DIYARBAKIR, Turkey—On May 27, author Peter Balakian read poetry with Kurdish poet Tawa Nemir in Diyarbakir (Dikranagerd) to a packed audience at the chic vegan Gabo Café in the old city. According to various journalists who covered the event, no joint reading with an Armenian writer had happened in Diyarbakir in modern memory.
Nemir, who translated Balakian’s poems and his presentation into Kurdish for the audience, is the author of a half dozen books of poems and has translated dozens of books of American, British, and Irish poetry and prose into Kurdish, including Whitman, Eliot, Yeats, and Dickinson.
The reading was made possible with the help of poet Lal Lalesh and Osman Kavala, the director of Anadolu Kültür. Balakian was on a family pilgrimage, led by Armen Aroyan, to Armenian sites and cities in eastern Anatolia with his entire family, including his mother, Arax, who at 87 was able to walk the stones of Ani.
“If you would had told me that I would ever come to Diyarbakir a hundred years after my grandmother’s family—the Shekerlemedjians—were mass-murdered, to read with a Kurdish poet to a spirited and warm audience, I’d have told you that you were dreaming,” Balakian said to a journalist at the press conference following the reading.
At the reading, Balakian spoke of his family’s history in Diyarbakir and read a portion of his grandmother’s human rights claim about what happened to her and her family in August 1915 when the Turkish gendarmes surrounded her parish and deported, then massacred, her entire family. He also read some of his poems that deal with re-visitations of lost Anatolian landscapes marred by traumatic history. He closed with his poem “Parable for Vanished Countries” from June-tree.
In the open conversation that followed, he and Nemir discussed the power of literature and the aesthetic imagination to bridge cultures and histories over large chasms of time. “Nemir is doing a great thing by bringing so much poetry of the English language into Kurdish,” Balakian said. “And I hope we can bring some Kurdish poetry into English now.”
On the eve of the election and the hoped-for parliamentary victory for the Kurdish HDP, there was an electric energy in the city. “All of us were touched by the warm reception of the Kurdish people to us as Armenians, and we were delighted and I suppose a bit surprised to see their respect for the old Armenian buildings and churches of the city,” Balakian said at the press conference following his reading. “Who would have believed the sign to Diyarbakir would read ‘welcome’ in Armenian, Asori, Kurdish, and Turkish, and that there would be a memorial to the Armenian Genocide in the city.”