Mem û Zîn Analytical Study - A summary of the story
Ahmadi Khani’s (1650 – 1707) Tragedy of Mem û Zîn’
As Khani stated, the object of his re-creation is ‘the revival of Mem û Zîn”, that is the love story of the two main characters. The plot is about the reproduction of a living image of their love through well-structured processes of accidents, events or actions. Ordered structures, for Khani, are not simple. They are not only about random human actions and incidents. They happen at different levels; first, at the level of the folk story, the pre-text. But this raw material has been transformed aesthetically, philosophically and politically. It has been given a formal artistic structure through rewriting it as a dramatic poem in Kurdish.
Second, the object of love is treated as an example of Kurdish national character on the one hand, and as a demonstration of a higher, hidden order of events that reveal the real hidden meaning of life and love that lie beneath the apparent order of things in this transient life. Khani resorts to art (passion for beauty, music and emotional articulation), philosophy (reason and reality) and Sufism (spiritual and metaphysical) to explain this hidden dimension of our life. Art can indulge, reason can guide but it is only mystical knowledge that can reach out and unveil the kind of truth that is impossible to unveil with any other human means. In Khani’s brilliant pluralist approach none of these means are exclusive and self-standing. They are all inter-dependent methods of understanding reality and attaining truth.
Unity of the plot: A summary of the story:
The story starts with the celebration of the Kurdish festival Newroz in the Kurdish principality of Botan. Mem and Tajdîn, two young friends from nobility, decide to disguise in women’s dresses to give themselves a better chance of enjoying the beauty of Botan women and possibly finding suitable fiancés. By coincidence or act of destiny, the Mîr’s two sisters, Zîn and Sitê, use the same strategy. So here we have the first dramatic puzzle of the story: two beautiful young women appear in Newroz as two handsome men, and two handsome young men appear as two young women. They meet by the perceived factors of possibility and perhaps a deeper factor of divine necessity. Beauty and love are necessarily interconnected. The two pairs meet, talk, feel attracted to each other, and surprise themselves by falling in love, apparently, homosexually.
The effect of the sudden striking love thunder is devastating for all the four. Mem and Tajdîn fall ill and keep to bed for a week. When they come back to their senses, being surprised how thin and weak the other has become, they begin to check each other physically. They find the rings. On one engraved is the name of Zîn, on the other is the name of Sitê. Now they know the identity of those whom they have fallen in love with. At this moment Khani, through their actions and choices, gives two different characters to Mem and Tajdîn. The latter opts for masculine, physical and erotic love. He is keen to prove his manhood in terms of courage, initiative and will to conquer. He describes himself and Mem as two lions and the girls as two deer. All that they need now is to hunt and get them. Physical appropriation is what love means to him.
It is another totally different story with Mem. Love has afflicted him, possessed him, debilitated him, and controlled him. Love for him starts as a Sufist initiation and experience. Here, unlike Khani’s opening poetic Sufist appeal, mystical experience comes naturally to Mem, while Tajdîn is unaware of all this. He is happy with normal, physical love leading to sex, marriage and family. But, for Mem, it is the first state, hal, which is a long process of perfection for which he must suffer and sacrifice. This constitutes the core subject of the tragedy.
Khani cleverly keeps the unity of the plot at this stage by making use of the rings. Shocked by their experience of the strange Newroz meeting and falling for two persons from their own gender, the girls hurry home and quickly take off their masculine dress so that their cunning and caring Nanny would not discover their secret. But, being entranced by the experience, they remain naked. That is how the Nanny finds them when she goes to their bedroom to check why they left for Newroz early alone and why they came back so soon alone. She becomes more surprised and suspicious when she finds them naked and behaving strangely as if being drunk or drugged. On her persistence, they tell the trusted Nanny the whole story admitting they have fallen in love with two girls.
This homosexual love is something which shocks and baffles the Nanny. But she calmly and rationally reasons with them. She is convinced of the fact only when they produce the two rings. The Nanny promises them to find the identity of the lovers and make them come submissively to propose to them. The Nanny Habazboz takes the rings to a famous fortune-teller, possibly a Magi or a Pîr, to help her find the identity of the owners. She lies and pretends the rings belong to her sons who have been mysteriously fallen ill since they went to Newroz. But the fortune-teller soon discovers the old woman’s lie and tells her the fact that the two rings belong to two men in the realm and those who had the rings are two young women not men. He explains the truth of what has happened in Newroz, that is, the mix-up of genders and identities.
But, in spite of the old woman’s pleas and promise of good gold reward, the Magi refuses to reveal the identity of the two men as this contradicts the ethical privacy of his profession. But he advises the old woman of a plan by which she herself would be able to discover the identity of the men. He says that they have been sick with love for over two weeks and she can go around the city of Jezire where the men are, and enquire after men who are sick with love. Surely she will be guided to them. Upon this the Nanny disguises as a hakim, a physician specialised in psychological illnesses, which afflicts people for no apparent physical reason and eventually comes face to face with the two lovers. When she is sure about their identity, she tells them about their lovers, Zîn and Sitê, and shows them the two rings as proof. She encourages them to propose to the girls and asks them to hand over their rings to take back as proof to Sitê and Zîn.
Here also the distinctive loves of Tajdîn and Mem shows in their reaction to this request. Tajdîn gladly does this but Mem says the ring is now the sole source and soul of his existence and cannot depart with it. However, the Nanny goes back to the girls with a solution to the riddle and the happiest news. She commends them for choosing the best two gentlemen in Jazire whom she thinks are compatible, if not in their wealth and nobility, then in their beauty, character and the sincerity of their love. The girls are eager to marry the lovers of their heart. In line with tradition, a group of Jazire’s most famous and respectable men from all sections of society visit the Mîr for this purpose and ask for the hand of his sister, Sitê, for Tajdîn.
The Mîr immediately responds to the wishes of the esteemed representatives of the city and accepts Sitê and Tajdîn’s union in marriage. He is in fact very happy with this as Tajdîn has been his foremost military leader and defender of his realm who ‘has spent his life serving the Mîr’. Therefore he immediately orders a majestic celebration and insists that, to prove his gratitude, he himself would this night serve in Tajdîn’s engagement party. They exchange rings and a legendary Kurdish feast is served, followed by a wedding party which becomes a national celebration. Mem guards Sitê and Tajdîn in their wedding haram for seven days and nights, proving his loyalty to Tajdîn who is described as his spiritual brother. Emphasizing the physical nature of Tajdîn and Sitê’s love, Khani offers a very detailed graphic, erotic description of the first passionate love-making of the couple and especially the way Tajdîn physically ends Sitê’s virginity. Over seven days and nights without sleep Mem keeps standing at the door of Tajdîn’s palace, guarding his soul mate.
Here the first part of the story finishes with a happy ending and the expectation is that the same happy end is not only possible for Mem and Zîn but that it should be easier now and more necessary. But this is not the way that the universe works. There are deeper metaphysical laws of necessity that override the laws of human probability, natural wishes and limited free will. The knowledge of these laws is only accessible to Sufists and through Sufist experience. It is to undergo this experience and unveil this knowledge that the love of Zîn and Mem would not be such a smooth, natural path responding to social probabilities. Their love is spiritual and they must suffer and sacrifice to go beyond the covers, veils and absurdities of human worldly affairs and conflicts, to discover the true meaning and eternal spiritual nature of their tragic love.
The tragic turn of the story happens after the happy marriage of Sitê and Zîn. The structure of the events in this part will be determined by the introduction of the element of evil against good in the process of the events and the problems and choices that the existence of evil presents to human beings as species, society and individuals. From a philosophical viewpoint, Khani especially concentrates on the inter-relationship between good and evil and the dialectical necessity of their co-existence. However, evil is not an abstract entity. It exists within and through man’s moral disposition and actions.
As an embodiment of evil Khani chooses the personal servant of the Mîr called Bekir Mergewer. He in fact works as the Mîr’s first minister and his personal secretary and apparently he is his most loyal and trustworthy confidant. Bekir is not a Kurd by origin; in fact he has no known identity and ancestry. He is rootless. He is a bastard but he claims to have come from Mergewer. He is known for his evil intrigues and cruelty towards people. Therefore, the first thing that Tajdîn does when meeting the Mîr after the wedding is to ask him to sack Bekir Mergewer. But the Mîr reasons with him, insisting that Bekir, although a bastard and a dog, but dogs are necessary for guarding property and cruelty is part of the game of power to ensure people’s submission. At this point Khani offers his political views about power and the nature of princes.
On the other hand, Mergewer, realising that Tajdîn’s marriage to Sitê has given the former even more powerful position and authority in the princedom and, being selfishly sensitive and shrewd, he reasons that Tajdîn would inevitably facilitate the union of Mem and Zîn, and consequently he would lose his authority with the Mîr. Therefore Bekir Mergewer makes a devilish plan to poison the intimate relationship between the Mîr and Tajdîn and ensure that the marriage of Zîn and Mem would never be fulfilled. First, he suggests to the Mîr that he has made a mistake to give his noble daughter to a man of a lower status such as Tajdîn when Kings and Princes of the world, from China to Iran, would have proudly and submissively vied for her. When this remark greatly angers the Mîr, who insists he could not have exchanged Tajdîn and his brothers for any foreign power, as they have been true patriotic defenders of his throne, Mergewer changes his tone, saying that what he is worried about is in fact the power of the Mîr himself. As Tajdîn is from a lower social rank, this sudden promotion, may change him as the lower people, instead of feeling gratitude for the favours of fortune, are enticed by it to abuse their gain and eye for more. Mergewer indicates to the Mîr that, even at this early stage of his new-found position in the court of the Mîr, Tajdîn has ignored royal authority and violated the Mîr’s honour by offering Zîn to his friend Mem without consulting with the Mîr. He even suggests that there is already some kind of relationship between Mem and Zîn. As this claim, if true, is first a question of honour, second it is a great violation of the moral code and personal trust and, third, it is a potential threat to the Mîr himself, the Mîr becomes very concerned. He reacts angrily and swears that Zîn would never get married and no man should ever dare to ask her hand. This foolish oath becomes the ‘tragic flaw’ of the Mir on which the tragedy is in fact based.
The Mîr challenges and orders Mergewer to prove his claim. Meanwhile he orders the isolation of Zîn and this makes it impossible for her and Mem to meet. The story enters into the stage and process of Sufist suffering for love and existential desire of union with the ideal beloved. Both lovers physically suffer from separation and isolation, become desperate and depressed, with Mem even suffering from melancholy and near madness. In the beautiful spring of Kurdish mountains the Mîr orders a national day of hunting when every male, even chidren, partake. This provides a chance for Mem and Zîn, without prior knowledge or arrangement, to escape from their isolation and stroll to the Mir’s Gardens. They meet and exchange passion of love and end up staying together intoxicated and unware in the Mîr’s place.
When the Mîr, Tajdîn, Bekir and hunters return, the Mîr finds Mem in his bedroom in the darkness of evening. While Zîn keeps hiding under a mantle. Mem at first rationally justifies his presence by the excuse of his illness and loneliness, but then is about to reveal his meeting with Zîn when Tajdîn intrervenes saying that Mem is mad and is suffering from melancholy. The Mîr accepts this and the couple are temporarily saved. But then Tajdîn, knowing that Zîn is with Mem, hurries home and torches his house so that everyone is attracted there and thus saves Mem. In this way Tajdîn proves his fraternity to Mem, his noble character, generosity of spirit, rational calculation and ability for difficult, decisive action.
After this event, the situation of Mem and Zîn gets worse. They are virtual prisoners, withering by day without any hope of salvation. However, Mergewer keeps watching them. He knows that by pushing the Mîr to move against Mem he will also strike a blow against Tajdîn, because the latter cannot leave Mem alone in times of need and danger, as we already witnessed in the episode of the big house fire.
Margewar designs a plan to make Mem reveal his secret by his own tongue. He asks the Mîr to invite Mem alone to a match of chess. The plot is like this: the pair will play and anyone who wins is free to express a wish that the loser would be obliged to fulfil. If Mem loses, and the plan is to make him lose, the Mîr will ask him whether he has ever loved any one. As Mem is both a brave and an honest man he would simply say the truth and admit to loving the Mîr’s sister Zîn. Then the Mîr would decide how to punish him for this betrayal and to avenge his honour. The chess-playing takes place in the Mîr’s personal room which is facing Zîn’s room. Mem wins twice. While playing the third game Bekir notices that Zîn has appeared in the window of her room apparently knitting. When this game is over, Bekir suggests that the players swap their sitting positions to bring some change to the game. But his aim is to make Mem face and see Zîn, be distracted and lose. This is exactly what happens.
Seeing Zîn makes Mem immediately lose his concentration and become no longer aware of the game. He loses six games and the time of truth arrives. When the Mîr asks him about the love of his heart, promising to fulfil his dream for any girl he likes, Mergewer laughs, taunting that Mem loves a rural, black Arab woman with thick, tattooed lips. This makes Mem angry. He says assertively that he loves a princess, a fairy and that fairy is Zîn. Tajdîn and his brothers had known about the plan and they all had arrived at the castle in time to watch the game and see Mem lose and be put in danger. Once, Mem utters the word of truth, the Mîr orders his ready guards to attack him. Tajdîn and his brothers stop them, saying that no one can touch Mem and hope to be alive. They all know the bravery and courage of the brothers. But they would not stop in the way of any decision made by the Mîr. They are obedient to his orders.
The Mîr himself puts chains on the hands of Mem and orders for him to be taken into a solitary prison. Prison is the start of the real Sufist experience of love, loneliness and suffering. He is described as a Sufist reaching the corner of his reclusion (khalwet). The only thing that shares his existence in the narrow, underground jail is the image of Zîn and the idea of her love. He talks to Zîn in beautiful soliloquies, pledging to her that as long as there is a breath in his life, it is Zîn’s soul in his that sustains his life energy.
Mem does not complain about his fate or blame the Mîr for imprisoning him, he rather finds all this a necessary condition for trying his love; the mirror of soul is clear, and the light of certainty shines on him. At the end of his long suffering, he attains the real knowledge, image changes to meaning, and he sees the certainty of love in everything he looks at. But Mem’s imprisonment is devastating for Zîn, all her hopes for the future melt away, finding her sole consolation in her intimate inner monologues with Mem, reassuring him of her love and wishing that the Mîr would imprison her with him so that they can suffer and die together.
Par III is a move back from the prison of self, self-purification and ideal love of Mem and Zîn, to the reality of social life, political power and worldly conflict between good and evil.
Tajdîn’s brother Arif is a young militant man. He feels ashamed of what happened at the chess episode and allowing Mem to be humiliated, imprisoned and kept in prison unjustly to die. He believes that it is only through violent resistance that despotism and injustice can be fought back. His brothers and cousins share his view. They take arms, ride their horses and surround the Mîr’s palace at dawn. However, Tajdîn decides to send a message to the Mîr first, showing their concern and demanding the release of Mem. But when Tajdîn’s message is received, Mergewer quickly takes over and suggests to the Mîr to use a hypocritical strategy: to assure Tajdîn and his brother that the Mîr respects and accepts their wish and will release Mem; and at the same time to ask his sister Zîn to go and release Mem from his prison. Mergewer‘s idea is that Mem is too thin and weak to stand the shock of seeing Zîn in prison. He would die of the shock and then Zîn would follow. Thus the Mîr would get rid of his enemies and this sorry and shameful chapter of the history of the Principality would come to an end.
The Mîr is too old, weak and friendless now to resist Mergewer’s scheme. He does what Mergewer has planned. He visits his sister for the first time for over a year in her room and is shocked by what he sees: a sick, frail and dying human being who was once his beautiful intelligent world-famous sister. It is at this point that the Mir realises his tragic-flaw and Reversal begins. He weeps heartily all night with her and apologizes to his sister blaming her, her beauty, for having caused this suffering to Mem and herself. He asks her to go and release Mem from prison with her own hands and promises to allow them get married. Upon hearing this, Zîn bleeds and faints and the Mîr keeps weeping over her. It is all too late, even if sad and sincere.
While lying unconscious, Zîn’s soul visits Mem in his prison. Their souls unite in the end of their own spiritual journey. Soul is dissolved in soul. Someone brings the news of Mem’s apparent death to the Mîr. Zîn comes back to her senses and talks to her brother in the language of a martyr of love. She talks in detail about the spiritual journey she had with Mem and then tells her long Will to him. She divides the royal property with her brother giving him everything that is worldly and happy, accepting for herself all the share of suffering, sadness and salvation in death. She asks him to organise for her a burial party similar to the royal party he organised for her sister Sitê’s wedding. She asks to be allowed to accompany Mem’s body to the grave and when she dies to be buried beside Mem in one grave.
Meanwhile Mîr’s men visit Mem and give him the news that the Mîr has forgiven him and now he could fulfil his heart’s desire and marry Zîn. He only needs to go to see the Mîr as a sign of asking forgiveness. Mem rejects this suggestion saying that he will never go to Mîrs and princes. They are not real. Their power is not real. They are only metaphorical sovereigns. All their power and authority is just deception and fantasy. They are essentially empty and end in nothing. A sovereign who can be removed from power and dies is not a sovereign. Once he loses power he becomes the captive of his own illusion. Mem says he only accepts to go to the permanent eternal Ruler who is the ruler of the poor and powerful alike. Of all Mîrs, sultans and princes. The only one who can forgive and give compassion. Mem dies in prison.
When the news of Mem’s death spreads in the town like thunder, Tajdîn hurries to the Mîr’s palace, meets Bekir Mergewer on his way and kills him and by this ends his cruel and treacherous evil reign. When Zîn knows about the death of Mergewer she feels very sad. She insists that Mergewer’s evil-doing was good for her, Mem and their love. It is his evil eyes watching over them which kept their love pure and while depriving them of worldly pleasure and causing them infinite suffering, all this, as well as Mem’s suffering in prison, were the necessary states of their ascending the stations of spiritual love and unity with the universal truth. She pleads with her brother to have Mergewer too buried between them to symbolize and eternalize the central part his ‘benevolent evil’ played in the world in enabling them to achieve the journey of self-purification and perfection of spiritual love. Zîn dies while grieving at Mem’s tomb and they are buried together with Bekir between them. Two green trees grow on their grave with a thorn-bush separating them forever.