No. 17 April 2002

 Living, I Mean, Weighs Heavier

 

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No. 17 April 2002

It’s April, again, and the other day, at dusk, while walking in the park and looking at the sea, I realized that I was actually listening intently – to the sound of the waves, the gulls, the call to prayer, and all around, behind, and underneath, the sounds of the city.  I was thinking of how it came about that I could start writing this column again, after a seven month long hiatus, and of what to write in this first one.  I remembered how I had alluded to Orhan Veli’s Song of Istanbul in the column I wrote last April, when I was yearning just to sit in a café in Rumeli Hisari gazing out at the Bosphorous, and dream.  Then I remembered Veli’s poem, I Am Listening to Istanbul, and realized that was precisely what I was doing, and then the topic came to me.  The topic is simply listening.  Those of us who live here have to remember to take time just to listen to Istanbul, this city of dreams we are fortunate enough (or more darkly perhaps, fated) to live in.  The poem begins thus: 

I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed
First a breeze is blowing
And leaves swaying
Slowly on the trees;
Far, far away the bells of the
Water carriers ringing,
I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed.

I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed
A bird is passing by,
Birds are passing by, screaming, screaming,
Fishnets being withdrawn in fishing weirs,
A woman's toe dabbling in water,
I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed.
[1]

Of course, having a foreign writer tell you to remember to listen to Istanbul may strike many of you as something immediately in dire need of a Marxist analysis.  After all, here we are, still struggling through the economic crisis that began last year, just around this time, and finding the money needed for bus money, bread, and a few grams of meat is about all that some people can manage at the moment.  Now there is this muddled-headed, romantic, idealistic foreigner talking about poetry — poetry? — and going on about how we should take time to listen to Istanbul.  Oof, ya.  Easy for her.  She doesn’t have to worry about ekmek parasi.  Etc.

Well, not so.  I’ve only managed to stay here nigh on eight years by living by my wits, teaching English here and there —“This is a pencil,” “Open the window,” you know — since I don’t have anything like a rich uncle.  This is the second economic crisis I’ve weathered since coming here, and I know from first-hand experience that it isn’t easy, but, oh . . . I can still say with conviction that we have to take time to listen to Istanbul.  It’s a matter of realizing that this life is the only life we are going to have (notwithstanding what may or may not happen after we are dead and buried and our relatives and friends pay their respects and then go on as if nothing out of the way had happened [2] ).   So even though we have to struggle and take care of the practical so-called necessities, we still have to remember that, as the fresh, smiling, oh-so-very-wise young girl said in the play, Simyacý:Baþka þeyler lazým.” [3]   What’s necessary?  Stuff like remembering to:  listen to Istanbul; notice the unique personalities of street children, and beggars, and cats and dogs and also, even, pigeons and crows (if you don’t believe they have unique personalities observe them carefully, once, for a full five minutes, just as an experiment); look the next person you say “Nasýlsýnýz?” to right in the eyes and catch how they really are; and finally, look in the mirror in the morning and remember who you really are and then, act that way.

Does it matter?  Is it important?  Will it make any difference at all?  The answer is a resounding “Yes.”  Everything you do means something, even if no one sees it. 

Perhaps I haven’t yet convinced you that this April, right this moment, you should do anything different.  As a last resort, allow me to press into service the exquisite words of Nazim Hikmet.  In his poem, On Living, he writes eloquently about what I am insisting we have to remember: 

I

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example-
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people-
even for people whose faces you've never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees-
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

II

Let's say you're seriously ill, need surgery -
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast...
Let's say we're at the front-
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
but we'll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind-
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.

III

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet-
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space...
You must grieve for this right now
-you have to feel this sorrow now-
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say ``I lived'' ...[4]

Well, there you have it.  Take time to listen to Istanbul.  Listen to what she’s saying, listen to what she wants from you, and give her the very best you are capable of.  Tend to this city as if she were a garden.  She used to be like a garden, and could be again.  And don’t think for a moment that since you are so small, so insignificant, and you are going to die anyway, it doesn’t matter.  It matters.  Like the business of finding ekmek parasi, our dying is only, finally, just a detail, because “living, I mean, weighs heavier.


[1] From I, Orhan Veli, a collection translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat (New York:  Hanging Loose Press, 1989).  You can find the entire text—over 50 poems—at: http://ifmiserv.ifm.uni-hamburg.de/~nail/siir/poetry/books/i_orhan_veli/

My thanks to the reader who wrote to tell me about this wonderful website.

[2]   See the poem of Yunus Emre in which he writes: ”For three days they will sit out—To settle your affairs, no doubt; You will be all they talk about.  After that, their lips will stay tight.” In Yunus Emre and His Mystical Poetry, ed. Talat Sait Halman (Indiana University Turkish Studies 2:1981), p. 172.

[3] I saw the Turkish theater production based on Paolo Coelho’s book, The Alchemist, a couple of years ago at Dostlar Tiyatrosu.  Produced by Mehmet Ulusoy and starring Genco Erkal and Tulay Çimenser, it was glorious.

[4] Nazim Hikmet, February 1948.  Trans. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, 1993.  You can find this poem and more in Turkish and in English at http://ifmiserv.ifm.uni-hamburg.de/~nail/siir/poetry/nazim_hikmet.html 

 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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