Talat Sait Halman, Turkey's first minister of culture, passed away on Dec. 5, 2014. A prolific writer, poet and translator, Halman devoted his life to the study and presentation of classical Ottoman and modern Turkish literature to world audiences. As a poet, he wrote with depth, emotion and grace. Through his award-winning translations, he introduced Yunus Emre, Rumi as well as Nasreddin Hodja to the English speaking world. His English anthologies included the works of such contemporary poets as Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca, Orhan Veli Kanık, Sait Faik Abasıyanık and Melih Cevdet Anday. He also translated English works into Turkish, including Shakespeare and he was the first translator of William Faulkner's novels into Turkish.
Halman taught at Columbia University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. From 1998 until his death, he taught at Bilkent University where he taught courses on Turkish literature and served as the dean of the faculty of humanities and letters. As a man of erudition and diligence, Halman sought to bridge different cultural and literary traditions. Having seen the radical transformation of Turkish culture during the Republican period, he tried to secure a space for classical Ottoman poetry, literature and music. This is where he ran into one of the most difficult challenges of his short-lived term in government service as minister.
When Halman became minister of culture in 1971 – he actually founded the ministry that year – he wanted to support classical Ottoman music, which he saw as being completely ignored on the grounds of secular modernization. According to Halman's own statement, in 1970 the minister of education had allocated TL 125 million ($55 million) to classical Western music and only TL 1 million to Turkish music. As minister of culture, he decided to hold a concert of the works of Buhurizade Mustafa Itri Efendi (1640-1712), one of the giants of classical Ottoman music.
Halman invited several masters of classical Ottoman music to his office and planned the event. When it was announced that the concert would be held in the Presidential Orchestra Concert Hall on Dec.22-23, 1971, the most prestigious hall in Ankara, some among the Republican elite responded with shock and anger. About a month before the planned concert, Suna Kan, the famous Turkish violinist, published an open letter to Halman in the daily Milliyet.
In her angry letter, Kan chastised him for his daring to have a concert of classical Ottoman music in the Presidential Hall, a symbol of the secular Republic. She accused Halman of misrepresenting modern Turkey to foreigners and betraying "Ataturk's Turkey." He had no right, she said, to present Turkey as a "remnant" of Ottoman culture. She said that since the Republic's inception, Turkey has had no connection whatsoever to that world.
Kan framed the issue not as a matter of musical taste or cultural organization, but as one of official secular ideology versus cultural retro-fundamentalism. She believed Halman was making a terrible mistake by encouraging the teaching of the old "monophonic" Ottoman music, which she took as inferior to polyphonic Western music. This was not befitting the "Kemalist Turkey," she cried out.
She then had the following to say: "If on Dec. 22-23 representatives of monophonic music take over, as you have ordered, the State Concert Hall in which I have performed the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Erkin, Rey and Saygun, with pieces that should be confined to museums alone, then I want you to know that I will gladly return the State Artist title that was bestowed upon my humble person. Such a title retains no value or honor when the principles at the foundation of Atatürk's state are damaged."
Why was this such a big deal for Kan, a "Wunderkind" of the Republic? As a musician herself, why could she not tolerate, let alone appreciate, the existence of another musical form, which is, after all, one of the rich traditions of Turkish music? How did it become an issue about the Republic, its foundations and being civilized and modern?
This might be hard to understand for those outside Turkey. But there was nothing surprising in Kan's angry diatribe and her motive to protect the Republic. Coming from a staunchly secularist and anti-traditional background, Kan and her generation believed in only one type of music, culture, aesthetics and civilization. They welcomed the banning of Ottoman music in conservatories and on radios. They performed art to sublimate the secular Republic. All else was trivial.
Kan had her small victory. The concert was cancelled on the order of Nihat Erim, the prime minister at the time. Halman never spoke about this in detail, but he served only a few months as minister after the incident.
Today, Turkey's cultural landscape is much richer, pluralistic and competitive. Classical and modern, Islamic, Ottoman and Western forms of art are studied and performed at various schools and on various platforms. There is a healthier relationship between the old that never loses its relevance and the new that seeks to anchor itself in the wider fusions and syntheses.
2012 was the 300th anniversary of the death of the great master Buhurizade Itri Efendi and UNESCO celebrated it as the Year of Itri. I am sure Halman was happy to see that his efforts to bring a level of fairness and civility to the cultural landscape of modern Turkey were not in vain.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey