A Village in Anatolia

A Village in Anatolia

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
A Village in Anatolia ‘A Village in Anatolia’ by Mahmut Makal (trans. Wyndham Deedes)
(Vallentine Mitchell, 1954, pp 190)

Mahmut Makal was born into a peasant village in Central Anatolia in 1930. As a young man he became one of the first graduates of the Village Institute boarding schools, which were established as part of early republican authorities’ systematic efforts to develop secondary education in rural areas. The object of the institutes was to educate village youths – both boys and girls – up to a basic understanding of modern technical and classical knowledge. Graduates would then return to their villages to help deepen Turkey’s modernization project (the official 1935 census found that 80.8 percent of the overall population was still illiterate).

After graduation, Makal went back to become the only state teacher in the village of Nürgüz. He went on to record his experiences over the next few years, which were then published in Turkey in 1950. “Bizim Köy” (Our Village) caused quite a stir in Turkey on publication, owing to its ruthlessly unvarnished picture of existence in the village. In it, Makal catalogued one bleak village reality after the other, describing an endless struggle against the merciless extremes of weather, hunger, health catastrophes, and – most importantly for him – the “backward” forces of traditional religion. Instilled with a professedly “modern” mentality shaped by a Village Institute education, it was his task to elevate the “primitives” of his village. However, this was easier said than done, and Makal spends almost the entire book in paroxysms of frustration at the stubborn traditions he is confronted with. A “son of Atatürk,” he viewed village life with something close to contempt, rarely finding anything to admire. Symbolically enough, while he cherished the delivery of periodicals and newspapers, the villagers saw newly delivered paper as good for nothing much more than stuffing for windows as protection against the cold.

The clash between modernity and traditional life is brought into sharpest relief when a “hafiz” (one who knows the Quran by heart) comes to visit, bringing all life and work in the village to a halt. The villagers are in awe of their new guest, leaving Makal to reflect morosely: “What was a lone man to do against a force of this kind? … How to combat these dark forces. What sort of language would men understand? … The more I see, and the more I think, the more does my heart ache.”

The frustration he felt was particularly acute because he was still so young when he was sent back to the village; what’s more, it was his own society whose shortcomings so overwhelmed him. His perpetual disillusionment unwittingly verges on the comic, but over the course of 190 pages it also becomes rather exhausting. There is some truth in Bertrand Russell’s assertion that “the secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible,” but this is something that Makal can never bring himself to do. A passage in the middle of the book gives an impression of the dominant tone: “There’s a book … that says: ‘Give up grieving – look to your life.’ I haven’t read that book; but I should have liked the writer to change places with me, and see whether he could give up grieving then.”

Still, it’s interesting to observe Makal using the whole of the final chapter to admit his appreciation of “primitive” Anatolian folk songs: “How deeply they touch one, though it may be that they are not worth a brass farthing to our bright modern musicians.” It’s a revelation of sorts. After 190 pages of railing against the ignorance and backwardness of village life, Makal is finally able to resign himself: “Perhaps what makes me weep is the very fact that the world is not worth joy or grief, and yet one cannot help but weep for it.”

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William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr