August 10, 2023

The Water Alphabet: Introduction

By Dalia Kandiyoti & Nesi Altaras

Designed by Tom Haviv, inspired by Cem Eskinazi’s design of Moabet

In the twentieth century, and especially after the 1950s, Turkish became the primary language for Jews in Turkey, displacing Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish) as well as French, Yiddish, Arabic, and other languages. It should come as no surprise that the younger generations of Jewish authors, who were born after that transition and raised with Turkish, would also write in this language.  

In this folio, we offer an introductory sampling of three contemporary Jewish poets who think, dream, and write in Turkish. J. Habib Gerez (1926–2022), Roni Margulies (b. 1955–2023), and Anita Sezgener (b. 1971) each present a unique poetic practice that both individuates them and locates them in a body of literature whose linguistic and national status is continuously debated. Their poetry—presented here in translation along with their originals—is a generative place to think about national identity and literature. Although Article 66 of Turkey’s constitution declares all citizens equal as “Turks,” inequalities across minority groups have persisted. In response, a growing number of activists and intellectuals have pointed out how this imposed ethno-national identity both reinforces and obscures the dominance of Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims, the citizens par excellence of the country. In the literary world, these tensions have led to proposals for the replacement of the term Türk şiiri (“Turkish poetry”) or Türk edebiyatı (“Turkish literature”) with terms like Türkçe şiir (“poetry in Turkish”) or Türkiye şiiri (“poetry of Turkey”), terms that recognize the contributions of ethnic and religious “others,” who are not ethnic Turks or assimilable Muslims. 

The ongoing instability of Turkishness lurks in the background of this folio, even when it is not on display in each poem. Are these poets Jewish Turks? Turkish Jews? Jews of Turkey? Are they even Jewish poets—or just poets? While these are important questions worth exploring, it becomes quickly apparent that it is impossible to arrive at a shared, agreed-upon meaning. As with much else in Turkey, sharp divisions and contentious multiplicities characterize the literary field and questions of identity. 

These debates inform our approach to this collection, but not exclusively. The main goal of this folio is to acknowledge that despite the minoritization of the Jewish community, and its diminishment over the last century, Jewish poets continue to live and write in Turkey. Due to the frequently exclusionary approaches to literature in Turkey, this fact must be explicitly stated. According to Sezgener (one of our featured poets), such practices in the literary field are also the reason she asserts her Jewishness in all her bios: to say “I am here,” in her words. These three poets engage with (or at times avoid) Jewishness in different ways. In Sezgener’s widely varying works, Jewish references are often, but not always, organically embedded in oblique explorations of memory, family, history, and modern thought. In Roni Margulies’s poetry, Jewishness is not explicit—though it is a departure point for the anti-Zionist politics that occasionally manifests in his poems—but the author explores antisemitism extensively in book-length memoirs and essays. For Habib Gerez, who was the personal secretary of the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, public Jewishness was a “day job,” but it makes very little appearance in his work and can be concealed even in his artist’s signature “J. Habib Gerez,” which omits “Josef.” The examples of their work in this folio, and their oeuvre as a whole, show that rather than constituting a “school” or ethnoreligious outlook, these poets approach literature, society, and politics in distinct, individual ways that are situated within, but also beyond, significant linguistic and literary movements in Turkey. 

Writing on Jewish topics or not, Gerez, Margulies, and Sezgener make particular choices in their use of the Turkish language, and they each engage with the contemporary poetics of language, memory, and authenticity in distinct ways. While they are, in some ways, outside the Turkish literary canon, they are not outsiders to it. As Suat Baran explains in his introduction to the late Habib Gerez, linguistically speaking, the poet followed in the footsteps of the early Republican (that is, post-Ottoman) authors and thinkers. Poets like Faruk Nafiz Çamlıbel and others sought to purify the Turkish language of its Ottoman-era elite, courtly, and “foreign” (mostly Arabic and Persian) origins and influences in order to present an accessible, authentic, daily idiom in free verse that would modernize Turkish literature and language. This linguistic effort would also align the new Republic of Turkey, born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, with a single authentic language that was to represent and unify the nation’s multitudinous and disparate communities. The lamentable monolingualism in modern Turkey’s literary world was, and to a large extent continues to be, ceaselessly promoted and celebrated. Gerez was praised by literary critics for demonstrating that religious minorities now used Turkish as their “national language,” advancing it as a “language of civilization,” with the implication that the minority languages were rightfully excluded from public use or recognition. Gerez’s observations about life and common yearnings were crafted in the relatively new and plain language, with pleasing imagery and a certain optimism about both the nation and humanity. Known as a “Jewish poet writing in Turkish,” Gerez de-minoritized himself through language and uncontroversial thematics. But he did so without distancing himself from Jewish identity or community in his daily life. As author, painter, and employee of the Jewish community, Gerez always inhabited multiple worlds that are difficult to apprehend in his poetry, which follows a single line shaped by the Republic’s dominant literary ideology. 

Roni Margulies, on the other hand, presses on the wounds of this multiplicity that distinguishes Jews and other minorities. He expresses poignantly the impossibility of belonging in Turkey or elsewhere, and memories of the bygone multilingual Istanbul of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Turks. Margulies was uniquely outspoken in his socialism, anti-Zionism, and critique of antisemitism in Turkey, publishing widely on Turkish politics and society and on Turkish Jewish experiences. Despite his committed and vocal standing in the intellectual milieu of the anti-nationalist left, he did not write protest poetry. A significant part of his oeuvre renders sensations and impressions around loss, often through a melancholy speaker who registers a distance from a time and place. While we might say Gerez spoke to the dominant literary and linguistic currents of language and literature that dominated his era, Margulies’s poems, critics have claimed, set him apart from his contemporaries stylistically. His work  does not bow to his preceding generation’s “Second New” movement and its aesthetic dense with metaphors, symbols, surreal imagery, and word play. Nor does it conform to the post-1980s trends in Turkish poetry, for example, abstraction, hermeticism, or outspoken identity politics. Critics have observed more than once, and sometimes deprecatingly, that his poems are largely narrative in nature, which is less common in modern Turkish poetry. Hence, the frequent identification of Margulies as a poet closer to the Anglophone poetic tradition, with his translations of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin serving as further evidence. Yet Margulies counted preeminent twentieth-century Turkish poets like Nazım Hikmet and Yahya Kemal Beyatlı among his influences as well. And his work overlaps in ways with the First New (also known as the Garip) movement of the 1940s and 1950s—with its deliberately plain writing and everyday impressions, though without its playfulness and irony—as well as other Turkish poets who write in the first-person, like the beloved Edip Cansever, and “narrative poets,” such as Şavkar Altınel or Turgay Fişekçi. All of that said, his touchstones for authenticity in writing, as he explains in a preface to one of his collected works, are W. H. Auden and Vladimir Nabokov. Authentic poetry, Margulies argues (as do Auden and Nabokov), involves capturing the elusive or momentary experiences and feelings common to humanity. Through local and global references, Margulies renders instances of memory and longing—many of them interlaced with existential introspection about exile, belonging, love, time, and loss—in an elegiac tone. These moments are often spurred by an observed detail and its associations. When they take us back in time, it is less for nostalgia than for the expression of the past in the present consciousness. When they are in the now, they often connect us to their subjects through a shared outsiderness. Margulies’s poetry has a recognizable stamp, one that may especially resonate with those who, as Margulies put it in his 2018 memoir Ailem ve Başka Yahudiler [My Family and Other Jews], identify as “strangers in their own country.”

Jewish poets writing in Turkish exist both within and without the Turkish literary establishment, whether by choice or not. They mark their presence and difference by being visible through their work. They are also not necessarily identified with mainstream Jewish life in Turkey, although Gerez earned his living as the assistant to the country’s Chief Rabbi for many years. Margulies described himself as an “outsider” to the Jewish community, and Anita Sezgener can be described similarly—though both authors write and speak openly about their Jewishness. 

In Sezgener’s verse and prose poetry, Ladino language and Sephardi culture have an important, if not central, role. She has published poems about Sephardi life, and on other Jewish topics, in the online magazine Avlaremoz. The title of the magazine means “let’s talk” in Ladino—that is, let’s not maintain kayadez, the Ladino term for customary quietism that was expected of Jews in the public realm, as a minority group. These prose poems, (one of which is published here under its original title, “Endulko,” referring to a form of spiritual healing that Jews brought from Spain), reflect some of the traditional cultural practices of Turkish Jews, as well as their multilingualism and urban life, expressed in the poet’s signature forms of collage, linguistic deconstruction, and fragmentation. They are snapshots of what it is to live intergenerationally with inherited stories and memories, sewn as if by an old sewing machine into oneself. The motif of the family is hardly romantic; it also appears in a book with the telling title, Light Poisons. Sezgener’s inspirations are many, in discipline and form, ranging from the likes of Sevim Burak, Vüs’at O. Bener, and Leyla Erbil, to Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin. Some of them, like Anne Carson and Raymond Federman, she has translated, while others,  she has extensively rewritten in Aritmi Koridoru [The Arrythmia Corridor], a volume of experimental fragments based on the style and spirit of avant-garde authors writing in many languages. The 2017 book Tikkun Olam is subtitled “Walter Benjamin Poems.” Contemporary thought, linguistic experimentation, gender and environmental politics, and imagism coalesce in much of her published poetry. As her fellow poet and critic Asuman Susam explained in a review of Sezgener’s Benjamin-inspired book, her work is not about translating modern thought into imagery so much as trying to “think the world through images” that are nourished by ideas. These include not only European thought but also feminist theory and practice, and queer and ecocritical perspectives that are key to her work, as well as the backbone of the zine Cin Ayşe that she has been editing since 2008. In Sezgener’s work, the subject is elusive: as translators, we chased it along the lines of the poet’s dispersed syntax. But subjectivity is grounded in gender, cultural identity, and the breastfeeding, ill, or otherwise nonconforming body in poems that also register the political and perceptual shifts in those groundings. Multiplicity and outsiderness of being and culture are frequent starting points, but they are woven anew in language, image, and ideas each time.

A shared theme in the oeuvre of these three distinct poets is memory. This is not surprising given the universality of the theme for authors anywhere. But it is their particular assertion of memory, in unabashed references to both the sensations of ordinary moments and the experiences of multilingual being, that makes their mark on literature in Turkish. Margulies reveals memory’s twinned distance and presence, and Sezgener unmakes and remakes it in image and syntax, noting (after Jacques Roboud) that “poetry is the memory of language.” Through their work and visibility as authors, Gerez, Margulies, and Sezgener also impact the collective memory of Turkey and its literature, characterized too often by erasure or domestication of difference. Notwithstanding the discourses of extinction (of Turkish and Sephardi Jews), diminishment (the Turkish word for “minority” originates from the word “few”), and kayadez, their poetic work insistently registers presence, voice, and continuity.

Note: As editors, we are  grateful to Anita Sezgener for generously sharing her work and precious time with us and to Roni Margulies, who gave us a chance to meet him before his illness and untimely death, and for trusting us with the translation of his poems, now a part of his legacy. We also acknowledge the generous and erudite guidance of Suat Baran in the writing of this introduction and in the selection of the poems by Habib Gerez. And we thank profusely Aron Aji for his invaluable suggestions on the translations of Roni Margulies and Anita Sezgener. Any faults remain our own.

Footnotes

  1. Laurent Mignon, “A Few Remarks on Teaching Turkish Jewish Literature,” in Disseminating Jewish Literatures: Knowledge, Research, Curricula, eds. Susanne Zepp, Ruth Fine, Natasha Gordinsky, Kader Konuk, Claudia Olk, and Galili Shahar (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), 37–44.
  2.  Asuman Susam, “Ebedî sürgünün kaybolma arzusuna bakmak: Tikkun Olam,” T24, June 22, 2017, https://t24.com.tr/k24/yazi/tikkun-olam,1269

Nesi Altaras is a writer, journalist, researcher, and translator whose work has been published in English, Turkish, and Ladino. He is a PhD student in history at Stanford University focused on Ottoman Jewish history. He is from Istanbul.

Dalia Kandiyoti is professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She is the author of The Converso’s Return (Stanford 2020) and co-editor (with Dr. Rina Benmayor) of Reparative Citizenship for Sephardi Descendants (Berghahn 2023). She was born and raised in Istanbul.