After serving time in prison under Turkey's military regime in the 1970s and living in exile for many years, Zulfu Livaneli returned home and became a popular singer and prizewinning author. He is also a Member of Parliament and a fighter for human rights. Livaneli's latest novel, 'Bliss,' with its gripping plot and biting social and political criticism, has become an international bestseller. It could well have been an Israeli book, perhaps a Middle Eastern book.
ISTANBUL - From the escalators of the Gayrettepe metro station in the north of Istanbul, passengers spill out onto a noisy street lined with office towers emblazoned with the names of major corporations and banks. Every bit of space between the towers is taken up by parking lots densely packed with luxury cars. One especially impressive edifice is the Bank of Kuwait building; concealed behind it is a modest, box-like structure that houses the headquarters of the Vatan newspaper. Farther beyond the high-tech skyscrapers, one can see the dreary facades of residential buildings of the original neighborhood, which has found itself surrounded by these glass and metal temples of finance.
The shwarma stands that once proliferated on the block have been replaced by sushi restaurants, and the corner grocery stores have made way for big, gleaming outlets of a popular supermarket chain. Welcome to contemporary Istanbul, the Istanbul of globalization, not a picturesque fantasy for exotica-loving tourists.
Because this is how it is: The real, modern Istanbul is a city that consumes its inhabitants. If you're not up, you're down - farther and farther down. This is worth bearing in mind as the background to an interview with the writer, musician, singer, journalist and (independent) Member of Parliament Zulfu Livaneli, a man whose path has taken him up, up, up - about as high as one could possibly go. He has published half a dozen novels that have been translated into numerous languages. In his performances as a singer, he fills stadiums. He is the recipient of countless prizes, and not long ago was awarded a prize by the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain for his most recently translated work, "Bliss" ("Mutluluk" in Turkish)
Livaneli's importance could also be gauged by the official black car that was waiting for him outside the entrance to the Vatan offices, where our meeting was scheduled to take place. Before the official interview, he had insisted that we have lunch at a restaurant. He had a sushi restaurant in mind, and I naively said that I'd be fine with some simple Turkish food. The result was that we drove to a super-elegant restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus, which greeted us with an extraordinary array of delicate and delicious stuffed vegetables and a dish of sea bass shaped like a tower. And as we got in and out of the car, his chauffeur hastened to open the door for me.
Inside the car, I told him that I was excited just to be sitting here with a musician and singer whom I've long admired; that I had all his records, from the underground chansons that he composed for the protest poems of the exiled Communist poet Nazim Hikmet, to his concerts with the Greek singer Maria Farandouri. And that I particularly remembered his voice in the most marvelous love song to Istanbul ever written - "I listen to Istanbul, my eyes closed," by the Turkish poet Orhan Veli.
How many years have gone by since the Jerusalem poet Benny Shvili first introduced me to Livaneli's music? It was in his home, one afternoon, that I heard for the first time the deep, unadorned, Brassens-like voice that completely enchanted me. With whom else could I share my enthusiasm for this music and poetry? For Livaneli is not one of those vulgar Mizrahi singers who mistakenly equate their synthetic vocal acrobatics with Turkish music. Perhaps this is why the man has hardly any fans in Israel. In "Bliss," there is a comment on the "Oriental" music of the Middle East, which I decided to adopt from now on. Irfan, one of the main characters, is riding in a cab and listening to the wailing music coming over the stereo system, and thinks: "The most famous singers wore diamond-encrusted Rolexes, rode in Mercedes cars, and wore half-unbuttoned silk shirts that exposed hairy chests, but they sang songs of pain, sorrow and despair. Their music reflected the Middle East's lack of credibility. It was a fraud, a lie."
"My ambition was always to be a writer," says Livaneli. "My first record came out in 1974, when I was living in Sweden as a political refugee. On that record I composed and sang protest songs against the military regime and the tyranny. The songs were banned from distribution in Turkey. The record was smuggled into Turkey and became a symbol of the opposition to the military junta that ruled then. When I returned to Turkey at the end of the 1970s, I wrote the music for "Yol" and "Sulu" ("The Flock") by film director Yilmaz Guney." I set Nazim Hikmet's poems to music. I performed with Joan Baez, and with Theodorakis. But then I stopped it all. I went back to my first love - writing."
In fact, Livaneli doesn't at all look the part of a famous singer. He shows no trace of the affectations one might expect from a major star. His latest album to be released is a live recording of a 1997 concert he gave in Ankara before an audience of 500,000. And he performed there, as he does everywhere else, just as he is - without any flashy gimmicks, just alone with a guitar or a saz (a long-necked Turkish lute).
I hadn't come here to talk to him about music, but rather about his novel "Bliss," which is about to be published in Hebrew translation by Modan Press. (It's a rare thing for a Turkish book to be published in Hebrew translation, and in this case the translator, Boaz Weiss, did not translate directly from Turkish into Hebrew, but rather from English.) Until I entered a bookstore in Istanbul, I had no real concept of how immensely popular this book is in Turkey, compared to other best-sellers by other authors who are also unknown in Israel.
One example (and an absurd one at that): One of the most popular writers in Turkey is Mario Levi, a 50-ish Jew who is the author of the novels "Istanbul as Allegory" and "Madam Floridis May Not Return." Or - as I was browsing in a bookstore on the Istiqlal pedestrian avenue, I came across a book, a biography, of the veteran journalist Erol Guney. And it wouldn't have caught my attention if I hadn't known that this was the Turkish name of retired Israeli journalist Erel Ginai, who lives on Hatayasim Street in Yad Eliahu. He is in his nineties now. In the 1960s, when the military junta came to power in Turkey, he had to leave the country, and eventually wound up in Israel.
The biography tells of his tumultuous life, in particular his brave friendship with the great Turkish poet Orhan Veli, who, in a series of well-known epigrammatic poems, immortalized none other than Erol Guney's cat! Yes, at a time when the poet was in distress, Ginai hosted him at his home and the guest fell in love with Guney's pet cat. And Guney/Ginai, whose biography is enjoying prominent placement on the shelves of Istanbul bookstores, is meanwhile living in Tel Aviv with hardly anyone knowing it. And thus the abyss of ignorance of what is closest to us keeps growing wider.
"Bliss" is a gripping, easy-to-read, almost melodramatic novel laced with almost nonstop subtle, subversive messages, and a social and political critique no less biting than that of Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate in literature who has recently been earning the wrath of many of his countrymen.
Livaneli's book does not arouse antagonism, perhaps because the melodrama softens the critical messages and makes the harsh statements about the oppression of the Kurdish minority, the Armenian genocide, Islamic fundamentalism and conservative family mores a lot easier to digest. And above all, the reader is seized by a desire to delve further into the homosexual affair that takes on a growing importance as the plot progresses, until it explodes in the novel's final moments.
"The professor laid his head on the young man's bare shoulder. 'Hedayat!' he murmured and began to cry. A salty taste filled his mouth.
"'Hedayat,' he whispered.
"He had never felt pleasure like this when he embraced a woman and had never felt such a powerful passion.
"'Hedayat ... Hedayat..', he said again.
"The inebriated young man didn't understand the professor's words. He freed himself from the old man's embrace, puckered his lips and kissed him demonstratively on the cheek, and then trudged off towards the men's room."
Before that scene, woven throughout the novel are more than a few thoughts about this forbidden thing - thoughts that preoccupy the protagonist, Irfan, a university professor who left his wife to seek out his other sexual identity. "Irfan is something in-between," explains Livaneli. "He tries to explain to himself the meaning of the old love that he harbors for his childhood friend, and imagines that he has found it in the person of someone else, a young Englishman. It's not exactly homosexuality but something that falls between friendship and passion. In Turkey, by the way, there is a tradition of sexual relationships among men, and many male singers in Turkey were homosexuals or transvestites. This also relates to the eunuchs in the sultans' courts, many of whom, contrary to what people think, did have a sex life. The first book I wrote was called 'The Eunuch' and it was about the life of a eunuch in 17th-century Istanbul."
Nonetheless, the movie version of "Bliss," which has just been released in Turkey, deleted most of these sensitive matters from the plot. Livaneli composed the soundtrack for the film, and says that was his only involvement in the production; he was aware from the outset that the film would be more puritanical than the book.
Before the interview, I went to see the film at the old Europa Cinema, located in one of the historic passageways of the Istiqlal boulevard. Istanbul is a movie-loving city and the Turkish film industry is flourishing now more than ever. There are over a dozen movie houses on just one short stretch of road between Taksim Square and the historic Galatasaray school. And that's not counting the screening hall at the French cultural center at the top of the street, or the Goethe Institute's movie hall at the other end, across from the wall surrounding the old school, or the dark alley next to the bakery that leads to the romantically named Dream Cinema, which specializes in porn.
That week, many of these cinemas were playing host to the Istanbul Film Festival, in which the movie "Bliss" was one of the big hits. The cult of cinema here is really the most effective substitute ever invented for the cult of religion. In countries over which the threat of religious extremism hovers, the cinema is the temple of secularism, and deserves appreciation as such regardless of the level of the films that are being screened. In Turkey, there beats a big secular heart that still cannot be taken for granted and is in need of constant support. "Bliss" is one of these reinforcements for secularism.
Both the book and the film tell the story of the rape of Meryem, a teenage girl in a remote village in eastern Turkey. The rapist is the girl's uncle, who is also the village's esteemed religious leader. But as usual in such environments, the woman is always to blame for everything, and in order to hush up the incident, Meryem must die. At first, they try to convince her to kill herself, and when she insists on living, a cousin, Jamal, is given the task of taking her to Istanbul and dispatching her there.
But in the end, his conscience won't let him go through with it. Without knowing where they are headed, the two take off, fleeing because of the family imperative that they have violated. On the way - for the novel is also something of a travelogue through Turkey - they meet Irfan, the professor, who is fed up with bourgeois mores and the phoniness of big-city life. They join him on a trip in his boat along the coast of the Aegean Sea. Through him, Meryem and Jamal discover modernity, education, freedom. Suddenly they see that such harsh discrimination against women needn't be a fact of life. This may be the common message of the book and the film: The power of education to liberate the Turk from the chains of stifling tradition, family tyranny and ignorance.
Livaneli: "I grew up in a moderate Muslim family. There was never any abstinence from alcohol. My father is 90 now and won't go without his daily shot of raki. And the women went bareheaded. I never saw my grandmother, who was born in 1900, cover her head with a headscarf. That's the real Turkish Islam. It was always influenced by the Alawite stream. The thing is that in recent years they've been trying to import another kind of Arab Islam, an Islam of force and violence; and force corrupts all that is good. And we're not even Arabs!
"People forget that not a single one of the Ottoman sultans ever made the pilgrimage to Mecca even once. Even though the hajj to Mecca is one of the basic commandments of Islam. And the sultans drank alcohol and had a great zest for life and were not about to be hindered by any religious imperative. And now all this is changing for the worse. Unfortunately, Turkey has become a country where the grandmothers are more modern than their granddaughters. The book expresses my protest against this change."
Livaneli went on to elaborate upon what he calls "The Turkish renaissance of the 13th century," which gave rise to great mystics like Jalaluddin Rumi, as well as religious movements that emerged in Anatolia and revolved around the precepts of tolerance and nonviolence. Lately, he told me, he has been lecturing in the United States about Hajji Baktash and the Baktashi sect in Anatolia; they adhere to a doctrine of nonviolence that has proven itself so well that the police in the region where they live have practically nothing to do and closed down the local jail.
And then, I don't know why, we started talking about the writer Yashar Kemal. Maybe because I had asked Livaneli about writers who had influenced his writing and he had insisted that no Turkish writer had had any influence on him. Or maybe as a provocation on my part, to probe his attitude toward Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk having won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.
In Turkish literary circles, a prevailing view was that the prize should have gone to the 85-year-old Kemal, the dean of Turkish writers, a well known freedom fighter and the country's greatest novelist. Or maybe I brought up Kemal because my mother was once a close friend of Thilda Serrero, Kemal's wife. Serrero, who died in 2001, a few years before my mother, came from a Sephardi Jewish family in Istanbul, just like my mother. And while my mother studied medicine at the University of Istanbul, Serrero studied translation and dedicated her life to spreading Kemal's reputation around the world.
Upon hearing the name, Livaneli cried: "Yashar Kemal has been my best friend for 40 years! We speak on the phone every day and meet once a week." And right then he dialed his number on his cell phone. I heard his voice. Livaneli told him that he was sitting with the son of Ren Farhi, and Kemal clearly remembered the woman who had left Turkey and gone to be a doctor on a kibbutz in the desert. After all, she and Serrero were very much alike - two strong women with ironclad principles.
Like Kemal and Serrero, in his youth Livaneli paid a heavy price for his views. He was sent to prison under the military regime in the 1970s ("I wasn't a Communist. They jailed just about everyone who could read and write"). After about a year, he somehow managed to escape and, using a fake passport, crossed the Turkish border and eventually obtained political asylum in Sweden. In Sweden, he studied music, which he used as a tool for change. Album after album, he protested and called on others to join in.
"And then I became a Member of Parliament. I don't belong to any party. I came to fight for human rights in Turkey. I'm trying with my individual might to get the famous article of the penal code, Article 301, revoked. That's the article that makes it a crime to insult ?Turkishness.' Revoking this article is critical to advancing freedom of expression."
The types of passports Livaneli has held over the course of his life tell the whole story, he says: In his youth, he fled from Turkey with a fake passport in the name of Mehmet Ali. In Sweden he held a refugee passport. And then for the first time, he got a regular Turkish passport. He was eventually selected as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador in Turkey. At the same time, as a Turkish MP, he is entitled to a red diplomatic passport. Not what you would expect for someone who began as a prisoner in a Turkish jail.
In "Bliss," there's a scene where Irfan, the intellectual, recalls with disgust all the leftist demonstrations he took part in as a youth. "It's none of your business, idiot!" he says to himself. "Just because you were born in this part of the world and in this time doesn't mean that you have to take this on yourself - Quit it, for God's sake! That's enough of this nonsense." The scene ends with Irfan tossing away all the newspapers he is holding, opening a bottle of beer and getting drunk. I asked Livaneli if the Irfan character is a reflection of himself to some extent.
Livaneli: "It's interesting that some critics in Turkey also claimed that I am essentially this Professor Irfan. That's wrong. If there is anyone in the novel who's me, it's Meryem, the girl who is raped. The big victim. Like her I was always in the opposition. They put me in jail, and to me that's a kind of rape. And like Meryem I suffered from discrimination. Today I'm a famous and respected person, but I haven't forgotten how I suffered for not following the herd."
While reading "Bliss," you feel right away that it was written by a musician. Livaneli misses no opportunity in the flow of the plot to subtly comment upon or explain things about music and poetry. For the most part, this takes the form of thoughts in Professor Irfan's mind. For example: The night he gets drunk on beer after deciding to throw out the newspapers and not read them anymore, Irfan begins musing about Greek rebetiko music and its great composers - Markos Vamvakaris, Tsitsanis.
"To my mind, music is identified with suffering and with tolerance," explains Livaneli. "This mysterious and intoxicated and searing rebetiko music was created by the Anatolian Greeks who were forced to emigrate to Greece from the Aegean coast of Turkey. In Greece, they were still considered foreigners and most of them continued to live on society's margins. Out of their deep feeling of alienation came this Greek blues music called rebetiko, which is actually Turkish music. When I performed in concerts with Mikis Theodorakis and with Yorgos Dalaras and with Maria Farantouri, relations between the two nations were still very tense. Through the music, people began to get to know one another, they came to see how much alike they really were. That all of us, Turks and Greeks, are just human beings. Things began to move in the direction of reconciliation. When the massive earthquake struck in 1999, Greeks came to our aid in admirable fashion."
Doesn't it anger you that Turkey is portrayed in the world in such a distorted way? That Turks, in Europe, are equated with ignorance and religious intolerance?
"Turkey is the big secret of the West. And there are endless cliches about it. One reason for this negative image was the Turkish immigrants in Europe. Who are these immigrants? They were people from the countryside, part-nomads who lived in tribal frameworks, who suddenly found themselves in Dusseldorf. Among all those millions, not a single intellectual."
Still, today there is an entire culture of German-speaking Turks, and they have young directors and writers who are gaining recognition in Germany and elsewhere.
"These are already the third generation of the immigrants. Their command of the Turkish language is poor, or almost nonexistent. And they harp on the same single tune over and over: identity and integration. With all due respect, problems of identity are not sufficient to form a work of art. The films by the German Turks, the books by the German Turks - they all do one thing: tell the Germans about their personal attempt to integrate into German society as the descendants of immigrants from Turkey."
And if you were an immigrant from Turkey, would you be able to write somewhere else?
"I've received many invitations to come write in other countries. The problem is that in order to write, I have to hear my mother tongue around me. I come from a tribe that came here from Central Asia and I feel like we've stayed a tribe. Sort of like the Jews and the Russians, we need to be surrounded by our community. And along with that, I'm a tough critic of Turkey, because I want to see it become more civilized, more open. When you get right down to it, I'm a patriot. Yes, like the poet Nizam Hikmet, who called himself a Turkish patriot. And the regime put him in prison and exiled him and ruined his life."
In "Bliss," there are continuous conflicts of this sort, between the need to be a patriot in accordance with one's inner conscience and the need to do what the state tells you to do. One of the main characters, Jamal, a rural villager, serves in the army as a simple soldier in eastern Turkey. His unit is sent on reprisal actions in the areas controlled by the Kurdish rebels. The acts of savagery and killing are mutual. He becomes indifferent to human suffering. I almost felt like I was reading a book about an IDF soldier's service in the territories during the intifada. And when the professor, Irfan, complains, "What did I do to be born in such a land?" - again I felt like I was reading a book about an Israeli leftist, one of those who had despaired of the left after the intifada. And to a much greater degree than Livaneli imagines, "Bliss" could well have been an Israeli book, perhaps a Middle Eastern book.
There was plenty more I could have asked about, plenty more to discuss. But in back, on the couch in his office at the newspaper, two journalists from Denmark were already waiting for the next interview. The last, unavoidable, question was about the Armenians. In the book I found more than a few allusions to that tragedy. In her most trying moments, Meryem, the girl who supposedly stained the family honor by being raped, thinks of the innocent victims who came before her. These are the Armenians - who, according to the legend about them in these eastern provinces, all just miraculously ascended to heaven one day.
Livaneli: "The Armenians are a sensitive issue. I've written a number of articles in the paper calling for a dialogue with them. Armenians wrote the most beautiful Turkish poems. Armenian architects built the most beautiful mosques and palaces in Istanbul. We have a common border with Armenia, and 70,000 illegal workers from Armenia currently live in Turkey."
Was there or wasn't there a genocide, in your view?
"Yes, there was. But most Turks don't believe that anything happened. When the Turkish Republic came into being, there was a desire to silence and to erase. Including the traumas that the Turks experienced in World War I. You know, five million Turks were killed in that war. People imposed silence on themselves and imagined that thus they could start a new page. For example, for many years, no one told me that in World War I, Russian soldiers killed my relatives who had remained in eastern Turkey. The debate about the Armenian tragedy is part of a more general discussion that Turks need to have in order to face reality with eyes open. And the discussion about this is a lot more important than the external pressure exerted on Turkey to accept its responsibility for the Armenian tragedy."
Later that evening, I returned to Istiqlal Street. I sat down at the venerable and dimly lit Marquis Cafe, whose interior is decorated with art nouveau-style tiles depicting the seasons of the year as melancholy maidens clutching flowers. Once upon a time, the cafe was under Armenian ownership. During World War II, it was the cafe that served the representatives of Nazi Germany who were stationed in Istanbul, and so it was boycotted by Jews, even long after the war ended.
All of a sudden, I heard some cries outside coming from a loudspeaker. I went out and saw that the Association against Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, with activists from all the parties, had set up a stand on a street corner and was collecting signatures on its petition.
A young man came up to me and suggested that I buy a book that explains their position. We argued for a little while. He failed to persuade me and the book he wanted me to buy aroused a feeling of repulsion. As a last resort, he tried to convince me this way: "We have the same problem. You Israelis, too, don't want to be pressured to recognize the Palestinians' right of return."