August 9, 2023

About Roni Margulies

By Dalia Kandiyoti & Nesi Altaras

We lost Roni Margulies as we were finalizing this poetry folio. He had much more to say and much more to do. Roni Margulies was born in Istanbul in 1955. One side of Margulies’s family are Ashkenazi Jews who came to Turkey from Poland in the early 20th century, while on the other side are Sephardi Jews from Izmir. His mixed family was one of many languages: one set of grandparents spoke Russian at home; the others, Ladino; and his parents communicated in French. But within this multilingual soup, Margulies says, Turkish was the language of his daily life and interactions with his parents and sister. Regardless of what language he was addressed in, he responded in Turkish. While Turkish was the dominant language, the Istanbul he grew up in was a setting where Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were numerous. He laments the loss of this city throughout his oeuvre, as he does in his poem “Vor” (Armenian for “ass”): “A city where no one says vor anymore / cannot be Istanbul, cannot be my town.” 

Having grown up  in an almost entirely Jewish milieu, his time at Istanbul’s prestigious Robert College changed Margulies’s social environment and intellectual world. After graduating, he moved to London to study economics in 1972 and lived there for decades before returning to Istanbul. It was during this diasporic period that he began his career as a prolific writer and poet in Turkish. He started writing poetry in 1991 and won the prestigious Yunus Nadi Poetry Award in 2002 for Saat Farkı [Time Difference]. Margulies has published eight volumes of poetry (most recently Ornitoloji in 2017). He builds his poetry on quotidian observations, creating narratives that communicate loss, migration, and nostalgia (especially the nostalgia of the migrant experience). His tone is often melancholic, describing time and places that are no longer, as he does in “Vor.” He has described the worldview of his poetry as largely pessimistic. 

His prose works—five books of essays and numerous columns for a variety of Turkish newspapers in which he provides searing critiques of Turkish politics—stand in marked contrast. They are informed by his socialist politics and demand change for the better on a global scale. A committed Trotskyist, he has been a member of Turkey’s Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (DSIP) and affiliated organizations in the UK. His poetry is rarely overtly political, and his anti-Zionist politics only shine through in a few later poems that center on Palestine and the everyday struggles of Palestinians. Similarly, his Jewishness is rarely in open view in his poetry. It is only noticeable in poems describing his family, his relatives’ experiences during the Holocaust, impacts from major anti-Jewish episodes in Turkey’s history, and in his encounters with the various “others” of Turkey. But these poems are only a small subset of his oeuvre. According to Margulies, Jewishness is not an element of his poetics. In contrast, his autobiographical essays often put Jewishness at the center. His most recent book, Türk’ün Hizmetkarı: Türkiye’de Azınlık Olmak (Servant of the Turk: Being a Minority in Turkey) tackles the issue of minority identity, while an earlier work Bugün Pazar Yahudiler Azar: İstanbul Yahudileri Hakkında Kişisel bir Gözlem (On Sunday, Jews Go Astray: Personal Observation on Istanbul Jews) catalogued his opinions about the Jews of the city. That said, he remained outside of the organized Jewish community for his whole adult life.

With his prose and poetry differing remarkably from one another, Margulies’s oeuvre as a whole is distinct within Turkish writing. He is also considered “different” within the Turkish poetic scene in his choice to tell a story with a “beginning, middle, and end,” in his own words. Countering the critics who claim that narrative poetry is rare within the Turkish tradition, he insists on both its existence and influence, citing the canonical works of renowned poets from Abdülhak Hamit Tarhan to Nazım Hikmet and Yahya Kemal Beyatlı. He also translated works of Yehuda Amichai, a leading Israeli poet, into Turkish (through English), which at first glance is surprising considering his staunch anti-Zionism. However, he qualified this choice as one motivated not by identity politics but by a genuine admiration for Amichai’s work.

Well-known for his outspokenness and valorization of authenticity, Margulies continued to write political commentary as well as short crime fiction. Shortly before he passed away in July 2023, he was working on a poetry collection that reflects on death in the Covid era.