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Turkey: A History of Banning Poetry and Targeting Poets

Special for the Armenian Weekly

A poem written by Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the opposition Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was recently banned by the prosecutor’s office in the city of Mardin because it contained “terrorist propaganda.”

The Turkish government’s hostility to poems that challenge its official ideology is a long-held tradition in Turkey.

Police in Mardin’s northern Dargeçit district raided the local HDP headquarters and tore down a photograph of Demirtaş as well as a banner containing his poem “Bulaşıcı Cesaret” (Contagious Courage), he penned in Turkish. According to a report by the local Kurdish news agency Dihaber, the police who briefly arrested and interrogated HDP’s Dargeçit co-head Yasin Turan told him the poem was now banned.

The Turkish government’s hostility to poems that challenge its official ideology is a long-held tradition in Turkey.

Selahattin Demirtaş

The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 and governed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) until the first free national elections were held in 1950, as a result of which the Democrat Party (DP) came into power. Although both parties were rivals, they had a lot in common, such as their intolerance of dissent and free exchange of ideas.

When the issue of jailed or exiled poets in Turkey is discussed, one of the first that comes to one’s mind is Nazım Hikmet (born 1902, Salonika, Ottoman Empire [now Thessaloníki, Greece]—died 1963, Moscow), who was one of the most influential figures in 20th century Turkish literature.

However, the history of Turkey is filled with many examples of banning poems, removing poetry books from the marketplace, and jailing poets. Here is a list of some of the poets from Turkey who were prosecuted and persecuted for their literary work.

Nazım Hikmet

In 1946, Nedim Veysel İlkin, the then director of the press, submitted a petition to the council of ministers which had an interesting demand: the banning of the poetry book titled Rüzgarlarım Konuşuyor (My Winds Speak) by the poet, actor, and novelist, Cahit Irgat (1915-1971).

The poem, after which the book is named, was about the destruction caused by WWII. It read, in part:

I was a prisoner of war
I loved the clouds, I loved freedom.
I loved human beings, I loved life.
One night, they emptied the clouds from my eyes.
I have eyes, I can see
The land is filled with dead bodies
Naked, half naked
The dead embrace one another
The dead – civilians, troops, the elderly
The dead smell abundantly
of hatred.
And I have a tongue, I express it:
Maybe they will take my jowl
And my eyes
Because I wanted to live and I wanted freedom.
Or maybe one morning
Right before the dawn
My statue will be erected
At the gallows.

“The collection Rüzgarlarım Konuşuyor occasioned Irgat’s arrest and imprisonment for three months in 1947,” writes Louis Mitler in his book Contemporary Turkish Writers: A Critical Bio-bibliography of Leading Writers in the Turkish Republican Period Up to 1980.  “Five years later, Ortalık [Environment] was taken off the market by judicial order and an investigation was opened concerning the ideological content of the work.”

Criticism of the military or wars has been unacceptable, even when made by members or students of the Turkish military. AbdulKadir Meriçboyu (1917-1985), who graduated from Kuleli Military High School in 1936, was a prolific poet and translator. Contrary to the state ideology in Turkey, he opposed provocation of wars. And for that, he led a difficult life filled with detentions, trials, and exile.

AbdulKadir Meriçboyu

According to the website of the Turkish Ministry of Culture, when Meriçboyu was a senior student at the Turkish Military Academy, he was charged with engaging in political activities, sentenced to 10 years in prison and was dismissed from the school in 1938. “Later, he worked for the newspaper Tan as a proofreader and entered the Faculty of Law; however, when his first poetry book Tebliğ (Notification, 1943) was confiscated, he could not finish his studies as he was exiled from İstanbul. He was sent to exile in Muğla, Balıkesir, Konya, Kırşehir, and Adana,” writes Mitler.

In his first poetry book, Tebliğ (Notification), he described the consequences of war in a realistic way. The main themes of his second book, Hoş Geldin Halil İbrahim (Welcome Halil İbrahim, 1959), were exile and the yearning for home during exile.

The life of the poet and novelist, Hasan İzzettin Dinamo, (1909-1989) was also filled with detention, torture, and exile.  The pressure on him started when he was sentenced to prison in 1935 for his poem “Tren” (The Train). According to researcher and journalist Sami Akbıyık, Dinamo described his prosecution as follows:

“When I was a student at the Sivas teaching school, they [the police], during my last detention, seized a long poem I wrote about the train’s first arriving in that city. As the poem was found to be against the train policy of Ismet Pasa, the Prime Minister of the time, I was sentenced to four years in jail by the heavy penal court of Ankara upon ‘an order from above.’ The only copy of the poem that was found by the police was given to Ismet Pasa. After that, my poem has disappeared.”

Hasan İzzettin Dinamo

The magazine Yeni Edebiyat (New Literature) was closed down because of his poem “Vatan Şarkısı” (The Song of the Homeland) and he was sentenced to a year in prison by a military court in 1942 because of the poem. He was subject to prosecution and persecution for long years to come.

“Because of his [Dinamo’s] several writings, he was sentenced to seven years in prison and was tortured. He then fled Turkey when he realized he could get killed,” according to Akbıyık.

Researcher Ayşe Ertuş writes that Dinamo “suffered greatly from loneliness and depression during his exile. The underlying reasons of his depression were political pressures, monetary problems, unfaithful friends and the society’s prejudiced view of him… His poems were about freedom, anti-fascism, poverty, longing, loneliness, peace, and his opposition to wars… Dinamo was able to publish the poems he wrote in 1940s only after 1960.”

However, many of his literary works got “lost” or were purged. “His thousands of poems and dozens of novels went missing either during police raids or his years of exile,” writes journalist Ömer Turan.

Playwright, novelist, and poet Rıfat Ilgaz (1911-1993) was also subject to prosecution and persecution in Turkey as he gained much success and popularity for his work.

Rıfat Ilgaz

“Ilgaz’s teaching career was interrupted in 1944 when his collection of poetry Sınıf [Class] was removed from circulation and he was sentenced to six months imprisonment by a military tribunal,” writes Louis Mitler. “Another collection of poetry, Yaşadıkça, [As One Lives] was removed from the marketplace in 1948, as was the anthology entitled Devam [Continuation] in 1953. Ilgaz was incarcerated for a total of five years, five months and twenty-five days for his publications.”

For a poet to get prosecuted in Turkey, he or she does not have to write about wars, killings, or poverty. Any poet—or author, for that matter—who writes about topics that state authorities could find “dangerous” or “threatening” could be targeted by the government or courts.

For example, Turkish poet and essayist, Salah Birsel, (1919-1999) was prosecuted at age 23 for his poem “Bulut Geçti” (The Cloud Has Passed), published in the magazine İnkılapçı Gençlik (Revolutionary Youth) in 1942. The poem read:

“Now you sit in your husband’s house
And your hair is not what it used to be like
After meal at night, you sew the dropped stitches of socks
Or maybe your hands smell of onions.

Your husband is a man with an ugly face
He sleeps with his mouth open
And your body deteriorates as you give birth to more children.”

Salah Birsel

The prosecutor thought that “the poem could shatter the existence of families and the foundation of establishing families as well as the women’s mental inclination to become mothers. It also openly suggests to women not to give birth to children so it is against the 41th article of the Press Law.”

The initial ruling of acquittal was turned down by the court of cassation because it was made without asking experts. After 13 trials, only one of the three experts thought the poem was innocent. He was eventually acquitted and avoided a possible prison sentence.

Arif Damar (1925-2010) was another leading poet who struggled hard to produce his literary work amid constant pressures. The scholar Hulusi Geçgel writes:

“His first poem ‘Edirne’de Akşam’ [Evening in Edirne] was published in the magazine Yeni İnsanlık [New Humanity] in 1940. He was arrested for ‘being a member of a secret organization’ after his poem ‘Dayanılmaz’ [Unendurable] was published in the magazine Yeryüzü [the Earth] on Nov. 15, 1951. He was jailed for two years and then released for lack of evidence. His poetry book Günden Güne [From Day to Day] was removed from circulation on Jan 22, 1957, and he was acquitted at the end of the trial… In 1969, he founded and ran the Yeryüzü Bookstore in Suadiye. He was detained on July 6, 1982 for ‘possessing banned publications’ and was sentenced to three months in prison.”

Arif Damar

“When the poetry book Günden Güne [From Day to Day] by Damar was confiscated in 1957, bans on other poetry books followed,” according to the journalist Semiha Şentürk. Three weeks later, the poetry book Yan Yana [Side by Side] by Melih Cevdet Anday was banned. Only 48 hours later, the poetry book Giderayak [At the Last Moment] by Şükran Kurdakul was banned. And 42 days later, Metin Eloğlu’s Sultan Palamut [Sultan Acorn] was included in the black list.”

Sometimes it took decades for the regime to notice the “danger” in certain literary work. Ercüment Behzat Lav, (1903 – 1984), a leading poet of new Turkish poetry, stage actor, and film actor, for example, was also exposed to state censorship. His 1931 poetry book S.O.S was banned and removed from circulation in 1965.

The Sept. 12, 1980 coup d’état was a period when human rights and free expression were completely crushed by the Turkish military.

According to a report by the Parliamentary Investigation Commission for the Coups and the Memorandums published in 2012, during that period, “Journalists were sentenced to 3,315 years and 6 months in prison; newspapers could not be published for 300 days and 39 tons of newspapers and magazines were destroyed.”

Among the many books that were banned was the poetry books by the poet Yaşar Miraç, whose work is mainly about political and social topics such as democracy, peace, exile, and homesickness. Miraç was acquitted at the end of the trials but his books remained banned for seven years.

Yaşar Miraç

Today, the government’s treatment of dissident literary figures and journalists is still the same. Arrests of authors, as well as censorship or bans on literary work critical of the status quo, is state policy for all seasons in Turkey.

1 Comment on Turkey: A History of Banning Poetry and Targeting Poets

  1. avatar tina bastajian // May 10, 2017 at 4:38 am // Reply

    Thank you Uzay for this article, which is closely connected to your essay on the purge of Armenian intellectuals in 1915, and the current purge and silencing of Turkish academics (journalists, artists, activists, etc.). https://philosproject.org/turkey-uncensored-first-came-armenians/
    I look forward to reading more of your work.

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