Our Great Contrarian: On Turkish Humor Writer Aziz Nesin

October 26, 2016 | 17 min read


Turkey’s greatest humor writer, Aziz Nesin, was born on December 20, 1915. When, in 1993, 35 secularist intellectuals were burned to death in the hotel in which they had assembled in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, he stood at the center of the events. Dozens of mainstream papers had accused Nesin of inciting hatred by publishing a Turkish translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses months before the attack.

coverThe torching of the hotel was seen as a violent reaction to Nesin’s marginal publishing activities — at least this was what we were instructed to think by the Turkish media. As a 12-year-old, I remember watching images of the Madımak Hotel; from the flames that covered the facade of the hotel, Nesin had emerged rather miraculously, like some kind of supernatural figure, being saved from the flames by the ladder of the fire brigade.

Twenty-three years later, in Istanbul, I wondered how this writer who was born when the Ottoman Empire still existed, had ended up on that ladder, meters away from flames ready to take his life. And I wondered about something else, something I found crucial for my own fragile position as a writer in Turkey: what would Nesin think were he alive in the Turkey of today? This year Turkey had been rocked by a number of chilling developments: a reignited war with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) unsettled life first in eastern Anatolian cities, then in Ankara, finally in Turkey’s touristic heart Istanbul, where bomb attacks have become part of the daily routine. A worsening geopolitical clash with Russia and numerous ISIS bombings intended to further destabilize Turkish society have resulted in the contraction of the national economy and the near collapse of Turkey’s tourism industry, which the government attempted to heal by making major shifts in its foreign policy. And finally a failed coup attempt on July 15, which ended in the deaths of hundreds of people and a momentary new spirit of unity. What would Nesin say about all this?

coverServing as a career officer for many years in his 20s, Nesin became the fiercest critic of the state he had spent years to protect with his life. Here was a man of contradictions: A defender of republican reforms and a committed enemy of conservatism, Nesin had kept his diaries in Ottoman script and became a hafız (someone who has memorized The Qur’an) in his childhood. Nesin was the perfect symbol of the cultural crises Turkey experienced throughout the last century. Watching images of military tanks cutting citizens into two on the streets of Ankara, and the bomb attack and crying tourists in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, I wondered if Turkey’s formula for keeping those contradictions in uneasy harmony at home would survive the attacks against the country. With the rise of fear and violence, were we losing the nuance that is the inheritance of our shared history? Nesin’s story was also relevant for other parts of the world. After all, he was a composite of the kind of people a conservative society creates and the kind of person who passionately rebels against that culture.

For a long time Turkey has had a strictly secular regime that has often tipped into authoritarianism as it presides over a largely religious population. It was in this strained cultural atmosphere that Aziz Nesin lived and produced his work. After his death, a new wave of politicians reconfigured Turkey’s public sphere; this new politics, a combination of Islamism with modern economic growth, seemed to be on the verge of unravelling in the eyes of some through the past few years.

coverIn Turkish, Aziz means Saint. Paradoxically it fits perfectly the country’s most famous atheist and stubborn provocateur. In 1993 Nesin started putting out his translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Not long ago, in my Istanbul apartment, I picked my copy of Rushdie’s 2012 autobiography Joseph Anton, where the novelist describes Nesin (“newspaper publisher and provocateur”) as an irritating, stubborn old man. Nesin’s Turkish edition of The Satanic Verses had infuriated Rushdie, who had first met him a year before the Satanic Verses controversy “when the Turkish writer was the one in trouble. Harold Pinter invited a group of writers to the Camden Hill Square house to organize a protest because Nesin had been told that Turkey had decided to confiscate his passport.”

Nesin’s troubles were due to his fierce criticism of the secular-nationalist junta that had usurped political power in Turkey. This was ironic, given how he was accused of being a secular-purist in his later life, despite having spent so much of his life fighting against the institution that most vigorously defended that stance. When Nesin started publishing unspecified extracts from The Satanic Verses in Aydınlık, a socialist newspaper, without having any agreement with him, Rushdie was shocked to see how his text was represented in Turkey.

The headline over the excerpts read SALMAN RUSHDIE: THINKER OR CHARLATAN? In the following days there were more extracts, and Nesin’s commentary on those extracts made it clear that he was firmly in the ‘charlatan’ camp. The Wylie Agency wrote to Nesin to tell him that piracy was piracy and, if he had, as he said, fought for the rights of writers for many years, would he be willing to object to Ayatollah Khomeini’s infringement of those rights? Nesin’s reply was as petulant as possible. He printed the agency’s letter in his newspaper, and commented, “Of what concern is Salman Rushdie’s cause to me?” He said he intended to continue publishing, and if Rushdie objected, “you may take us to court.”

Such was Nesin’s talent at getting on people’s nerves: as an iconoclast he continuously got into trouble with iconoclasts. In today’s Turkey he would most probably critique Islamists, secularists, and liberals with equal passion: he was an author who loved making waves. Besides Rushdie, the people Nesin drove crazy with his attitude included Turkish civil servants and prime ministers, generals and figures in the highest echelons of Turkish political power.

Like Christopher Hitchens, Nesin was a great contrarian: fighting authority was his lifeblood. It was, also, something that regularly cost him his freedom. In 1947, Nesin was sentenced to 10 months in prison for a piece he wrote; in 1955 he was imprisoned again, this time for nine months, accused of “organizing a communist plot.” He would most probably get into trouble in the Ergenekon trials in 2008, where around 300 journalists, opposition figures, and military officers were given life sentences for “plotting a secularist coup against the government.”

It was only in 1965, at the age of 50, that Nesin would be allowed to get a passport and travel abroad. He also angered some powerful people from outside Turkey — Queen Elizabeth no less. She had sued the Turkish humorist in court in 1949 for an article where Nesin was accused of degrading the monarch, alongside Iran’s King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and King Farouk of Egypt. A Turkish court accepted Queen Elizabeth’s application via Turkey’s Foreign Office, and Nesin went to prison for six months.

“When I first opened my eyes to this world, I was surrounded by fire,” Nesin writes in his autobiography, describing a scene eerily similar to the hotel fire that was meant to kill him. “My first memory in life is that of crimson colored flames that have covered the black sky entirely.” Nesin’s mother wakes him up and immediately takes and kisses The Qur’an in the room, carrying it with her before rescuing her daughter whom she leads out of the burning house. Such was the importance of the holy text in the Nesin house — and such was the continuous connection it would have with fires in Nesin’s life.

“I was not one bit scared by what had happened; the whole thing remained in my memory as if it was some kind of a nocturnal entertainment, a holiday celebration,” Nesin writes and describes how he spent the night in the graveyard. “It was either 1919 or 1920…My father was not around. He had moved to Anatolia much earlier, leaving us there like that…”

Abdülaziz, Nesin’s father, was a gardener who grew up in one of Istanbul’s Princes Islands, Heybeliada. Young Aziz had a fascinating relationship with this man who had fought in Turkey’s war of independence. Firstly, he owed him his name: born as Mehmet Nusret (the name of his grandfather), Aziz Nesin started using his father’s name when he became a writer, so as to keep away from the wrath of authorities. Secondly, he owed him his education: in order to enroll at Istanbul’s prestigious Darüşşafaka School, which only accepted orphans as students, he had to pretend that the man whose name he chose as his nom de plume, was dead.

One day in July two years ago, I took a ferry to Heybeliada where Nesin had lived before his family moved to Istanbul in 1928. It was a beautiful summer day and the private boat I took from the European neighborhood of Kabataş was filled with Arab tourists, young Turkish couples, pleasure-seeking Americans, and bike lovers who had carried their vehicles with them on board –they seemed like characters from a Nesin story. I had my Nesin books in my tote bag and was happy with the prospect of spending the day at Heybeliada, a great place to party, picnic, and cycle with its deserted beaches and its long, intricate roads that surround the island.

The ferry ride takes an hour and I spent it browsing through Nesin’s reminiscences of his childhood. “The day when the Bosphorus was frozen, the Istanbul pier was covered by towers of ice,” Nesin writes as he remembers the difficulty of commuting between Heybeliada and Istanbul every school day. “I saw icebergs which had the size of a two or three storied apartment block…From the windows of the ferry we watched the icebergs for awhile. Then dusk fell…All the ferries were canceled.” Nesin would take the 5:30 a.m. ferry every day from Heybeliada to Istanbul so as to be on time in Darüşşafaka School where lessons began at 8 a.m. After my arrival there, I walked on Heybeliada’s streets, trying to imagine the young humorist trying to make it to the ferry in time.

Nesin wrote his first play, which was five pages long, in 1922, before the founding of Turkish republic. In 1927, while at high school, he sent letters to publishers about his desire to write a novel, but those dreams were cut short when he lost his mother to tuberculosis. When, subsequently, the Turkish government introduced a “Surname Law” and asked all citizens to pick a surname, he found himself in the curious position of choosing a surname for himself. His surname Nesin came from the question he desired to ask himself throughout his life — Nesin means “What are you?” in Turkish. “The most close-fisted called themselves ‘Generous’ while the most fearful citizens picked the surname ‘Brave’ and the laziest among us became ‘Hardworking,'” he later recalled. This was one of Nesin’s earliest encounters with the absurdities of his country.

coverIn 1937 Nesin became an officer and later confessed to feeling “like a Napoleon…I was among the many Napoleons in the Turkish army…I would conquer the world a few times every day with my red pencil. My Napoleon delusion went on for a few years. But even during my sickness I never became a fascist.” From 1942, he started sending out short stories, and started using the name Aziz Nesin for the first time. By 1945 he was writing for the left-wing newspaper Tan. The next year, he started publishing the satirical magazine Marko Paşa with his novelist friend Sabahattin Ali (Ali’s masterpiece, Madonna in a Fur Coat, was published in English translation by Penguin Classics this year). The wry tone of the paper proved a big success: Turkey’s leading newspaper Cumhuriyet, had a dead serious style and ultra-nationalist editorial line at the time, frequently denouncing dissident figures like the poet Nâzım Hikmet as “enemies of the republic” in Pravda fashion. It sold 30,000 copies every day; Marko Paşa which mocked everything with trademark irreverence, sold 60,000.

Nesin had a particular sense of humor based on a thoroughgoing disregard of authority, which in the 1940s was represented by the secular-republican single-party regime. He loved giving a difficult time to three Ps of Turkey: police, politicians, and the People with a capital p. The first Nesin accused of being ineffective and useless, focused only on stifling freedoms. In his story “I am Sorry” a man shouts non-stop for police to inform them about a crime that is about be committed. “A man is going to be murdered in that building over there,” he informs a police officer who ignores him: “I’m sorry, I can’t interfere in this matter…Because I am a police officer controlling the traffic. If I leave my post, who do you think will look after the traffic muddle?” Another cop turns him down, giving the excuse that his duty is to check the rates of vegetables fixed by the Municipal Corporation. Next, a crime branch officer tells him he only deals with theft cases; another says he is on leave that day. As he loses all hope a man approaches him to say: “If you really want the police to come right to your feet, go to that open space across the road, stand on a soap box and start delivering a forceful speech.” When he gets onto a soap box and utters the words “Fellow countrymen! Isn’t it disgraceful living like this in our own country?” policemen materialize in four corners, hold the man by his collar, and take him away, still paying no attention to the crime that has just been committed nearby. This is not terribly different from what imprisoned journalists have often felt in Turkey: you can publicly threaten people with death and little happens to you, while journalism is frequently considered a crime, often an act of treason.

In a similarly surreal story named “A Unique Surgical Operation,” Nesin shifts his focus to Turkish politicians. He describes scenes from the fictional International Surgical Congress where prominent doctors from 23 countries read scientific papers on various subjects. An American surgeon announces his plans to completely change a person’s fingerprints, while a British surgeon manages to replant a soldier’s severed head on his body, years after his death. Meanwhile a German surgeon collects the surviving organs of dead bodies to convert them into a live human. Finally, on the last day of the congress, a delegate climbs the podium to talk about a recent operation he performed, involving the removal of his patient’s tonsils. The audience, shocked with the simplicity of the invention, mocks the doctor when he tells them: “Do you know who the person was whose tonsils I removed? Worthy friends! Let me tell you that my patient was a journalist.” This is followed by a speech about the lack of freedom in Turkey. “Accordingly, journalists were not allowed to open their mouth at all. As my patient happened to be a journalist, I had no alternative but to approach his diseased tonsils through an opening other than his gagged mouth.” All doctors agree that this is the most unique and difficult surgical operation proposed in the congress. This cynical and absurd tone has proved popular among readers who would be irritated when Nesin’s criticisms started targeting them.

During a panel, a fan asked Nesin whether Turks were very clever as descendants of Nasreddin, the 14-century Sufi and folk hero known for his wit and funny stories. Nesin answered that 60 percent of Turkish people were stupid. He later explained those inflammatory remarks and said the stupidity was connected to “the national diet,” which did not include enough proteins. In interviews with the German press, Nesin was asked whether those comments were not similar to things racist and xenophobic politicians and journalists said about immigrant Turks. But Nesin didn’t take back his words: in old age he became a more passionate contrarian. This would surely give him a difficult time in today’s Turkey, where “condescension” has become a key concept in public debates. It would be easy to instrumentalize instances of Nesin’s condescension towards Turkey’s people, and easily condescend the condescending figure — but then again, Nesin could turn that into comedy as well.

In Heybeliada, I started climbing the steep uphill that starts from the pier and leads to the island’s residential areas, where numerous luxurious mansions and hotels are located. Walking past them I thought of Nesin’s father Abdülaziz, a committed supporter of the Sultan, in whose house Nesin spent his first years. I thought about the Ottoman-loving father and the communist child, and how their relationship so closely resembled contemporary father-son relationships in Turkey.

I wandered around the island, which has a museum devoted to İsmet İnönü, Turkey’s second president, under whose single-party rule Nesin suffered intensely, and another for the novelist Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar. When I spotted the offices of Heybeliada Volunteers Organization at the end of the road, I was sure that they could point me toward Nesin’s home. “Aziz Nesin?” the volunteer lady asked, looking as if she heard the name for the first time. “I don’t believe we have anything on him.” When I asked a real estate office about his house, I was told that Orhan Pamuk used to live on Heybeliada but they knew nothing about Nesin.

“No one, including Nesin himself, could find the house he grew up in,” Süleyman Cihangiroğlu tells me a month after my 2015 visit to Heybeliada. “He went to the island many times but just couldn’t locate that house.” We are sitting in the garden of the Nesin Foundation, run by Cihangiroğlu for the last six years. Under the shadow of a long tree, I listen to stories about how Nesin was devastated by the loss of his mother whilst living in Heybeliada. “Nesin was very young when she died of tuberculosis. In his later life, he always tried to find in his love affairs a resemblance of her.”

Cihangiroğlu was born in Şırnak in 1977, four years after the foundation of the Nesin Foundation. He comes from a family of 12 children; one of his elder brothers, a fan of Aziz Nesin, was aware of the existence of the foundation, which Nesin wrote about in special chapters in his books published throughout the 1980s (“The way Nesin gave news about the foundation in his books was a bit like Facebook status updates,” Cihangiroğlu says).

The foundation is in Çatalca, around two hours’ drive from the centre of Istanbul. Founded to educate children in need of help, it accommodates around 40 kids a year. Graduates, still called “Nesin kids,” rarely stop visiting the place after their “graduation,” which occurs when kids achieve financial independence.

Cihangiroğlu first came to the foundation in 1990. “My brother had written a letter to Nesin and asked him to be allowed to stay here. Nesin wrote back, saying that although he seems like a bright kid, he was too old. ‘Bring two of your younger brothers here.'” This would be the first time Cihangiroğlu traveled outside Şırnak, which at the time was at the heart of the conflict between the Turkish state and armed Kurdish militants. While writing this piece, the city again turned into a violent place, with the intensification of the armed conflict between the Turkish army and militants of PKK, leading many to flee their homes and move to western cities.

“I couldn’t sleep the night before the day we traveled here,” Cihangiroğlu remembers. “In my room I drew a straight line from Şırnak to here. I tried to imagine what kind of a journey it would be.” When he arrived one late night, Nesin was not inside, having gone abroad for a book tour. It took Cihangiroğlu only a few hours to get used to living at the foundation. “By the next day, it was as if I had been living here my whole life,” he says.

When I took a walk in the foundation building I was surprised to see how many facilities it contained: a swimming pool, a basketball pitch, a carpentry atelier, large reading rooms with comfy sofas, a huge library that houses thousands of books, and a museum floor filled with Nesin’s personal items. In one room I was startled by the sound of notes. A little boy, who had come inside unannounced, was playing the piano by the wall.

“I used to call him Aziz Dede (Grandfather Aziz),” Cihangiroğlu says. “He was this figure that all the kids really respected and were a bit afraid of. Thanks to him I had a great childhood.”

While growing up, Cihangiroğlu discovered how famous Aziz Nesin was. He read all his books, no mean feat when you consider Nesin wrote more than 100. In the 1980s, after the military coup, Nesin’s tireless defense of human rights and freedom of speech got him into trouble. In his role as the lead campaigner of Aydınlar Dilekçesi (The Intellectuals’ Petition), Nesin had infuriated the generals in 1984. Submitted to the Presidency and the leader of Turkish parliament on May 1984, the petition was entitled “Observations and Demands Concerning the Democratic Order in Turkey.” It started in a stark tone (“Turkey is undergoing one of its heaviest crisis which is yet to come to an end. Without a doubt, all sectors, levels and officials of our society are responsible for this massive crisis”) and highlighted the importance of democracy. “Preserving it formally while clearing it of its contents, is as dangerous as destroying democracy.”

The petition called for an immediate end to torture and demands from the state “to follow legal rules whilst fighting acts of terror.” Signed by 1,300 intellectuals, the text had drawn the fury of President Kenan Evren, who called its signatories “a group of intellectuals who don’t know better” before suing them en masse. “Everyone speaks against Evren and his coup today,” Cihangiroğlu tells me in the garden of the foundation. “But it demanded guts to say these things in the 1980s and Nesin did have guts. Many old leftists who had taken asylum in Europe in 1980s now come to Nesin Foundation and tell us how they had disagreements with Nesin (some of them hated him). ‘Now we respect him for his fight against the dictators; he never left the country like we did!’ they confess.”

After the “Intellectuals’ Petition” and the Satanic Verses controversy, which ended in disaster, Nesin was a tired man. It was during this time that the German journalist Günter Wallraff wanted to put right “the misunderstanding” between Nesin and Rushdie and brought them together. Rushdie described the meeting in detail:

He flew from Biggin Hill to Colongne, and at Günter’s home the great journalist and his wife were loud, jovial and welcoming, and Wallraff insisted they play Ping-Pong at once. Wallraff turned out to be a strong player and won most of the games. Aziz Nesin, a small, stocky, silver-haired man, did not come to the Ping-Pong table. He looked like what he was; a badly shaken man who was also unhappy with the company he was in. He sat in a corner and brooded. This was not promising. In the first formal conversation between them, with Wallraff acting as interpreter, Nesin continued to be as scornful as he had been in Aydınlık.

Wallraff’s attempts at reconciling two secularist writers ended successfully: “in the end Nesin, muttering and grumbling, extended his hand. There was a brief hand clasp followed by an even briefer hug and a photograph in which everyone looked ill at ease and then Wallraff cried, ‘Good! Now we are all friends!’ and took them all for a motorboat ride on the Rhine…Wallraff’s people had filmed the whole event and put together a news item featuring Nesin and himself in which they jointly denounced religious fanaticism and the weakness of the West’s responses to it. In public at least, the rift was healed. Aziz Nesin and he had no further contact, Nesin lived on for two years, until a heart attack bore him away.”

After Nesin’s death in 1995, his mathematician son Ali became the president of the foundation. Cihangiroğlu remembers how all their income had come from sales of Nesin’s books when he was alive; after his death the sales dropped dramatically and Ali Nesin decided to invest all their money in real estate. One third of their income comes from rent, a third from donations, and a third from book sales (they founded Nesin Publications in 2004; the publishing house sold 270,000 copies of Nesin books last year).

On the birthday of Nesin on December 27, 2009, the directorship of the foundation was handed to Cihangiroğlu, who was 32 at the time. “My father had written in his will that one of our kids should run the foundation in the future,” Ali Nesin told him.

Before leaving the foundation, I took a walk in the garden where Nesin’s dream of building a space free from rules and punishments seems to have come true. As I looked at children from different ages sleeping in the shade of trees, I was reminded of Nesin’s perpetual desire to pay his debt to the society he was born in. The state had treated him in the most cruel manner imaginable. And yet, this man of contradictions and surprises always felt that he had to pay his debt to the state, and the people he loved to shock with his views. “You don’t owe me a thing,” Nesin had told Cihangiroğlu shortly before his death. “You owe Socrates and Edison for what they did for humanity. You should be worthy of our species. That is all I ask from you.”

Back in Istanbul I visited DEPO gallery, a former tobacco warehouse, to see their show “A Life Overflowing: Aziz Nesin.” Bringing together letters, diaries, notes, unpublished texts, drawings, cartoons, and objects from Nesin’s archive, this was a meticulously researched show. That it was exhibited in Tophane, one of Istanbul’s most passionately conservative neighborhoods, made it even more interesting.

In November 2015, I talked to the show’s curator Işın Önol, who devoted months to researching Nesin’s legacy. “I had read Nesin’s work before but I didn’t know his writing enough to curate a show about him,” Önol says, before confessing to have assumed that Nesin was a staunch republican.

“I discovered that he was instead a staunch critic of the People’s Republican party.” Önol realized that the problem lied with her own wish to classify and pigeonhole the great humorist. Like many of us living in Turkey, she had forgotten about the nuance; the grey area Nesin had spent his life in. “I was reading his notes about the Yassıada trials, where the conservative prime minister of Turkey Adnan Menderes was tried for treason. I assumed that Nesin would be in support of the mentality that hung Menderes. Instead I saw how he acted like a scientist: he looks at everything from a critical perspective.” Describing Nesin as unorthodox in his desire to have democracy not only for himself but also for others, Önol believes that Nesin was gravely misunderstood as a result of the political convictions of people who supported him.

“Nesin struggled for the freedom of expression of all people, whatever their belief, and whatever cost he would have to pay,” Önol says. The legacy of Nesin showed itself during the first week of the exhibition, when someone threw paint on the exhibition poster outside DEPO, a sign that the thick air of anxiety that surrounded Nesin’s name was still with us.

“It was not a violent act but rather an amateurish one,” Önol muses. “We thought that if the attackers went inside the building and visited the exhibition, they might not have done what they did.” The exhibition team chose not to inform the press about the incident.

“In the past, DEPO Gallery has opened numerous exhibitions which courageously questioned issues like the Kurdish and Armenian question,” Önol tells me. “Despite being located in a sensitive place like Tophane, it was never attacked. And yet we were aware of having this exhibition about a writer whom people wanted to burn alive in Sivas in 1993. Inescapably we felt anxious about what could happen.” After the event, thousands of new visitors flocked to Tophane; the increased interest forced Önol’s team to extend the show.

Nesin’s life was illustrative of the contradictions of Turkey, a young country, in the 21st century. Twenty-one years after his death, as I took the ferry from Heybeliada to Kabataş after another visit to Nesin’s childhood locale, it seemed like the nuance Nesin represented so passionately amidst all those contradictions was worth fighting to preserve. In a public rally in Istanbul in August, secularist republicans and conservatives marched together, as right-wing politicians read poems by the Marxist Nâzım Hikmet, and left-wing leaders voiced conservative sounding views. Nesin’s island was serene and distant from the violence of the July 15 coup attempt and I felt sad to leave it. From my seat in the ferry, the same ferry Turkey’s greatest humorist took to school at 5:30 a.m. everyday, I could see the outlines of Istanbul growing larger and larger, like Nesin’s legacy itself.

Images: The Nesin Foundation, courtesy of the author

is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. He is the author of Under the Shadow (I.B. Tauris, 2016) and An Istanbul Anthology (American University in Cairo Press, 2015). Kaya is writing a history of Turkish literature for Harvard University Press. His first English novel, The House on Arundel Street, will be published next year. kayagenc.net/writing.