Memed, My Hawk
Memed, My Hawk
by Yaşar Kemal
THE LITRARY WORK
A novel set in the Cukurova plain of southern Anatolia during the 1920s and early 1930s, with flashbacks to the 1660s, and World War I (1914–18) and the Turkish War of Independence (1918–1923); published in Turkish (as Ince Memed [Slim Memed]) in 1955, in English in 1962.
Cruelly oppressed by his overlord, a young peasant turns outlaw and tries to bring justice to his oppressed fellow villagers.
Yaşar Kemal was born Sadik Kemal Gokgeli in 1923 in Hemite, a village in the Cukurova region (Adana province) of southern Turkey. As a child he was trained in the tradition of the wandering bards of Anatolia, who traveled throughout the region singing traditional folk songs and epics from a rich oral tradition. At age nine, Kemal attended school to learn to read and write, becoming one of the first literate members of his village. Kemal graduated from high school, but partly owing to poverty, never completed a university degree. Interested in the folklore and ethnology of Anatolia, he continued his studies through the Halk Evleri or “People’s Houses,” institutions established in 1932 by the new Republic of Turkey under its first president, Atatiirk, to educate Turks in the cities and towns of Anatolia. Kemal’s first literary endeavor was a collection of a&tlar, or traditional laments, sung spontaneously by Anatolian women over the loss of a loved one. During the same period, Kemal worked as a professional letter writer in the nearby town of Kadirli. As a result of his socialist politics (for which he was eventually arrested, imprisoned, and tortured), he was hounded out of every job until he changed his name to Yaşar Kemal and moved to Istanbul, where he worked as a reporter for the premier newspaper, Cumhuriyet, most of his articles concerned the common people of Anatolia. Meanwhile, Kemal wrote short stories about Anatolian life and engaged in the formidable task of creating his own literary style, by drawing on traditional storytelling themes and motifs and by appropriating to some extent village idiom. He eventually forged a style that blended the language of the Istanbul literary establishment with the colloquial dialect of southeastern Anatolia. Kemal progressed from short tales to a longer story of Anatolian life, which was published serially in Cumhuriyet and became an instant success. This was Memed, My Hawk. Kemal’s first novel, which won an important literary prize in Turkey and was published worldwide in nearly two dozen languages. The novel grew into a four-part saga, whose second part, They Burn the Thistles (1973), has also been translated into English. Memed, My Hawk, the progenitor of the saga, meanwhile gained distinction for its portrayal of Turkish village life and of a mountain brigand’s harrowing yet in some ways socially salutary career.
Turkish village life
Much of Kemal’s novel takes place in the Anatolian countryside, especially in the peasant villages of the Cukurova plain and the Taurus Mountains. In the early twentieth century Turkey experienced dramatic political changes, culminating in the abolition of the sultanate and the establishment of a republic in 1923. But while the new central government set about implementing various reforms, the remote, poverty-stricken villages of Anatolia—considered the Turkish homeland—were the last to feel the effects of these reforms.
Recognized as the smallest political entity in Turkey, a village could nonetheless choose its own headman and council of elders; the headman deferred in turn to the urban-bred district officer who was his immediate superior. Relations between town and country were uneasy, however; most villagers distrusted the central government on general principle, associating government officials with such hated practices as the collection of taxes or interference with cherished traditions and customs.
Thus, village life remained fundamentally untouched by the new regime, mainly because, as anthropologist Paul Stirling writes, “People [in the villages] did not know, or did not understand, or did not care what the central government was doing” (Stirling, p. 13). Moreover, the country’s mountainous terrain and harsh climate—hot, dry summers and intensely cold winters—isolated most of Anatolia’s estimated 35,000 villages not only from the cities but from each other as well. There were few roads, mostly only tracks in the dust, and villages were often 10 to 15 miles apart. Historian Richard D. Robinson, who spent several years in Anatolia, describes a typical village during the mid-twentieth century:
The ordinary community—containing between 800 and 2,000 persons—consisted of a tight, compact cluster of homes, very frequently immediately adjoining one another. There were virtually no isolated dwellings, for villagers did not reside on their fields. Homes were constructed of rough-hewn stone or, more typically, sun-dried brick—an adobe type construction.
(Robinson, p. 39)
While the inhabitants of any one village lived in close proximity to one another, individual villages inevitably became intimate, even insular. Stirling writes, “People belong to their village in a way they belong to no other social group…. The village is a community—a social group with many functions, not all of them explicit, and to which people are committed by birth or marriage, and bound by many ties” (Stirling, p. 29). Family households, invariably patriarchal in nature, formed the building blocks of each village.
Most villagers made their living by farming, planting subsistence crops of wheat and rye. Poor soil and capricious weather, however, could take their toll upon crop yields and villagers often feared that their stores of food would not last to the next harvest. Living conditions in nearly all villages were primitive and crude; the adobe houses contained little in the way of furnishings, so most families sat or slept on the floor. Since few could afford to burn wood for fuel, cakes of dried dung were used instead, and during the coldest winter days, the livestock—usually cows and bullocks—were brought into the house to help warm the air. There were no radios and no postal service in the village, and the villagers themselves were largely illiterate; consequently, word of mouth remained the most effective means of communication.
In Memed, My Hawk, Kemal vividly depicts the difficulties of Turkish village life. Memed and his neighbors struggle each year through broiling summers and freezing winters to eke out a living from the arid, thistle-ridden soil of the foothill plateaus of the Taurus Mountains. Their task is made even more difficult by the oppression of their parasitical agha (“overlord”; literally, “master” or “older person”). He claims most of their crop, leaving the peasants to survive on only a third of their harvest.
Atatürk and the new republic
The son of lower middle-class parents, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938) had been an ardent Turkish nationalist since his youth as a cadet in military school. During the First World War, he distinguished himself in battle, rising to the rank of brigadier general in the Turkish Army. He likewise proved to be an indomitable leader in the Turkish War of Independence, eventually assuming personal command of the nationalist forces and defeating the Greek army invasion of 1922. The following year, the Treaty of Lausanne consolidated peace between Turkey and the Allied nations of World War I and formally recognized Turkey as an independent nation, the Republic of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal served as its first president (he was granted the family surname Ataturk—“Father Turk”—by Parliament in 1934). During the 1920s and 1930s Mustafa Kemal and tjie Republican People’s Party implemented major reforms, most of them aimed at secularizing Turkish public life and bringing the country more in line with the nations of the Western world. In 1924 the reformers abolished the office of caliph (Islamic ruler). In 1925 the republic passed a law requiring men to wear hats and outlawing the fez—a tasseled flat-crowned cap adopted by Ottoman Muslims in the nineteenth century—as a sign of their allegiance to Islam. The fez was ridiculed as “the headwear of a barbarous backward people” (Howard, p. 97). Also it became permissible for women to abandon the veil and appear in public with their heads and faces uncovered. In 1926 the Turkish parliament repealed Islamic Holy Law and adopted a new civil code, influenced by the codes of Italy and Germany. The legal status of women improved—they were granted the right to initiate divorce proceedings; meanwhile, polygamy and a man’s right to divorce his wife by renunciation were both outlawed. And in 1928 the republic instituted perhaps the most dramatic change of all, abandoning the Arabic script in favor of the Roman, and introducing a new Turkish alphabet based upon phonetics. Although the rural villages were generally the last to feel the impact of Mustafa Kemal’s changes, some laws had consequences even in the remote Anatolian countryside. Aware that the fez had been outlawed, brigands intentionally wore one. As the hero of Memed, My Hawk explains, “Each brigand was wearing a red fez, as is the custom in the mountains, where the red fez is the badge of brigandage. A brigand wearing a cap or hat, as men now do in the villages and the cities has never yet been seen…. everyone who took to the mountains wore a fez too” (Yaşar Kemal, Memed, My Hawk, p. 102).
Land reform and the aghas
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most of the land in Turkey was owned by the state, in this case the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Parcels of land were leased to farmers under secure tenure arrangements that resembled medieval feudalism: farmers cultivated the land and gave over part of their harvests in exchange for military and other services. Although the Ottoman Empire had restricted the growth of the landowning class in its earlier years, this trend was later reversed owing to the reinstitution of Islamic inheritance practices, the sale of state lands for increased revenue, and authorized land transfers. Thus, large landowners, along with landless peasants, predominated in many parts of rural Anatolia.
After the First World War and the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the new government attempted to implement land reforms by abolishing what remained of the feudal landlords’ powers. However, changes had already begun to take place with the arrival of a new social element: the aghas, newly rich peasants, including some who made their fortunes profiteering in the post-World War I era. The aghas, who were eager to obtain as much fertile land as possible, either through purchase or less ethical means, soon came to dominate much of the countryside. In some areas, the aghas became the intermediary between the peasants and the government; the peasants had to work through the aghas if they wanted something from the government, while the government used the aghas to obtain votes or taxes from the peasants. Theoretically, the feudal landlords’ power had dissolved, so peasants could own land, and especially since it had risen in value, they were determined to hang on to the little they had. But the aghas were equally determined to gain control of as much as possible for themselves. As Kemal explains it, the brigands had a hand in their gaining it: “The landholdings of the rich steadily increased when they also began to make use of brigands as a means of pressure on the poor who were fighting to defend their rights in a life-and-death struggle for the land” (Memed, My Hawk, p. 232).
As a child growing up in a rural Turkish villages, Kemal encountered many aghas in everyday life and had little good to say of them:
Often the ag[h]as were without pity. They starved the people, seized their few belongings, and treated them like slaves…. They were completely deceitful, dishonest, and recognized no human values. They certainly knew how to give orders to everyone, and they exploited without pity the tenants who showed any strength or independence…. The ag[h]as were petty tyrants. Their power and wealth came not from tradition and family, but from land and cattle.
(Yaşar Kemal, Yaşar Kemal on His Life and Art, p. 137)
In Memed, My Hawk, Kemal creates several characters in this tyrannical mold, the abusive Abdi Agha who beats and starves Memed as a child and the even more monstrous Ali Safa Bey who makes use of mountain brigands to increase his landholdings and keep the peasants frightened and under his control.
A tradition of brigandage
The phenomenon of banditry in Turkey is historically ancient, dating at least as far back as the Hittites, warrior invaders who swept into Anatolia late in the third millennium B.C.E. Indeed, in his memoirs, Kemal describes inscriptions on Hittite bas-reliefs and stele in his village, in which a Hittite sovereign boasts of subduing the bandits of the area (Yaşar Kemal on His Art and Life, p. 31). Brigands and bandits were also prevalent in the days of the Ottoman Empire (1395–1923), especially during the seventeenth century when the Ottoman state was becoming more centralized. To some extent, the bandits were themselves creations of the state, born of the mercenary troops hired by central authorities to enforce their own power over certain sectors of society, rather like a private army. Once their campaigns were concluded, these mercenaries found themselves decommissioned and unemployed. Consequently many roamed the countryside in armed gangs, offering their fighting skills for hire and engaging in theft and pillaging.
Besides former mercenaries, the brigand gangs of earlier eras included “vagrant peasants, rebellious religious students, unruly members of official retinues, and defiant or mutinous soldiers. Each of these groups turned to banditry in response to state action and resulting transformations in rural life” (Barkey, p. 141). Such disaffected social elements, along with fugitives from the law such as novel’s Memed, could be found among the brigands of his day as well.
During the final years of World War I, the number of brigands in the country increased, thanks in part to deserters from the Ottoman army, which was fighting on the side of Germany. On the other hand, many brigands united with their countrymen to fight the Turkish War of Independence (1919–22). Turkish nationalists, led by Ataturk, squared off against the Greek army, which invaded western Anatolia with the intent of detaching it from Turkish rule. Also they squared off against the Allies (Italy, France, and Great Britain), whose leaders were attempting to partition the former Ottoman Empire into zones of influence to be governed by them.
In Memed, My Hawk, one of the characters, Big Ismail, describes this period with unabashed enthusiasm: “The French Occupation Forces then came to the Cukurova and the brigands, the deserters, the irregulars, the thieves, those who were good-for-nothing and the honest men, the young and the old, all the people of the Çukurova joined in the fight to throw the enemy out of the plain. They drove the French out and the whole country was thus liberated. A new government was set up and a new era began” (Memed, My Hawk, pp. 231–32). Historians Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw present a more objective view, revealing that brigands and irregulars actually fought on both sides in the post-World War I conflict, some allying themselves with the French in the Cukurova region, others fighting on the side of the Turkish nationalist forces. The latter eventually succeeded in driving the French out of southeastern Turkish lands, and the Greeks, supported by the British, out of the west. After the new government was established, most of the brigands returned to the mountains and their former lifestyles, fighting each other and helping the newly rich class of aghas protect their holdings and control their tenants. Kemal’s novel acknowledges that reality as well: “Nearly every Agha supplied some band of brigands on the mountains and protected them from the Government…. But the conflicting interests of the Aghas in the plains began to lead to fights among their brigand supporters in the mountains. The brigands on the mountains were continually fighting among themselves and oppressing the poor, while the estates of the Aghas grew steadily on the plains” (Memed, My Hawk, p. 232).
After a short chapter describing the coastal region of Cukurova and the highland plateaus of the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey, the novel depicts the child Memed fleeing from his home village of Deyirmenoluk and its feudal lord, Abdi Agha. The feudal lord owns all the land in and around the five villages on the Dikenli plateau, or Plain of Thistles. Cruel and abusive, he has singled out Memed and his widowed mother for persecution: Abdi Agha makes the boy plow barefoot in the frost and thistles, beats him constantly, and once tied him to a tree and left him to be devoured by wolves and birds of prey.
Unable to bear these torments any longer, Memed abandons his mother, Deuneh, and flees over the next mountain ridge to Kesme village. One villager, Süleyman, takes Memed in, adopts him, and makes him his goatherd. Memed thrives in this comfortable and loving environment, but he cannot help worrying about his mother, whom he left behind. One day, despite warnings from Süleyman, Memed takes the goats too close to Deyirmenoluk and encounters another resident, “Beetroot Husuk,” who recognizes and speaks to him. News of the encounter spreads to the other villagers, and an enraged Abdi, whose rule extends to Suleyman’s Kesme village, forces Memed to return home.
After Memed and his mother finish harvesting the wheat, Abdi Agha takes his share of the crop. Normally, Abdi takes two-thirds, but this year he takes three-fourths as punishment for Memed’s running away. Reduced to starvation during the winter, Memed and his mother give up their only cow and its yearling bull calf to Abdi in exchange for food. The calf is Memed’s only hope for eventual independence; in taking the animals, Abdi kills Memed’s hope for a better life.
At this point the story leaps forward to Memed as an undersized 18-year-old youth, still oppressed by Abdi Agha, but determined to make his first trip to town. On the journey, Memed and his friend Mustafa meet an old man, the famous mountain brigand Big Ahmet, who led an outlaw’s life for 16 years, inspiring love and fear in the peasants, then retired after being pardoned in an amnesty.
While in town, the two boys meet Corporal Hasan, who describes town life and gives them a vision of new possibilities. Memed’s view of the world is transformed in a moment: “He had grown in his own eyes and began to consider himself a man…. ’Abdi Agha’s only human; so are we’…. The market of yesterday, the town of yesterday, the world of yesterday, seemed completely different to Memed’s eyes today. All the bonds restraining his feet and his heart were now broken” (Memed, My Hawk, pp. 66–67). By the time Memed returns to his village, he has decided to run away to the Cukurova with his 15-year-old girlfriend, Hatche, to start a new life, free of the agha’s tyranny. Hatche, however, has just been betrothed against her will to Abdi’s nephew, Veli. She and Memed flee at night, bound for the Cukurova. Caught in a downpour, they take shelter and consummate their love in a cave.
Discovering that the lovers have fled, Abdi Agha, in a rage, tramples the life out of Memed’s mother. He then sets out with seven villagers, the jilted bridegroom, and the famed tracker Lame Ali to recapture Memed and Hatche. Although Lame Ali sympathizes with the lovers, he cannot resist the challenge of tracking them, and the posse catches up with the fugitives in the forest. Drawing his revolver, Memed kills Veli and wounds Abdi. Memed then sends Hatche back to Deyirmenoluk, promising to fetch her later. Now even more of a wanted man, Memed takes refuge in Kesme. His former foster-father, Suleyman, rescues him once again, this time taking him into the mountains to Mad Durdu’s band of brigands.
In the following months, Memed learns the skills of brigandage but quickly becomes disenchanted with Mad Durdu as a leader. Not only is Mad Durdu capricious and cruel, like Abdi, but reckless as well. He is notorious for humiliating those whom he robs, stealing not only their money but their underclothing as well. After Durdu attempts to rob and shame Kerimoglu, a proud nomad chieftain who had earlier aided and tended Durdu’s men after a skirmish with the police, Memed and two companions, Jabbar and Sergeant Rejep, break with the brig and leader and strike out on their own.
As the leader of the trio, Memed becomes an honorable brigand who fights oppression while protecting the poor—in the tradition of Big Ahmet, Re§it the Kurd, and other bandits who are remembered in folksongs sung by Anatolian bards of oral lore. At one point, Memed sets out to rob Ali and Hasan, two peasants returning to their mountain villages, but when he learns that they would rather die than return to their villages empty-handed after working for years in the Cukurova to make a better life for themselves, he frees them and returns their money, realizing that to rob them of their money would be to rob them of their dreams: “Who knows with what hopes they toiled!” (Memed, My Hawk, p. 191).
Soon after this incident, Memed visits Deyir-menoluk and learns that he did not in fact kill Abdi Agha; he also hears that his mother died of the injuries Abdi inflicted when he trampled on her and that Hatche has been falsely imprisoned for shooting Veli. Determined to exact his revenge, Memed goes to Abdi’s home but finds him gone and only his wives and children present. Jabbar stabs one of the wives, but Memed stops Sergeant Rejep from killing Abdi’s children and earns the respect of the villagers for his mercy.
Memed enlists Lame Ali in finding Abdi; eager to make amends to Memed for his earlier betrayal, the tracker soon discovers that the agha is hiding in a kinsman’s home in a Cukurova village. Attempting to smoke out Abdi, Memed and his companions set fire to the agha’s hiding place and end up burning down the whole village. Pursued by angry villagers, the trio are forced to flee to the mountains. Sergeant Rejep dies from complications of a recent wound.
Believing that Abdi Agha died in the fire, Memed returns to Deyirmenoluk to distribute the fields that were once controlled by Abdi. The villagers rejoice at the news of the agha’s defeat, hail Memed as a liberator, and set fire to the thistle fields in celebration. When it is discovered that Abdi is still alive, however, nearly half the villagers turn on Memed, condemning him as a presumptuous upstart. Disillusioned by the villagers’ cowardice, Memed and Jabbar return to the mountains for their own safety.
Meanwhile, having escaped from the burned-down house, Abdi seeks refuge in the village of Vayvay with a villainous but powerful agha, Ali Safa Bey, who hires a mountain brigand band to terrorize the peasants and steal their land. Ali Safa Bey and his henchman, the brigand Kalayji, set a trap to kill Memed, but Memed avoids the trap and kills Kalayji instead. Subsequently, Memed’s fame spreads throughout the Cukurova and the Taurus Mountains; he assumes “legendary proportions,” becoming a hero especially to the villagers of Vayvay, whom Ali Safa Bey oppresses the most. The villagers supply Big [Old] Osman with a large sum of money and send him as an emissary to Memed in the mountains. Delighted by the young brigand’s prowess, Big Osman, himself a peasant, takes to calling Memed “My Hawk,” a sobriquet that is taken up by the people.
Meanwhile, Hatche has been languishing in jail and is about to be transferred from the prison in town to another prison at Kozan, where a harsh final sentence will be passed against her. Parting company from Jabbar, who disapproves of this venture, Memed rescues Hatche from the police in broad daylight, along with her female fellow prisoner Iraz. All three escape to the mountains, establishing a hideout in a cave on Mount Alidagi. After several seasons of searching, the police find their refuge. Unable to flee because Hatche has gone into labor with their son, Memed surrenders to police sergeant Asim, but on discovering the true circumstances, Asim relents and lets the new father and his family escape.
Abdi Agha’s fear of Memed mounts with each escape and he writes countless letters to the government, all to no effect. Pursuit of Memed soon resumes, however, under the command of Captain Faruk. During a shootout in Alayar, Hatche is killed by a stray bullet. Memed employs his wits as well as gunfire and grenades to drive away the police, and transports Hatche’s corpse down to the nearest village for proper burial. At Iraz’s request, Memed sends his child off with her to be raised in safety elsewhere, then returns to the mountains alone.
During a national holiday in the autumn, the Turkish government declares one of its periodic amnesties to pardon criminals in jail and brigands in the mountains. When Memed enters Deyirmenoluk one day, Big Osman is there with
THE IMMORTAL OUTLAW
The songs of wandering minstrels provide one window into the world of Anatolian nomads, “Ag[h]as, the Day of Judgement has arrived,” warns one song, and later. “there is no justice in the government… we have no one to turn to” (Gould, p. 210). For hundreds of years, colorful figures—brigands, warriors, tribal chieftains—were immortalized in song and story. The historical personages who inspired the songs seemed to expect and accept such immortality as a compliment In trying to persuade another bandit to join forces, the seventeenth-century outlaw Kalenderoglu remarked, “if we win over Kuyucu [the grand vizier], then we will have the Ottomans give up everything east of Scutari [i.e will give up Anatolia], if we do not win we will be content being the heroes of folk songs!” (Kalenderoglu in Barkey, p, 208), Centuries later, Yasar Kemal tried his hand at immortalizing in song a modern outlaw. The man was his father’s former bodyguard, whom everybody called “Zala’s Son,” Kemal writes in his memoirs, “After my father’s death, Zala’s Son became one of the more famous outlaws in the Toros [the Taurus Mountains]. Some nights he would visit us and bring me presents… One day the police trapped Zala’s Son and killed him along with his five companions. When I heard the news, I composed a long elegy for him and sang it to my mother. For the first time she told me that she loved my work, and she made no other comment I had won her over” (Yasar Kemal, Yasar Kemal on His Life and Work, p. 9).
an Arabian horse and the promise of 100 acres and a house in Vayvay village for the outlaw. This does not sit well with the villagers of Deyirmenoluk, however. They are disappointed in Memed because they know Abdi will return to oppress them anew. Mother Huru confronts Memed on behalf of Deyirmenoluk and charges him with cowardice. Stung, Memed again recruits Lame Ali to find Abdi Agha, which the tracker is eager to do.
Mounted on the Arabian horse, Memed travels to the town where Abdi is hiding, breaks into his enemy’s house, and kills him. Escaping back to Deyirmenoluk, Memed tells the villagers they have no more claim on him. He then rides off on the Arabian horse and is never seen again, but every year before plowing time the peasants burn the thistle fields in remembrance of Memed, and a supernatural light appears on Alidagi so that “for three nights the mountain is white, as bright as day” (Memed, My Hawk, p. 371).
The outlaw as folk hero
In Memed, My Hawk the protagonist undergoes an almost mythical transformation from ordinary peasant to folk hero. Oppressed by poverty and Abdi Agha’s abuse, Memed grows up short and stunted: “A thousand and one misfortunes prevented him from ever growing to his full height. His shoulders no longer developed, his arms and legs were like dry branches. Hollow cheeks, dark face, charred by the sun…. His appearance was that of an oak, short and gnarled” (Memed, My Hawk, pp. 51–52).
Once Memed becomes a brigand, however, his reputation and image undergo a miraculous change in the minds of the peasants. After he refrains from robbing two farm laborers, spares the children of his enemy Abdi Agha, and defeats the cruel bandit Kalayji, he becomes equally renowned for his mercy and his wiliness. Like the legendary bandit Big Ahmet, who roamed the mountains a generation earlier, Memed inspires love and fear. The common people listen raptly to his exploits and embellish them almost beyond recognition:
In the Chukurova and on the Taurus mountains Memed’s adventures were repeated, much exaggerated, from mouth to mouth, everyone supporting Memed’s cause…. At last the village had found a champion. They were elated and all began inventing tall stories about Slim Memed, who soon assumed legendary proportions in their eyes. They told of so many heroic deeds and fights that the lives of ten men would not have sufficed to perform them all.
(Memed, My Hawk, p. 274)
Big Osman of Vayvay, the villager who dubs Memed “My Hawk,” a nickname suggesting the young man’s resemblance to a bird of prey, comes to idolize him. When Memed is briefly presumed dead after a shootout with police, Big Osman weeps in lamentation, “What a gallant man was [M]y [H]awk! Such large eyes, such brows, such slim fingers! And so tall, like a cypress!” (Memed, My Hawk, p. 338). When it turns out that Memed is alive, Big Osman rejoices, claiming that his Hawk will defeat anyone the aghas send against him.
The fictional Memed’s transformation into a Robin Hood-like figure is not unprecedented. Indeed, several historians have explored the conception of social banditry—in which brigandage may be viewed as a protest against poverty and oppression—in various cultures. Eric Hobsbawm writes,
The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped, and supported. This… distinguishes [social banditry] from two other kinds of rural crime: from the activity of gangs drawn from the professional “underworld” or of mere freebooters (“common robbers”), and from communities for whom raiding is part of the normal way of life, such as for instance the Bedouin.
(Hobsbawm in Barkey, p. 178)
Brigandage boasts a long, “honorable” history in Turkish lands. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, several social bandits acquired the status of folk heroes in Ottoman Anatolia, including Pir Sultan Abdal, Koroglu, and Dadaloglu. All three opposed the policies of the state and fought against local leaders who were oppressing the peasants.
Of the three, the late-sixteenth-century bandit Köroglu most resembled a Turkish Robin Hood. With a band of approximately 200 men—consisting of demilitarized mercenaries and vagrant peasants—Koroglu set up camp in the mountains, from which he launched periodic attacks upon local officials. The peasants themselves were not entirely exempt from his crimes, notes historian Karen Barkey: “Some documents of the period show that Koroglu attacked both judges and other local officials with reputations for tyranny[,] and innocent villagers”; but “other documents testify to his social consciousness, indicating that unlike other bandits he and his men never trampled village fields, even at the cost of their own security” (Barkey, pp. 181–82). Throughout the region of Bolu, he was associated with a famous call to arms: “I am Koroglu; I shatter the rocks, / I am the people’s sword; I search for justice, / I hold the Sultan responsible, / Those who wake up join me!” (Koroglu in Barkey, p. 181).
Raised on the songs and legends of the Anatolian bards, Kemal was familiar with the figure of Koroglu. However, he also had a more personal source of inspiration for Memed, My Hawk: “On my mother’s side, her father and brothers—all the men in her lineage—were outlaws…. My maternal uncle was Mahiro, the most famous outlaw in eastern Anatolia, Iran, and the Caucasus…. Several years after his death, many epic songs celebrated him as a hero” (Yaşar Kemal on His Life and Art, p. 5). As a child, Kemal often heard of his uncle’s exploits. According to the family legend, Mahiro and his band were captured by the police and thrown into the Van Prison. During their imprisonment, the outlaws dug a tunnel and one night, after the tunnel was finished, Mahiro made his escape. His comrades were afraid to follow him, however; risking his newfound freedom, Mahiro returned time and again through the tunnel to persuade his band to escape as well, but to no avail. Finally he was spotted by a guard, who wounded Mahiro. The injured outlaw disarmed his assailant and held the police at bay for several hours before being recaptured and executed. He was 25 years old.
Sources and literary context
Perhaps most influential in Kemal’s writing of this novel were the injustices he witnessed during his childhood in the Cukurova, and during his adult career as a newspaper correspondent. Another influence was a Turkish literary movement toward realism during the late 1940s and 1950s. Out of this movement emerged Mahmut Makal’s Bizim Kōy (1950), translated into English as A Village in Anatolia (1954). There are important social and ideological differences between Makal and Kemal, which help explain the different kinds of literature they produced. Makal was a teacher who went to Anatolia to educate the ignorant peasants. His naturalistic descriptions reveal the harsh realities of village life in Anatolia. Kemal, however, was a man of the people who understood the peasant mentality, and had suffered deprivation and social oppression in Anatolia himself.
Kemal avidly collected folklore and read literature from both the East and West. As a child, while trained in the ways of bardic declamation, he also absorbed his people’s folk traditions. These he combined with received traditions of written literary style to produce his own voice, which reflected, to writers in these traditions at least, a highly poetic, even transcendent view of art and life. As an example, the thistles, which are described in detail at the beginning of the book and which appear as a leit motiv throughout, are both real thistles and a symbol of how harsh, painful experiences lead to greater understanding of life and appreciation for its beauty despite pain and suffering.
In Memed, My Hawk, Kemal transforms details from personal experience into art: Memed thinks of changing his name when he first runs away to Suleyman in Kesme village, just as Kemal changed his name to escape oppression when he ’ran away’ from the Cukurova to Istanbul; Kemal also models characters on real-life acquaintances. Big Ahmet has features of his maternal uncle Mahiro, who, as noted, was a famous brigand. The elderly Big Ismail is based on the real-life Ismail Agha from Kemal’s village. Horali, a watchman of a melon garden on an island in the Savrun River, is a throwback to Kemal’s youth when he himself worked as a watchman of a melon garden on an island in the Ceyhan River. Such appropriation is not unusual for any writer.
Kemal is, however, original in the way he appropriates authentic folk material and incorporates it into his story, structurally and thematically. Not only does he frequently refer to folk motifs in woven stockings and authentic designs on woven materials from nomadic life, but Memed, in one of his most daring episodes is inspired by the folk tale of Koroglu, in which a famous bandit witnesses a little dog vanquish three huge dogs through his courage alone. The tale inspires Memed before he snatches Hatche from the police in broad daylight; after his successful exploit, his deeds are sung by the peasants and bards who hear of them, so that Memed’s story becomes larger than life and inspires others to rebel against oppression. Thus the novel becomes a kind of modern folk tale with potential political overtones.
Politics and peasants in the 1950s
Although Atatiirk’s republic wrought many changes and brought reforms throughout the country, peasants and townsmen alike continued to distrust the new government. Many felt that the republic was too secular in its aims, to the point of being irreligious, even godless. They resented the abolishment of the fez, the replacement of the Arabic with the Turkish alphabet, and, above all, the lack of land redistribution and reform, which was what the peasants wanted most.
During the late 1940s, however, Turkey evolved from a one-party (Republican People’s Party) to a multi-party state in which the strongest opposition was the Democratic Party. That party dominated the political scene for the next decade—from 1950, when Adnan Menderes was elected Prime Minister and Celal Bayar was elected President, until the military coup of 1960, which resulted in Menderes’s being hanged along with two of his associates (Lewis, pp. 150–52). Unlike the previous regime, the Democratic Party pandered more consciously to the peasants, turning away from Atatiirk’s secular reforms. Religious education in public schools—restored on a voluntary basis in 1949—became compulsory in the primary grades under the Menderes government, which pleased the peasantry even as it alarmed the educated elite, many of whom had adopted Western values.
Despite their satisfaction with the new regime, the peasantry still struggled to survive. Between 1948 and 1953 the Turkish economy experienced an average annual growth rate that exceeded 12 percent. The greatest expansion occurred in the agricultural sector, due in large part to the importation of tractors and other more sophisticated farming equipment, which increased the amount of land under cultivation and resulted in greater harvests. Industrialization was to prove a mixed blessing for the rural poor, however; as mechanized agriculture became more prevalent in such regions as the Cukurova plain, agrarian laborers found themselves displaced by machines. Seeking employment, many relocated to the cities, which were ill-prepared to receive them. Makeshift shelters—called gecekondu, meaning “built in the night”—were erected on city outskirts to house the newcomers.
While the novel portrays the villains of his youth, Kemal wrote at a time when the sources of oppression, though different, resulted in equally degrading circumstances. As a correspondent for Cumhuriyet, he often wrote about the impact of mechanization on agriculture, which forced small farmers to sell their land to larger land owners, “a trend in cotton-growing areas like the Cukurova plain in the south” (Howard, p. 122). When the peasants in Memed, My Hawk bum the thistle fields to make the land easier to farm and to celebrate the downfall of their corrupt village agha, they, of course, do not anticipate that they might one day face another adversary: the two-edged sword of progress.
Turkish reaction to Kemal’s novels was at first mixed. When the novel was published serially in Cumhuriyet, it was extremely popular; but when a leading publisher, Varlik, awarded Memed, My Hawk a prize for the best Turkish novel of the year, the novel was greeted with a “surprising critical silence” (Hickman, p. 55). In view of the overwhelming popularity of the novel when it was published serially, the critical silence may reflect a fear of recognizing a novel that portrays rebellion against social, political, and economic injustice in a society that during the 1950s was repressive not only of socialist ideas, but of any ideas that were remotely liberal or progressive. The novel, despite the critical silence, has remained continuously in print to this day, a testament to its ongoing popularity.
In England and the United States, the reception was generally positive, although sometimes mixed. Not every reviewer evinced understanding of Kemal’s unique blend of oral and written traditions, so most of the negative comments may have been judging Kemal for not writing in the modern realist tradition. The New Yorker, for example, complained that “the workmanship is thin, so that in the end we feel that we have been given a very diluted fairy tale,” while the Times of London found “his descriptions full of throw-away detail.” Bookmark, however, called the novel “fascinating,” and the New York Herald Tribune described it as having an “epic sweep and a pleasing flavor all its own” (all from Davison, pp. 746–47). More recently, Kemal’s fiction has been compared to that of American novelist William Faulkner. Like Faulkner, Kemal portrays timeless features of the human condition in a context of social and historical transformation.
—Barry Tharaud and Pamela S. Loy
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_____. Yaşar Kemal on His Life and Art. Trans. Eugene Lyons Hubert and Barry Tharaud. Ed. Barry Tharaud. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999.