In my childhood, I would sell sesame seed rolls and water, then rush off with my earnings to buy books.
What was your favorite novel or poem growing up, when did you read it and how did it effect you?
I am sure that all children are introduced to literature through lullabies and fairytales. My mother, may God be pleased with her and keep her soul in heaven, raised us with the most beautiful lullabies of Anatolia and the Black Sea region. My late father too, gave us the gift of Anatolia’s bountiful stories and fairytales. In my childhood, I would sell sesame seed rolls and water, then rush off with my earnings to buy books.
My generation’s childhood years sadly coincided with a period of Turkish and world history fraught with complicated debates and unpleasant events. That period was one where symbols, slogans and demonstrations superseded ideas, where intellects were sacrificed and where young people found it difficult to endure the ideas of others. Books, magazines, newspapers, writers, poems, novels, stories; they were all weighted with meanings and connotations. The youth read, not to learn, but rather to find support for their ideologies.
Young people were left exposed during this dark time and my friends and I exerted considerable effort to guard ourselves from the gloomy atmosphere. Unlike most of our age group, we refused to close our ears, get cornered into small ideological boxes and become people who regarded new ideas as threats. We knew that no movement could be successful without a rich foundation and sound principal. We were aware that the exchange of ideas and debates could only become fruitful with reading; a lot of reading. For that reason, we took pains to read a lot and read broadly. We followed the writers of the day as well as those who had given direction to literature in both Turkey and the world, to the best of our ability.
I do have to add, however, that this was a period of history where it was very difficult to get hold of books. There weren’t as many books nor libraries as there are today. Families did not budget for books the way they do nowadays. And it was often the case that one simply couldn’t grab a book and read freely on a bus, or park or university campus. Nevertheless, we managed to get hold of the books we could, and each one would be read by dozens of us. In a time without internet and few photocopy machines, a great literary work or a beautiful poem, would travel from hand to hand and would reach the far corners of Anatolia. This might seem strange to a generation that is used to finding their school books laid out on the tables of their classrooms waiting to be read. But we are a generation that lived through a time where books were few, difficult to reach and ever so precious, so it is only natural that we fight today to ensure that our children can obtain books as easily as possible.
I find it very difficult to sift through all of those poems and stories that belong to my childhood and pick one as my favorite. Nevertheless, I do want to bring up the master wordsmith Necip Fazıl Kısakürek and his “Sakarya” poem. The master and his ordeals helped us, like no other, to make sense of history and the present.
If you were asked to add one book to the Turkish school curriculum, which book would you choose and what age group would you assign it to?
Without any hesitation whatsoever, I would say Safahat by Mehmet Akif Ersoy. And I would like every age group to read and familiarize themselves with this book. For Safahat is not just a great literary work or book of poetry; it is a work that sheds light onto our recent history, a philosophy book that frames a nation and civilization, a book of ideas that mold the future with the spirit of the past. Just as our national anthem acts as a manifesto for this nation and the very soil that it is built upon, Safahat is a work that carries the very same spirit; a reference book. Those who read the words and stanzas in Safahat, might find it difficult to grasp at first; but I believe that being introduced to such a work at a young age, to become immersed in its pages will only broaden the vocabulary of our youth. A society with a broad vocabulary is one with a strong creative capacity.
In addition to the above, I believe the words and stanzas in Safahat will strengthen our bond to our history and induce us to be more self-sacrificing in our efforts towards building our future.
If you had to name a writer or work that brought about change in your country (or the world), who would it be and why?
I think you’ll appreciate that it is near on impossible to answer this question by mentioning a single work or a few names. There is no doubt that starting with the Qu’ran, all holy books carry universal importance. Beyond this, every society has its own very important and valuable works. I would like to lend emphasis to the works of Mevlana (Rumi) and Yunus Emre at this point. Both poets not only wrote in these lands, in Anatolia, but their works crossed all borders and broke free of time. They didn’t get stuck in localities, but rather embraced the whole world. It is truly astounding that these works, these poems, written hundreds of years ago, are still a guiding force for humanity today. I really am proud that we have such richness in our literary history. Of course, these lands are full of riches and there are so many great names to address; Yusuf Has Hacip, Ahmet Yesevi, Fuzuli, Nedim, Haci Bektas, Kemal Tahir, Yahya Kemal, Cemil Meric, Oguz Atay, Nurettin Topcu, Orhan Pamuk and so many others that have produced great works. Every writer, every work, in fact every stanza or sentence has, whether it be great or small, an effect on people. It is said that “Spoken words fly away, written words remain.” Everything that is written relates to an aspect of a reader’s personal life in one way or another, and causes change.
Is there a work or works of literature you would consider essential reading for an aspiring politician?
I have personally reaped great benefit from reading the works of Mevlana and Yunus Emre and have used the works of these two exalted individuals as inspiration in both my political and personal life. Those who place their works as the basis of their understanding of politics, speak with the soul and language of this nation. If your objective is to serve the people of this nation, then you need to speak in the nation’s tongue. And the language of the heart of the population has been molded and enriched by such exalted individuals like Mevlana, Yunus Emre, Haci Bektas Veli and Haci Bayram Veli. I’ve always believed that a politician who speaks from the heart with a language as clean and pure as Yunus’s, would add great value to Turkey and our political scene.
I see no harm in repeating names that I have praised elsewhere before: Falih Rıfkı Atay’s Zeytindağı and Fahrettin Paşa’s writings describing the defense of Medine are works that I believe not only all politicians, but also our youth and children should read. It is important to read and teach such works so that we may all understand and make sense of how we have arrived at the place we find ourselves today.
Do you think there is a work of literature in history that did mankind more harm than good?
As you know the Turkish word for literature, Edebiyat, comes from the root ‘Edeb’ which means understanding the order and system of a society and acting accordingly (‘good manners’). Particularly in our literary history, literature and manners have always gone hand-in-hand and in parallel paths. I don’t believe that anything harmful can come from work that is inherently polite. The ‘edeb’ or order, is what binds a book, the glue that keeps the pages of a work together. If the binding falls apart, then the book falls apart. As long as the binding doesn’t fall apart, all books are beneficial.
What is your stance on censorship in literature?
Censorship is an unacceptable method of obstruction, not only in literature but in all arts, media, politics and many other fields. The freedom of expression is a right that we work to solidify every day and a subject we are particularly sensitive about. We’ve always defended and will continue to defend the rights of people to express their ideas as long as it does not infringe on the freedom and rights of others. Only a short while ago, I talked about the difficulties my generation lived through during our youth. We made it through a period of history where bans and limits restricted our country, our youth, our ideas, our literature and our media. We felt these pressures, not only in our youth, but also in recent history. I am a politician who was imprisoned for reading a poem that was published in the government’s own school books. I am a Prime Minister who understands the meaning and importance of freedom of speech and expression very well. I’ve used this quote from the poet Ece Ayhan many a time: “We grew up by clashing with regulations”. For this reason, trying our young and new generations with bans and censorship is not something we have patience for and not something we would ever consent to.
What’s the last book you read and enjoyed?
Despite my long working hours, I try hard not to become detached from the literary world. Though I might not find the time to read the works from beginning to end, I try as much as possible to follow and gain knowledge from all kinds of new writing.
Do you write? If you do not, is there a book or poem you wish you had written?
As you know, keeping a diary and writing your own experiences is acknowledged as a form of literature. In this way, yes, I do write. I keep a diary, and whenever I find a moment, make note of developments in it. Perhaps in the future, I’ll compile those pages into a memoir.