“In his eyes was the sorrow of an Arab horse that has lost the race.”
On a day of a March…
The three of us are sitting in a hotel garden right above a park. A jovial giant, a cheerful exile, a lucky me... Beneath a sky full of birds… The wind is blowing like a forgotten whisper; the smell of moss is arriving from distant seas. The jovial giant’s phone rings. “Only three people know my phone number: Mehmed, Selim, and the other is…” says the giant as he answers his phone and lends his voice to his dear wife.
The month of March, the year is 2006…
I have a cold. Brother Mehmed is healthy. The giant is happy. The words he utters on the phone, which he has a hard time placing properly onto his ear, are lighter than roses and mingle with the air as if they were mist.
The giant does not get along with his cell phone. Once he called me while my son was riding his bike. We had a long conversation as I followed with my eyes my son’s wobbly moves on his bike. With such excitement, he talked about a novel that might take twenty to thirty years to finish. His voice was cut off suddenly. When it came back, he asked “Who was the girl who spoke a second ago?” Then his voice was cut off again. There was a thing called pay phones back in those days. “Please insert more coins,” or something in this nature, would say a female voice.
Our first meeting was as exhilarating as this one… I was waiting at the Esenboga Airport in Ankara with a staff member and a car Bilkent University provided for us. The year was 2002. The 15th of May. The giant and Zülfü Livaneli emerged from the VIP room. As I was walking toward them in a rather excited mood, I saw the giant embracing with his left arm the leader of Saadet Partisi, Recai Kutan. With a euphoric voice of a tree that hosts a flock of birds from the sky, he said: “Say hi to Necmettin!” Then as I expressed my willingness, under the weight of words becoming heavier in my mouth, to accompany him during the symposium dedicated to him, he quickly asked in Kurdish “Are you Kurdish?” When I said yes, he pressed me against his chest tightly. I sat next to the driver’s seat as Livaneli and he in the back… It was either at the traffic stop or perhaps during the traffic jam when people walking on the sidewalks began to interact with the giant by way of beautiful gazes, waving hands, sending kisses. I thought this must be what it means to be one of the greatest writers in the world.
One day, a very long day, he came to visit my little family all the way from the other end of the city. When I told him I work on Kurdish poetry, he mentioned that he, with Cahit Sıtkı, worked on the early translations of Kurdish poetry. In the darkness of the 1950s, they would hide in some corners and recite Kurdish poetry to each other as they translated them. The jovial giant was thrilled when he heard about Ehmedê Xanî Library, the project of mine that is etched into my dreams. Joining me in my crazy dream project, he said: “I will donate all my books to this library. And you know, among them are the Gallimard encyclopedias.”
The PhD program at Bilkent University offered a seminar on Yaşar Kemal in 2004. Süha Oğuzertem, who taught this seminar, changed our understanding of Yaşar Kemal entirely. We learned that his language in each novel is significantly different from one another. In each novel, there is, as if, a distinctly new novelist. We invited him to the seminar. He came. As he was entering the room, he turned to my dear professor, the late Talât Sait Halman, and said: “Talât, accept Selim into the PhD program, because his father is a dengbêj!” “He is already in,” said Talât.
The day I returned from England. Winter, 2011… This time I called him from a frosty garden. He never wished to exhaust people yet had a voracious appetite for story telling. Witnessing that was such a great pleasure and honor for me. During almost an hour-long conversation, he mentioned again the plans on a novel that would take twenty to thirty years to finish, and the third volume of Akçasazın Ağaları… In fact, he had already told me the ending of Bir Ada Hikâyesi (A Story of an Island) in 2004. He would burn the island in the end! It was such a heavy burden not being able to tell anyone about the ‘end.’ This meant: he, who always put on strong emphasis on “the human” in his nearly sixty years of stellar literary career, would burn everything he had uttered to humanity during his own century. Then the fourth volume of the book came out: My son’s grandpa Yaşar could not burn his island. Yet the speech he sent to be delivered at the ceremony of the honorary doctorate degree he received from Bilgi University was his farewell letter to the world. He talked about literature as an act of responsibility toward the world. With this, he was bringing joy to his island for the last time.
A refugee, a stutterer after seeing his father getting killed, an orphan whose right eye was carved out with a knife, a poverty stricken person, a person who shivered often, an ill-treated Kurd, a revolutionary, a dengbêj, a bard, a mourning flâneur, a story teller, a solemn spirit, a genius of diegesis, a body who fills the world, a chest who embraces the world, a sea of smiles, an island of there-is-always-hope, a human being… he was.
We, three of us, in a garden in the middle of a peninsula on a day of a March were talking as if we all had hard candy in our mouths. The exile paused our convivial conversation with a serious sentence. “I am going to the South,” he said. “The Kurdish government is going to give me the state’s honorary medal. Do you have any message you want me to deliver, Yaşar Baba?” They stared at each other for a while then forgot about me, and the glasses of tea. Tears began to swell in their eyes. The silence lasted like a long winter.
“Tell them that I love them dearly!” said Yaşar Kemal, after a long pause. “I have,” he said, “about thirty novels. Tell them to translate all into Kurdish.” He then turned to me: “Selim can do the translations.” Turning back to Mehmed Uzun, he continued:
Tell them, a people can become a nation only when they pay their writers. I receive a lot more for English or French translations of my work. What I ask from the Kurdish government is $100,000. Ask them to send me this money. I would then go to the bank. There I would ask a bank teller “My daughter, Kurds have sent me money; let me have it.” The bank teller would put the money on the table. Then I would weep profusely while pressing the stack of Kurdish money against my chest. Then I would find your number in my phone list of three numbers. “Mehmed,” I would ask, “find me the bank account number of one of the organizations for the martyred peshmerga so that I can send them the money.
The three of us, on a day of a March in one year, were sitting and conversing in a place somewhere in a world. Now, two of us are no longer on this earth. One of them found out he got cancer on his way from the emancipated part of his country after receiving the honorary medal, then said goodbye to a thousand year old exilic condition and toppled down like a tree on a hillside near Tigris. The other entered the warm chest of the world, leaving houses, shadowy courtyards, plains, wild pears, the mountains with purple violets, nomads with poetry, azat birds, the songs of the fishermen, the library shelves, ants, apprenticeship of birds, the deer pattern on a kilim spread inside the tent of a dreamy tribe burned to ashes, the blue butterfly, chukars, winds that yellow the weeds, borders, prison doors, the frosty waters of early springs as orphans.
For all, I am mourning over the loss of both.
*Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Radikal Gazetesi on February 28, 2015, and is translated by Öykü Tekten.
Öykü Tekten is a poet, translator, and editor living in New York. She is the co-creator of KAF Collective and pursues a PhD degree in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
1. Yaşar Kemal tells the story of “azat kuşları” in his novel The Birds Have Also Gone. The fictional characters in this novel would buy the birds near the places of worship only to set them free.
2. The phrase “apprenticeship of birds” (kuşların tilmizi) refers to the pseudonym of Feqiyê Teyran (1590-1660), a legendary Kurdish poet and writer. Kurds believe that Teyran spoke the bird language. He was also mentioned in Yaşar Kemal’s novel A Story of an Island.