Turkey May Be Going Through Hard Times, but It Remains a Powerhouse of Poetry

Despite the political upheaval and suppression of intellectuals, the country's literary scene flourishes. A conversation with the courageous poet Efe Duyan.

Turkish national flags waving during a pro-democracy demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, July 24, 2016.
Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

Sometimes in a climate of oppression lovely flowers of poetry flourish. In that sense, today’s Turkey is a powerhouse of excellent writers who compose strong poetry, political in its own way, protest poetry, which also finds a path to the rest of the world. I interviewed one of them last week. His name is Efe Duyan, a courageous poet.

During my last visit to Istanbul I came across one of Duyan’s poems in a literary magazine. He is a poet who forces the reader to stop being indifferent. The name of the poem is “The Forgettable Death of Engin Ceber,” and it speaks in simple and quasi-reporting language about the horrific case of human rights activist Ceber, who was tortured and killed in 2008 while in police custody, in Istanbul.

Duyan came to Israel to participate in the Sha’ar International Poetry Festival, which took place in Mitzpeh Ramon from December 15 to 17. He is an architect and a lecturer on architecture at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul, the Turkish equivalent of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

In his country Duyan is also known for his comprehensive study of the poetry of Nazim Hikmet, a communist writer who was imprisoned in Turkey several times, expelled to the Soviet Union and died in exile in Moscow. His works were banned in Turkey until the 1980s.

I asked Duyan, in English, about the current political situation in his country and about his own life in light of that situation. After the failed coup attempt on July 15, he and many other intellectuals and academics were prohibited from leaving the country for several months. Duyan was forced to cancel his participation in poetry events in Budapest and Wales to which he was invited this past summer.

“Because I am working in the university and in the government's eye – we were all suspects," he said. "But in general, we try to resist undemocratic conditions ... We, all critical intellectuals, have this slight fear of being arrested or being fired."

I asked about the subject of his research, Nazim Hikmet, who was also the only Turkish poet with whom we in Israel were familiar in the 1950s and the 1960s – thanks to Sifriat Hapoalim, which published a selection of his poems translated by T. Carmi. Hikmet, who was then living far from his homeland in exile in Moscow, where he died in the early 1960s, wrote a special afterword to that Hebrew edition, in which he expressed his happiness at the fact that his poems would be published in the language of the Israeli people.

Duyan confirmed that Hikmet is still the most widely read poet in Turkey, and added, "I admire his belief in a beautiful future, human beings, equality and freedom. He suffered a great deal, years in prison and in exile. He is still a symbol in political terms.”

And in terms of poetry?

“I can easily say that he is one of the outstanding poets of the last century in the world. His way of plain communication is outstanding. And how he put love and revolution as one and the same thing is also inspiring."

The Turkish poetry scene is so rich and versatile but very much unknown outside Turkey.

“Turkish language is hard to translate from. It doesn’t have many 'relatives' in terms of grammar and word treasures. On one hand, we neither belong to Western culture nor Eastern culture. Maybe a little bit like Israel. This makes it difficult to be translated abroad. But, on the other hand, it provides us a unique point of view, which is why Turkish poetry is so strong,” Duyan explained.

I returned to the subject of politics, asking whether poetry must be political, or whether it is better to stay away from politics.

Duyan: “I believe everything is political. Poetry is political. We only should admit this. But, we may never forget poetry has very different means than politics. [With] politics you need urgent answers, practical solutions. Good poetry, and good political poetry, asks you questions, gives you the freedom to look for your own truth."

Duyan’s family has lived in Istanbul for generations. I told him that my family also lived in that city for generations. As an architect he is upset about what is happening to the city.

“Istanbul is magical city, 3,000 years old. A crossroads between many civilizations. But outside of the center is horrifying – ugly, crowded, terrible transportation and few cultural or social opportunities. And it is us who [have] done this to Istanbul, the government that has been elected by the people living in Istanbul. That is also sad. But history is long," he added. "I would never give up hope on anything."

One of Duyan’s poems is entitled, “We’re Strangers Here, Dear Sir.” It has a punch-line that is a fitting end to this article: “There is also something good in that I am a stranger in this shitty world of ours.”