Nazım Hikmet is Turkey’s most internationally-known literary figure. He was writing profusely in the sixties and seventies and had to flee Turkey in order to continue to write and died in the former Soviet Union in 1963.
See the earlier posting for a fuller biography and video.
For now, enjoy his own words about himself.
Photo: Young Hikmet in a Turkish prison. He is the one with the mustache on the right.
I was born in 1902
I never once went back to my birthplace
I don't like to turn back
at three I served as a pasha's grandson in Aleppo
at nineteen as a student at Moscow Communist University
at forty-nine I was back in Moscow as the Tcheka Party's guest
and I've been a poet since I was fourteen
some people know all about plants some about fish
I know separation
some people know the names of the stars by heart
I recite absences
I've slept in prisons and in grand hotels
I've known hunger even a hunger strike and there's almost no food
I haven't tasted
at thirty they wanted to hang me
at forty-eight to give me the Peace Prize
which they did
at thirty-six I covered four square meters of concrete in half a year
at fifty-nine I flew from Prague to Havana in eighteen hours
I never saw Lenin I stood watch at his coffin in '24
in '61 the tomb I visit is his books
they tried to tear me away from my party
it didn't work
nor was I crushed under the falling idols
in '51 I sailed with a young friend into the teeth of death
in '52 I spent four months flat on my back with a broken heart
waiting to die
I was jealous of the women I loved
I didn't envy Charlie Chaplin one bit
I deceived my women
I never talked my friends' backs
I drank but not every day
I earned my bread money honestly what happiness
out of embarrassment for others I lied
I lied so as not to hurt someone else
but I also lied for no reason at all
I've ridden in trains planes and cars
most people don't get the chance
I went to opera
most people haven't even heard of the opera
and since '21 I haven't gone to the places most people visit
mosques churches temples synagogues sorcerers
but I've had my coffee grounds read
my writings are published in thirty or forty languages
in my Turkey in my Turkish they're banned
cancer hasn't caught up with me yet
and nothing says it will
I'll never be a prime minister or anything like that
and I wouldn't want such a life
nor did I go to war
or burrow in bomb shelters in the bottom of the night
and I never had to take to the road under diving planes
but I fell in love at almost sixty
in short comrades
even if today in Berlin I'm croaking of grief
I can say I've lived like a human being
and who knows
how much longer I'll live
what else will happen to me
This autobiography was written
in east Berlin on 11 September 1961
Nâzım Hikmet (January 15, 1902 – June 3, 1963) was born in Salonica of the Ottoman Empire, which is now Thessaloniki, Greece. He is considered Turkey’s greatest and most well-known literary figure and poet by the western world. His writings were banned in Turkey during his lifetime. He spent many years in prisons for his anti-imperialist/capitalist stance and his leanings to Marxist ideas in order to fight against imperial capitalism.
On November 22, 1950 he was among the recipients of the International Peace Prize along with Pablo Picasso, Paul Robeson, Wanda Jacubowska, and Pablo Neruda. Later during that period, the intensification of persecution against him pushed his need to escape, which he did to Rumania, then later to the USSR. He published from Russia and did not hide his literary work and views against the intensifying Turkish monopoly on the population’s thinking. The Turkish state continued to persecute him in every way they could until his death by heart attack in Moscow in 1963. Despite the Turkish state’s animosity against him, most of the Turkish population were in love with him. The ban on his books was lifted in 1964, a year after his death. His books were purchased in record numbers. Those that weren’t in line with his popularity were the people who mirrored the state’s views of what Turkey and the human being ‘should’ be. During the 60s, all over the world, there was a revolution, mostly led by educated students. In Turkey as well, there were violent clashes and many deaths by various anti-capitalist groups, right-wing and left-wing groups, and Marxist and socialist groups. In 1959, the Turkish state revoked his Turkish citizenship. Hikmet still had his Polish citizenship, however. The Turkish state ‘restored’ his citizenship in 2009.
Most of his writings concerned the wish and struggle for peace, and the condemnation of states that killed for the state. When Turkey participated in the Korean War, Hikmet opposed this stance. After John Foster Dulles’ (the, the US Secretary of State) Senate address, where John Dulles announces the Turkish soldier’s renumeration for their military service with the US soldiers at 23cents, while the lowest paid valued US soldier’s was $70, he wrote the poem: “23 Sentlik Askere Dair” translated as ‘Regarding the Soldier worth 23 cents.”
Hikmet’s dramatic works written in the 1930s and 1940s includes The House of the Deceased (1932), which focuses on the greed and hypocrisy of a middle-class family.
When his friend Kemal Tahir, also a leading literary figure and poet in Turkey was sentenced to 17 years in prison for his views against the Turkish state’s policies, he wrote a poem:
Letters to Kemal Tahir from Prison
This world will grow cold,
a star among stars,
one of the smallest,
this great world of ours
a gilded mote on blue velvet.
This world will grow cold one day,
not like a ball of ice,
or even a lifeless cloud –
but like an empty walnut it will roll around and around
in pitch dark space for ever.
You must grieve for it right now,
and endure the sadness,
for you must love the world this much
if you are to say,
‘I have lived’.
February 1948 (Beyond the Walls: Selected Poems by Nazım Hikmet, Richard McKane, and Ruth Christie)
Another most beloved poem of his shows what he desired of life
(English translation follows Turkish version):
Dörtnala gelip Uzak Asya’dan
Akdenize bir kısrak başı gibi uzanan
Bu memleket bizim!
Bilekler kan içinde, dişler kenetli
Ve ipek bir halıya benzeyen toprak
Bu cehennem, bu cennet bizim!
Kapansın el kapıları bir daha açılmasın
yok edin insanın insana kulluğunu
Bu davet bizim!
Yaşamak bir ağaç gibi tek ve hür
Ve bir orman gibi kardeşçesine
Bu hasret bizim!
Galloping from Far Asia and jutting out
into the Mediterranean like a mare’s head
this country is ours.
Wrists in blood, teeth clenched, feet bare
and this soil spreading like a silk carpet,
this hell, this paradise is ours.
Shut the gates of plutocracy, don’t let them open again,
annihilate man’s servitude to man,
this invitation is ours..
To live like a tree single and at liberty
and brotherly like the trees of a forest,
this yearning is ours!
Trans. by Fuat Engin
His works have been translated into over fifty(50) languages and enjoy immense relevance today.
One of his poems, Hiroshima Child, is a very powerful plea. In 2005, famous Japanese singer Chitose Hajime, collaborating with the internationally reknown musician/ethnomusicologist Ryuichi Sakamoto, recorded the Japanese version of this poem set to music, on the grounds of the Hiroshima memorial.
When I first heard/saw this piece I cried openly. An aunt I never knew disintegrated into the ground or the walls in that burning Atomic blast in August of 1945, and my mother was further left alone when she lost that older sister then. It is also the story of the victor, the United States government. Can any government listen?
Kapıları çalan benim
kapıları birer birer.
göze görünmez ölüler.
oluyor bir on yıl kadar.
Yedi yaşında bir kızım,
büyümez ölü çocuklar.
Saçlarım tutuştu önce,
gözlerim yandı kavruldu.
Bir avuç kül oluverdim,
külüm havaya savruldu.
Benim sizden kendim için
hiçbir şey istediğim yok.
Şeker bile yiyemez ki
kâat gibi yanan çocuk.
teyze, amca, bir imza ver.
şeker de yiyebilsinler
I come and stand at every door
But none can hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen
For I am dead for I am dead
I’m only seven though I died
In Hiroshima long ago
I’m seven now as I was then
When children die they do not grow
My hair was scorched by swirling flame
My eyes grew dim my eyes grew blind
Death came and turned my bones to dust
And that was scattered by the wind
I need no fruit I need no rice
I need no sweets nor even bread
I ask for nothing for myself
For I am dead for I am dead
All that I need is that for peace
You fight today you fight today
So that the children of this world
Can live and grow and laugh and play