See these mountains? Vahap says. These steep mountains, bare mountains, savage mountains, these terrible, obstinate mountains, wolves live there, dogs and humans. If you looked, you wouldn't see them, wouldn't know where they live, but if you climb the mountains, for this or that reason, they'd suddenly accost you; either they kill you or you kill them. Whoever draws faster.
Ferit Edgü's Eye On/In The East
I hadn’t come across Ferit Edgü’s writing until this Winter when I received his The Wounded Age and Eastern Tales, translated into English by Aron Aji, as a birthday present from my mother (thanks, Mom!).
At least in these two works, Edgü writes as an external observer, a foreigner from distant Istanbul dispatched deep in the easternmost reaches of Turkey. In other words, as a foreigner in his own country. But then again, the concept of the “nation” is one of the driving specters of Edgü’s sloping, itinerate narrative: ever-present, but mostly faceless. In this way, Edgü’s writing forms a distinct compliment to earlier works of Turkish nation-building literary canon such as Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu’s Yaban.
Perhaps most striking in Edgü’s self-conscious (or at the very least, self-aware) rendition of the ethnographic observer role is his refusal to classify those human elements foreign to himself as simply “wild”, “unruly” or “depraved”; these epithets are uniquely wielded against the harsh physical environment which is perhaps only rivaled by the mostly-ethereal, occasionally-corporal and perpetually punishing haunting of the state.
What’s your job here, I asked.
To record every document received or sent, Mr. Inspector.
And do you read these documents? I asked.
No, sir, he said. My job is only to enter them in the records. No one in our
department is tasked with reading documents. And what are you doing right now?
My apologies, sir, he said (setting his pencil on his desk), I forgot to tell
you. I also write down everything spoken around here. Will you write down our conversation too?
This is what I am doing right now, Mr. Inspector.
But I’m not an inspector.
Doesn’t matter, sir. In the East, everyone is responsible for performing their
duties. Without asking questions. Without looking to see. Especially without asking or looking to see.
— Eastern Tales (1995)
While reading Edgü’s beautiful but unembellished impressions of his authorial self’s embedding with the peoples of Eastern Turkey, I was repeatedly struck by the crudeness of depictions of the “Other” in other works of Turkish literature and contemporary (pop) culture.
A few days after finishing Eastern Tales, a video came across my Instagram timeline in which a Turkish man expresses his astonishment and guilt at meeting a Swedish couple who had driven their Landrover cross country to Hakkâri because they “saw it on the internet and it seemed beautiful,” while (‘white’) “Turkish people” had scarcely dared visit this corner of the country outside of mandatory military and public service assignments.
Moving Borders / Moved Peoples
Edgü is particularly successful in demonstrating the denaturalization of the state and its governing encumbrances within the settings of his narration: government borders appear, disappear, reappear slightly askew; natural borders are fierce but never fully indomitable.
Would they jail us here, one of them asks.
Why would they jail you, I say.
Cause we crossed the border.
You’ve been crossing the border all these years, I say.
That was then, says the other.
No one’s jailing anyone. You’re in your country here.
What did you say, Vahap asks.
That they shouldn’t be afraid. Tell them, I say.
Who can live on these mountains without fear, Bey? Vahap asks.
You may be right, Vahap, but you can’t live with fear either.
The two mountain men laugh, as if they understand what we’re saying.
— The Wounded Age (2007)
I’m not sure if this series of reflections leads to some conclusion, or if instead I just felt compelled to share how impactful Edgü’s writing has felt as I continue to expand readings on the east of Türkiye. The foreigner-observer role taken on by Edgü in his writing also shines a light on a critical gap of mine in terms of reading the works of Kurdish and other minority authors in Türkiye. I’m thankful to translators like Aron Aji and Nicholas Glastonbury (who translated Seyma Kaygusuz’s Every Fire You Tend) and the publishing houses which bring these works to larger audiences.