“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. 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.” [Extract from an interview with Kemal Sadik Gökçeli published in The Middle East magazine, 2002]
Kemal Sadik Gökçeli worked as a journalist for Cumhuriyet from 1951-63 before turning to fiction. He wrote under a pseudonym: Yachar Kemal. As Turkey’s most prominent novelist, his books have been published in numerous languages, and he has been showered with international awards. In 1973 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.
Kemal’s fiction does not always find favour with the Turkish authorities: “I did many jobs, and everywhere I went, the government did everything possible to have me dismissed.” In his article, The Wolf with Bells, published in the New French Review, Kemal writes: “Exasperated by the wolves, which attack the sheep pens of Anatolian villages and slaughter many sheep, the 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 writers are treated like that.” [The Middle East magazine, 2002]
The Sponge-Fishers is a collection of in-depth articles written in the 1950s while Yachar Kemal was working as a journalist; a couple of pieces date from the 1970s. It offers a diverse snapshot of rural Turkey before the onset of ‘modernism’ and tourism. During this period a great many peasant farmers migrated to cities in search of employment. Kemal travels from west to east, (a map would have been helpful). He interviews or befriends various characters as he goes. The book ends with a plea to save the forests of Central Anatolia, the destruction of which will lead to desertification. Part investigative reportage, part travelogue, part narrative which reads like a novel and part ecological-discourse-ahead-of-its-time, The Sponge-Fishers is a rich and rewarding read.
The book opens with Kemal interviewing Captain Ibrahim who refuses to be drawn out about his lifelong passion for sponge fishing. Ever since “the sea took his son” he has withdrawn behind a wall of silence. Bodrum and Marmaris on the Aegean Sea were once fishing villages, not tourist hot spots. Sponge boat captains recruited young men from the surrounding villages to become deep sea divers fishing for sponges. Compared to a poor life working the land this was a chance to share in the lucrative sponge trade, but they would be away for months and some never came home. These courageous men who are obsessed with sponge fishing are seduced by the universe beneath the waves − it is a love-hate relationship. They never quite overcome their fear of dying. Old Captain Muammer began diving aged 9. He and Kemal discuss how some survive and others succumb to the bends, ending up on crutches or in wheelchairs because they came to the surface too quickly without decompressing.
Hasan Hüseyin is one of many leaving the countryside from around the Black Sea, Mont Taurus or Anatolia heading for Izmir or Istanbul, (Turkey’s commercial and industrial centre), looking for work. Labourers usually end up living 20 in a room in shanty towns dotted around the hills and valleys around Istanbul. Hüseyin is ashamed he cannot earn enough to send home for his kids and sick daughter; he can’t afford the shots she needs. “This place is not paradise,” he repeats like a mantra. One of the main factors causing this mass migration is the arrival of tractors. Kemal recounts the story of Misto who lay down on the ground in front of the farmer driving one of his two shiny new tractors, to no avail. He leaves for Istanbul but his wife earns more weaving. He is a husk of a man. “To separate somebody from the land where he or she was born is like pulling out his or her heart”.
Lake Çekmece has filthy, ugly apartment blocks sprouting along its shores, although there are still a few lovely faubourgs left. Kemal strolls through Florya Park (now next to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport) where thousands of moths fly through the gloaming like translucent shadows. Kemal chats to some construction workers on a building site. Old Haci Hasan − for whom they all have much respect − crosses verbal swords with a young hothead who is raging about the problems Turkey is experiencing.
Kemal now heads for Antep (Gaziantep) in Eastern Turkey near the Syrian border. There is a vibrant cafe culture and bazaar where veiled women work as pedlars. Contraband goods include pearls, precious stones, silks, carpets, kilims, fabrics . . . Kemal hooks up with Hasan a.k.a. the smuggler from Adana who shows great bravado and chutzpah; he is looking for a business partner with some capital. Hasan describes how he tried to seduce the daughter of a rich widow by means of sorcery, but failed since when he went to their house to trigger the spell as instructed, he was told they were away in Syria. The anecdote about a customs official catching a smuggler on a bus with pumpkins hollowed out and stuffed with silks has a slapstick quality to it. This section ends with descriptions of forays across the border on horseback with customs officials in keen pursuit, guns blazing and horses galloping, like a western. On one such occasion the smugglers had to bury their goods acquired for 17,000 livres in Antep. When they returned to retrieve it, they could not find the tree they had marked as an indicator, so they could not find their buried loot.
Keyseri in Central Anatolia, once a major Seljuk city, lies at the foot of the extinct volcano Mt. Erciyes, “One of the most beautiful and elegant peaks in the world. Majestic and splendid, it looks as though it is nailed to the sky.” Kemal describes the Seljuk monuments; an encounter with the museum curator; the sad love story of Kerem and Asli. “With its cupolas, its caravanserais, its mosques, its oratories, Kayseri belongs to the past . . . when you enter you take a giant leap seven centuries back in time.”
Kemal travels on to see the great rock formations of Cappadocia called fairy chimneys (the eroded remains of ancient volcanoes) which create a surreal, lunar landscape. He befriends Mustafa on the bus ride to Urgup, “The bus is full to bursting with peasants, their bags and their veiled wives. For some unknown reason, they are taciturn and seem pensive. Many close their eyes and doze off. It is so quiet you could hear a fly buzzing. I am sitting next to Mustafa. One passenger starts to tell him about his entanglement with a police commissioner. He is contemplating sending a telegram to Ankara. It’s a nasty business. He does not stop talking. I almost want to get off the bus and continue my journey on foot. Mustafa is similarly overwhelmed.” They cross an arid landscape towards a plain radiant with pink-hued light and a vision of greenish fairy chimneys. Kemal’s description of the colour changes of Mt. Erciyes receding behind them reads like a psychedelic acid dream.
Once at the village of Ortahisar with its rock castle and troglodytic houses carved into the stone, he is keen to find out about local legends. But the locals he asks looks blank and says there are none. Kemal finally finds an old man who describes luminous people (are they spirits, or fairies?) who wander about the rock castle at night. (It turns out local legends generally involve light of some kind.) He visits the cave churches of Goreme, famous for their centuries-old frescoes, byzantine interiors, cupolas . . . and discusses their construction with the Mayor’s assistant. “The Walls of Elmali Church are entirely covered in frescoes and ornamental motifs. The dark blue that is characteristic of primitive frescoes is the dominant colour. The figures seem to be transfixed. The artist took special care over faces and eyes . . . Prophets, angels and saints adorn the cupolas. They hold manuscripts.” Certain shapes in the rocks look like something else, giving rise to legends, for example that of the old man and his camel. Uzengi or Pigeon Valley, with its thousands of pigeon houses that have been carved over centuries into the rock, abandoned caves or the walls of collapsed churches is an astonishing sight. There are so many pigeons they are like bees in a hive. Pigeons are revered locally as a source of food and fertilizer.
The central Anatolian plateau is separated from the coastal lowlands by the Pontic Mountains in the north and the Taurus Mountains in the south. The mountains are covered with forests and shrubs. Kemal travels to villages, hamlets and across the central Anatolian high plains used for summer grazing by nomads. He talks to a Forest Engineer of the General Directorate of Forestry, to various labourers and a 14 year old boy, Hasan. Forest fires destroy thousands of hectares every year. Fires are often started by peasant farmers − although they angrily deny it − to clear land so they can cultivate it. The land can only be cultivated for a few years since the topsoil is eroded by wind and rain and it finally turns into sharp rocky terrain. The other threat to the survival of the forest is the way in which bark is stripped horizontally in rings off a tree for its succulent, tasty inner bark; the tree then dies. Grazing goats and wild boar are another hazard. The peasant farmers of central Anatolia live a rough life at the mercy of the weather and ruthless landowners. (The right to cultivate land is one thing, and the ownership of land is another. Whether the land is owned by the state or a powerful individual, peasant farmers are essentially tenants. Large estates are created through the state selling wasteland needing to be reclaimed to entrepreneurs.)
When Kemal points out that the forest will disappear and the land will become an arid desert, his interviewees get angry and ask him what they are supposed to do? Does he have a solution? The way in which land is divided up and measured in order to be registered with the land registry is arbitrary and prone to dirty tricks. Some peasant farmers may want to register their land, but cannot always do so. Forests are subordinated to political and other interests, despite the fact that, “When the forest disappears the earth goes with it, the climate changes and it’s the end of prosperity.” Abdurrahman Uzun asks Kemal to publish what he thinks could be done in his newspaper: “Take my village as an example. There are 45 houses. Base the size of the forest to be taken, on how much land is covered by the village. Measure and divide up the forest into 45 parcels of land which is then distributed to the peasants. Each peasant must account for the forest entrusted to him. If he cuts down a tree he has to replace it. If someone steals a tree they go to prison for 5 years . . .
The book ends with Kemal heading for Fethiye, “Paradise on earth” and then Izmir.
The Sponge-Fishers is informative, engaging and offers memorable insights. François Skvor’s introduction setting Kemal in his context is excellent and the 5 pages about the importance of reportage at the end of the book are essential reading.
High numbers of Britons go to Turkey for a holiday every year and approximately 34,000 British citizens permanently live there. However, are they readers? Would they buy this book, especially given its high-end literary quality? I would certainly recommend it to friends travelling to Turkey since it covers such diverse ground. It would be a candidate for the Guardian Book Club, but I can’t see the likes of Richard & Judy going for it! Turkey is in the news off and on since the issue of accession to the EU rumbles on, as does Turkey’s increasing wealth as compared to its nemesis, Greece. The Syrian issue and periodic mortar attacks, and the large Turkish population in London, are also grist to the reviewer’s mill.
The Sponge-Fishers has longevity and its humanitarian and ecological message has a greater urgency today than when originally written. The depopulation of the countryside reflects what has happened across rural Europe. If the book is translated and published in the UK it should build up a good head of steam. It is a long book, so the Translators Association’s recommended fee of £87 per 1,000 words for prose could end up with the translation being costly regardless of whether the translation is made from the original Turkish or French.
Given the stature of Yachar Kemal the book would certainly be noticed by critics even though Orhan Pamuk seems to be better known in the UK right now . . . Kemal is the ultimate insider-outsider and a rebel with a cause. His death in February this year deprived Turkey of one of its most original, outspoken and courageous writers.
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Pêcheurs d’êponges by Yachar Kemal (320pp Bleu autour, 2009) This reader’s report was written in 2012.