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Sema Kaygusuz: Yüzünde Bir Yer (Every Fire You Tend)

In 1937, the AleviZaza people of the Dersim region of Eastern Turkey rebelled against the Turkish government‘s attempts to promote cultural homogeneity in the country. This involved relocation and repression of the people and, subsequently, when they resisted, a massive military campaign, which resulted in a large number of civilian deaths as well as enforced exile. Sema Kaygusuz’s grandmother was one of those sent into exile. This book tells both the story of the grandmother and others sent into exile as well as her modern-day descendants.

There are various strands to this novel. Firstly we follow Bese, a young woman from Dersim and the various people with them as they are sent into exile. Secondly, the disembodied narrator is talking about but, more particularly to an unnamed woman who is the granddaughter of Bese. Thirdly we follow the story of Hızır (also known as Khidr and various other names, though not in this book), a Muslim prophet, wise man and angel, who took on and still takes on many forms, as well as Zulqarnayn, also known as Dhul-Qarnayn a warrior king who, like Hızır, appears in the Koran. Fourthly, there are various other stories, both from the past and more recent times.

Bese was the sole survivor of her extended family, having most recently seen her brother’s body drifting away in the river Munzur. She is with a group who are fleeing Dersim and the Turkish repression. At one time on the journey she disappears from the group and does not return the next day. They wait for her and search for her. On the third day she reappears, half-naked and dishevelled. She was barely able to speak. She seemed to have undergone a profound transformation. When asked where she was, she said that she saw Hızır.

The group continue their journey and suffer great hardships, not least because they are not generally welcome in villages, because of their different customs. Bese turns out to be pregnant and is married off but things do not turn well.

Hızır appears throughout the book in various guesses. We follow the story of how his parents met. As in much of the book, there is sadness and violence involved. He was born at the same time as Zulqarnayn and the two become close. However, Zulqarnayn goes off to war. He is happy fighting but worried about dying and is therefore determined to find the river whose water grants immortality and he and his war-weary troop, including Hızır, trudge round the world, fighting and dying, looking for the river. Kaygusuz paints a wonderful anti-militarist portrait of them, who know other way of life but are clearly in very bad physical and mental shape. All they had left of their hymns of glory, honour, and bravery were their splintered bodies, their missing eyes, their torn ears, their shorn fingers.

As mentioned, Hızır pops up throughout the book. Bese, when older says she has seen him. The people of the village where she ends up have a special festival for him, and he visits them at night, leaving gifts. He takes many forms, so that beggars are welcomed by them, in case the beggar really is Hızır in disguise.

All of the stories are intense, with violence ever-present. While violence is not key to the modern-day story, it is just as intense as the other strands. The narrator talks to the woman, a keen photographer (we never know her name). She tells us that she is the narrator talking to her character who, like all good characters in a novel, seems to have got somewhat away from her creator.

You were the protagonist of my novel, ready to do everything I want her to yet incapable of knowing what the next sentence will hold. You were the figure of a woman not yet defeated, yet you still guarded a paradox, the mystery of which I couldn’t resolve.

The narrator is struggling to understand her character and her motives. You are somewhere between being and not being, in two places at once, like a leaf about to fall from its branch, ready to listen to everyone’s stories. Is the character really the narrator herself, struggling with working out her own psyche and psychology?

We follow some of the events in her life. She visits her grandmother as a child, where she comes across Hızır. She goes back to the village where her grandmother was from and meets and is welcomed by the people there and, of course, learns more about Hızır. She visits Xanthos, a city known for the violent deaths of it inhabitants. In particular, she plants a fig tree which is very lush but produces no fruit, perhaps a symbol of the fact that she has no children and, apparently, no husband/boyfriend.

Figs are key to this book and will appear throughout the book. They play multiple roles. We have seen the fig tree she planted, which she has called Zevraki, claiming the name meant both “boat” and “wood and its possible symbol of her infertility. The fig plays a key role in the relationship between Hızır’s parents, when they first meet. It is used in healing but also has strong sexual symbolism. One woman even plans to use a fig branch to force Bese to abort.

As well as these three strands, there are many other stories. The river Munzur, mentioned above, gets its name from a shepherd boy called Munzur, who inadvertently performs a miracle and is thoroughly embarrassed by this, so he runs away, eventually becoming the river. As well as mythical stories we have those which are rooted in reality, such as the story of Frik Dede, who lives in the village where Bese came from. He’d sworn himself to silence. Ever since his son had been burned alive by a military captain during the military coup, he shut himself up, never opening his mouth again, refusing to form a single sentence except to ask his wife for water.

Frik’s silence is also key to the book. At the beginning of the book, Kaygusuz tells about suskunluk, the Turkish for silence. There is very little speech in this novel, she tells us, its two sections : “Sigh”and “Wail” are sounds we make when language fails. Language fails before violence and there is a lot of violence in this book but, more than direct violence, we see the results of violence, particularly the people driven from their homes, with nowhere to go.

In the afterword by translator Nicholas Glastonbury, we learn that Kaygusuz deliberately used a lot of archaic, Ottoman terms, which will seem so to Turkish readers. I did notice that Glastonbury at times uses what seem somewhat archaic English words in his translation. In her own afterword, Kaygusuz says Finally, I would like to say, I intended to write Every Fire You Tend not just in Turkish, but in the language of all who lament for the dead. And I intended to write it with the language of figs. In short, language and lack of language is key to this book.

As well as being a book about language, it is also very much a feminist book. While this is not always overt, we can see it very much in the violence perpetrated by men, particularly the expedition of Hızır and Zulqarnayn. Referring to them, she says From that day forward, history has always been told from the same beginning, that of the intimacy of conquerors and prophets. However as regards what happened to the people of Dersim, she sums it up three words: They slaughtered us. In short, history is all too often men’s history.

Language, feminism, remembering and forgetting, the destruction of Dersim, its people and its culture, exile, violence and figs are all key to the book.

Though we have several main characters, it is perhaps Hızır who is also key to the book. I have recently read another book about exile – Hamid Ismailov‘s Hayy-ibn-Yakzan (Of Strangers and-Bees) – where there is a wandering character, who appears in many guises, over many centuries, and whose ideas influence the book. In that book, the character is Avicenna, who lived a thousand years ago but wanders through Ismailov’s books up to the present day. In this novel Hızır is something of a prophet or even angel and may well be fictitious, unlike Avicenna. Nevertheless, he appears throughout the book to all the main characters, including the narrator, and has an influence on them and on the ideas of this book, not least because he is generally considered to be a good man. His disguises are many. He appears as both of Elijah and Elisha (simultaneously) but also, for example, as Saint George and Glaucus of Corinth but also as ordinary people such as a blacksmith or beggar. He appears centuries ago and he appears nowadays.

As mentioned Kaygusuz uses a deliberately archaic language. Her style reflects this, as she is writing not in any way in a colloquial style but in what might be called a mythical style, more akin to the Arabian Nights or Ocean of the Streams of Stories. Clearly, with many of her stories being mythical, this style is well-suited to the book.

This book is very intense and rarely lets up its intensity. Kaygusuz has a story to tell and she is going to tell it her way, feminist, mythical, critical of Turkish homogenisation, with a language that is appropriate to its subject matter. It is a very powerful book, not one you will forget easily and, indeed, one that will give you a lot to think about, particularly, if like me, you knew nothing of the Dersim massacres. However, it is clear that it will be very quickly recognised as a classic of modern Turkish feminist literature.

Publishing history

First published by Doğan Kitap in 2009
First published in English by Tilted Axis in 2019
Translated by Nicholas Glastonbury