Category Archives: Political discussion

Muharrem Erbey

Muharrem ErbeyThe trial of human rights lawyer, writer and PEN Turkey member Muharrem Erbey is set to resume on 3 February 2014, after the trial against him and 80 other defendants descended into chaos during a 13 January 2014 hearing. PEN International is reiterating its calls for his immediate and unconditional release along with all others who are imprisoned solely for peacefully expressing their views. Read more by going to PEN International


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Filed under Censorship, Political discussion

Coming soon…

Turkish Poetry Today 2013From July 1 the debut issue of Turkish Poetry Today is in more than 100 online bookstores worldwide. Edited by George Messo, with Senol Bezci, Fahri Oz and T. Kenny Fountain. The 2013 issue includes poems by Bejan Matur, Zeynep Koylu, Necmi Zeka, Melih Cevdet Anday, Polat Onat, and Murathan Mungan, in translations by Ruth Christie, Mel Kenne, Sidney Wade, and more, all side-by-side with the Turkish originals. 150 pages of stunning, vital poetry.

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Filed under Art, Censorship, Gonca Özmen, ilhan Berk, Orhan Veli, Poetry of the Middle East, Political discussion, Turkish Poetry, World Literature

Bulent Journal: live and online

ilhan mimarogluThe first issue of a fabulous new online journal called Bulent, edited by Isobel Finkel & Thomas Roueché, and featuring rare interviews with contemporary Turkish film directors and composers, is live and kicking. Take a look here. In amongst these splendid pieces you’ll find a bunch of translations from my upcoming book Inferno by ilhan Berk.

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Filed under Art, ilhan Berk, Poetry of the Middle East, Political discussion, Turkish Poetry, World Literature

Oh Yeah Now That’s a Table

A man filled with life’s joy
Placed his keys on the table
Put down flowers in a copper bowl
Put down his milk, his eggs
Placed light coming from the window there
Sound of a bicycle, sound of a spinning wheel
He placed there the softness of weather and bread

On the table the man
Put things that occurred in his mind
Whatever he wanted to do in life
He placed it there
Who he loved, who he didn’t love

The man put them too on the table
Three times three equals nine
The man placed nine on the table
He was next to the window next to the sky
He reached out placed infinity on the table
For days he’d wanted to drink a beer
He put the pouring of beer onto the table
He put down his sleep his wakefulness
Placed there his fullness his hunger

Oh yeah now that’s a table
Never once complained about the load
Once or twice it shook then stopped
That man kept putting things on.


Edip Cansever
Translated by George Messo


Taken from Ikinci Yeni: The Turkish Avant-Garde (2009), edited & translated by George Messo.

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Filed under Censorship, Poetry of the Middle East, Political discussion, Turkish Poetry, World Literature

Edip Cansever Censored

Edip Cansever by Metin ElogluAccording to the Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet (Feb 13, 2013) two verses from Edip Cansever’s poem “Table” have been cut from the National Education Ministry’s high school poetry textbook. The offending verses have been axed because they contain the word “beer”. It’s the latest in a disturbing trend among the overseers of Turkey’s moral well-being. Previously Amin Malouf’s Samarkand was investigated for allegedly being “vulgar and insulting” to Islam. You can read the full story, in English, at this link: Hurriyet. And in the post above you can read my translation of “Table” by Edip Cansever, in full.

Also on the theme of censorship, Turkish Airlines’ inflight magazine Skylife was recently fined for censoring an article by the well-known writer Buket Uzuner. In her article about the district of Moda, Uzuner criticized the Istanbul Municipality for its ban on the sale of alcohol in the district. Uzuner’s criticism was cut from the June 2009 edition of Skylife without her permission. A court ruling in Uzuner’s favour ordered THY to cancel the June 2009 edition and republish the original article in full. See the Feb 23, 2013 edition of Hurriyet here.

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Filed under Censorship, Poetry of the Middle East, Political discussion, Turkish Poetry, Uncategorized, World Literature

A Voice Among The Ruins

Mahmoud Darwish was one of the Arab world’s most celebrated poets. For many he was the poetic voice of the Palestinian people, their spokesman and their witness.

When Darwish died in 2008, he left behind a body of work unsurpassed in beauty and scope. Yet much of the ignition behind his work had little to do with beauty, documenting, as it so often did, one political and humanitarian tragedy after another. His books are testaments to the deepest forms of human suffering. But they are more besides. What made Darwish such a towering presence in Arabic literature was his ability to transform carnage, to transfigure violence, to make the hell of his own private exile a matter of public concern.

Darwish’s peripatetic exile began in 1948 when he was forced from his home in Al Birwah, the village in which he was born, and fled with his family to Lebanon. They returned a year later only to find their home and village destroyed. “We lived again,” he wrote, “this time as refugees in our own country.” Darwish was to re-enact and relive the trauma of these early years throughout his poetic life:

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

His first book, Bird without Wings, was published when he was 19. Written in the 1960s, it was a decade in which Darwish was frequently imprisoned and lived repeatedly under house arrest. Dispossession and resistance form the core of his disturbing poetic world. It was followed by Leaves of Olive Trees (1964), Lover from Palestine (1966), and End of the Night (1967), the last, his response to the six-day war of June 1967. Darwish was already a member of the Israeli Communist Party and editor of its militant newspaper Al Ittihad. By 1971 he was in Cairo editing the paper Al Ahram and two years later he joined the PLO, a move that resulted in him being refused re-entry into Israel. And so began 26 years of exile.

Darwish’s early poetry bristled with anger at the outrage and injustices of Israeli military occupation and became a potent symbol of resistance. His reputation as a militant poet was one he often regretted. “I don’t decide to represent anything except myself,” he said. Over the next 40 years his poetry moved slowly but steadily away from the openly political and became increasingly introspective. Of his 20 or more books, relatively little poetry has made its way into English. Fady Joudah’s 2007 translation, The Butterfly’s Burden, the complete 3-book cycle of The Stranger’s Bed (1998), A State of Siege (2002), and Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done (2003), is the most recent addition and arguably the most generous.

Completed in Ramallah shortly after returning to his native Galilee, The Stranger’s Bed surprised and alienated many of Darwish’s readers. It was, unashamedly, a book of love, but as Joudah notes, ‘here he was singing about love as a private exile, not about exile as a public love.’ It’s a book of tender, subtle metaphysical lyrics, with roots in the centuries old tradition of Arabic love poetry:

In me, as in you, a land on the edge of land
populated with you or with your absence. I don’t know
the songs you sob, as I pass
through your fog. So let land be
what you gesture to… and what you do

Darwish was addressing a Palestine on the verge of statehood, and these were poems that appealed for healing of the self and for dialogue with ‘the other’ as necessary pre-requisites for state building:

And it is enough, to know my faraway self, that
you return to me the poem’s lightning when I split
into two within your body
I am yours as your hand is yours
so what’s my need for my tomorrow
after this journey?

But the journey toward that mystical union of selves and others, no less than the forging of a new Palestinian consciousness, was brutally curtailed in the violence of the second Intifada. Darwish, still living in Ramallah, witnessed those terrible events firsthand. The compressed lyrics of A State of Siege speak out of those dark days, from a ‘country on the verge of dawn.’ Twenty years earlier it was another city, Beirut, and another siege that exalted Darwish to his epic masterpiece Praise to the High Shadow (A Documentary Poem). The parallels were unmistakable.

The poems of Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done continued Darwish’s incessant struggle to continue poetry’s dialogue, to salvage for the exiled voice its right to avenge absence with song. In the book’s final poem, ‘The Kurd Has Only the Wind’, we are returned to his perennial meditations on language, identity and homeland:

…My identity is my language. I … and I.
I am my language. I’m the exile in my language.

With language you overcame identity,
I told the Kurd, with language you took revenge
on absence

Darwish spoke to us of a place in time, out of the timeless non-place of exile. His was, so often, a voice among the ruins. His courage reached beyond his own history and geography in art of perpetual transformation and renewal. ‘Tell me how you lived your dream in some place,’ he said, ‘and I’ll tell you who you are.’ It was Darwish’s great gift of telling that made his own nightmare liveable, and it was the indelible prints he left in the language that marked his place and told us who he was.

George Messo
First published in Turkish Book Review, No. 5, 2006.

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Filed under Poetry of the Middle East, Political discussion, World Literature

Top Reads 2011

As 2011 comes to a close what better way to mark it than through books. These are just a few of the memorable highs in a year overwhelming packed with lows.

İlhan Berk, Çiğnenmiş Gül. YKY, 2011. The unmistakable voice of İlhan Berk, as much alive as ever. [in Turkish]

Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, in a marvelous translation by Dick Davis. A spellbinding book of the pre-islamic Persian Kings. Penguin Books, 2007.

Evliyâ Çelebi’s Seyahatnâmesi, Book 2, Volume 1. Çelebi’s account of his journey to Trabzon in 1640 is one of the most important and compelling portraits we have of the city in Ottoman times. YKY, 2011. [in Turkish]

Evliya Çelebi, An Ottoman Traveller: Selection from the Book of Travels, trans. by Robert Dankoff & Sooyong Kim. Eland, 2010. Indisputably the most important single work of translation from Turkish to English for a decade. Long overdue, and not to be missed. The greatest travel writer of the Ottoman Empire, Çelebi has been described as a Turkish Pepys, a Muslim Montaigne and an Ottoman Herodotus. His interests range from architecture to natural history, through religion, politics, linguistics, music, science, food and the supernatural.

Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, trans. by E. R. A. Sewter. Penguin, 1966.

Pindar, The Complete Odes, trans. by Anthony Verity. Oxford, 2007.

Birhan Keskin, Soğuk Kazı. Metis, 2010. Keskin’s stunning, untranslatable eighth book. [in Turkish]

Turki Al Hamad, Shumaisi, trans. by Paul Starkey. Saqi, 2005. The second part of this Saudi novelist’s explosive coming-of-age trilogy. An extraordinary view into one of the world’s most secretive and hidden societies.

Asuman Suner, New Turkish Cinema: Belonging, Identity & Memory. I. B. Tauris, 2010. An interesting overview of the contemporary cinema scene in Turkey, notable for its treatment of Nuri Bilge Ceylan – the first significant assessment of his work so far in English – and for overlooking Semih Kaplanoğlu.

Andrew Brown, Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared. Granta, 2009.

Faruk Duman, Sencer ile Yusufçuk. Can, 2009. The fifth collection from a master of the Turkish short story. Is there anyone writing like Faruk Duman? What a shame you can’t read his work in English. [in Turkish]

Samuel Hearne, A Journey to the Northern Ocean. TouchWood, 2007. One of the greatest adventure narratives ever written, the story of Hearne’s three-year trek to seek a trade route across the Canadian Barrens in the Northwest Territories. First published in 1795.

Memet Can Doğan, Attar. YKY, 2009. The fifth collection from this fascinating young Turkish poet. [in Turkish]

David Thompson, The Travels, 1850 Version. Edited by William E. Moreau. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009. The book jacket says it all in describing Thompson’s Travels as “one of the finest early expressions of the Canadian experience. The work is not only an account of a remarkable life in the fur trade but an extended meditation on the land and Native peoples of western North America.” A mesmerizing read from cover to cover.

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Filed under ilhan Berk, Poetry of the Middle East, Political discussion, Travels, Turkish Poetry, Turkish Short Story