Saintly Verses: Aziz Nessin

Milliet Nesin 1[“Lots of agitation, no precaution.” Milliyet, 7/4/1993]

[GO STRAIGHT TO TRANSLATION OF I Bought Flannel . . .]

The New Yorker recently published an article by Salman Rushdie detailing his life in the twenty years since the Iranian government placed him under a fatwa, both calling for his death and offering a reward to anyone who carried it out–all for having written The Satanic Verses. An equally interesting article would be one that described the way in which that book and the reactions to it rippled through the Islamic world.

The book was published in the late 1980s, only a year before the fall of the Soviet Union and the repression of Tiananmen served to dim any hopes that Communism might offer salvation to the suffering populations of the world. Like people across the globe, many in the Middle East had both embraced leftism and soured on it over the past several decades. In this context, the Iranian Revolution offered another possibility; if class solidarity had failed to serve as a secular-region, perhaps religion itself could fill the void. The fatwa against Rushdie may have been the clearest signal that, whatever its potential, political Islam was just as hostile to free thought as Communism.

The fatwa, therefore, served as a challenge to artists throughout the Islamic world. In Turkey, Aziz Nesin, the famous humorist—and, at the time, president of the Turkish Writers’ Association—lent his support by publishing translations of the book and becoming foremost among Rushdie’s defenders in Turkey. His support did not come without consequence: When Nesin came to the town of Sivas on July 2, 1993 for a literary festival sponsored by a major Alevi organization, he was met by several thousand protesters. The crowds were particularly large on account of it being a Friday; after prayer, angry protesters spilled out of the cities mosques and began attacking stands selling Nesin’s books.

A large crowed initially gathered in front of the city’s cultural center. After being addressed by both the provincial governor and a local Islamist politician, “the crowd calmed down a little . . .and dispersed.”[1] Upon learning, however, that Nesin was staying at the Madımak Hotel, a group of around 500 gathered. They moved from shouting things like, “Demon Nesin”—particularly ironic since his pen name, “Aziz,” meant “saint” . . .then throwing rocks . . . .and then, setting the hotel on fire. Nesin was rescued, but thirty-seven people died in the flames.

When Nesin passed away two years later the “Sivas Massacre” and his general opposition to fundamentalism were the central foci of a rather brief New York Times obituary. Yet this stand of his—and his subsequent claims that “sixty percent of Turks are stupid”—while not atypical, are but small pieces of an eventful life and sizeable body of work. Over the course of fifty years, Nesin started multiple magazines and publishing houses, wrote dozens of books and collections, and took numerous brave stands against censorship and dictatorship.

Below is a short story by Nesin which I’ve translated in order to give you a sense of his style and subject matter. It comes from a 1957 collection of his work called The Lunatics Have Got Loose [Deliler Boşandı][2] and pokes fun at government run stores. It will be appreciated by anyone who has been to countries where the state has got itself mixed up in the retail business, as well as anyone who has shopped in a Turkish store, say, yesterday.

Nesin is a great writer and I apologize for any confusing—or flat-out erroneous—aspects to the translation. Any such errors are my own:

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I Bought Flannel From Yerli Mallar[3]

By Aziz Nesin

We went to one of Sümerbank’s Yerli Mallar retail stores.[4] We looked at the window display. Oh what lovely things . . .we admired a blue patterned flannel, and another with red polka-dots. We went in.

It was a large, wide, high ceilinged store . . .Across from the door, at the counter, a girl filed her nails. There was a stove in the middle of the room. Sitting on top it, dressed like a political notable, was a scruffy, large-bellied, jowly, burly gentleman drinking coffee. Beside the register, a youth chatted with the manicure-administering girl. Behind the counter, a middle-aged man read a gazette. Another was popping zits on his forehead with the help of a round pocket mirror. And, leaning his elbows on the counter, a kid was reading a police dime-novel with a shiny, colorful cover.

We had come very early. Other than us, there wasn’t another customer. Outside another three or four people gazed in the window.

When we entered, nobody lifted his head to look at us. This solemnity pleased me. I’d never liked those stores that grab your arm and pull you in saying “We have great products!” “Here you are!” “Are you looking for something?”

We looked left and right, no one was paying attention to us. The girl was filing her nails, the man was reading the paper, the other was popping his zits, this one was drinking coffee. One’s head was in his novel . . .To which of these people could we go over and ask something, I didn’t know . . .We approached the counter. We looked at the bolts of cloth on the shelves. We talked amongst ourselves.

“What beautiful drapes these would make . . .”

“These with the chintzes are also beautiful . . .”

“About how many meters?”

“The width is how many centimeters.”

“Who should we ask?”

The youth in front of us was so lost in his police novel that he didn’t even hear us . . .

“I’ll buy this checkered table cloth.”

“Speak softly, the man is reading a book. If only we’d come a bit later. We could have watched what the customers before us did and then done likewise.”

As we spoke other customers arrived, and filled the store. But they were as confused as us; one here, one there, they came and went. We were like pictures in an exhibition. Customers, in order not to ruin this heavy, serious ambience, whispered in each other’s ears. This deep silence was broken by the affectionate laughs and joking of the girl and boy at the counter.

One of the customers, a middle-aged man, hoping to be heard by those around him asked, “Perhaps they don’t do sales.”

An old woman said, “Maybe you need a receipt.”

A young woman asked, “A receipt? Where would you get one?”

“Probably from the general manager . . .”

Now everyone was saying something, sound was coming from each head.

“You need to get clearance from the boss first.”

“Clearance isn’t necessary, ma’am . . .You need a certificate of good conduct. But does the governing party need to sign it? What if you have a criminal record . . .”

“Friends! Countrymen! Don’t cause a fit! . . .What’s your political party have to do with print[ed fabric]?”

“But brother, don’t you ever read the newspaper? They’re putting increasing pressure on print [journalism]. . .”

“That print is different than this print.”

“They give to those who need it like the coal distribution center.”

“Now what’s the connection between this and coal distribution?”

“Maybe there is . . .coal, flannel, American fabric, these are government issued things . . .”

“I’m going to buy some kids shoes.”

“Shoes are also government issued . . .”

“Honey, why are you stirring up the government?”

“Certainly I’ll stir them up . . .”

“Go stir them up, but if you do, I’ll denounce you to the police. When they get the report, you’ll come to your senses.”

“Do you have your ID card?”

“No.”

“Without a ID and six passport pictures, they won’t serve you.”

“A driver’s license can’t be used?”

It looked impossible . . .I approached the salesman on the floor who, after drinking his coffee, had fallen into a pleasant conversation with a man.

“Pardon me . . .”

“What now? See we’re talking. Turan faked, shot . . .the ball went in the net.”

I approached another.

“Pardon me, from whom can I buy a bit of flannel?”

Without looking up from the round mirror he’d been using to pop his zits, he signaled to the left with a finger. The man he indicated was solving a crossword puzzle.

“We want flannel, is it you who gives it out?”

“Go to see Zühtü Bey.”[5]

Now which one might Zühtü Bey be . . .

“Might that worship-worthy Zuhtu Bey be you?”

“It’s me, what’ll it be?”

“Just . . .we already asked. We’d like to buy a little flannel . . .”

He reached up to the shelf behind him and took down a colorful black bolt of flannel.

“How many meters?”

“But we don’t want that one. We looked in the display case. There’s a pink one with blue flowers.”

“We’re out of that one.”

“It’s in the display case sir.”

“That display case . . .We can’t sell out of the display case . . .”

“In that case may we look at that yellow one.”

“Taking down, putting back; can’t keep doing it! Look this is taking too long . . .They’re all flannel . . .Which one do you want: Say that one! . . .”

“We want that yellow one.”

“How much?”

“Five meters.”

“Can’t cut five meters from that . . .That one is the whole bolt of cloth.”

“Then that green one! . . .”

“That one is four meters. If you want I can give it to you . . .”

We talked amongst ourselves what could or couldn’t be made from four meters. The salesman gave his thoughts: “You couldn’t make a skirt out of it.”

“We could make pajamas for the children.”

“Good. The pieces are little small for that . . .But this year that’s the fashion.”

Waiting for us was making him angry, “My good sir, don’t waste people’s time. Say which one you want.”

There was nothing to be done, we had the salesman cut five meters from the black one that he himself had liked and first chosen. In other places they might politely cut fabric; our Yerli Mallar salesman tore the fabric with a ripping sound, as if he had stuck two fingers down our throats. He handed us a piece of paper: “Across from here.”

Across from there, the pink paper received a signature. “Over to the side!” . . .Over to the side it was stamped . . .A girl separated it into two pieces and gave us one. We brought that piece of paper over to the girl at the register: “It’s 12:00, we’re off until after lunch.”

“Oh ma’am, we came all the way from Rami.”

She didn’t even give an answer. I put the family on the bus and sent them off. At two o’clock we were in line.

When my order came up, I handed the pink piece of paper to the girl: “Ten lira, sixty-five kuruş. . .”

I gave twelve and a half lira.

“Give correct change! . . .”

“I don’t have change . . .”

“Go break this sir; this isn’t a money changer here.”

I left the store. The tobacconist couldn’t break it. The newspaper man couldn’t break it. I bought a ninety kuruş piece of chocolate, they broke my change. I gave my money to the cashier lady. She gave me a note. Again they stamped it. I gave the stamped note to another person, and they gave me the packet.

As I was leaving the store, the store official on top of the stove said, “They buy stuff cheap here, then take it and sell it on the black market. These people turn good into evil . . .If I were the government . . .”

On account of leaving, I didn’t hear the end of these words. I got home. The family opened the packet with happiness. Shocking . . .Had our packet been swapped with another’s? In the place of five meters of flannel we had three meters of muslin.

 Nesin

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[1] “Sivas kana bulandı,” Milliyet, 7/3/93.

[2] I am assuming that these stories were originally published in Akbaba, a satirical magazine with which Nesin was involved during the time. I have not yet been able to find the originals . . .

[3] “Yerli Maller” literally means the domestically produced goods. In the text the term is capitalized, so I assume it is the name of the chain—translating it directly would be awkward.

[4]Sümerbank was a government owned company that produced and sold a great deal of merchandise to Turks during the era of import substitution industrialization, when state leaders sought to make the country economically self-sufficient.

[5] “Bey” is similar to “Mister” except that it follows a first name. I, for example, woud be “Reuben Bey.”

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