Rıfat Ilgaz: Turkey's poet of realism
The author of over 60 works, Ilgaz is perhaps known for his play Hababam Sınıfı and the movie series it inspired. In his works, he tried to unravel the intricacies of everyday social life. Like many of the writers of his era, Ilgaz was also imprisoned as a result of his publications.
Early life and literary character
Born in 1911 in Turkey’s Black Sea Kastamonu province, Ilgaz studied at a teacher’s training school. After graduating in 1930, he started teaching in primary schools in the provinces of Bolu and Duzce. He graduated from Gazi University’s Literature Department in 1938.
In 1926, his first published poem was Sevgilimin Mezarinda (Beside the Grave of My Lover). Although his early poems were published in many magazines, he did not compile them in a book.
“The power of Ilgaz was his pen,” Aydin Ilgaz, the writer’s son, told Anadolu Agency in a 2018 interview. He added that his father always weaved reality into his works.
His first collection, Yarenlik (Friendly Chat, 1943), focused on social issues and realities. In 1944 he was imprisoned for six months for his poem Sinif (Class, 1944) and was banned from teaching in 1947.
“My father had 12 poetry collections,” said his son. He said poems by his father that used to be banned are now part of school curriculums.
Ilgaz also wrote a memoir of his life in prison titled Karartma Geceleri (Blackout Nights, 1977).
Satire of Turkish education
Ilgaz also wrote extensively for magazines and newspapers. Short stories he published in Dolmus magazine were later compiled in 1957 under the title Hababam Sinifi or The Dunce Class.
In 1966 he made the stories into a play which was staged at Istanbul's Ulvi Uraz Theater Hall for three months. It was shown over 600 times to audiences totaling 51,000 people. The piece also toured Germany and Japan.
In 1975, The Dunce Class made the jump to the silver screen and proved so popular that it spawned five sequels.
The film tells the story of Camlica High School's newly appointed assistant principal and history teacher Mahmut Alnigenis, also known as Bald Mahmut. He tries to discipline the Dunce Class, which is full of students who cheat, skip classes for football games, and constantly vex teachers. Amid all the mischief, some serious events also occur.
Ilgaz and children’s literature
During his final years, Ilgaz focused on his memoirs and books for children. With an idealism from his years as a teacher, he wanted to write for the new generation. In his poem Okutmak (Educating, 1987), Ilgaz wrote:
“I’m the poet of the class, marked,
I’m the writer of the Dunce Class, reputed,
No matter what they say, I’ve always written for kids.
Death and legacy
Ilgaz passed away on July 7, 1993 in Istanbul and was buried at Zincirlikuyu Cemetery. A cultural festival is held every July 7-9 in Kastamonu to mark the anniversary of his passing.
The house in Cide, Kastamonu where he was born and raised was converted into a museum. The Kosuyolu Adile Sultan Pavilion -- where his magnum opus, Dunce Class was staged -- was also converted into a museum in 2014.