On March 10th, two inspiring poets shared their life stories and masterpieces with students at a French university. Nazand Begikhani and Bluma Finkelstein gave a very moving talk and poetry reading to Erasmus students at the University of Versailles St Quentin. The two women have fascinating histories and equally moving poetry. I found Nazand Begikhani particularly compelling. She has a wonderful way with words, not just in her poetry but also when she is talking. You can really sense a passion for words, as well as a passion for fighting for women’s rights. “I don't have an official identity... poetry is my identity, my truth... I exist entirely in language, in poetry,” she explained.
The advocate for women’s rights was born in Kurdistan, Iraq and has been living in exile since 1987. She explained: “I escaped Saddam Hussein's genocidal war against civilian Kurds in the eighties. However, I was granted an economic refugee status, and not political, as if my case was economic, which was not the case.”
The polyglot went first to Denmark before going to France, completing an MA and PhD in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. She was refused French nationality. Nazand said: “in 1997 French authorities told me that I belonged to a political group values of which were not compatible with the values of the Republic of France. “Which political group? I don’t belong to any political group. All my life I have been fighting for human rights.”
As well as fighting for human rights in general, the poet also combats for women’s rights, with a notable involvement in the battle against honour crimes. “A crime of honour is when members of a family kill a woman to save the honour of the family. It’s related to women's sexuality. “They find that a man’s honour is in the sexuality of the woman, of her conduct, the way she dresses, etcetera. “When she breaches the rules, the honour of the family is stained and in order to ‘purify’ the family honour, the woman in question should be killed. "This is happening everywhere and we must resist this. We must continue the fight.”
Nazand was asked by the Kurdish government to advise them on how to combat these crimes.
She suggested that they created a special commission with several government units to set up strategies and work against this form of violence. Her poem “Chanson de la fille assasinée » really captures the horror of this act. When she presented the poem in Kurdish it was haunting. It was more than reading out a poem, it was a performance.
She appeared to put herself in the role of the speaker. The anguish was present in her facial expression as well as her voice. The academic has had her fair share of pain but in all this adversity she appears to have found happiness in the land of poetry.
On the launch of her poetry collection, Bells of Speech, Nazand Begikhani was invited by the BBC Radio 4 to participate in the “Start the Week” programme. It was on the topic of happiness. “What is happiness? It’s a very vast subject.
“For me, happiness is a ladder, we can climb it together. It’s not biologic. It’s not natural. It’s not genetic. “We have, as the Dalai Lama says, to train our mind on happiness." “I was there with a scientist, a philosopher, a religious figure and a novelist.
“I found myself the happiest of all... and I have lost three brothers, my father and several members of my family to genocide. This is about conviction ...Never give up” Bluma Finkelstein, added, “You see happiness in little things.” Bluma was born in Romania and immigrated to Israel in 1963. “My family was paid to leave. It was a communist regime with a rupture between Christianity and Judaism.” At first she was not accepted at university so she started working as a midwife.
However, after a successful application she began to learn French and now writes poetry in French and Hebrew. She works as a professor at Haifa University and she has engaged in the cultural politics of the town. The renowned peace militant said: “I have worked a lot for peace. One route towards peace is by poetry. “Once we wrote poetry on posters in Arabic and Hebrew, translating the poems into both languages on the same poster. “We put them on all of the walls of the town. People stopped to look and them, and they read them. “Another route is that of artists. For example we put paintings, half Arabic, half Jewish on the walls and roofs.
“Israel is in constant need for support for peace. It is a country in permanent conflict.” The Israeli army is created by conscription. A large number of Bluma’s students have already completed their time in the army. She said, “War is metal which falls from the sky. Or chemicals. The army is not a judge. It’s not a job because it is conscription."
The professor explained that even governments recognise the power of poetry. “Poetry is not uniquely a beautiful story. “It’s also a language of engagement. It’s a lyric of resistance. In a dictatorship they first of all forbid and censor poets, and then journalists,” she said. For both poets, poetry is not just words. It is not just “a beautiful story”. It is their identity. It is “an act of resistance for dying languages” as Nazand said, or a way of reawakening an ancient language. It is a weapon in the fight for peace, an arm for human rights and ammunition in the battle for women’s rights.