Opening Night of the Nazim Hikmet Festival in Amsterdam

Nazim Hikmet

Taking the occasion of the Nazim Hikmet festival in Amsterdam to Remember Nazim Hikmet

A festival devoted to the Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet took place in Amsterdam this September at  Podium Mozaiek, a well-known platform for East-West artistic encounters. Poets, journalists, and theatre makers from within and outside the Turkish community of the Netherlands came together to deliver a week of plays and readings, under the artistic direction of Şaban Ol, who directs the Theater RAST company, and the composer and artistic director of the reArt Collective Selim Doğru.

Nazım Hikmet remains one of Turkey’s largest-looming figures in poetry along with the great Atillâ İlhan. Hikmet was declared a “national traitor” by the Erdoğan government, whose officials disliked his socialist and internationalist message, his eroticism, and his popularity among the youth. There is no irony, then, in how the director of the documentary Can Dündar was unable to attend the screening of his film at the Podium Mozaiek theater-cafe in Amsterdam due to his being tied down by state lawsuits and other complications levelled at Turkish artists and journalists.

In an interview on culture given by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to a reporter for OpenDemocracy, the AKP-leader said his favorite literary works are the books of Rumi’s Masnavi—all from the 13th century. Though Mevlânâ Celâleddîn Rûmî was a Persian language poet, because he was born in a part of the Khorasan region that falls within today’s Turkey, Rumi has been claimed by secular and religious Turkish nationalists as a Turkish poet, “Mevlana.” Despite the director and guest-of-honour being grounded in Turkey, the panel talk proved a very interesting introduction to the film—no ordinary biopic—and to the poet.

The evening began with a passionate panel talk between theatre makers Ol and Doğru in conversation with the literary translator Thijs Rault. Moderation was by the ever-charming Özkan Gölpınar, the president of the Mozaïek foundation and chief-advisor to the Dutch arts council and minister of culture. As mc Gölpınar skillfully provided a dose of his effervescent humour, while showing himself to be a connoisseur of Hikmet, maestro of the Turkish word and the founder of Turkish modernist verse.

Şaban Ol exposed to the audience his ambitious project of performing theatrical adaptations of Hikmet’s epic poems Human Landscapes (translated into Dutch by Rault) and the Letters to Taranta Babu. In Taranta Babu, Hikmet wrote about an Ethiopian nobleman awaiting the attack by Mussolini’s army. Hikmet had never been to Italy or Ethiopia, and arguably his work is one of the last great Orientalist political satires, ironically written by an Oriental imagining himself to be an Ethiopian in turn imagining Italy.

Theater Rast is an exciting ensemble of international Turkish diaspora actors in Northern Europe and it would be wise for the theatregoer to keep a rigid and keen eye on the company led by the very erudite director and theatre-maker Şaban Ol. The readings at Mozaiek included the accomplished Curaçaoan actress Paulette Smit and the actor Michiel Blankewaardt, as well as local poetry circles.

Though politicians may attempt to condemn him unto official amnesia, it seems Hikmet’s posthumous fate outlasts the current administration. Hikmet is being reclaimed again today, by virtually every political and ideological faction in Turkey—from Kurdish nationalists, to Turkish leftists and patriotic nationalists. In his old age, Hikmet had said that his devotion to a modernist Turkish poetry had built an orchestra of instruments for battle songs, but it was the task for the newer generation of Turkish poets to use that orchestra for other songs. The maestro’s popularity remains among the youth in Turkish-speaking countries, including Azerbaijan, where he was well-received by Baku university students. Azerbaijan was then a Soviet country whose Russian-speaking bureaucracy repressed the use of Azeri Turkish by the indigenous. Today, Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet ruling class would have brought dismay and sadness to Hikmet: they are still indirectly repressing Azeri. His visit to Baku University was one of the most important encounters between Hikmet and a far-removed, distant part of the Turkic civilization he believed in and hoped to mobilize to higher expressions.

Much of his life was spent in prisons. Many of his poems are the letters of a political prisoner full of passion, optimism and love.

It is astonishing how a man who spent a good part of his life in prison cells and sanatoriums could have written verses like these, impossible without some kind of greater purpose and cause animating and protecting him from cynicism or bitterness:

Let’s give the world to children for just one day,

Like a balloon bright and striking in its colours to play with

Let them play singing in between stars

Like a giant apple, a warm bread-loaf

At least for one day, let them have enough

Let’s give the world to children

At least for one day the world would learn friendship

With the planet they would glean from our palms,

Children would plant immortal trees.

Ol recounted how Nazım often had heart trouble. His heart ache that appears in his poems was more than a metaphor and more basic than love’s heartache. Nazim was a cardiac patient. A doctor revealed he had about ten years to live if he made healthier decisions, but if he fell in love once again, he would have three years. The doctor’s reading of Hikmet’s pulse was accurate. Hikmet fell in love with a young Russian actress, the last lover of this elegant warrior-poet of frail heart and invincible spirit. He died shortly afterwards. But before he met her, while in a prison cell, he wrote

If half of my heart is here, doctor

The other half is in China, doctor

In the legion floating towards

the Yellow river

Then, each dawn, doctor

each and every dawn, my heart

is shot in Greece.

Hikmet was a true internationalist, both in ideology and by fated circumstances. He was born in Thessaloniki, and had a Polish grandfather.  Shortly after fighting in the war in Anatolia, he witnessed the destruction of the world he had known: the Muslim and Turkish population of Greece was deported and transferred in an exchange of populations with Turkey, as the Greek communities of Istanbul were similarly emptied out and sent on boats to the Greek nation-state.

He had left his native Selânik (Thessaloniki) to fight in the War of Independence in Anatolia, and was unable to return after the Greek nation state was expanded to Thessaloniki —such a fate paralleled that of Greek poet Kavafis, who was actually an Egyptian Alexandrian Greek exiled to Saloniki. Kavafis promised never to forget his Eastern home. ‘’Never say it was just a dream!” is the last line in Kavafis’ poem Alexandria. Two exiles in opposite directions, both Orientals, both displaced: Hikmet and Kavafis went about manufacturing a modernist poetry in their national languages.

Despite having died in the fated illusions of modernism in the 20st century, Hikmet is a poet for the 21st. The experience of constant troubles with passports were not all that common in his time. Normalization of strict border controls and immigration bureaucracy had not yet come into existence. Yet Hikmet, nomadic poet and internationalist, because of his dissidence often met with authorities who denied or removed his passport rights. Only decades later would Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish write the poem “Passport’’ or the poem Palestinian Identity Card (with the lines ”write down that I am an Arab!”)

In the film we hear the poet’s voice as he recites his poem “Traitor” denouncing  blind nationalism:

I am a traitor to my homeland, I am a traitor to my country.

If patriotism is your farms,

if patriotism is the valuables in your safes and your bank accounts,

if patriotism is dying from hunger by the side of the road,

(…)

if patriotism is the claws of your village lords,

if patriotism is the catechism, if homeland is the police baton,

if your allocations and your salaries are patriotism,

if patriotism is American bases, American bombs, and American missiles…

A poem like “Traitor” defies the debate about whether political poems can be universal. Nowhere in his poem does universalist Hikmet mention actual politicians or daily politics. A Dutch performance of I am a traitor still would also be accurate today, as ”patriotism” in the 21st century Netherlands has come to mean collaboration with the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as allowing refugees from the lands of Taranta Babu to be deported to a certain death.  “Hikmet as romantic” was very much emphasized by the festival’s theater-makers in Amsterdam—romantic as in being a lover, as well as an artistic romantic modernist, though these two cannot be easily separated.

Dündar’s documentary shows Hikmet during the years of exile in Russia. He openly confronted Stalin and the Writer’s Union on the subject of social realist art: he decried socialist realism was “neither ‘’socialist’’ nor ‘’realism’’, rather it was a form of ‘’petit bourgeois’’ art.”  He was disillusioned in the Stalinist downfall of the Soviet experiment, “they had become fascists in the end.” This brings Hikmet the revolutionary, into the company of a poet he never met, Osyp Mandelstam. During of one the countless interrogations he was subjected to, Mandelstam was asked why he wrote lines of sedition and said “because I hate all fascists!”

Stalinism’s authoritarian attitude to art repudiated and punished the intimate, but allowed for ”the private”–fiction or art about people getting by in their humdrum existences, in their apartments and jobs, while occasionally standing up to exalt and toast to political progress and change. The intimate, not the private, is found in the work of the greatest revolutionary romantics, such as Hikmet, or revolutionary romanticism in visual art, such as Frida Kahlo’s personal and sensitive iconography.

 The 21st century West has its own social realism. Neoliberal governments and the art establishment insist on an art that proves itself useful, “participatory”. Artists and poets are expected to be amateur social workers or journalists; there is an at once politicized-and-depoliticized art that goes against the intimate, while glorifying the democratic right of all citizens to ”the private” as long as they praise political change.  The dominant taste can be called ”neoliberal plastic realism” (to paraphrase the Pakistani-American literary critic Anis Shivani). Neoliberal governments demand ”participation” from artists, art must either repudiate the idea of ”art’ or apologize. If Hikmet had the courage to confront Stalin in defense of art, then the emerging, rebellious artists should be brave as well when confronting less frightening adversaries. This is as good a time as any to remember Hikmet and the inspiring festival at Mozaiek proves the cultural center’s vibrancy in the Amsterdam scene.

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