JANUARY 31, 2020
BEJAN’S COUNTRY and my own — Turkey and Armenia — are forever linked in history. Her words spoke to me of this intrinsic link the instant I came across her poetry in another country, far away from both our histories and lives.
Bejan Matur is an Alevi Kurdish poet living in Istanbul. Born in Marash, in Turkey’s Mediterranean region, she writes from a country whose leaders are unkind to dissenters or freethinkers, especially those who remember the ghosts of the country’s past. Her poetry is mystical and tragic — she unearths and acknowledges the secrets witnessed by the stones and poplar trees. Evoking pagans and gods of lost times, she breathes new life into the village, nature, and forgotten parts of history with her words.
Bejan has published nine books of poetry. Her first book, Rüzgar Dolu Konaklar (Winds Howl Through the Mansions), was published in 1996 to international acclaim, and her words have subsequently been translated into 25 languages. In addition to her poetry and journalism work, she is the former director of the Diyarbakır Cultural Art Foundation, where she organized exhibitions, conferences, and lectures. (Diyarbakır, the ancient Armenian homeland, is currently the unofficial capital of Kurdistan.) Bejan spoke to me over the phone in the midst of olive picking with a friend near the Mediterranean.
ANAHIT POTURYAN: Bejan, I’d like to tell you how I discovered your poetry.
I was living in Venice, Italy, earlier this year and I was exploring the San Fantin Square near the Teatro La Fenice. I noticed the Ateneo Veneto doors open, so I walked in and found a peculiar porcelain structure right in the middle of the church. It was a curious sight. It turned out to an installation by the British artist Edmund de Waal, titled Library of Exile. This was a temporary pavilion-library housing 2,000 books by writers in exile and banned books.
By chance, I reached for a slim green-white lined book, titled If This is a Lament: Bir agitsa bu. I opened the book right from the middle, and the first poem I found was titled “Requiem for Saroyan.” I was lost in excitement at this discovery. What did Saroyan, the Armenian-American writer from Fresno, California — the pride of diasporic Armenians — have to do with you? What was the link to Saroyan, and why did I discover this in Italy? I quickly read the poem and subsequently the entire book until closing time.
BEJAN MATUR: That is incredible. There is a lot to tell from that.
Yes! Now that I have the chance to speak to you after such an incredible moment of discovery, can you tell me more about your past? You had previously studied law at university. At what point did you become interested in writing poetry?
I grew up in a Mediterranean village. My father was a farmer who grew cotton. The earliest scenery I remember from my childhood are the vast cotton fields with reddish soil which were covered with snowy mountains from afar. I grew up in a big tribal family. I remember our big house always full of life with never-ending guests visiting, cotton fields workers, and three generations of women cooking together in the kitchen. From the beginning, I was an observer!
As the youngest girl in the family, I had a different story than my sisters. First of all, I was a very bookish girl. I started to read very early. When I was nine years old, I was already reading the classics, novels, and poetry. I always felt my father’s protection around me; he was proud that his daughter was reading books. That is why whenever my mum would ask me to join the kitchen to work my father used to say, “Please leave Bejan alone, she is reading…” I was the one in the family who was going to make dreams come true.
That is why I started writing poetry in secondary school. Usually with pastoral motifs, but sometimes I wrote about social injustice. Then, during my second year of study at Ankara Law University, I was arrested by the police. I was 19 years old. The custody lasted almost one month! I was tortured. All these heavy and dark memories. They were trying to find out if I was involved in a political movement or not. The reason it took so long was because I didn’t want to speak any word to the police. Although I was under heavy pressure, I stayed strong enough to keep my sanity. Their aim was to paralyze my being. I stayed silent for 28 days in a dark cell. Everything around me was forcing me to forget my being and feel inhuman.
What was it like in this isolated cell?
In the Ankara police station after all this heavy torture, I was trying to breathe and remember: I am alive. I am not dead yet. I was trying to tell my body that I was alive. In this pure solid darkness, there was no sign around me to tell me what day it was, what the time of the day was, anything. It was a very dark, cold cell. Somehow, I tried to create a kind of ritual. I started turning around in the cell and creating a rhythmic sound. It wasn’t a song, but there was music without words.
Through rhythm and physically turning around over and over again, I started to hear words and lyrics. They were shining like diamonds in the darkness around me. I was in a vortex, a kind of sound vortex. I was hearing the words. They were shining around me. It went deeper and deeper. It was a kind of healing maybe; a kind of consolation for my soul. I can definitely say that poetry saved my life.
After the cell, I was sent to prison. The court process and the release took one year. After one year, I was free. But deeply broken and wounded. The only thing I needed was to read poetry, listen to music, and write. That was my therapy. To write and to feel that I was still alive. I didn’t go to a therapist. Many of my friends urged me to go to Europe to take some therapy to forget the bad memories, but somehow I refused.
What got you through such a traumatizing event?
I trusted in poetry. I thought, Poetry can help me and I can survive through writing. I was writing like a mad person for days, months, years. For two years, I was writing in almost a hundred notebooks, filling them all. But then I realized that what I wrote was too emotional.
The poetry I sought was not this kind of lyrical poetry. I felt the lack of a philosophical approach to what I expressed. At some point, I didn’t want to publish those rough feelings. I had a long break. I got rid of everything I had written. Actually, I burned it in the garden of my new house while Maria Callas’s arias were playing, an aria by Catalani called La Wally! It was like a phoenix story. I deeply felt that: that if I burned my writing then I could be reborn from the ashes.
After that hard decision, it took one year for me to hear poetry again. I was silent for almost a year. After I burnt the poems, I thought, Okay, maybe this is the end, maybe I am not going to write even a line from now on. For a long time, my soul was empty. Then, I decided to take my backpack and go visit the ruins around Anatolia. I went to Termessos, Perge, Hattusas, Ephesus, Priene, Olympos, and many other ancient places.
What did you find in these ancient places?
All these ancient archaeological places had such silence and solitude. I was trying to hear sound from these ruins and these stones. I was feeling like all these stones would speak to me. They would tell me the story, and I could hear them and their music. During my journey at some point, I heard the sound of my poetry that I still write now. This is my language. I heard that sound from the old souls that spoke to me among the ruins. Then, writing became a part of my soul.
It was part of my existence; it is me actually.
You seem to have found your calling. Stones are quiet witnesses of history and displacement and longing. They are tellers of truth, if they could speak.
Exactly. Poetry, in general, is the transformation of nature. You transform nature and what you see as a stone or a tree or a cloud. The poet is someone who hears the word or the sound in nature. Someone who hears the trees and what words they hide. I deeply feel that all the universe is constructed as music, like a symphony. I am the one who decodes the sound. When I hear it and listen, I decode this symphony. I make my words from these sounds. Poetry for me is pure music and rhythm. As I said, I feel like I am in a vortex, and through that vortex I hear the rhythm first and then the words come.
When you listen to nature, it is the languages that speak. Nature keeps old sounds, old tragedies. There are invisible traces we can find through art in general. The universe is constructed on these symbols and codes. That’s why in my poetry I use the image of stones a lot. I believe that they speak to me because stones are the ones who keep the tragedies. All this human history, the political history we’ve had, forces us to forget the truth! What they want from us is a kind of amnesia: to forget the tragedies or to ignore the past. All the official histories are based on this idea. As much as official histories are in denial, nature is the opposite and stones are the opposite. They keep the truth in.
That is why I trust the story that is hiding in stones, instead of political statues! I find this purity important because even the one who rules the world is not strong enough to change this truth.
It is not just humans that are alive, but the earth, a nonhuman. It gives us a perspective. Maybe a more truthful perspective?
Truthful is the right word! There we can find a neutral position or perspective which is not faked by the recent political history. Because truth itself does not need a mediator to be told. It will speak directly through many kinds of art. That’s why poets, artists, philosophers have to listen to the sounds of the universe to hear the truth. The meaning of our being is written there, hanging on the cosmic darkness. Also, the answers are there. There must be answers.
Let’s take stone, wind, and mountains as an example because these images and motifs come up a lot in your work. You create a community of ghosts or truth tellers. Could you talk more about wind or mountains?
I think early childhood memories are the source of these images. As I said earlier, the village I was born in, Marash, is located in a plain. It has a Mediterranean climate, cotton fields with red soil. You see the mountains covered with snow even during the summer. It was very dramatic and picturesque. As a little girl, I felt a resonance with the mountains and the fields and the Mediterranean climate. It was a very beautiful opposition; a very beautiful picture with beautiful sunsets.
As you said, the natural images of wind and mountains are present in my poetry. But neither are described as only geographical entities. They also speak of the past and truth. They keep the untold stories, tragedies that are still present. Maybe because “official history” and “politics” are too much based on untruth, I go back to nature to decode the stories. My interest in the ancient history of the lands comes out of my curiosity about our existential questions.
That is why through my poetry, I create a kind of personal mythology. What I see as a mountain or the sky or the hills can turn and transform into a mythological image or metaphor in my poetry. The story of the human and nature sometimes flows nicely — but sometimes there are big tragedies, like an earthquake that shapes human history. Like all these political tragedies — I remember my father used to tell me about Armenians and the tragedies they had. All these untold sorrows were triggering something in me.
Writing poetry is like digging all these stories and tragedies from the soil, from the mountains, and giving a voice to them. I always felt like this. I am the one who can give the voice because my people feel like they are silent: the Kurds, also Alevis, also Armenians, all these societies still living. I don’t want to say “feeling responsible” because it is not about being responsible for that. But I feel this way.
Then there are so many powerful feelings and emotions to experience!
My editor in Sweden who wrote the preface for my book mentioned that I am like Cassandra! He wrote, “She feels the tragedies of the past and the apocalyptic events coming, but as she cannot stop them, she feels this never-ending sorrow.” He continued with a comparison to Antigone: “She is the one who tells the story to stop the injustice.”
A passage of yours just came to mind because we were talking about olive trees earlier. The olive trees were waiting / and the white earth with its / nameless insects were waiting for us.  There is a notion of waiting that I’ve noticed throughout your poetry. I don’t know what nature is waiting for — the truth? For the descendants of ancestors and survivors to come back home?
I believe that nature has deep and widened memories, much more than we do. Even when I see a ruin or a house that’s been left behind, abandoned places, I always see the stories and the traces of humans there. This deeply touches my heart. The silence and waiting, as you say, is a kind of recalling. Maybe recalling is not the right word. Maybe it’s a way to say, “Yes, we existed, we were human, and we had a story and we lived here.” All my poetry is about underlining this existence of humans. And nature is a witness to this existence.
I always think that the relationship between humans and the universe and nature as a story of “belonging,” to understand the “essence of this existence.” I am trying to understand the connection of the human soul with the cosmos.
I could speak to you about your poetry for days, but I was also hoping you could tell me a little bit about the cultural program you set up in Diyarbakır, the Culture and Art Foundation in 2008.
It started with the poetry book How Abraham Abandoned Me. I wrote that in 40 days. It was pulling me, calling me. At the time, I lived in Istanbul and I heard a sound, a voice, calling me to go to Urfa and then go to Diyarbakır. So, I first went to Urfa, which is a city in the southeast of Turkey. They recently discovered Göbekli Tepe, an archeologic site that goes back 2,200 years. It is one of the early temples that changed our knowledge of archaeological history.
Through this call, I went to Urfa and I started to write, and I wrote the How Abraham Abandoned Me book. And then I traveled to Diyarbakır. In both cities, Diyarbakır and Urfa, it was like a pilgrimage for me. Barefoot, I was walking and touching the stones and speaking to the nature around me. Everything was speaking back to me, everything. I felt like I was decoding an ancient, lost language. When I finished the book and published it, I wanted to show the feeling I had in that city. It is a beautiful city, built with black basalt stone, city walls, dark courtyards, and very old architecture. I wanted to invite people from all around the world — musicians, artists — and show them the city, and also show the people who live in the city a new perspective about universal art. I organized many artistic events there. It was an interactive project. I arranged many concerts, exhibitions, and conferences. This went on for two years, but politically it was very corrupt and unsafe. Politically polarized. It became increasingly difficult to continue. I think they knew the power of art is stronger than politics and they wanted to stop that.
That’s actually why I was so curious about this project. I know the history of this city — for Armenians it’s known as Tigranakert — so when I read that you had started an art foundation 10 years ago, I thought this was very bold to do in Turkey, and in this specific city.
I don’t know how to explain, but I think I was very brave and naïvely very strong! There was this power in me, desire and visions. What I created there was very powerful. It was really threatening the old-fashioned corrupted ones. Then I couldn’t continue. I could not. Through my experience there I can say that art is really stronger than politics. Art is real politics. The politics they show us is apolitical!
Real politics is about changing and transforming reality. We can do that through our words.
Anahit Poturyan is an artist, writer, and educator based in Los Angeles with a strong focus on research, history, and culture. She has worked at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, Italy; the 58th Venice Biennale; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Hammer Museum, and Artbook @Hauser & Wirth. She currently teaches at the Otis College of Art and Design.
 From “The Moon Sucks Up Our Grief” poem, published in English in In the Temple of a Patient God.