Yashar, My Hero
Joobin Bekhrad is the Founder and Editor of REORIENT, as well as the Co-Founder of artclvb, an online platform for contemporary Middle Eastern art. He is also the author of a new translation of Omar Khayyam’s poems from Persian into English.
… Beyond this smooth plowed land the scrub of the Chukurova begins. Thickly covered with a tangle of brushwood, reeds, blackberry brambles, wild vines, and rushes, its deep green expanse seems boundless, wilder and darker than a forest …
These were some of the first lines of Yashar Kemal’s I’d ever read, and I knew, somewhat instinctively, that they would be far from the last. I wasn’t a Turkish schoolboy trudging through de rigeur reading, but rather a bored, daydreaming university student in Toronto caught between the dead of winter and the doldrums of a third semester. I had recently devoured a dog-eared English translation of The Book of Dede Korkut – which I’d gotten my hands on with not little difficulty – and was ravenous for more tales about minstrels, bandits, chivalry, and the steppe. Together with my obscure Persian romances and folk tales, Caucasian legends, Zoroastrian texts, and desert travelogues, I had wrought a haven of sorts for myself in humdrum suburbia. Before one book was finished, I’d be eagerly seeking out the next; I never wanted to leave that fantastic realm, to come back down from the clouds to a less-than-romantic reality. Come to think of it, I never have, really. Little did I know that one bleak, snowy February’s day, right before three agonising hours of prattle to be washed down with bland, black coffee, I’d be given the keys not to that magical realm, but a universe unto itself. With great expectations and the fervour of a famished waif, I tore open a little brown parcel I found waiting for me in the icy mailbox at the end of my street, and extended a hand to wise old Mr. Kemal, who took me down to the burning fields of the thistle-strewn Chukurova. And so it all began …
I’ve never had many heroes in life that breathed; most of them have long discarded their earthly corpuses, and their visages are at best the product of artistic interpretation. For life lessons and the inspiration to make an old electric guitar howl and scream, I’ve looked up to Keith Richards and Rachid Taha, and for the blueprint for the Iranian I’ve always aspired to be, Dr. Ehsan Yarshater. To write, read, dream, and love, I’ve always taken my cues from Mr. Kemal. As I sit writing this eulogy, I’m overlooked by scores of his books on my shelf. Each one corresponds to a particular episode in my life I can vividly recall, and collectively, line by line and word by word, they’ve come to profoundly influence not only my approach towards writing, but also my worldview, my philosophies, and my entire being.
It all began on that wintry afternoon with Memed, My Hawk, the first novel in the Ince Memed tetralogy, and perhaps Yashar Kemal’s best-known work. When it comes to novels, I’m notoriously difficult to please, and I’ve divided my collection into two categories: ones I still remember, and those I’ll probably forget I ever owned five years down the line. Needless to say, Kemal’s proudly inhabit the top shelves of the former. When I read the first lines of Memed, the first thing that struck me was not only the beauty of Kemal’s descriptions, but also the lyrical air of his writing. From cover to cover, it read like poetry, and I’ve always been as much indebted to Kemal as I have been to his late wife, Thilda, who with beauty and uncanny precision, translated all the English editions of his novels. I identified with Memed, that skinny village boy, shared in his trials and triumphs, and wanted to ride with him until the end – the end of the Chukurova, the end of the plains of southern Turkey by the Mediterranean, the end of time itself. Memed’s origins were a mystery, and I often fancied that he might have, like Mr. Kemal himself, been a Kurd; that would have made us kin. And who better to have as kin than the hero of the oppressed, the king of bandits, the saviour of the steppe, Slim Memed?
Through Memed – as well as the myriad other characters that populated his novels – Kemal, to paraphrase James Baldwin, gave a voice to a people on the margins of society, alone and without agency both at home, as well as abroad. Like the sublime R.K. Narayan, who with brilliance moulded the world of Malgudi that provided the setting to all his novels, almost all of Yashar Kemal’s works were situated in either the Chukurova, or at least rural Anatolia. However, unlike Narayan’s fictional Malgudi, the Chukurova was an actual place. Kemal himself was born and raised there, a fact that found its way onto the dust jacket of every one of his books. The Chukurova of Kemal’s pages was a sultry, bewitching land brimming with Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Circassians, and other neighbouring peoples, who, although found themselves as part of a progressive and ‘modern’ Turkish Republic in 1923 (courtesy the ‘blue-eyed devil’, as one Kemal called the other, through a character), still very much belonged to the past. Airplanes would occasionally fly overhead the fields, and beys drive into villages in slick, black Benzes, but Kemal’s characters were barely literate, if at all, and knew little about life outside the village. Of what concern was the world beyond to them when there was fresh cotton to be picked, debts to be repaid, ağas to be appeased, and survival to be fought for with outstretched hands?
For subject matter, Kemal didn’t have to look too far; the Chukurova was a subject in itself. Through honeyed prose and bewildering simplicity, Kemal described to me the plight of villagers as they picked bolls of cotton under the beating sun, and how they’d later drink raki and dance the halay; the lay of lovers within thickets of grass, far from watching eyes; the passion and fear of thrusting a rusty blade through the back of a cruel muhtar, and the cry of a minstrel recounting heroic exploits with a saz. And all without the slightest trace of artifice. You could tell Kemal had been through it all; this was stuff you simply couldn’t make up. Kemal knew the taste and feel of the black Chukurova soil and the wind from the Taurus mountains, and the smell of burning thistles. He had made fresh yufka bread with his bare hands, the same ones he used to pick cotton. He’d seen his adopted brother stab his father to death, and lost an eye in the same incident. He was the Chukurova personified: a living, breathing repository of tales, traditions, rituals, myths, legends, and magic – and I felt it in my bones.
As with any prolific author, there were certain elements that characterised Kemal’s writing, and which, in a sense, served as his ‘signature’. Kemal, unlike Orhan Pamuk – upon whom Kemal’s longstanding title of ‘Turkey’s greatest living author’ was seemingly conferred by international critics – grew up far away from the hubbub and clamour of Istanbul in southern Turkey, and it was only with great difficulty that he was able to attend university in the big city; and, in contrast to Pamuk, Kemal was of a people whose very existence was denied by the Turkish Republic, and who were simply dismissed as ‘mountain Turks’. In an ethnic sense, as well as from the perspective of social status, Kemal was born and raised on the fringes of society (even his wife, Thilda, wasn’t an ethnic Turk, but a Jew), and therefore, it should come as no surprise that the bulk of his novels championed the underprivileged, those stripped of agency, the underdog. From the legendary Slim Memed, a sort of modern Koroğlu figure who rebelled against the oppressive Abdi Ağa, to tiny Memidik who dreamed of killing the dastardly Muhtar Sefer in the Wind from the Plain trilogy, and Halil Zalimoğlu, who finally burned down his ağa’s house in Salman the Solitary, the downtrodden were often the focus of Kemal’s literature. His books are also marked by his vivid, lengthy descriptions of the seemingly ordinary, to which he would impart a tinge of magic. By the end of one of his novels, I’d know every nook and cranny of the Anavarza crags, and would enjoy a whole new vocabulary pertaining to flora and fauna. In the middle of a scene, Kemal would stop to explain, in lucid prose, to his dear reader the way a particular flower blossomed, the difference between cotton collected before and after a downpour, the process of baking bread, the slope of a mountain. For some, such details may seem as unnecessary asides that only serve to lengthen a literary work; for me, they were the very essence of Kemal’s writing, the raison d’être of his books. One could even go so far as to say that everything else – plot, character, and the like – came afterwards.
Where character was concerned, perhaps Kemal’s most profound contribution was the way in which he highlighted the power – and danger – of myths, and the role they played in his culture. Life was difficult in Kemal’s Anatolia; simply surviving was the ultimate trial. As such, his characters needed and thrived on hope, and sought it wherever they could. In the process, a skinny village lad, after a few deeds, was transformed through hearsay into a brazen hero of epic proportions, and a simple villager into a saint who would not be referred to as Uncle Tashbash, but rather Our Lord Tashbash, he among the ranks of the Forty Holy Men. The transformations were preposterous, ridiculous, and comical, even – but they were incredibly plausible. Kemal’s characters believed in the heroes and monsters they themselves created; they feared them, worshipped them, would die for them, and killed for them. These days, I often wonder what’s being said about Kemal in the Turkish media. I haven’t read any obituaries yet; his work, and the experiences I’ve had with it have made me more familiar with the man than any article ever will. It would indeed be ironic if Kemal were to turn into the very sort of hero he so feared in his writings. ‘He wrote in his mother’s womb’, one might be saying now; ‘He traded one eye for a magic pen’; ‘He was seen the other night in the Chukurova, a halo of fire blazing about his countenance …’
And, of course, there was Kemal’s writing style. Never was there an unnecessary sentence, nor was a word ever heedlessly tossed into his cauldron. Passages were terse where they needed to be, and drawn out as necessary. True, Kemal often sent me running to my dictionary; but it was never to look up some obfuscating, obsolete term that only wriggled its way into academic exegeses. Reading Kemal was an education in every aspect, and I was only too happy to sink my hands into the warm earth of the Chukurova and rise with handfuls of flowery words. If you ask me who my influences are with respect to the guitar, I’ll be quick to answer: Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Chuck Berry, Johnny Thunders. On the contrary, I’ve never really thought about my literary influences. Hanif Kureishi’s early characters fascinated me, and Iraj Pezeshkzad’s ability to take a snapshot of an era and an entire culture and transform that into a novel continues to astound me. Where actual writing is concerned, however, I’ve always looked to Mr. Kemal. Prose writing is often considered passé these days, with many readers and novelists instead fixated on driving plots, unexpected twists, and attention grabbing elements. Sentences have become shorter and vocabularies simplified, and ‘conventions’ are being ditched in favour of ‘modern’ approaches to writing. Like his own characters, Kemal was from a world of ages past – a reality that well manifested itself in his writing. He was a romantic, a dreamer, a poet, and, above all a storyteller; and, to tell the tale of the Chukurova, Kemal chose to do so in the way he knew best, and maybe the only way that would ever really do: as a spellbound bard.
Whenever reading Kemal’s books, I always had the feeling that he was the last of his kind. No authors today speak to me as he did, as writers like R.K. Narayan did. They write stories, but aren’t storytellers. They win prizes, but don’t move me. Their careers are based on a quest for the next compelling subject, the next idea, the next character. People have often told me that many of my pieces don’t have clear beginnings or ends; I take it as a compliment. I’ve always looked up to giants like Kemal, for whom the ‘destination’ was never the issue at hand; the feelings were, the emotions, the ambience, the experience. Novels necessitate plots, but writers like Kemal showed they don’t have to be complicated, or even the focus of a work. Yashar Kemal reminded me of the beauty – and importance – of language and storytelling, and of the significance of authenticity. I’ll never write a novel about an Anatolian or Iranian village, because I’ve never lived in one; and if I ever do visit one, the most I can hope for is a superficial experience. Kemal taught me that you can best write about what you know. Sure, I could always write about unfamiliar subjects, and what I write might even be well-received; but it would never be half as good. And by good, I mean real.
* * *
A week ago, I was in my Toronto apartment finishing the last lines of The Undying Grass, the final installment in the Wind from the Plain trilogy. I don’t know why I’d put off reading the book for so long. Our Lord Tashbash had finally passed away, Memidik had done away with Muhtar Sefer for good, and the proud eagle, once humiliated by the village children, soared above the Chukurova cotton fields with outstretched wings:
The great eagle was flying off towards the distant mountains. Three times he wheeled round and round at the far end of the Chukurova land. Then he glided off towards Mount Aladag.
That is, perhaps, how I’ll always remember Mr. Kemal – as a proud, resilient bird flying high above the blessed Chukuorva. When I closed the book, I caressed its cover with my cracked, dry hands, and kissed it, as I often do with books that have touched me. The next morning, shortly after I awoke, I read the news to find out Mr. Kemal had passed away the previous day. Our story ended just as it began: on a cold, mid-winter’s day in February. Only I wasn’t a lost and bored university student, but a man transformed.
Thank you, Mr. Kemal, for the stories and the magic that will live on in me forever.