I've been hoping to use this blog to put up a few translations of Turkish writers, but somehow the task has been daunting, and I haven't done it. So today I'm starting with a very short exerpt from a book of essays by Sunay Akin, called "Onlar Hep Oradaydi"--They Were Always There. Akin is a poet, and each piece compares some aspect of Native American history with Turkish history. (Interestingly, he is also a major television host and owner of Istanbul's toy museum and has a personal collection of over 7000 toys dating back some 200 years!)
First, a prelude before I get to the meat of the story. In one essay, called "The Indians Who Sent a Message to the Moon," he spends the first half talking about the Apollo astronauts training in the Arizona desert in Navajo Nation. Apparently, an old Navajo asked what in hell they were doing in their funny outfits and when they explained it to him, he wrote a message in Navajo and asked them to take it to the moon. The curious astronauts had it translated. "Beware of these people!" it said, "They'll take your land!" Akin goes on to talk about the Navajo code talkers in World War 2 (a story I'll abbreviate here as American readers should know already). Basically, for years speaking in Navajo was forbidden. Navajo children were forced into missionary schools and if caught speaking their own language, severely punished. During WW2, however, the Japanese were breaking all of our codes and so the top brass got the idea of using the notoriously difficult Navajo language to transmit messages and suddenly, this language that had been outlawed for years upon years, its speakers tortured, became a necessity.
Akin then switches locales to Turkey and has this to say.
"Some teachers were trying, in the same way, to control language in our schools in Anatolia. One teacher even told the children that if they spoke their native language (Kurdish) at home then it would leave a mark in their mouths. So every morning, he had the students stand across from him and open their mouths so he could inspect them. All of them stood with their tongues sticking a little out of their mouths. In their hearts was the fear that he would see the Kurdish that they were speaking in their homes.
Kamber Atesh, having been convicted by military tribunal after the coup of September 12, found himself in Mamak Prison. Since the government intended to keep him in prison all his life, they put him in an isolation cell in B Block. One day, a guard gave a letter to Kamber as he languished in the middle of those four walls. The letter said they were going to bring his mother to him for a visit. She was sick and had written, "Let me see my son one last time before I die!"
Later that week, Kamber Atesh, when he heard his name called over the loud speaker, emerged as if he were a caterpillar that had turned into a butterly fluttering its wings to the bright world. Behind the barbwire fence stood his brother, and of course, his mother as well.
Waving was forbidden. Speaking in a soft voice was forbidden. The old woman, on this day of her first and only visit after months and months of not seeing her son, asked him, "How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"
Kamber Atesh said, "I'm fine, Mom. I'm fine." And as soon as he answered her, she asked again, "How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"
"I'm fine," he answered. "Very good. How are you all doing?" After a short silence, the woman said in a broken voice, "How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"
At that moment, his brother explained that this was the only Turkish sentence that his mother had been able to memorize on the way to the prison. She could say nothing else.
"How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"
This old woman had raised her son with lullabies in a language forbidden now to speak with him. On the wall behind her was written in giant letters, "Speak Turkish! Speak It Alot!"
Here are two lines from an Anatolian bard.
Dil bir anadır
"Language is a mother,
And her children are in her embrace."
Note: The military coup of September 12, 1980 swept all sorts of people into jail--from leftists to Kurds to any sort of political opposition, real or imagined. My Turkish teachers brother died in prison, suspected of being a leftist. Unlike, Kamber Atesh, he never got even one visit from his mother or sister. Kurds suffered perhaps more than others. Their language was outlawed. Even possessing a book in Kurdish could land you years in jail. It was a time of unprecedented cruelty, but to this day, many people insist that it was necessary to prevent the country from following into the hands of "the Islamicists", a boogeyman dangled in front of the people's eyes whenever the army needs to seize control.