Turkey’s ‘ostinato’ song

Turkey’s ‘ostinato’ song

A few months ago, this column described Turkey as a piano partition composed by Philip Glass: “It finds beauty in itself by repeating itself.” Turkey’s song is repetitive, or ostinato, like in many children’s songs. But it’s hardly entertaining.

Nazım Hikmet (1902-1963) is probably the best-known Turkish poet. His poetry has been translated into more than 50 languages and, in the 1950s, Hikmet was compared to Federico Garcia Lorca, Louis Aragon, Mayakovsky and Pablo Neruda. In 1950, he was a recipient of the International Peace Prize, along with Pablo Picasso, Paul Robeson, Wanda Jakubowska and Neruda. But his life in the country he dearly loved was less enchanting.

In 1921, together with a friend, he volunteered to join the Turkish War of Independence. But the “romantic communist” was viewed as big of a threat as the occupying powers. In later years he was repeatedly arrested and spent much of his adult life in prison. Hikmet was the bête noire of Turkey’s ruling ideology, but a cause célèbre among intellectuals worldwide. In 1949, a committee including Picasso, Robeson and Jean-Paul Sartre campaigned for his release.

In 1950 he was released as part of a general amnesty and fled to the Soviet Union where, in 1963, he died, heartbroken. His Turkish citizenship had been revoked in 1959. In 2009, a bill sponsored by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) reinstituted his Turkish citizenship, a move that deserves much praise, but possibly enacted because the Turkish Islamists thought the dead poet was no longer a threat to the emerging Turkish empire.

Between Hikmet’s death and the rise to fame of a Turkish pianist, Turkey’s ruling ideology was secularism and devout Muslims were the bête noire.

Fazıl Say, possibly the most internationally acclaimed Turkish pianist ever, was born seven years after Hikmet’s sorrowful death in Moscow. By a simple twist of fate, Mr. Say’s early work on large orchestral forms was inspired by Hikmet’s poetry. Several of Mr. Say’s international honors and awards include the German Music Critics’ Best Recording Award of the Year (2001) and the Ambassador of Intercultural Dialogue (2008).

In April 2013, a Turkish court sentenced Mr. Say, on probation, to 10 months for re-tweeting anti-religious verses dubiously attributed to Omar Khayyam, a 12th-century Persian polymath. The re-tweets did not contain a word of violence. Around the same days when Mr. Say was sentenced, Mahmut Macit, a senior member of AKP’s Ankara provincial board, tweeted that “those raped types [atheist psychopaths] should be annihilated.” Despite speaking of the annihilation of atheists, Mr. Macit never faced prosecution.

Mr. Say’s misfortunes would not be limited to a suspended prison sentence. First, his 14-year-long efforts for his pet project, the Antalya Piano Festival, were scrapped. Then his annual concerts with the Borusan Philarmonic Orchestra were canceled by “an administrative decision.”

Most recently, the Culture Ministry verbally ordered (or shall we say, “requested?”) the Presidential Symphony Orchestra’s administration to remove two concerts planned for November and May whose repertoires were to feature works by Mr. Say. The works were originally in the orchestra’s concert calendar.

Half a century ago, Hikmet was read everywhere but his own country. Half a century later, Mr. Say can perform everywhere but his own country. Hikmet lived in a Turkey where the ruling ideology viewed communism and even its softer interpretations as an existential threat to the country. Mr. Say lives in a Turkey where the ruling ideology views atheism or even less pious practices of Islam as an existential threat to the country.

In days like this when there are beheadings on the other side of Turkey’s border with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, I shall repeat the opening lines from this column a few days after Mr. Say was sentenced in April 2013: “Islamists often – but not always – come in two flavors: Those who would decapitate an infidel, take out his heart and eat it in front of cameras, like the ‘freedom fighter’ in Syria; and those who have the same sentiments and goals but pursue smarter means of Islamizing the whole universe, including ‘lesser Muslims,’ through ‘de jure’ methods.”