Ecological Dimensions in the Work of Yaşar Kemal And Abdulrahman Munif
Par Clare Brandabur
If the destruction of nature is not stopped, we shall first witness the end of nature, then the end of man. Yaşar Kemal (Andaç 123)
Agriculture began to change in our village, life changed too. Al-Taiba, which had been a great garden full of different fruits and vegetables, became a barren land. (Adulrahman Munif. Trees and the Assassination of Marzouk)
|James Joyce claimed that if Dublin were ever destroyed, it could be reconstructed from a reading of Ulysses. I think it could equally be said that if the Çukurova were to be deforested, the trees could be restored to their proper places from a reading of Yaşar Kemal’s novels. Trees are everywhere in his fiction: they are places of tryst, sources of food, landmarks, homes for great flights of eagles. The tree in Kemal’s first novel, The Pomegranate Tree on the Knoll, recently rediscovered and re-published, serves as an ambiguous landmark, a sign of hope and life in a landscape of famine and death. The mulberry tree in Salman the Solitary witnesses a frightful massacre when men who have been cheated of their just payment for years of back-breaking labor finally take revenge on the dishonest landowner who robbed them. Afterward the tree is said to shed blood on one side and fire on the other. Trees create the context for and retain the memory of human life.|
Even in that first novel, Kemal manifests an acute awareness that the tree is already vanishing, a memory of something past, as part of a vanishing ecosystem. The sense of irrevocable loss is manifest in the elegiac tone of the following passage from The Pomegranate Tree on the Knoll [Hüyükteki Nar Ağacı]:
There was many a holy tree in the Çukurova. The Çukurova was a whole forest of pomegranate trees from here to the sea at one time. In spring and summer time, these trees would be covered with red blossoms, so that the whole area from here to Ayas would be all red and would wave like the sea. Black snakes used to mate under the red blossoms, turning as red as the iron in a fire. Now there is not one tree on the plain, they uprooted all the trees. Now, there is neither pomegranate, nor oak, nor pine, not one tree grows in the Çukurova, not a solitary one. Not a single holy thing remained on this plain, not to mention the pomegranate tree. (Kemal, quoted in Andaç 22)
But it is the centrality not only of the tree – but of forests, rivers, mountains, and oceans, and indeed, of the entire ecosystem as human habitat in the thinking of Yaşar Kemal and that of Munif– that distinguishes the work of both writers. Abdulrahman Munif is among a handful of contemporary writers bear comparison with Kemal in this respect. From Mehmet My Hawk through the Cükürova Trilogy and The Legend of a Thousand Bulls, up to and including Salman the Solitary, Yaşar Kemal can be considered the most profoundly eco-conscious writer of our time. His speeches, his journalistic reportage, and his whole political position in defense of human rights have for decades centered around vehement protest against the destruction of nature by governments and multi-national corporations in an era of laissez-faire capitalism. And with the same consistency, Abdulrahman Munif shares this preoccupation with the ecosystem. From his first published novel, The Trees and the Assassination of Marzouk (1973) to Cities of Salt (1989) which concerns the discovery and exploitation of oil in Saudi Arabia, and The Dark Land (1998) which casts a tragically prophetic look at Iraq, Muif’s work in Arabic bears comparison with that of Yaiar Kemal in Turkish.
Unlike many post-modern authors, Yaşar Kemal does not retreat into cynicism or despair in confronting ecological crisis, but frees both his fictional characters and his readers to take a courageous stand to defend the dignity of human life and to protect and nurture our richly varied natural landscape. In this paper I will first discuss the archetypal tree in The Çukurova Trilogy; look briefly at a few of the other novels; then consider instances of important ecological statements in Kemal’s journalism and political speeches; and, finally, compare his work with that of some other writers in order to explore the wider implications of his ecological concerns for contemporary literature and culture.
Of all the unforgettable trees in Kemal’s fiction, the magic walnut tree in The Çukurova Trilogy holds a unique place. Not only is it created by the myth-making consciousness of the Yalak Villagers as sign and seal of their Saint, but it also becomes a touchstone by which Tashbash himself tries to overcome his alienation from self and from the tension that is tearing him apart and making his life unbearable. It should be said that the creation of a Saint in times of hardship was witnessed by Kemal and regarded by him as proof of the resilience of the people and their ability to survive extreme adversity through creative imagination. Yaşar Kemal has spoken and written about this many times. In his 1997 Peace Prize Acceptance Speech in Frankfurt, for example, he says:
People have always created their own worlds of myths and dreams, perpetuating their lives in those imaginary worlds. At times of duress, they have created more such worlds, which have given them haven and facilitated their lives. In their transition from one darkness to another, having acquired the consciousness of death, they have realized their lives and the joy of living in the world of myths and dreams they have created. (Kemal 1997)
The holy walnut tree first enters the story in the second volume of The Çukurova Trilogy, Iron Earth, Copper Sky, in the early stages of the myth-making process whereby the Yalak Villagers manage to create a Saint to whom they can turn for protection in this time of famine. Fearing that their meagre possessions are about to be taken from them by a creditor, and faced with severe drought and poverty, they spin a family history for Tashbash that gives him noble and saintly ancestors. Jealous of the Saint’s growing reputation, the nefarious Muhtar Sefer spreads malicious falsehoods about Tashbash, accusing him of every perversity including pedophilia – all to no avail, since stories of his saintly origins are everywhere. Sefer asks his henchman Tiny Musa, “have you been able to find out who is spreading all this?” to which Musa replies, “I’ve tried my best […] but it’s no use. It’s as though these stories spring up of themselves, from the earth, the rocks, the trees, as though they stream into the village from that great wide steppe yonder” (109-10).
The creative imagination of the villagers continues to embroider the hagiography of their Saint, providing him with a royal family pieced together from elements of Greek, Hittite, Alevi, and Zoroastrian mythology, a history in which a holy walnut tree figures prominently. “The Golden Maid was the Lady of the Birds and our Holy Tashbash was Lord of the Deer” (110). The objective omniscient narrator here changes register into the voice of the collective myth-making consciousness of the villagers. The Golden Maid, the story goes, wants their children to have a walnut tree, so she brings from her home on Mount Ida a handful of rich dirt which she spreads on the flanks of the Taurus Mountains, and on this spot she transplants a walnut sapling from Mount Ida: “Let this tree be a help to those in need, a light in their darkness, and the tree grew up and at night it turned into a tree of light. People still come with their wishes and their troubles to visit the holy walnut. And so it will be till the end of time” (112).
The oracular voice of the mythmaker continues to relate that the fire over the house of Tashbash is associated with the Forty Holy Men. “We don’t see it, but we know that night and day, before our Lord Tashbash’s house, there burns a sacred fire which is never extinguished, for it is kindled by the forty white-clad green-turbaned Holy Men” (155). Furthermore, the tree is said to perform a circular ritual like the Semah, for it begins to “turn around slowly, just like a whirling dervish,” and even bends and prostrates itself before Tashbash (155). More and more threads and patches of myth are associated with Tashbash in an extravagant kaleidescopic vision. He is said to visit Paradise, the Kaaba, and to subsist on nothing but a single date brought to him all the way from Baghdad (155-56).
However, the creation of this “Other” Tashbash entails a terrible conflict for the man himself. He is now “double”: there is the ordinary man, distinguished primarily by his thirst for justice and his opposition to the corrupt authority figures, including Muhtar, who impoverishes the villagers; then there is this other, transcendent “Lord Tashbash,” confirmed when Memedik the Hunter returns from the blizzard to relate his vision of Tashbash as an immensely tall figure in a green robe and turban, his face making the top of Mount Tekech glow with a green light. “Could God have made me a Saint without telling me?” he asks himself.
Well aware that it is against the law to set up as a healer, Tashbash at first refuses this role, but his fate is determined when Fatmadja Woman brings her crippled daughter to his house and demands that he heal her. Though he disclaims any healing power, she threatens that unless he puts his hands on the girl’s head and prays for her healing, she will burn down his house. Suddenly overwhelmed by the simple faith of this woman, Tashbash, his eyes filled with tears, prays, “Allah, whatever I may be, this girl is full of faith. Make her well” (160). When the girl walks, he is filled with gratitude, but he realizes “for him there could no longer be a middle road. It had to be one of two extremes now, the crown of the Saint or the crown of thorns” (163).
Not for a moment had Tashbash believed he was a Saint, not until the paralytic girl had come back to him a week later walking on her own two legs. Could all these people, those who had seen the balls of light and the Holy Walnut, the sick who had been restored to health, could they all be lying? Yet he himself knew very well that he had never gone up Mount Tekech that stormy night, and certainly had seen no lights, let alone forests of lights. Wouldn’t a man know it if he had gone somewhere? Wouldn’t a man know whether he was a Saint or not? (183-84)
Increasingly isolated because he is regarded as “taboo” and untouchable, even to his wife, he decides he must find out whether he is a Saint or not. Several events have convinced the villagers that Tashbash is a Saint: the dreams of Fatmadja Woman, the visions of Spellbound Ahmet, and the testimony of Memedik the Hunter. But it is especially the reported sighting of the magic walnut tree in a blaze of fire over his house at night that has convinced his neighbors of his sainthood, and he wants to see it for himself. Therefore he plans to escape and to look at his house from a distance, hoping to learn the truth. The tension between his real self and his imposed self is so painful that he is forced to resolve the conflict by trying to look at himself with a stranger’s gaze. The result is ambiguous, and the reader suspects that what the half-frozen Tashbash takes for a sign may be only the flash of sunrise breaking through the ice on his frozen eye-lashes. Now he believes he is one with the “Other” Tashbash of his neighbors’ creation.
This need of Tashbash to see himself through the eyes of others is suggestive of the position of Jean Paul Sartre, who argues in “Existentialism Is A Humanism” (1946) that the individual depends on others for his knowledge of himself:
Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence. He recognises that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked or jealous) unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. (Emphasis added)
The reassurance he gains by convincing himself that he too sees the magic walnut tree in fire allows Tashbash to let go of his everyday existence and to become a liminal figure, to accept having been transformed into a Saint. Without this affirmation, it would have been impossible for him to step across the threshold of experience, and then to cross yet another threshold when he is arrested and taken away from his village by the police. Knowing he will be beaten mercilessly if he appears before the police captain, Tashbash escapes during a blizzard and makes his way to another cave with the help of a faithful dog, a sequence reminiscent of the legendary Cave of the Seven Sleepers (Brandabur and Athamneh 2000).
The device of the magic walnut tree, then, in concert with the Zoroastrian fire imagery and the Quranic traditions of the saintly Al-Khidr (Khizer in Turkish), is used with great sophistication to suggest an existential interdependence of human beings in the pursuit of self-knowledge and in the struggle to create a viable human community. But we must ask why it is the walnut tree that is singled out for this particular purpose. First, in this region, the walnut tree is associated with nourishment and abundance, both devoutly to be wished in time of famine. A single mature walnut tree can support an entire family. Furthermore, in addition to the associations with the legendary source of the walnut tree planted by the Golden Maid in the text itself, the walnut tree also figures largely in Zoroastrian myths in the region. As Kemal has often said, the region of Cilicia is multi-cultural and contains a “bright tapestry” of cultures (Kemal 1997). For example, in Yaşar Kemal on His Life and Art:
[T]he Turks arrived in Anatolia well before 1071. It is said they were shamanists…. Do they have nothing of India, of China, of Iran? In our land we have a Muslim religious community, the alevi. Their numbers are estimated at seventeen million people in Anatolia. The faithful conduct their rituals by songs that are called deme [“the saying”], and the ritual is called cem [“the ritual of union”]. They are beautiful, rich songs that people say are close to Zoroastrian songs. The Turks borrowed that music at the time of their migration from Central Asia. (96)
In her book on the Yezidis of northern Iraq, Nelida Fuccaro describes the heterogeneous context in which Yezidi beliefs developed, noting the Christian, Zoroastrian, Dualistic, Nestorian, and Sufi Islamic influences. She speaks of a fifteenth-century treatise by a local Nestorian monk called Ramisho who discusses the appearance of a Yezidi tribe in the area, concluding that “From Ramisho’s account it is clear that this tribe was not yet fully Islamised, had strong pro-Ummayyad proclivities and, according to another Suryani source, had retained strong Zoroastrian beliefs of western Iranian origin” (Fuccaro 14-15). Just such an eclectic mixture is evident in the mythology of Yalak village. As he goes off to prison with Corporal Jumali, Tashbash reflects, “What warm-hearted people these Alevis are […] Theirs is indeed a cult of justice and friendship and love. It isn’t man and light they worship, though they say so, but love, universal love. And isn’t that just what light really is?” (Iron Earth, Copper Sky 210).
It is possible that the combination of fire with the walnut tree reflects a Zoroastrian legacy from the Iranian legend of Arash, the archer whose fiery arrow flew for days from the Alborz Mountain, energized partly by Mithra, and landed in a huge walnut tree on the bank of the Ceyhan River. (See for example “Remembering the Arashes,” a poem by Siavash Kasraii, 2005).
In every one of his novels, Yaşar Kemal depicts a world in which nature is described in loving detail. Trees feature as landmarks, meeting places, sources of food, markers of tragic events – like the mulberry tree in Salman the Solitary, which bleeds and burns periodically, scarred witness of a massacre. “Well, this charred tree, the only thing left standing in Memik Agha’s yard, is known to bleed every night at the hour when the eagles wing above the flinty peak of the Mountain” (13). As in the case of the mulberry and walnut trees, the most prominently featured trees are often fruit-bearing, like the tree at the center of Kemal’s first novel, The Pomegranate Tree on the Knoll. In They Burn the Thistles (Part II of Memed My Hawk), a grove of willows on an island in the Savrun River provides an edenic shelter during a kind of occlusion during which, withdrawn from battle, the hero finds a new love and acquires an exquisite horse (324). This island garden resembles the one in which the author tended watermelons and offered them to tired travelers as a young man, though the trees mentioned in this context are plane trees rather than willows. As he recalls in Yaşar Kemal on His Life and Art:
For several summers I was the keeper of the melons and watermelons that grew in the family vegetable garden on a peninsula in the middle of the Ceyhan River. I had some wonderful adventures in that garden! It was where my nocturnal meetings with the bandits took place. (16)
Among his earliest journalistic assignments when he was writing for the newspaper Cumhuriyet in Istanbul was to cover forest fires in eastern Anatolia. Now collected in a multi-volume series of his reportage is the vivid report of “Fifty Days in A Burning Forest” (1954) which reads in part:
The fire takes three forms: ground fire, trunk fire, and top fire. The most common is the ground fire. In this form, the dry leaves burn away. The top part, that is to say the leaves do not burn. This form is peculiar to forests where trees are sparsely located. The top fire, on the other hand, occurs in young forests with dense trees. If the forest is dense and fallen leaves abound, then the whole forest burns, including the trunks. That is rare….
I saw clearly the powerlessness, the helplessness of man face to face with the catastrophic might of nature. I felt it deep in my heart like a burning fire. I felt an affinity to worshippers of fire: they must have witnessed fires like this one. […]
The other fire has spread farther. No way to reach it. One of them has reached the top of the hill. Good God! How swift! […]
Down below, in the valley where the brook flows it is dark like a dungeon, an obscurity that weighs like a stone. The darkness of fire! […]
In every tree a man wails and laments. No one who has not witnessed a forest fire would believe that the trees come alive and run shrieking for their lives in front of the advancing fire. Each tree runs to save its skin, diving into the water. (Kemal 1954)
Of course, the causes of different forest fires recounted in Kemal’s writing varied according to the circumstances. Some of them were natural, caused by lightning during electrical storms. However, other fires were deliberately set for reasons ranging from greed for development and the immense profits to be gained; others had political motivation, like the destruction of insurgents, all going under the banner of “progress.” In talks with Feridun Andaç, Kemal recounts the destruction of the forests and swamps that gave the Çukuorva its richness and vitality, and he analyzes how this destruction changed the human beings who live in the area. When the technology changes, he says, it transforms the relationship between man and nature:
I saw the original nature in the Çukurova. It was covered with cane and bushes all over. The earth was covered with woods from Misis to the Mediterranean Sea in the olden days. There is a tree called Kars. Kadirli was named Zülkadriye before. Due to the fact that the Kars tree grows there the place was called Kars for a long time. […] In the Çukurova of my days there were about fifteen swamps. The one in the Anavarza Plain was called the Marsh of Akçasaz. The land was covered with swamps, forests and cane thickets. There were oak trees, right below Bozkuyu, below Ciğcik, I would go there and look at the trees. Now there is nothing; not one single tree until the Mediterranean. Historians write that the land was a great forest even in the 19th century. This was stated in a letter of Cevdet Pasha written in 1865. (Andaç 61-62)
In his discussions with Feridun Andaç, Kemal stresses the impact of the destruction of the forests and the draining of the swamps on the very nature of the people whose way of life was transformed by these disasters:
Hundreds, even thousands of tractors entered the Çukurova, everything happened overnight, so to say. Farm workers digging the earth to a depth of 75 centimeters were left with nothing to eat and nowhere to dwell, left with no forest, no Kars, no tree, no cane thickets, no bushes and no swamps. I witnessed unbelievable destruction. The Çukurova turned into a desert of agriculture. This is the reality of our century, the actual conditions of our times. (Andaç 62)
Asking rhetorically whether changes of political administrations in the country (like the end of the Menderes regime) are the important events of modern Turkey, he answers:
These events are nothing in the life of a country. The main event in the country has to do with the transformation of man. And the transformation of man has to do with the disappearance of the feudal system. What does change? The means of production change, the personality of man changes, the psychological makeup of man changes, and the nature on which he lives changes completely in one single day. (Andaç 62)
This change is what Marx calls “estrangement” or alienation from his work, from himself, and from other men (Marx 1844). Kemal makes it clear that his writings about the Çukurova and about the Sea of Marmara are meant to be taken not only in their local application but in a wider sense:
If I write The Sea-Crossed Fisherman and picture an Istanbul on its death-bed, if I describe the collapse of people, of nature, and of the sea, if I tell about the agony of death, about alienation, I am describing today, the present-day world. […] and this is not just reality in Turkey. The Sea-Crossed Fisherman was published in France, in England and in the US. It does not reflect things for the city of İstanbul only; the same holds true for Rome, for Paris and for Stockholm.
The Sea-Crossed Fisherman is the story of alienation of all big cities in the whole world in agony because of the environmental, human crisis. This is the truth of the matter. (Andaç 63)
In The Sea-Crossed Fisherman, written in Sweden in the 1970s, Kemal approaches the problems of the ecosystem from a different point of view. Instead of the destruction of the forests, in this book he writes about the destruction of marine life, especially the dolphins in the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, depicting “a city dying in agony,” an Istanbul in which industrial smog obscures the stars at night and in which thousands of dolphins were murdered, and the whole character of the biosphere changed. Kemal describes the culmination of this slaughter with the introduction of huge factory ships which sucked in the living animals and turned them into canned dog and cat food. The hero of this novel, Fisher Selim, carries out an heroic act that parallels that of the protagonist of Memed, My Hawk: he determines who is the industrialist millionaire behind the mass extinction of the species and the destruction of human communities, hunts him down in his office, and kills him.
In the tumultuous climax of The Sea-Crossed Fisherman, maddened by the killing of people and the disappearance of entire species of birds and fish, Fisher Selim flees in a kind of daze, pursued by Mahmut with a summons from Halim Bey Veziroğlu, the rich industrialist responsible for the cannery ships and the murder of the dolphins:
Stop, Fisher Selim, stop! The seas are empty! Empty, drained, killed by the thousand-eyed cannery ships. […] Stop, Fisher Selim, stop! (279)
Fisher Selim, in a surrealistic maze, sees Veziroğlu playing backgammon with mermaids who are simultaneously flaxen-haired girls and dolphins, telescoped in his fevered imagination with the blonde woman he had loved long ago. “And all around them the fish of the sea are weeping. Weeping also are the girls with the flaxen hair” (281). In what seems a wish-fulfilment dream, Selim imagines a gory uprising, all the persecuted people and the murdered fish rebelling against Veziroğlu’s machine-gun-wielding henchmen, converging on them and reducing them to a few broken bits of their lethal weapons (281). Mahmut tells Fisher Selim that all the fishermen are to be displaced and will be forced to work on the cannery ships of Veziroğlu. While bulldozers flatten the houses of the fisher-folks’ neighborhood to make room for a five-star hotel, Fisher Selim goes to his rendezvous with Veziroğlu, shoots him three times, and escapes. He takes his small boat out into the Sea of Marmara and disappears in an apotheosis of brilliant sunset amid a crowd of dolphins (286), a finale analogous to Memed’s shooting of Abdi Agha and his subsequent escape into the mountains at the conclusion of the first volume of Memed, My Hawk (350-51).
The vision of eco-catastrophe so powerfully depicted in The Sea-Crossed Fisherman continued to haunt Yaşar Kemal. In an important statement, “The Dark Cloud Over Turkey” (1995), Kemal wrote the following:
The water has begun to dry up. The houses of nearly 2,000 villages have been burned. Many animals as well as people have been the victims of murder by persons unknown. […] The most horrific aspect is the inhumanity of outright war for the sake of a few fish. They have burnt all the forests of eastern Anatolia because guerrillas hide out in them. Turkey’s forests have been burning for years. Not much that could be called forest is left and we are burning the remainder to catch fish. Turkey is disappearing in flames along with its forests, anonymous acts of genocide, and 2.5 million people exiled from their homes, their villages burnt, in desperate poverty, hungry and naked, forced to take to the road, and no one raises a finger. […]
The crops, nut and fruit trees of villagers who prefer exile to taking up arms to protect their village from guerrilla attack are burned along with the forests. (Kemal 1995, 1-4)
In the same year, in a particularly vehement statement published in Der Spiegel, Kemal compares the then-current regime unfavorably with that of Kuyucu Murat Pasha (d. 1611), observing that even he “did not burn down the forests” (Kemal 1995, 2).
Notwithstanding the righteous indignation evident in such statements, though his fiction is modernist in other ways, Kemal avoids the extremes of “corrosive irony” and “self-referentiality” spoken of by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism as characteristic of modernist culture (188). In his moving speech accepting the 1997 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Kemal affirms his basic confidence in human nature and in the power of literature to create a livable world. Not only does he allow his characters to achieve heroic deeds, to act out of deep conviction and self-sacrifice, but he also holds himself to high ethical standards and thereby empowers his readers to do the same:
Ever since my youth I have been reiterating that people who read my novels and short stories should reject warfare, loathe wars, and always strive for peace and brotherhood. Those who read my writings should not tolerate man’s exploitation of others. Poverty is the shame of humanity. […] My readers should never commit an evil deed. They should always do good. (Kemal 1997, 3).
For this reason, in his book-jacket endorsement of The Sea-Crossed Fisherman, John Berger remarks, “He writes like a hero.” In addition, rejecting the jingoism of a narrow nationalism, Kemal constantly re-affirms his commitment to a multi-cultural society and to universal human rights:
I am an engaged writer with a firm commitment to my integrity and to the word. Also since my youth I have always affirmed that the world is a garden filled with the flowers of a myriad cultures. […] Throughout history, Anatolian cultures have maintained a process of cross-fertilization. A glimpse at Anatolia’s Aegean coast prior to the Christian era will reveal a wide variety of languages and cultures, which produced the philosophers of Miletus as well as Homer. Having created hundreds of masterpieces, they have constituted a rich source for universal culture. (Kemal 1997, 3)
This quality of hope and of ethical affirmation distinguishes Kemal from the “extremes of self-consciousness, discontinuity, self-referentiality, and corrosive irony” spoken of by Said as the “hallmarks” of modernist culture” (188). By way of contrast, it might be instructive to look briefly at Snow (2004), a recent novel by fellow Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. The reader approaches the finale of this very absorbing book hopeful that some light will be shed on the urgent questions that currently face Turkish society. Therefore we become intrigued with the interplay among characters who represent, in an almost allegorical way, various political forces. It is with some disappointment, therefore, and not without a sense of shame, that one realizes that the character Ka has betrayed the Islamist leader Blue, a discovery made through a clever little puzzle. On reflection, however, it is brought home to the reader that Blue is also a despicable character. After all, he seduced the two idealistic sisters Kadife and İpek, deceiving and exploiting them both. Furthermore, we find that there is also “dormant evil” in Kadife, the heroine of the popular struggle, who is supposed to win Blue’s freedom by uncovering her hair on television. Funda Eser, a character representative of the era of Kemalist struggle who with her husband has devoted her life to the stage, is also revealed as corrupt. She gets Kadife drunk and covers her with kisses that “awakened the dormant evil that Kadife kept hidden” (Pamuk 352).
So it turns out that everyone in the novel is corrupt. And the reader finds himself caught, like the reader of Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs du mal” when the poet implies that we are just as corrupt as he: “– Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!” If we accept this cynical conclusion, then no meaningful solution to the present problems is possible, in Turkey or elsewhere. In this respect, the corrosive irony, self-referentiality, and despair spoken of by Edward Said fully apply to Pamuk’s novel but are not characteristic of the novels of Yaşar Kemal. Fortunately this paralysis seems to be fading out, while a new wave –what might be called a positive strand of post-modernism or post-colonialism – of writers manifests commitment to change the world. In some respects, of course, Kemals’ work is modernist – in its multiple perspectives and the use of montage, dream-vision, and surrealist techniques – but free of the pessimism whereby darkness overwhelms the author’s vision. Perhaps we should more accurately call it post-colonial in its critique of the corporate murder of nature and of human community.
As I have said above, few contemporary authors suggest comparison with Yaşar Kemal as writers of ecological depth, there is one striking exception: the late Abdulrahman Munif (1933-2004), a brilliant writer widely read in the Arab world but little known in the West. Beginning with Cities of Salt in 1989, Peter Theroux translated the first three volumes of a five-volume work entitled Cities of Salt (1984-89). Munif explained that his title, Cities of Salt (Mudun al-Milh), refers to his conviction that the exploitation of oil in the Middle East would build sky-scrapers and palaces for the West, but leave for the Arabs only “cities of salt” that would crumble at the first wind or rain in the desert. The first volume opens with an unforgettable scene of destruction of the oasis village of Wadi al-Uyoun, (a name meaning valley of springs – “uyoun” can mean either springs or tears), when an American oil company bulldozes the palm trees, destroys the spring itself, and orders the villagers to leave (3-5). In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said singles out Munif’s quintet as the only serious work of Arab fiction that tries to show the effects of oil, Americans, and local oligarchy on the people and ecosystem of a Gulf country (294).
Even more exclusively ecological in its major themes than Cities of Salt is Munif’s first novel, The Trees and the Assassination of Marzouk (1973). The protagonist in this novel recalls with nostalgia his home village, an idyllic setting called Al-Taiba, a kind of earthly paradise full of orchards comprising a wide variety of fruit trees. Trouble begins when the farmers are persuaded to cut their trees to make room for the planting of cotton for which there is a huge demand on “global” markets. In language reminiscent of Yaşar Kemal’s lament in The Pomegranate Tree on the Knoll, Marzouq later explains to a friend what happened:
Agriculture began to change in our village, life changed too. Al-Taiba, which had been a great garden full of different fruits and vegetables, became a barren land. Don’t get angry if I say that farmers are stupid and have a great likeness to apes who know nothing but to imitate. When cotton was planted in the western parts of the village and gave a great harvest, people’s lives changed. They cut all the trees of Al-Taiba; dug wells everywhere; and the village became a white plain. (Munif 47 quoted in Belkhasher, 96)
Like Yaşar Kemal, Munif also manifests a passionate concern with human suffering and injustice, for example in East of the Mediterranean (1977), in which he recounts with terrible realism the fate of a political prisoner who is tortured to death. Munif spoke of his first novel, written in the years immediately following the June 1967 defeat, as a “leap in the dark” (quoted by Belkhasher 93). Analyzing Munif’s work, Khalid Belkhasher speaks of a character in Trees and the Assassination of Marzouq, Elias Nakhla who refuses to cut down his trees:
He, for the time being did not cut his trees. The trees, for him, were his roots, his past and present, and he never thought of the materialistic gains of cotton plantation. Certainly he was swimming against the current. It is a kind of “sacred seclusion” by means of which Elias resists what Munif describes as “continuous attempts to destroy man, insult him, undermine his role, and send him to exile if necessary.” (Belkhasher 96)
Perhaps it is not accidental that an Arab writer who lost his citizenship because he was critical of the Arab regimes should provide an appropriate parallel to Yaşar Kemal in terms of ecological as well as human rights protest. While the details of colonialism in Turkey and the Arab world differ, at present the machinations of corporate hegemony in what is called “neo-colonialism” are much the same in their effects in Turkey and throughout the Middle East. The systematic deforestation of land to dispossess and control its indigenous population takes comparable forms in both places.
Just as Yaşar Kemal recalls the abundant forests and swamplands of the Çukurova, the coastal regions of Syria and Palestine were once abundantly forested, especially with fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. In his remarkable book, Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza, Gerald Butt documents the eco-history of a region now almost totally stripped of its vegetation as a tactic in war. By 1989 so many olive trees in the Nablus area had been cut down or bulldozed by Israeli military and settler personnel that the only way to keep running the 200-year-old al-Sha’aka olive soap factory in Nablus was to import olives from Italy. Butt quotes a medieval writer named Masude (who wrote in 943) as saying that orange trees from India had been brought to the Syrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian coasts in 912 (Butt 82). The Arab geographer Dimashqi (writing in 1300) said of Gaza, “It is a city so rich in trees … as to be like a cloth of brocade spread out on the sand” (98), and Muqadisi (born in Jerusalem in 946) said of commerce in the area of Syria that included Palestine:
The trade of Syria is considerable. From Palestine come olives, dried figs, raisins, the carob-fruit, stuffs of mixed silk and cotton, soap and kerchiefs. Unequalled is this land of Syria for its dried figs, its common olive oil, its white bread […] for the quinces, the pine nuts called “kurais bite [snober],” the Ainuni and Duri raisins, the Theriack antidote […] the herb of mint and the rasaires of Jerusalem. And further know that within the province of Palestine may be found […] six and twenty products that are not found thus united in any other land. Of these the first seven are found in Palestine alone […] pine-nuts […] the quince, the fig called al-Saba’ and the fig of Damascus. The next seven are the water lily, the sycamore, the carob or St. John’s bread (locust tree), the lotus fruit, the artichoke, the sugar cane, and the Syrian apple. (82)
Evidently, then, Palestine has not always been a desert, as some contemporary Zionists claim. The present devastation of the ecosystem in Palestine is particularly insidious because of its deliberate nature — a systematic scorched earth policy designed to starve the indigenous population. The occupying power, Israel, has destroyed hundreds of wells and cisterns in Gaza and the West Bank, bulldozed or burned orchards and fields on the pretext that their own national security requires that the “cover” for insurgents (terrorists in this context) be destroyed.
One observer from France, Christian Salmon, founder of The International Writers’ Parliament, visited Palestine and wrote “The Bulldozer War” in which he expressed his shock at the sheer destruction of some of the most universally known landscapes in the world, noting that this process in Bosnia was known as “memoricide.” In Palestine this “slashing and plundering” is being done by an Israel “striving to erase the past”:
Over the decades the Israelis have abandoned the utopia of the kibbutzes for the atopia, the nowhere, of the settlements. People were fond of saying in the 1960s that they tried to make the desert bloom and the kibbutz exerted a powerful appeal. Since then the biblical garden has become a desert, a wasteland, a battlefield.
The bulldozers on the roadsides are the troubling acknowledgement of this. The key question is not the one posed by Kafka – “What must we do to live?” – since the goal here is not living, but dislodging and destruction. This is the first war to be waged with bulldozers. This is an attempt at deterritorialisation without historical precedent. This is total warfare that targets the civilian population and the land. This is war […] seeking not the division of territory but its abolition. (10)
Of course eco-catastrophe is not limited to the Middle East and Turkey, witness the drying up of one of the greatest rivers of the world, the Amazon, as a direct result of the indiscriminate cutting of the rain-forests. Perhaps the most terrifying factor in a world dominated by a single superpower is that the present government of the United States has been usurped by a cult-like Christian fundamentalism among whose tenets is a quite mad literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. Among their quaint convictions is that not only does the ecosystem not need to be preserved; rather, it should be consumed for short-term gain because at any moment, Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. This peculiar version of Armageddon includes the snatching up (naked) of the True Believers to the bosom of Jesus in a “Rapture” over Jerusalem, where they will have ring-side seats at the boiling in a pit of oil of all the rest of us, their enemies, including any non-converted Jews.
Commenting on this phenomenon in an article entitled “There is no Tomorrow,” journalist Bill Moyers reminds his readers that James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, declared in public testimony that “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” For these true believers, Moyers says, the war in Iraq is a “warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelations where four angels “which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man.” They regard a war with Islam not as something to be feared but as something to be welcomed. The consequences of these delusional beliefs for any hope of a program of environmental conservation are drastic. Moyers cites a study by Glenn Scherer, “The Godly Must Be Crazy,” which concludes that “millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed – even hastened – as a sign of the coming apocalypse” (Moyers 2004).
This means that no effective design for solving the ecological crisis can be expected from the metropolitan center of the Empire. On the contrary, imperial mass media has for the most part obscured the real nature of the crisis, only publicizing the melting of the polar ice-caps, the breaking up of the glaciers, the thinning of the ozone layer, the drying up of the Amazon River, when forced to do so. Even then such news is usually tempered with reassuring discourse by “experts” who remind the public that not all scientists agree with these findings. Therefore, responsibility for telling the truth about eco-catastrophe falls on courageous human rights activists. In response to this perceived emergency, many responsible writers and scholars have taken up public education in addition to their other work. According to Wail S. Hassan, in his book about Tayib Salih, author of A Season of Migration to the North, this Sudanese author has turned from literature to journalism, believing that, in a time of crisis, “journalistic writing, with its directness and immediacy, is more effective for dealing with such events than allegory, symbolism, or myth making” (Hassan 175). Leaving his planned fictional Bandarshah cycle unfinished, Salih began to contribute articles to London’s Arabic-language weekly Al-Majalla in which he denounces the National Islamic Front that came to power in Sudan after the military coup against an elected government. In one of these articles he states forcefully that “a military coup against an elected government […] is no different from opening fire on worshippers in a mosque” (Al-Majalla 733 [27 Feb. 5 March 1994] 94), an allusion to the massacre by Baruch Goldstein, an American-born West Bank Settler, of twenty-nine Palestinian worshippers in the Abrahamic Sanctuary in Hebron on 25 February 1994 (Hassan 175). Salih sees fundamentalism as a threat to the region arising from postcolonial disruptions that must be countered by the articulation of a progressive and hopeful ideology (Hassan 174).
Other writers come to mind: Harold Pinter and Arundhati Roy have turned from writing to public advocacy of anti-war, human rights, and ecological programs, although the cost is high and the risk of imprisonment and exile is great. Munif suffered greatly from the denial of his citizenship. Ghassan Kanafani, Palestinian leftist and author, might have become as prolific as Munif had his life not been ended prematurely by a Mossad bomb in Lebanon in 1972. Arundhati Roy has been hauled before judges in India for daring to question the caste system in her novel The God of Small Things and for demonstrating against the destruction of villages for vast systems of dams in India. Like these writers, Yaşar Kemal has put his life on the line to champion progressive causes. This has meant spending time in prison and sometimes living in exile; nevertheless, he still manages to continue writing.
According to the conclusion of Kemal’s The Undying Grass, it is the struggle, the aspiration, that counts. In a heart-breaking passage worthy of Cervantes (a favoraite writer of Kemal), shortly before Tashbash goes off alone to die in the flooded river, he encounters Long Ali’s son Hassan who has always considered Tashbash both his beloved uncle and his Saint. Tashbash is suffering from the failure of the villagers to recognize him, since they are unable to reconcile this skeletal ragged figure with the illustrious Saint of their imaginations. Hassan has somehow managed to make this identification, to see him as both at once. Their conversation throws a strongly existentialist light on the duality of Tashbash’s identity, suggesting that it is not necessarily the achievement of the impossible that counts, but the aspiration (notice the “now” in Tashbash’s claim to the achievement of holiness):
“Uncle Tashbash, you are a Saint, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I have become a holy man now, Hassan,” Tashbash replied.
“And you have gone up into the Holy Mountain?”
“I haven’t, but I will.”
“And you do wear silver-embroidered robes of green?”
“I don’t, but I will.”
“Haven’t the Forty Holies chosen you for their leader?”
“They haven’t, but they will.”
“But you do roam the earth with seven thousand balls of light behind you?”
“No, but I will.”
“They say that you hold sway over the birds and beasts, the blowing wind and the falling rain, and the ant and the creeping serpent…”
“I shall hold sway over them one day.”
“That you speak the tongue of every living creature…”
“I shall learn to do so.”
“What is it my Hassan?” Tashbash asked.” Why are you sighing so?”
“It’s nothing,” Hassan said.
“Tell me, boy. You can tell your holy uncle everything.”
Hassan took his hand. “Before you learn to do all these things, the villagers will kill you.” (The Undying Grass 232)
Doğuş University, İstanbul
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