Ferit Edgü’s Prescient Fiction of a Turkey in Crisis

Ferit Edgü’s Prescient Fiction of a Turkey in Crisis

Ferit Edgü’s Prescient Fiction of a Turkey in Crisis

His books, which examined the plight of eastern Turkey and the vanity of the Istanbul bourgeoise, take on new meaning after the February 6 earthquakes.


In “Happiness,” one of the short stories included in Ferit Edgü’s The Wounded Age and Eastern Tales, an architect is appointed to work in a village in eastern Turkey. The locals inhabit caves that are threatened with collapse in that land of earthquakes, yet they refuse the architect’s offer to help. So he undertakes a deceptive scheme: Using the money allocated to build safe houses, he pays the villagers to haul sand and cement on muleback from a nearby city to repair their caves. After six months, he adapts to this way of living precariously, throwing away his plans for safer, earthquake-proof homes. He writes fake progress reports to his bosses at the ministry as though he is making the mountain town safer; fearing eventual prosecution for abusing his office, he cuts ties with his past, refuses to return to his family as he told them he wanted to, and settles fully in the mountains: becoming a local, no longer counting the days, living “as a hunter,” lighting candles at night for entertainment.

The tale’s end shows the architect contemplating his cave walls covered with paintings. Aware that no one is looking for him after all the years he’s spent there, he senses “wary wingbeats of a feeling that resembles happiness.” Reading a story of such possibly fatal quiescence, told in spare and striking prose, in the wake of February’s disastrous earthquakes in Turkey, one wonders if Edgü possessed farsightedness. His work, after all, implicitly understands something about southeastern Turkey, where Kurds, repressed and impoverished by the state, have good reason to be suspicious. They see through the state’s representatives, even when that puts their lives in danger, and smell something immoral behind the offer of reconstruction and modern life.

Edgü started publishing fiction in 1976; his protagonists often visit far-flung Anatolian towns to educate and enlighten the inhabitants yet find themselves transformed, no longer willing to return home to the cosmopolitan enclaves of Istanbul and Ankara. Eastern Tales, where “Happiness” features, was first published in 1995, and it distills Edgü’s themes: alienation from one’s country and isolation from one’s self. Born in Istanbul in 1936, two years before Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, breathed his last, Edgü was a model republican citizen as a young man. Studying philosophy and the fine arts in France and Germany, he came of age during Turkey’s optimistic, progressive 1960s. Rather than performing his military service back home, he served as a teacher and was sent to Hakkâri, a Kurdish town in eastern Turkey. The experience informs the entirety of The Wounded Age, a novella, and Eastern Tales, a collection of four long and 17 very short stories (or “Minimal Tales”). As Edgü once confessed, he was “reborn in Hakkâri.”

The tensions and confluences between a modernist writer’s consciousness and life in places like Hakkâri, on the periphery of the Turkish state, have shaped works throughout the country’s republican history, from Yakup Kadri’s Stranger (1932), about a war veteran’s spiteful encounter with pious Anatolians who don’t share his revolutionary fervor, to Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life (1994), about an Istanbul-based college student’s travels in rural Turkey, where he chases death. But while Kadri explored the birth of reactionary movements against Turkish republicanism, and Pamuk documented the rise of Anatolia’s Islamic capitalists, Edgü’s focus has remained on the atrocities experienced by Turkey’s Kurds. With The Wounded Age and Eastern Tales, we get his most impassioned plea for understanding Turkey’s wounded east.

By the time of Edgü’s visit, Hakkâri, a 2,750-square-mile mountainous province, had a population of around 10,000. Half of those people, Edgü noted, were soldiers. Bordering Iran and Iraq, Hakkâri’s past is traumatic: Before the Assyrian genocide in 1915, it housed a significant Christian Assyrian population from various tribes. Edgü wasn’t aware of this history at first, but he learned quickly. In A Season in Hakkâri, written in six months in 1976, he speculates that Dostoyevsky would have changed his novel’s title to Crime and Crime had he lived there. The state faced no accountability for its acts of violence in that forsaken province, Edgü learned after witnessing the systematic mistreatment of Kurds during his stay: Government officials, for example, ignored an epidemic that killed eight Kurdish babies in one week.

Yet, alongside the danger and oppression, Edgü found meaning in this political no-man’s land where people lived outside the eyes of bureaucracy. In his solitude, he realized that he could survive without the luxuries of a bourgeois life, and he pondered basic questions about his existence and considered the future. For Westerners like him visiting these faraway lands, the lawlessness brought a sense of self-reckoning, which Edgü explored in his subsequent autobiographical works.

The Wounded Age’s unnamed narrator, who had visited the region in his youth to work as a teacher, returns there many years later, when he’s commissioned by an unidentified newspaper to cover an unnamed crisis brewing in the mountains. His guide, a Kurdish man named Vahap, leads him through the settlements: They tour villages, hamlets, and encampments and ask a lieutenant guarding a bridge whether they can interview the people on the other side. The lieutenant permits them to talk “only with those who are on this end of the bridge. The ones on the other end—not allowed.” Outlaws are reportedly hiding in the mountains, and one night they hear loudspeakers announce chilling orders: “Surrender the refugees.” A local Kurd wonders why he should turn in his brothers who crossed the border. “He hasn’t even had a morsel to eat. Isn’t my home my brother’s home?”

The horrors that inspired The Wounded Age were rooted in Kêmyabarana Helebce, the Halabja Massacre. On March 16, 1988, as the Iran-Iraq War neared its end, the Iraqi Army attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja and, using mustard gas and unidentified nerve agents, killed some 3,200 to 5,000 Kurds and injured between 7,000 and 10,000. Those who survived were diagnosed, for years to come, with congenital disabilities and cancer. By August 29, thousands of Iraqi Kurds fleeing the violence had reached the Turkish border, but Turkish troops blocked their passage. Since 1984, Ankara has tried to suppress a violent guerrilla war by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Marxist militant group seeking an independent Kurdish state. Refusing to let the Iraqi Kurds in as their numbers swelled for days, Turkey finally bowed to international pressure, opening the border on humanitarian grounds in September of 1988. “Since most escaped on foot, few had any clothes other than what they wore. The night air in the mountains was already cool, and many were still suffering from the effects of the chemical attacks,” Human Rights Watch reported. As the refugees camped in Turkey, soldiers provided them with food, but there were no tents or blankets. After a week, the government began loading Kurds onto lorries and buses to send them back. Around 20,000 Kurds left for Iran. By the end of 1988, among the 60,000 Kurds who took refuge in Turkey, 36,000 remained in the country.

It was this crime against humanity that Edgü set out to explore in The Wounded Age. (The recent English edition, published by New York Review Books, does not mention this contextual information in its otherwise illuminating afterword.) Applying to a newspaper to cover the story, Edgü was notified by his editor that the assignment would put him at risk, so he decided to use his Hakkâri impressions from the 1960s to weave a fictional narrative about the massacre’s aftermath. “I don’t use the name of Halabja, but that massacre is the focus of [The Wounded Age],” he later said of writing this book. “What can I say? I went there without going; I wrote about it without seeing it.”

The Wounded Age’s narrator watches the refugees as they come “in wave after wave” and describes what he sees as a “human deluge.” Some carry saddlebags; others have their rifles. “How was the journey?” he asks a villager in a camp. The old man doesn’t understand Turkish and, rubbing his beard, mumbles: “Alaikumselâm.” He had fled his town six months ago and has lost a son. The old man sobs, kicks the ground, picks up stones, and hurls them at the border. “Why must the young die while the old keep living?” he wonders.

Edgü uses these fragmentary, imagined glimpses of Halabja’s horrors to tell his tale about the cruelty of the state and those it forsakes. “They escaped with their animals. Not just horses or mules. Sheep as well, thirty, forty of them,” we read of the refugees, wondering whether Edgü extracted this detail from a newspaper report, made it up, or heard it from a witness. One Kurd asks whether the Turks will jail his people “’cause we crossed the border.” Another sings a türkü, “more than a song—a wailing, a grievance.” After the massacre, the mountain snow runs red with blood; the 400-kilometer-long Great Zab, which flows through Turkey and Iraq, becomes “a scarlet river,” and a harrowing scene shows an old man by the water struggling to pull a net into his boat. “There were no fish; the net was filled with corpses of women, men, and children.”

Like the architect in “Happiness,” the narrator of The Wounded Age desires to remain in the east and be buried in an unmarked grave. He too, amidst all the ruin, can see the beauty of life in the mountains, free of the pull of the metropole—but by the book’s end, having been provided with “the words the words the words,” he desires something else. He will “join these together, to make them whole, all of them, side by side, one on top of the other, shoulder to shoulder, jaw to jaw, to lock them together into a world, to make a world in the name of this wrecked, grieving, fatal world.”

In his 1978 book Lecture Notes, Edgü discusses the influence of Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre on his writing. It is easy to see Kafka’s influence on Eastern Tales, whose pen portraits of various local figures often take an epigrammatic form. Some of these stories comprise life lessons: In “Dark Dreadful Winter,” just 61 words long, a local tells the Teacher (the collection’s main narrator) to “turn inward” when the forbidding season comes. Others, like “Compass/less” (length: 84 words), resemble Kafka’s fables, with the Teacher asking his guide where the road through a village is, learning that the village has no road anymore since it’s buried in snow, and instructing the guide to use a compass to find the way. There’s obvious symbolism in the guide’s response to the Teacher: Follow your compass then, he says, and “forge your own road yourself.” These tales share a focus on the differences between the mindsets of visitors and locals, but they also savor the paradoxes and tensions that arise from their conflict.

Edgü uses a framing in Eastern Tales typical of his career: The narrator, a teacher of the Turkish language, revisits his Hakkâri experiences from the purview of old age and feels that the closer he got to the people of Hakkâri, the more distant they became, and “the closer they got to me the more distant I became.” Yet that distancing also helps him ponder his country’s injustices and locate his role in them as a member of Istanbul’s educated and literary class.

The stories in Eastern Tales are fragmentary anecdotes relayed to us by the Teacher. (The one exception is the architect in “Happiness,” who gets to tell his story in the first person.) Curious characters populate these stories, and their tales are layered by Edgü’s positioning of the narrator, who resembles Joseph Conrad’s Marlow. A wise observer and a good listener, he joins the local lorry drivers who spend their days at the coffeehouses, “doing nothing other than smoking and drinking tea, listening to each other’s disastrous tales of winter, wolves, bears, rain, and floods, stories that they had heard and reheard and memorized.” Unable to find anyone to play chess with him, the Teacher pulls out Chekhov’s collected stories, which he’d packed for the road, and reads “The Steppe” while sipping his tea. But he is always drawn to the stories that the people around him tell, and he writes them down at night. One concerns a mysterious visitor who teaches a town’s mayor how to mix mud bricks to build a house. “If you’re going to build your house, build it there. If you follow my instructions, your house will outlast you, even if it’s made of mud bricks,” says the mysterious man, whose desire, we learn, is to be left alone in the town to perish among its rocks. Another tale features a man named Ibram who has been jailed and discovers while serving his sentence that his father has married his wife and had children with her.

This and other seemingly ethnographic studies of Hakkâri’s locals and visitors slowly build the demand for a reckoning with the political injustices that Turkey’s Kurdish population has faced. Edgü sees the state as enforcing a culture of “othering” and systematically dispossessing its Kurdish citizens. At the same time, he diagnoses, in the intellectuals based in Turkey’s northern and western cosmopolitan centers, a longing for the life lived in places like the mountainous villages of Hakkâri—they take every chance to go there.

This is what makes Edgü’s writing so exciting: his focus on the pendulum between comfort and danger, boredom and beauty; his attempts to unfurl the desire to be in a place that puts one’s life in danger. Such contradictions and confluences continue to this day, as does the abandonment of Turkey’s southeastern cities (after the February 6 earthquake, cities with significant Kurdish and Alevi populations complained of receiving almost no support from Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and the determination of civil society to embrace the east in order to help its people heal their wounds and rebuild their cities in solidarity.

As he’s leaving Hakkâri, the narrator of Eastern Tales watches the yellow, “seething current of mud” of the Great Zab river and drifts off to sleep with his volume of Chekhov at hand. He attempts to return to stories of pre-revolution Russia but soon closes the book and starts talking to himself: “You’ve changed,” he says, “these mountains have changed you. Not just these mountains…the people, too.” He’s confident that he’ll “never forget this land, the human vistas, the faces in the crowds of men and children lining both sides of the road, their eyes, their lips,” until the day his own eyes close for the last time.

Nowadays, Edgü refrains from taking journalistic assignments, though he might still write about the February 6 earthquake. But even if he doesn’t, his vision and empathy remain essential for understanding its aftermath. To those who remember the people of the periphery only in times of calamity and then silently move on, he proposes a new paradigm: a lifelong, unyielding commitment to those one’s country has othered in our name.

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