CHRIS KUTSCHERA 30 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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TURKEY: Yachar Kemal: A Man's Life is more valuable...

than the survival of a country

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Yachar Kemal at homeA few months after the death of his wife Thilda, with whom he lived for 50 years, Yachar Kemal is a man overwhelmed by grief. His feelings are understandable: few wives play such an important role in the life of a writer.

The daughter of Sultan Abdul Hamid’s Jewish doctor, Thilda spoke perfect English and French and was Yachar Kemal’s eyes and ears on the world. She kept him informed of the new literary publications, translated his books and protected him from intruders. But, despite his sadness and the physical drawbaks of his 80 years, Yachar Kemal is remarkably alert and continues his writing in the big sitting room and office that he shared with Thilda.  Yachar Kemal is working on the second volume of a trilogy and remains an inexhaustible story-teller. Sill concerned by current affairs -- currently the hunger-strike of more than 200 prisoners and their relatives over the infamous incarceration of political prisoners in F-type (high security) prisons -- Yachar Kemal continuously mulls over his past. He is frequently thinking through the memoirs he will write when his trilogy is complete -- his “Letters to Thilda”.

An inexhaustible story-teller

Yachar Kemal has not stopped fighting, in one way or another, since he was 17, when his meeting with the brothers Abidine and Arif Dino “opened his eyes on the world” and put him on the track which resulted in him becoming a member of the central committee of the Turkish Communist Party.

Yachar kemal near Thilda' deskHe has worked as a journalist, among many other things, earning himself considerable political notoriety through his articles. At 22, he was working for a gas company, when he got to know a group of Turkish workers who had lived in Germany and been influenced by the ideas of Spartacus. He personnally witnessed their struggle to organise one of the first railways worker’s strikes in Turkey and watched the execution of one of their leaders in 1927, when things went wrong.

Yachar Kemal’s published books found no favour with the Turkish authorities. “I did many jobs, and everywhere I went, the government did everything possible to have me dismissed, he recalls. It was about this time that he wrote his famous article, “The Wolf with the Bells”, which was published in the prestigious “New French Review” (NRF). He explains the basis of his theme: “Exasperated by the wolves, which intrude in the sheepfolds of Anatolian villages and slaughter many sheep, he peasants set traps. When they catch a wolf, rather than killing it outright, they fix a collar with bells around its neck and release the animal back in the wild. Of course, the wolf is doomed to die because it can no longer approach its prey without being  heard... Turkish writer are treated like that”, he concludes.

At least 114 writers condemned to prison

Yachar Kemal calculates that the Turkish authorities have condemned at least 114 writers to prison for varying lengths of time. He, too, has spent three or four terms behind bars, but luckily, for fairly brief periods of only three or four months.

Portrait of Yachar kemalHowever, on one of these occasions, he was subjected to physical torture. “It was in 1950”, he recalls. “For seven years I did not tell anybody, because I was ashamed. I didn’t think one man could behave like that to another. But one day, a Communist Party leader started talking about torture, and I began to open up about my own experience”.

“For 48 hours, after binding my legs to the back of a  chair, they hit the soles of my feet. The pain was terrible. They struck me almost continuously, especially at night, with one policeman taking over when his colleague was tired. I resisted but it did no good. Later, whern they took me to court, my mother was there. I did not want her to see how much I was suffering. But the judge must have seen it because he said to me: “Sit down, my son”... Three months later I was free”.

From 1951 to 1963, Yachar Kemal was employed as a journalist at “Jumhuriyet”. But even before he worked as a reporter, he had started writing short stories and was working on his book “Mehmet”. Since 1963, he has lived on the proceeds of his books and has become one of  Turkey’s most highly-regarded wordsmiths. His books have been published in a multitude of languages and his name mentioned several times in connection with the Nobel Prize for litterature. But, despite his success, Yachar Kemal is somewhat bitter, believing “he is not taken seriously anymore”.

Howeve, it is clear the Turkish authorities consider this one-time rebel is still a man with considerable political influence. Last year, the minister of justice asked him, and his friends the writers Orhan Pamuk and Zulfi Livaneli, to visit the prisoners who were on hunger-strike and help find a solution tto the crisis, as they had done successfully in similar circumstances in 1996. So Yachar Kemal went to the prisons where he visited the bedsides of the hunger-strikers and spoke to their representatives, but to no avail.

The mediators asked the prisoners to suspend their hunger-strike, telling them that in exchange for their co-operation, the authorities were prepared to offer a series of attractive inducements. Unconvinced, the prisoners rejected the offer. Yachar Kemal recalls: “The prisoners told us: “We cannot believe the authorities, even if they promise something”......

I wondered what Yachar Kemal felt might explain the apparent indifference of the Turkish public to this current drama, which has already claimed several dozen lives.

“At the beginning, explains Yachar Kemal, the press published stories about it. But the government issued orders, and it is now forbidden to give the topic any prominence in the newspapers. Obviously, if the press does not provide the information... The people are not informed”.

“I cannot explain to myself why this time the press and the public are not more involved in the crisis. In 1996, dozens of journalists came from Europe to interview me; this time, even those journalists I know personnally, have not called me. In 1996, the whole of Turkey, not only the Left, was for mediation, for a humanitarian solution. This time also, until we tried to mediate, all opinion was against the incarceration of the prisoners in F-type (high security) jails. But after the failure of our mission, the matter “cooled down”.

Yachar Kemal does not mention it, but the failure of mediation is partly due to the intransigence of Dursun Karatas, the DHKP-C leader who lives as a refugee in western Europe. Yachar Kemal will only say that after his first mediation, in 1996, he received death threats from both the Left and the Right and, as a result, went to live in exile, in Sweden, for a few months.

And the distance which prevails between the public opinion and the Left? “Even with me, there has been a distancing”, claims Yachar Kemal, who  immediately adds: “I will never be with a terrorist; everybody in Turkey knows. I am against the death of people... I am a bit of an extremist, but I would prefer that the country be entirely  dislocated rather than see people dying. The life of a man is more valuable than the survival of a country. In 1996, the press and public opinion were sensitised, not because the people who were dying were Leftist but because they were human beings”.

Yachar Kemal cannot foresee the end of this current hunger-strike dilemma, which looks like claiming many more victims. He believe his words no longer carry the power they once did: “Because I no longer have anywhere to write, I no longer have any influence”. Later, he produces the front page of the newspaper “Hurriyet”, which published an interview with him under the headline: “Since the death of Thilda, Yachar Kemal has not written a single line”. Why did he not seize the opportunity of the Hurriyet interview to take a political stand; to say what he thought about the deaths of the hunger-strikers? He shrugs: “I did not say anything on this matter because it is useless”.

In fact, like many other Turkish intellectuals, Yachar Kemal is kept silent by the threat of a prison sentence if he defies the State. After publishing an article on the Kurdish question in the German magazine “Der Spiegel”, he was given a suspended sentence of 20 months in jail. Should he commit a new “offence” within five years, he will automatically be sent to prison.

A Kurdish identity

Yachar Kemal makes no attempt to deny his Kurdish identity: “Since I came to Istanbul in 1951, I have always said I was of Kurdish origin, and that I had been sentenced to jail for being a communist. Later on, in interviews, I continued to say the same thing. I was one of the first writers to claim his Kurdish heritage. In 1997, I was questioned on this matter in Germany. I confirmed I am a writer writing in the Turkish language. I have never written a line in Kurdish, but I am Kurd. In many of my books, the heroes carry Kurdish names or nicknames, like Mehmet the Kurd.

“I never repudiated my Kurdish identity, part of my family comes from the Caucasus; they are Turkmen who fought against the (Russian) Tsar and later came as refugees to Turkey, first to Bursa, then to Van, where one of my grandfathers married the daughter of a Kurdish bey. As if that were not enough, there is also some Assyrian blood in my family, but all of Anatolia is like that. My advantage is that although many people in Anatolia don’t know the Kurdish language, I know it and speak it. But I cannot read and write it. When the writer Mehmet Uzun read me his book written in Kurdish, I understood everything, but I could not have read it for myself”.

Speaking of his current work in progress, Yachar Kemal describes a trilogy on the population exchange that followed the carving out of the Ottoman Empire, after World War I, when one and a half million Greeks were forced to leave Turkey, while half a million Muslims entered the country from the Balkans. “ What is scandalous”, claims an indignant Yachar Kemal, “is that this forced exile, among the most important in history, was approved by all in Europe; yet those people were never asked if they wanted to leave and abandon their land. To separate somebody from the land where he or she was born, it is like pulling out his or her heart”.

In the first volume, “A story of an island”, Yachar Kemal tells the story of the departure of the Christians who lived on an island of the Euphrates. The second volume of the trilogy, almost completed, tells of the arrival of the new Muslim inhabitants to the island. The third volume involves the desertification of the island.

When the final volume is complete, then, and only then, Yachar Kemal will start writing his memoirs, his “Letters to Thilda” which he will write in the office he shared with his wife of more than 50 years, before her death last year, working in pencil, as he has since he began his life’s work in his 20’s.

(The Middle East magazine, March 2002; Al Wasat, 10 December 2.001)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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