We have only one WORLD yet! If we destroy it, where else will we go?
Winter 2002: 8th issue - **2nd Anniversary**


National Poet, International Figure,
But Not a Turkish Citizen

As the world enters a new phase of uncertainty, with acts of violence taking on unimagined dimensions, the celebration of Nazim Hikmet's 100th Birthday assumes an even greater meaning and provides even deeper comfort. Many are coming together to reflect upon the life and works of this unwavering idealist, whose books were banned for so long in Turkey, yet whose status as the country's foremost modern poet was pretty much agreed upon.

Article & Digital Art by Julie MARDIN

My grasp of my family's native tongue has steadily declined since my childhood summers in Istanbul.  But even if one does not speak Turkish, one of the most inspiring ways to acquaint one's self with Nazim Hikmet would be to hear his own reading of his work.  The personal yet expansive tone of his voice, gentle, one moment, bold and underlined, the next, is enough to convey the excitement of his vision, as well as the beauty and vigor, and the drama, of the Turkish language.  For us English-speakers, there are some very fine translations, Selected Poetry and his epic poem Human Landscapes, by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, and also a recent biography by  Saime Goksu and Edward Timms, titled Romantic Communist, that provides a fascinating account of his life, and because of which I will probably lapse into far more biographical detail than there is perhaps space for, but it is hard not to try to incorporate the feeling of so many ideological movements and counter-movements that his generation came of age in, and the sense there must have been that anything was possible.  The aim of this article will be to introduce Nazim Hikmet's work and life to the English speaking reader, who might not know all that much about the birth of Turkey as a modern nation, which coincided precisely with Nazim's own growth as a writer.

Human Landscapes
was a wonderful discovery.  Never had I come across such an innovative literary structure, which on the page looks like poetry, yet reads like a novel, and feels just as much like a movie--but a movie, a novel, with no expository or narrative restraints whatsoever.  It jumps from character to character, location to location, human to bird to radio wave, from train to the countryside through which it passes, to create nothing short of a bold attempt at ubiquity.  It reminded me of the brilliant first ten minutes of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, a passage which eavesdrops on a succession of city dwellers and their thoughts, made in the eighties, yet Nazim's untethered yet logical progression was sustained for a good part of the work and written in the forties.

Ironically this great freedom in imagination took place while Nazim was serving his longest prison sentence.  A self-avowed Communist, Nazim was in and out of prison for much of his life, yet in 1938 was sentenced to twenty-eight years for inciting the army to revolt, based primarily on the fact that his poem, The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin, was being read by young army cadets.  The subject of the poem was a 14th century socialist peasant rebellion, uniting Christian, Moslem and Jewish Turks against the Ottoman sultan, told with a dark, almost fairytale-like simplicity.

A barefoot woman is crying on the shore

And in the lake

                 an empty fishing boat has broken loose,

                 floating on the water

                 like a dead bird.

It goes where the water takes it

across the lake to be smashed on the mountains.

Evening comes to Iznik Lake.

Thick-voiced horesemen in the mountains

slit the sun's throat

              and drain the blood into the lake.

On the shore a barefoot woman is crying,

the wife of the fisherman chained in the castle

                                                      for taking a carp,

from The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin

Nazim's main crime was not only that he was a Communist writer, but that his writings were so successful.  No matter one's political beliefs, it was pretty widely agreed that he was an innovator, forging a modern literary language out of Turkish with the introduction of free verse and colloquial diction.  It was resonant, yet informal and decidedly unflowery, poetry that was fresh and accessible to all segments of the population.  His trouble with the law could be said to have stemmed not only from his beliefs, but also his enormously appealing talent with the language.

Nazim's time at the Bursa prison is said to have been crucial in his creation of Human Landscapes, as he was able to gain far more intimate contact with people from all backgrounds and classes in Turkey.   He had actually first conceived of the work as what he called an "Encyclopedia of Famous People," yet his entries were not "generals, sultans, distinguished scientists or artists, beauty queens, murderers, or billionaires; they were workers, peasants, and craftsmen, people whose fame had not spread beyond their factories, workshops, villages, or neighborhoods."  These entries eventually transformed into a more interrelated whole, and all levels of life were touched upon through various methods of representation, incorporating elements of poetry, prose and movie script techniques, causing Nazim himself to say that he felt he had ceased to be a poet and become something else. 

Raymond Carver called Human Landscapes one of the great works of modern literature.  It seems appropriate that an American minimalist writer would be drawn to Nazim's spareness of style, which in turn had been influenced by the Russian Futurists.  Though Nazim declared as he was getting older that he saw the need for "healthy, hopeful, even a little sad lyrical poetry".  It also seems fitting that Nazim was translating War and Peace at the same time as working on Human Landscapes.  The work's affinity with Tolstoy can be seen in its epic vision, as well as its natural blending of the personal with the political.  In a speech given by the prison doctor, reflecting upon a farmer who has come for his help, we can get a sense of the scope of the issues encapsulated in its concise, direct language.

He doesn't like me at all.

I am the enemy.

And he's desperate.

I am the effendi in this big building,

the man who gives him grief out of sheer spite

              instead of giving him a yellow pill.

The county clerk and me-

              we're both the same.

He'll put his thumb on the paper,

not because he believes in it

              but because I ordered him to.

And now he isn't thinking about anything,

              except maybe the harvest.

He’s done all he could,

              and if his wife dies it's my fault.


the effendi of this big building.

He doesn't like me,

              I am the enemy.

Did you see his wife?

She's like a piece of earth,

                              a handful.

Not from sickness-

                        from years.

And she's pregnant,

              with two babies already.

Which means she's still cooking,

              she can still be gone to bed with.

I saw her birth certificate:


She could be a year old,

              she could be a thousand-

                        she hasn't lived.

For instance:

oh, I don't know,

she has no idea of the sea.

For instance:

she hasn't heard of stuffed eggplant.

And each time she's looked on

with amazement

              as her husband wound his watch-

                                                             if he has one.

And for instance:

              she hasn't even dreamed

                        it might be possible to sleep      

                                                            past dawn.

                from Human Landscapes, Book III, Part II

A pasha's grandson:

Nazim himself was from an aristocratic background. Born in 1902 in Salonica, the birthplace of so much revolutionary thought in Turkey, he was part of a cosmopolitan family, his father a government official in the foreign service, and his mother a painter of Polish and Huguenot descent.  Both her grandfathers were illustrious commanders in the Ottoman army, with revolution and adventure running through both their life stories, and his paternal grandfather was also a Pasha, who practiced mysticism, a Sufi.

Nazim was sent to French school and then later to the naval academy.  He was in Istanbul as World War I was ending and the Allied forces were poised to carve up what was left of the Empire.  Occupying forces were already entering the capital.  As the government was doing nothing but capitulating, Mustafa Kemal, the great hero of the Battle of Gallipoli, on orders to disband the forces in the East, instead set up an alternative government in the city of Ankara, and set about building up a national resistance.  This was the movement which inspired Nazim's early poetry and which he was so anxious to join, and in late 1920 an invitation finally came from Halide Edip, the famous writer and activist, and a woman sergeant on the western front.  So, at the age of eighteen, he and another close friend, also a poet, set out for Ankara.

As the railroad had by then been taken over by the Occupying Powers, the journey had to be made by boat and then by foot over treacherous mountain passes. On the way they came into contact with a group of Spartacists, also on their way to join up with the Revolution, who exposed them to the ideas of Marx and Lenin. The friends also enjoyed the hospitality of local villagers, despite the extreme poverty that prevailed, and which they were confronting for the first time.

In Ankara, they met Mustafa Kemal, who on learning that they were poets, advised them to "write poetry with a purpose."  They were not sent to the front lines, but to teaching posts in the small town of Bolu.  Education was yet another crucial front on which the battle for the country was to be waged.  Finding themselves and their assigned roles somewhat ineffective, their imaginations got caught up with making their way to Russia, and soon they manipulated their way across the newly redrawn border.  In Moscow, they were privileged to witness the brief, incredibly dynamic Russian renaissance of the arts that occurred right after the Revolution.  Nazim was introduced to the Futurist poet Mayakovsky, and his even greater influence Meyerhold and the avant garde theatre.  He attended the Communist University for the Workers of the East, and steeped himself in the theories of Marx and Trotsky, but after a year returned to Turkey after the Independence War had been won and the Republic declared by Mustafa Kemal.  It was not until his second stay in Moscow that Nazim was to pursue his experiments in the theatre, establishing a new company and becoming its resident poet and playwright.

Thrown out of the Communist party:

In 1925, because of the Kurdish uprising in the East, there had been in a crack-down in Turkey on all political opposition, and the Communist Party lost many members and was in a state of disarray.  Many decided to align themselves with the dynamic programme of modernization that was already underway in Turkey.  Practically overnight, Kemal had abolished the fez, the Arabic script, introduced the metric system and was insuring more and more rights for women. They saw a compromise between socialism and capitalism in Kemal's policies of state planning, or Statism.  Though Nazim couldn't see himself working hand in hand with the government, he was in a few years thrown out of the Turkish Communist Party as well, for having aligned himself with a faction that called for greater internal democracy, independence from the Comintern, as well as for working within the legal boundaries of the Constitution.  They were accused of putting Nationalism above their allegiance to the Party.

By 1928 Nazim was settled back into Babiali, the journalistic quarter of Istanbul, and into his self-proclaimed mission of spreading the ideas of Marx and the Constructivists to the Turkish audience.  He worked on a variety of publications, in particular Resimli Ay (Illustrated Monthly), where he got involved in all aspects of production, graphic design and illustration, as well as contributing his poetry and a series of polemics bashing all the established poets and icons of the time, a period which was sure to have earned him more than a few enemies.  In the mid thirties however, these debates gave way to a far more urgent fight, against the growing spectre of fascism in Europe as well as in Turkey.

During this period Nazim had published ten books of poetry, had also produced numerous plays, screenplays and a novel.  By 1938, however, the pretext was provided to hand down a severe sentence, based primarily on a few young military students' enthusiasm for poetry.  The authorities had realized that they could not convict Nazim through the civil courts, they had to find a way to try him through secret proceedings in the National Security Courts.


Today is Sunday

Today, for the first time, they took me out in the sun.
I just stood there, for the first time in my life, struck by

                           how far away the sky is,
                           how blue
                           and how wide.

Then I reverently sat down on the earth,
Leaning my back against the wall.
At this moment, no trap to fall into,
At this moment no struggle, no freedom, no wife.
Only the earth, the sun and me.
I am happy...

                       from Letters from a Man in Solitary, 1938


Part of the amazing story of Nazim Hikmet was the strength of his creative spirit, his ability to celebrate the small details of his concrete existence, even in the most crushing of isolation and disruption to his life and world.  Although, even the most personal of lyrics we begin to understand are infused with political meaning.  The sun is used throughout his poetry as a symbol of revolutionary truth.  Recurring images of the blue sky, which he is not allowed to see, becomes synonymous with freedom, and the four walls with the human condition.

Throughout his sentence he kept up a frequent correspondence with friends and family, enclosing copies of his poems, which were then transcribed and distributed.  It was said that his Legend of National Liberation was being read and appreciated even by members of the cabinet.  His most important lifeline to the outside world was his wife Piraye, and it was in her honor that some of his most beautiful works were written.  He began to set aside an hour each night devoted to her contemplation, and produced a series of love letters and poems that would endow their relationship with something of a mythical status.

How beautiful to think of you:
amid news of death and victory,
in prison,
when I'm past forty...

How beautiful to think of you:
your hand resting on blue cloth,
your hair grave and soft
like my beloved Istanbul earth...
The joy of loving you

       is like a second person inside me-

from the 9-10 P.M. Poems

Unfortunately their real life romance was to suffer, and after surviving so many years of tribulation together, they were divorced.  Nazim had fallen in love with his younger cousin while in prison and married her when he was finally released, following in a pattern of deep attachment and separation.

In 1949 an international campaign was begun to secure his release, led by to Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon, and in 1950 he was awarded a peace prize in absentia in Warsaw, which he shared with Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda.  That same year Menderes came into power after the country's first democratically held elections and there was finally a general amnesty declared.  After serving twelve years of his sentence he was let go.  Soon after his release, however, at forty-eight years of age and in poor health, he was called to serve his military service.  Turkey had just entered NATO and was committing soldiers to help fight in Korea.  Nazim, convinced he would never survive basic training, yet unable to convince the authorities to exempt him, decided he had to flee the country once again.  With the help of a young friend, leaving behind his young wife and newly born son, they drove a speed boat into the Black Sea, where the Rumanian tanker Plekhanov finally took him aboard.

Back in Moscow he discovered a completely changed world.  All his old artist friends from the 1920s had either been imprisoned or become embittered drunks.  Any kind of experimental thinking had been crushed.  On seeing the state of the Soviet theatre he spoke out a reception honoring his arrival, much to the embarrassment of the guests.  Spending all that time in Turkish prisons had spared him his illusions about Soviet Russia.  This initial boldness seems tempered as his stay went on.  As he was a famous foreign writer, he had some protection.  Though in the USSR he was also under constant surveillance and was made aware of at least one attempt on his life.

His commitment against the spread of nuclear weapons:

As the world was in the throes of the Cold War, many in Turkey considered him a traitor.  Even the peace movement which he was to become a part of was regarded with suspicion as being nothing but Soviet sponsored propaganda.  While the threat of Russian imperialism, and the fragility of the young republic, were very real concerns, one cannot deny that Nazim Hikmet was motivated by a love of his country and his desire for social justice.  His life's focus can be defined just as much by his commitment to Turkey's independence, his commitment against Fascism, and his commitment against the spread of nuclear weapons, as by his leftist views.  He was a modernist, a staunch secularlist, just like Mustafa Kemal.  In a last minute appeal to the ailing president, he had written in a way that makes one believe he was a confirmed Kemalist,  "I am not blind and I appreciate every giant step you take for progress.  I have a heart that loves my country. I am a poet of the Turkish language who believes in you and your work."

Much earlier Kemal had been very impressed with Nazim's "The Holy Book."   When members of his entourage had intimated that he was a communist, he apparently declared, "I don't care what he is!  One thing is certain, no one has written anything as powerful as this in the Turkish language."

If we listen to the radio broadcasts that Nazim started to make in the late 50's, where he decries the Menderes regime, many of his critiques have resonance today.  He paralleled the situation right after WWII with the situation they found themselves in right after WWI.  Similarly, he saw that Turkey was now opening its doors far too readily to American interests.  He points out that specialists had been brought in to advise on torture techniques, and the newly appointed director of the Press and Communications office had been trained at the American Propoganda Service. "Did not Ataturk bequeath to you our independence as a country, a republic, and a nation as the most precious thing of all?"  He was not rallying for Communist revolution or an alignment with the Soviet Union, but for Turkey's independence and neutrality in the international arena.  

He also warned quite vehemently of the dangers of religious fundamentalism and how it was being manipulated, as he saw it, by Menderes, for political purposes.  Under Menderes, there was a further decrease in religious restrictions, but not only as a policy of tolerance, but with rather substantial funding and the establishment of religious schools and academies throughout the country.  Religious instruction became a part of the standard curriculum in all schools, and Turkish was eliminated in the call for prayer and in the Koran.  The struggle between the secular and the fundamentalist is still very much alive, and strangely enough often seems to play along the lines of the struggle between the left and the right.  The violence that has been inflicted by the Sunnis, upon the more tolerant, heterodox Alevis, throughout the years, often with the government just standing by, is an example of this.  Why has the fundamentalist strain of religious thought so consistently been favored over the liberal?  With the striking up of dubious alliances, a tangle of ideologies is created that gives pause for thought to this day, of course, not only in Turkey's affairs but those of the superpowers as well.

"Romantic Communist"

In exile, Nazim traveled widely and became a prominent member of the World Peace Council, sharing the platform with Sartre and Picasso, Neruda, Ehrenberg and Aragon.  His poems were performed by such international stars as Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. 1n 1956 his play, Ivan Ivanovich, a satire on Soviet bureaucracy, was banned, and led Stalin's daughter to call him a "romantic communist."  When he was stripped of his Turkish citizenship, according to many accounts, he greatly offended his Soviet hosts by taking on Polish citizenship, in honor of his ancestor who had fought so bravely against the Russians. His late poetry is filled with a confusion of the multiple places, times and women of his life, a sense of his own mortality and longing for his country.  He died in Moscow in 1963.

Nazim Hikmet's books are now available in Turkey, his poems are set to pop songs.  Compilations of his recorded readings from prison are available on CD.  There is a campaign to bring the poet's remains to be reburied in Turkey, as the poet had imagined his final resting place in Anatolia in his poems, though this still remains a matter of controversy, as does the even wider campaign to restore Nazim's citizenship.  His supporters point out, he was a recorder and celebrator of his country's history, a forger of a modern literary language out of spoken Turkish, a national poet, as well as perhaps Turkey's only international poet.  His work has been translated in over fifty languages.  It would seem ironic that we would not be able to claim him as ours, as a Turkish citizen.  One positive step has been the inclusion of two of Nazim Hikmet's poems in the Turkish school books, from which, until only recently, even the mention of his name had been banned.

Today everyone, even in Ankara, even in the military, is celebrating Nazim Hikmet's 100th birthday.  Despite the hardships he endured, and what must have been nothing but a series of disillusions and periods of tragic isolation, Nazim Hikmet never gave up on his faith and love for the world, and his dream of social justice, and proudly proclaimed himself a child of the 20th century.

On the 20th Century

        Bursa prison, 1941

To fall asleep, my love,
and wake up a hundred years later-
my century doesn't scare me.
I'm not a deserter.

My miserable ,

      shameful century

My darling,


            heroic century

I never regretted
I was born too soon.
I'm a child of the 20th century
and proud of it.
It's enough for me
to join the ranks in the 20th century
on our side
and fight for a new world.

No, earlier-in spite of everything
And my dying, dawning century,
When those who laugh last will laugh best
my awful night that comes to light

     with rising cries,

will be all sunsine,

      like your eyes.


- Human Landscapes, tr. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, New York: Persea, 1983.
- Poems of Nazim Hikmet
, tr. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, New York: Persea, 1994.
- Romantic Communist
, Saime Goksu and Edward Timms, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
- On the 20th Century
, tr. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, Light Millennium, January 2000, published on www.lightmillennium.org/January/www/NHtwentieth.htm, and appearing in the video documentary, On the 20th Century, produced by The Light Millennium.

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