he alludes to historical Kurdish Islamic figures including Sheikh Saeed Piran and Said Nursi, a Kurdish revolutionary leader and Kurdish Islamic thinker, respectively, from the Kurdish region of Turkey.
Today, Kosari’s party, although no longer as popular and certainly not as effective, has been integrated into the region’s democratic system, with multiple representatives in the parliament of the KRG. Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) and Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) claim most of the Islamic base respectively. During our conversation, Ali Bapir imagined how his friend’s work might have evolved alongside their party: “He could have grown more both as a poet and as a person if he hadn’t died young.”
Kosari’s readership was always circumscribed by the language in which he composed, the Sorani dialect of Kurdish, which has only four million speakers, compared to the 420 million transnational speakers of the Arabic language, which enables its poets to reach readers across the borders of the majority-Muslim countries and beyond. His work’s accessibility is further restricted by its contemporary, irregular form, similar to the free verse poetry of English and unlike the classical forms preferred by his Arabic-language jihadi counterparts. Still, contemporary Kurdish jihadis read his poems with nostalgia. He remains the most important Kurdish poet whose work compares with the Arabic jihadi poetry from which they seek inspiration. In the terrorist wing of the prison here in Sulaimani, one popular jihadi convict proudly told me that he recites Kosari’s poetry from memory to his fellow prisoners on special gatherings.
The significance of Kosari’s life and poetry lies in that fact that they testify to the possibility of simultaneous nationalism and jihadism, and of the use of one as means to the other. In Erbil, when I call Kosari a poet, his teacher and friend Bapir says, “God bestowed upon him the opportunity to become ‘a major martyr’ — and between that and the chance to become ‘a major poet’ there is the distance between heaven and earth.”
“Let Us Be One in Name and Heart,” “Fruitful Revolution,” and “On Behalf of My Poetry,” translated by the author and David Shook
Mohammed Fatih Mohammed has been translating with Kashkul, the center for arts and culture at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS), for over three years, bringing over half a dozen Kurdish poets into English for the first time.