SAYI 107 / EKİM 2006



Neşe Yaşın

The title  ‘Turkish and Turkish Cypriot poetry’ indicates two distinct categories in this art form; they may not be very different from each other because both include the word Turkish. But the word that distinguishes one from the other is ‘Cypriot’. When I say ‘Cypriot poetry’ what is the first thing that comes to your mind? A bilingual, multilingual poetry or poetry written in Greek? I think this question is important because it reveals one of the basic barriers that Turkish-Cypriot poetry has to deal with in terms of self-definition.

But before delving into the topic of national identity, I would like to pose another question: How and why do we categorise poetry? With respect to Cyprus, this question touches on the problem of categorising the poetry written by the island’s Turkophone population. In this regard, I would in fact question  whether this is really a literary problem. In which ever way you deal with the topic this has been an issue of discussion in literary circles in Cyprus and Turkey - an issue that was raised by the Turkish Cypriot poets in the 1990s.
Mehmet Yashin(1958.-) in a series of articles at Adam Literary Magazine opens the issue to discussion, later collecting his articles in a book called Poeturka. 1 Same discussion continues at the pages of Sombahar magazine special issue on Cyprus poetry.( Sombahar-Bimonthly Poetry Magazine, May-June 1996 no:35) The burning question is about the definition “Türk Edebiyatı” “Türk” representing an ethnic identity and including to this category all the literature written in Turkish language.

In order to understand this debate we have to review the way in which Turkish Cypriot poets relate to Turkish poetry. This is an issue inextricably linked to the political, social and cultural history of the Turkophone population of Cyprus.

The crucial question is: ‘How do you categorise literature? Do you do it according to ethnicity, language or country?’ It is important to remember here that categories are never value-free. I would in fact say that if anything, categories are like prisons -they limit you by specifying a domain and narrowing down the possibilities of definitions. Therefore it may be better to avoid them. Yet sometimes they appear so natural that we cannot escape them and we have to name them.

A literature in the Turkish language has been and is still being created in Cyprus. We can call this literature a literature of the periphery with regards to Istanbul, if we see the latter as the center of Turkish literature. And it is this aspect of its identity that I find most definitive about Turkish-Cypriot poetry. If we approach it in this context Turkish Cypriot literature in general is a minor literature  that regarding  Istanbul as its center.

We can say that the Turkish Cypriots started talking about a distinct literature for themselves after the 80’s. I think the first book that has the definition Turkish Cypriot Literature in its title is  a book which includes the proceedings of the conference “Turkish Cypriot İdentity in Literature” which took place in London 21st June 1987.2

 Turkishness and Cypriotness  contained in the  identity definition  “Turkish Cypriot” inspires us to think of  the two different “others” and two different “us.”: “We” the “Turks” versus the “Greek Cypriots” and “We” the “Cypriots” versus the “Turks”

Here I have to note that there are in fact three different identity definitions that all translate into English as “Turkish-Cypriot”.

The first is “Kıbrıs Türkü” which in fact means Turks of Cyprus (and has the highest nationalistic content)
The second is “Kıbrıslı Türk”, which literally indicates Cypriots who are Turks (the stress being on both Turkishness and Cypriotness)

And finally there is the single term Kıbrıslıtürk” where the stress is more clearly on Cypriotness )
The last one was suggested by the poet Mehmet Yashın  who also named his anthology of Turkish Cypriot poetry as Kıbrıslıtürk şiiri and is the version  now being used by many Turkish Cypriot and Turkish academics and intellectuals as an ideological indicator.

Mehmet Yaşın
Mehmet Yaşın

The anxiety of minorities about continuing their social existence leads to the creation of a literature which does not give space to individual differences but is a more collective literature. This kind of literature is usually very politicised. The writers get caught up in an enclosed, inward-looking literature with a mission to defend the identity of the society they belong to. We may say that all type of affiliations are conservative in nature.

In this chapter, I want to concentrate mainly on two periods in Turkish Cypriot poetry, which are very indicative of two different attitudes towards Turkey and Turkish literature. One is the period of the nationalistic poetry of the sixties and the other is the post-1974 poetry.

My references to the sixties poetry will be mostly to the type of poetry we may categorise as popular poetry - the literary value of which I should point out is very debatable. Here I am not talking about a mass culture/high culture distincition - i.e. poetry produced by the elites versus other popular creations. On the contrary, I would argue that this distinction does not really apply to the case of Cyprus, mainly because of the small size of the Turkish Cypriot society, but also because of the socio-political make-up of this society and the minority aspect to which I referred above.

Thus, some of the ‘popular’ poems I will refer to here were produced by the Turkish Cypriot elites of the time. This type of poetry was produced in the service of defending the identity and existence of the society It was officially supported and publicised. Some leading poets of the time put their poetry into the service of nationalism. Although they did not produce the vulgar, clearly propagandist work that was also published in Turkish in Cyprus at the time, and which I would classify as non-literary poem-like creations, these poets were still influenced by the conflict paradigm. While the nationalistic poetry that preceded this period had a more symbolic character, in the sixties, these poets began writing directly against ‘the Other’ and presenting their own community as the victim of Greek Cypriot hatred. They, in other words, saw themselves as carrying out the mission of defending the communal cause - a view that I consider a factor in weakening their creativity.

Some of the leading poets of the time were overshadowed by those who enjoyed the support of the authorities since they started writing poetry on these nationalistic themes. Of course it is useful to make a distinction here between racist and vulgar nationalism of the time on the one hand and other kinds of nationalism that became manifest as support for the suffering Turkish Cypriot community. Nevertheless both rhetorics operated in the paradigm of conflict, where an idealised self is oppressed by the evil other.

I want to analize and put stress on this type of poetry of the sixties with relation to the political, social and cultural atmosphere of the period because this will help us to understand the post-1974 dissident poetry, which was partly a reaction to this type of poetry.

The context of the poetry produced in the sixties was a heavily militarised and enclaved society, which did not give space for free expression. It was the poetry written to voice the concerns of the nation in times of trouble.

Some of the common images used in these poems were the Torous mountains (which one can see from the shores of Kyrenia), the northern winds (blowing from the Turkish mainland), weapons, martyrs, Atatürk, the motherland, blood, Erenköy (the site of organized Turkish-Cypriot resistance to Greek-Cypriots, by Turkish-Cypriot students who came especially from Turkey) etc. The poems had a heroic tone and the poets acted as orators, preaching national identity, which was of course always expressed as an inclusive and homogenizing “we” Counter to this was a homogenized  “them” Most common labels used for the others were infidels, cowards, cheaters, spoiled, traitors, crooks etc

As Azgin and Papadakis indicate ‘Nationalism often uses the metaphor of a nation as a collective individual with a unique character and soul. Such an image conveys both a sense of wholeness and boundeddness’.3

It is important in this respect to note that although these poems were talking about the sufferings of the Turkish Cypriots it was actually a whole Turkish nation that was attacked by the eternal and evil enemy, the Greeks. Thus ‘national’ did not refer to Turkish Cypriot, but to a Turkish ‘collective individual’. Yet things were not that simple, because the real tragedy was that this historic unity was broken by the evil deeds of others, who separated this unique individual from its offspring. Thus, the key metaphor around which Turkish Cypriot poetry of the time turns is the loss of the mother and the yearning of the child for her.

We see Turkey in these poems as the rescuer. She is the sought-after mother, who is eternally expected to come and embrace her child, Cyprus. While Turkey is a female figure in most cases Atatürk appears as the father figure.

Another important metaphor used by these poets is that of the land, another female figure. The land is holy because it is watered by the blood of the martyrs and inside it are the bones of those who died to conquer it.
We notice a romanticised nationalism in some poets of the time to whom we may refer as the Erenköy poets. In 1964 a group of young Turkish Cypriot university students sailed secretly to Erenköy (Tillirga) to fight, some of them losing their lives in the process. The Erenkoy fighters became a myth and the term ‘Erenköy fighter’ (Erenköy mücahitleri) became a prestigious title in Turkish Cypriot social and political life -e.g. candidates for parliamentary election would mention this as a life achievement. Some of these young university students wrote poems. Among them was a very talented young poet Süleyman Uluçamgil, who died there by stepping on a mine. Erenköy became one of the main themes of the nationalistic poems of the time. In these poems the heroism of the young men is extolled and their fight is defined as a fight for liberation (özgürlük savaşı).

I would say that the aspect which diminishes the value of the poems of this period is the poets attitude towards the “ethnic other”. Although we notice very sucessful poems of the poets who wrote in the 1960s written before this time, since  they devoted themselves to the service of nationalism we  see a sad shift during the 60s in their careers as poets.

We  still have to make a distinction  here between the  two different tendencies regarding the nationalistic poetry of the sixties. One is the type we would  even hesitate to classify as poetry because of their vulgarity. The others were nationalistic poems  written by the leading poets of the time  which  in most cases did not show a clear racist attitude but rather were talking about the victimization of Turkish Cypriots often demonising the other and not mentioning any sufferings from the other’s side.

“ First the little Ayşe was shot
little Ayşe, hands tied
little Ayşe just ten years old
little Ayşe was brought  by the ditch
one of the Greek dogs
put the gun against the neck of the girl
and pulled the triger      
without pity
The Greeks were like wild animals
Hatered shining in their eyes”
Özker Yaşın,Letters to my son Savaş,Nicosia,1965

In many of Özker Yaşın’s poems written during this time we can find such scenes with wild descriptions of atrocities done by the Greeks.

 In an earlier poem, even when there is a confession  of the death of the others this is rather a means  to stress the bravery of ours as in the example below:

“Osman remembered the latest clashes
He counted the death of the Greeks
In Larnaca in front of the church:Two
Two more at Famagusta Salamis road
At the Ermu street of Nicosia  again two
At the fields of Gonyeli eight deaths
And  he counted the Turkish deads
Just two deaths
 “So,We did not have martyrs at the fights”
He said “we were all shot from behind
Fourteen from them and two from us
Not bad: seven to one ”

Yaşın, Özker -Mehmetçik Kıbrısta, İstanbul,1960  s.8

Özker Yaşın
Özker Yaşın

The “other” in the poems of this period is clearly the Greek Cypriots, sometimes the British. Turkey is not an outsider, is always defined with positive characteristics. The soldiers of Turkey are “our soldiers” and the land of Turkey is “our land”.

The Turkish Cypriot poets always looked for confirmation of their worth from the centre. A Turkish Cypriot poet published and praised by the literary circles of Istanbul was considered to be very successful in the field. Most of the times this worked in a negative way. The poets developed a tendency to write in such a way as to satisfy the literary circles of the center.

When we talk about the literary circles in Turkey we have to make a distinction here. Turkish poetry has a history of dissidency. If we consider that a major Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), spent sixteen years of his life in prison, we can easily see how the authorites of the time treated free-thinking and creation. Many other poets of the same line also spent some time in prison.
There was also another circle of poets who were more in agreement with the official and cultural policies of state. They had the official support and the backing of state institutions.

Some of these state-backed poets showed interest in the Turkish language poetry written in Cyprus. They made officially supported visits to the island. Cyprus was also interesting for those who had Pan-Turkist ideas and the militant nationalistic poetry of the time found a place in the magazines of these circles.
Because the center mainly had a political interest on Cyprus, politically oriented poems talking about the sufferings of Turkish Cypriots and their longing to be rescued by Turkey became more popular in Turkey.
Of course this was not the only type of poetry written during this period. A group of poets who named their poetry as soyut siir (Abstract Poetry) also appeared in this period. These poets were mainly under the influence of the post-Second World War poetry movements in Europe (Dadaism, Surrealism, etc). Their poems did not have much connection with Cyprus, in terms of the images they used. They completely avoided and detached their poetry from the current realities of Cyprus. A debate started in the literary pages of the newspaper Akin concerning these two diverging trends.

While one of the followers of nationalistic poetry, Orbay Deliceırmak (1942 -) accused a leading figure of Abstract Poetry (soyut siir), Kaya Canca (1945-), as being obscure, the latter replied that ‘Deliceırmak wrote national unity poems as a requisite of historical realities, political enforcements. Even he himself was not believing what he was writing. Once a poet leaves behind his/her sincerity his art becomes an imposed art. He himself have refused his own poetry. Poetry is not an injection for motivation. You can not play the attack anthem with poetry.”4

Orbay Deliceırmak

Post-1974 Poetry

A group of young poets appeared in the literary scene of Turkish Cypriots at the last quarter of seventies They were named ‘the ’74 Generation’ or ‘Rejection front’. The name of the generation comes from a tragic date marking the division of the island due to the fact that their poetry is very much related to this change. But we may say that their poetry had an anti-1974 spirit. Bekir Azgin names these poets the ‘rejectionist front’ arguing that they completely reject the official or even the semi-official ‘Turkish thesis’ in Cyprus. Referring to an article I co-authored with Mehmet Yashin4  and which has come to be regarded as the manifesto of this generation. He indicates that they have accused and disowned all the previous poets except Fikret Demirag (1940-).5  Mehmet Yashin (1958-), one of the leading poets of this generation, replies to this accusation:

“I wish there was a tradition of  ‘Contemporary Turkish Cypriot Poetry’, then it would not have mattered if we were defined as such. It is true that we were opposed to many things which were inherited in the name of poetry. But we also defended for the first time ever, many of the poetic values. Furthermore what we did defend, were values reflecting the character and cultural existence of the Turkish Cypriots, which showed a potential for development. In place of what we were refusing we were promoting a new poetry originating from all these and I believe we have confirmed that we were justified with our work.”6

The poetry of this young generation was recognised and valued by the literary circles of the centre. This looks a little paradoxical in the sense that while the poets of the previous generation happily accepted Turkey as the centre and did not hesitate to see themselves as part of the Turkish literature  they were not appreciated as much as the 1974 generation poets by the centre. The centre had a tendency to regard the Turkish Cypriot poets as provincial and of less importance. On the other hand, while it was the young poets of the 1974 generation who used the definition ‘Turkish Cypriot poetry’ for the first time and who argued for a different identity and started a cultural movement rejecting the cultural assimilation policies coming from Turkey they were welcomed by the literary circles of Turkey as original and distinguished poets.
A major Turkish poet, Kemal Ozer (1935-), when interviewed by Yashin defined the period after 1974 as most important. He said:

It is the period in which the voice of the young poets from Cyprus begins to be heard. A ‘humanist’ bias which would be regarded as a form of reaction to the literature of heroism is noticeable in these poems. I would say that, posssibly due to their intimate knowledge of poetry in Turkey, and access to world poetry, if not so much in their style, the content of their poetry has created an identity with a new dimension.7
Another major poet, Ataol Behramoglu (1942-), devoted an article to this generation and said:

The Turkish Cypriot progressive poets prove with their beautiful poems that they understand how to blend skillfully, the two complementary concepts of love for one’s country and of humanity and how the word poetry based on these two sensitivities can become humane, influential and great. For me, their poems are not just in preference of the chauvinist or abstract and ‘imitative’ circles in the Turkish sector of Cyprus, but are also of value to Turkey, as they are examples of distinguished poetry. Again, I believe that this poetry (just like the revolutionary poetry of Palestine) has qualities which give it the right to be of interest on a world scale.8

The manifesto article of the generation that I wrote with Yashin made a special reference to one of the previous generation’s poets, Demirag, who never wrote nationalistic poetry. Although we criticised him for being imitative and in a kind of identity crisis as a poet, with the influence of several Turkish poets evident in his work, we discovered a potential in his works for creating a Turkish Cypriot poetry distinct from the poetry of the center.

Fikret Demirag in a later interview admitted that he was very much influenced by the arguments of the young poets of the 1974 generation and they made him discover the kind of path he has to follow in his poetry.
He later created his three volumes of poetry.( Mother Sarrow, ,1992 Solitude, Night Music, 1994, From the fire of Limnidi to our day, 1992)9  which are very much reflective of the identity discussions in Turkish Cypriot poetry. I always tend to read these three volumes of poetry in parallel with the nationalistic poetry of the sixties because they basically deal with the same concepts. However, while one operates in the paradigm of conflict the latter brings in the elements of a peace paradigm.

In this respect I want to analyse the common images of the poetry of sixties and of Fikret Demirag’s poetry.  The first image I want to analyse is that of the homeland which is present in both types of poetry. In Fikret Demirag’s poetry the homeland is also holy, as it is in the nationalistic poetry of the sixties,  but here the paradigm is different to that of nationalism. The homeland is holy because the roots are there and  people have spent labour on it. There is praise  for the labour that has been put into production rather than for a heroic past. For Demirag, lives sacrificed for land for the sake of nationalism, have been sacrificed for no reason. Martyrs are also a subject matter of his poetry but as people of the land, sacrificed by others, and therefore victims of the conflict. There is love for the whole life-embracing universe but the poet is at the same time paying special tribute  to the sufferings of the  homeland:

The only stick you are holding is the stick of poetry
The only religion you believe in is a life complete
Your homeland, a whole geography embracing life.10

National identities usually are constructed  with reference to the ‘other’ and they are nourished by the image of the enemy. In Demirag’s poetry the other is not the opposite community but it is an other defined in terms of ‘class’.

While in the poetry of sixties, ancestors are the Ottomans who conqured Cyprus, Demirag presents many historical and mythological heroes of different ethnic backgrounds as his ‘grandfathers’ - ancestors that he feels directly connected to.

The image ‘mother’ is no longer signifying Turkey but defines the homeland Cyprus and  is the common origin of the people of Cyprus. Therefore, even if these belong to different ethnicities their common ‘mother’ makes them siblings (brothers and sisters). The homeland is our common home. This is also an anti-thesis to the very popular concept of ‘motherland’ of nationalistic poetry where the mother is Turkey and Cyprus is the suffering child, the babyland.

For Fikret Demirag national identities are like uniforms put on us. The grandson of the Dorian ancestor sees the ‘how happy to say I am a Turk’ (Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene) slogan inscribed on the mountains and feels alienated from it.

In reference to the post-74 poetry Yashin argues that ‘Cypriot’ identity or the idea of ‘Cypriotism’ that was put forward is subject to a new kind of nationalism since it deals with a distinction between us (Cypriots) and them (Turks)11

I will not agree with this since this new definition of identity in these poems is not presented and dealt with as a national identity. Its rather an affiliation to a geographical space and we do not see the rhetoric and concepts of nationalism intruding in. Although we see similar concepts in both poetries (nationalistic poetry of sixties and post-1974 poetry) as I indicated with several examples of Demirag’s poetry, nevertheless each approach deals with these concepts in a different paradigm. What we see is a shift of the paradigm of conflict through poetry.

What we really see at Demirag’s poetry is a claim for a kind of cultural hybridity.
Following the path of the 74 generation and  Fikret Demirağ in the poems of the younger generation we see even a stronger  claim for hybridity. Hybridity is a way to get rid of the national labels. It is also a way to get rid of the pre-defined identity and a way to get connected with the  demonised other in a style of protest. Gür Genç presents an example to this.

“One of my grandfathers was a Natzi, the other Greek
but I am circumsized (You can have a look if you don’t believe)11
Gür Genç     PSE        p.51
Another poem by a young poet Jenan Selcuk is a very striking example:

I’m a tree, a date palm
                        in some Mesoria cemetery.
Many civilisations buried in my shade
                        Their bones are my roots.
By ships where fourtycurlyslave were puling the oars
we have been brought from Egypt.
A Hellene with an earring was my godfather
my circumciser, a fold up Otoman barber,
pederast. Springs to Aphrodite
winters to Zenon, I’ve been given apprentice.

May be you didn’t realise
I was the model of Lusignan architects
A heritage from Venetian merchants is
this  delightfull talk of mine, chasing pleasure

An invitation of British
are these split personality syndromes
that I exhibit. From time to time
presuming myself a humanbeing, lying more
When licked. My paranoias
a straightjacket stiched from the flag cloth
made in Greece, made in Turkey:

I see war                     when I look at the water!
(translated by the poet)

This shift we notice at Turkish Cypriot Poetry from Turkishness to Hybridity in terms of the identity definitions of the poets  is linked with the political ,cultural and social history of Turkish Cypriots.


1.   Yaşın, Mehmet, Poeturka,Istanbul,Adam Yayınları,1995
2.   Turkish Cypriot İdentity in Literature, Fatal Publications, Istanbul-London,1990
3.   Bekir Azgin and Yiannis Papadakis, ‘Folklore’, in Klaus-Detlev Grothusen, W.Steffani and P. Zervakis n(eds.), Zeypern (Gottingen: Vondenhoeck&Ruprecht, 1998), pp.703-20.
4.    Akın Newspaper- Akın Art Supplement, Nicosia 1967-1968
5.   Yasin Mehmet ve Yasin Nese,Our poetry was a weapon of emperialism, Sanat
Emeği,volume:3 no:15, May 1979.
6.   Bekir Azgin,Varlik  no: 995,April 87 p.12
7.   Interview with Kemal Özer , Yeni Kibris magazine, 1981
8.   Behramoglu, Ataol, A Living Poetry, Broy publications, 1986, p.63
9.   Demirag, Fikret,From the fire of Limnidi to our day,Galeri Kültür Publications,Nicosia,1992 Demirag, Fikret, Mother Sarrow, Galeri Kültür Publications, Nicosia,1992
Demirag, Fikret,Solitude, Night Music, Galeri Kültür Publications,Nicosia,1994
10.  Demirag, Fikret,From the fire of Limnidi to our day,Galeri Kültür Publications,Nicosia,1992 p.78
11.  Yaşın, Mehmet, Kıbrıslıtürk Şiiri Antolojisi, p.58





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