Mehmet Akif: Poetry, or the tears of failure

Published 14.03.2015 00:00
Updated 14.03.2015 02:28
Mehmet Akif: Poetry, or the tears of failure

Mehmet Akif Ersoy (1873-7936), a realist writer of epic poetry, is the author of the Independence March, which was voted on and accepted by the National Assembly as the Turkish national anthem on March 12, 1921

World War I caused great disillusionment among the world intelligentsia. While it is true that there were some war-mongers such as the Futurists in Italy, most intellectuals in both the West and the East were reflecting strongly negative attitudes against the war in their published works. Although the states that were at war utilized poetry and fiction dedicated to the war as a part of their official propaganda, major poets and fiction writers preferred to write mournful pieces on the numberless soldiers dying in battle, or alternatively, just to remain silent.

When it comes to war literature, Wilfrid Owen's bitter verses in "Dulce et Decorum est" and other war poems are memorable, particularly due to the fact that he was subsequently killed on the battlefield. Another widely known piece is "All Quiet on the Western Front," a novel by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque, which was published in 1929 and translated into 28 languages, with world-wide sales nearly reaching four million already by 1930.

While the tendency of many Western authors was to write about disillusionment and anti-heroes, the case was different for Turkish authors writing about the war. Since Turkey found itself in between the colonizer on the one hand, and the colonized on the other, this middle position was reflected in Turkish authors' works. While the British and American poets wrote about the disappointment of the disillusioned troops, their Arabic peers would express the agony of the people oppressed by overpowering armies.

In contrast, Turkish authors were both sympathetic toward and praising of their fellow fighters. This is particularly true for the war poems of Mehmet Akif Ersoy, who reflected the "tears of failure" and tried to create a verbal memorial for the "martyrs of Gallipoli."

Early life

Mehmet Akif was born in İstanbul in 1873. His father Mehmet Tahir was an Albanian migrant and a lecturer in the Fatih Madrasa in Istanbul. His mother Emine Şerife was of Bukharan origin. After receiving his early education at Emir Buhari Mahalle Mektebi (a traditional elementary school) and Fatih İbtidai (a modern elementary school) and after learning Arabic from his father, Akif attended the Fatih Rüşdiye secondary school. In addition, he was also learning Persian from Esat Efendi.

Akif was also studying French at school. As he was a good reader, he was already reading and writing poetry before he continued his higher education at the Mekteb-i Mülkiye (School of Political Science) and then at the Mülkiye Baytar Mektebi (Civilian Veterinary School) in Istanbul.

Young Mehmet Akif left the School of Political Science and attended the Veterinary School (which was at a lower level), due to career concerns. His father died and their house burned down in a fire in Fatih. The fatherless family was now in a great difficulty. Though their family friends were eager to help, Akif felt a deep material responsibility for his mother and little sister. Thus, he moved to the Veterinary School in order to become the family bread-winner as soon as possible.

Veterinarian, poet and wrestler

Akif's four years at Veterinary School had a great impact on shaping his intellectual personality. The contemporary scientific curriculum of the school had no room for any mysticism at all. However, poetry was providing Akif and some of his close friends with another inner education outside of the curriculum. Akif was a religious and sentimental young man coming from a very traditional upbringing, but he was also a realist who relied on scientific facts. Although some of his poems reflect a pensive mood and a deeply spiritual meditation, his poetry in general is of an epic and political cast, depending on the actual vision of the world and people.

Mehmet Akif was a bright spark at the Veterinary School. He was good at everything he tried his hand at. He was a good poet-in-the-making, but also good at wrestling. He was a good friend to others, and a loyal and loving son and brother to his mother and sister. He graduated from the Veterinary School receiving first place on the honor list. Being in good physical shape and fostering intellectual awareness together constituted his philosophy of life. At the age of fifty, he was continuing to practice and did not cease reading, writing and thinking until his last days in hospital.

After school, Akif served as a veterinary surgeon for about twenty years. He achieved his personal goal of taking care of his family. Besides, he continued his language studies in French, Arabic and Persian, and he already had begun publishing his early works in poetry.

After 1908

The 1908 Revolution served as a milestone in Akif's life and artistic career. Though he was no politician, he joined the İttihat-Terakki Cemiyeti (Union and Progress Party). He began lecturing at Darülfünun (the old name of Istanbul University). Furthermore, he finally found the opportunity to publish his narrative poems criticizing poverty and social depression in the country. During the Abdülhamit I period, this opportunity had been out of reach.

Some contemporary columnists, religious preachers and scholars tried to file an intellectual case against Mehmet Akif, accusing him of being an adversary of the Sultan. This, I think, is deconstructing the authenticity of the historical context that both personalities lived in. The Sultan was the sultan and the poet was a poet. In other words, in the context of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a period of depression for Turkey both politically and economically, these two men - one at the top of his game in politics and the other outside of it, had little in common other than being religious Muslims. This was like the generational struggle between fathers and sons during periods of depression. Therefore, it makes no-sense to blame one for the other.

Besides, Akif was destined to take sides in the opposition since he was not a professional politician pursuing personal or group interests. On the contrary, his hopes and dreams were all for the sake of the people of Turkey. Why? Because he was a poet who dedicated his entire life and efforts to Islam, his fellow people and to the Turkish language.

The Great War and its aftermath

Turkey's war did not begin with the declaration of the World War I. The Balkan Wars had already put Turkey in a vulnerable position. Meanwhile, Akif began publishing "Sebilürreşad," a periodical that was the main Islamist paper in the press at that time. He edited the magazine, translated articles from Arabic and French, wrote on religious and political matters and also published his epic and political poems in the same magazine. As bad news came from the Balkan front, Akif wrote and publish sorrowful poems criticizing the administration, which were read and loved by thousands of people both in Turkey and abroad.

"Sebilürreşad" survived three wars including the Balkan Wars, World War I and the War of Independence. So did Akif's political activities and poetry writing. He wrote like an author of poetic chronicles of war. He later named his collected poetry "Safahat," meaning "Phases," which implies that his poetry shows the phases of conditions that the people were in over more than a decade from the late 1900s to the middle of the 1920s.

Akif did not fight in any battles or join in the wars as a soldier, but he did keep himself close to the fronts. He visited the Ottoman fighters and Muslim captives taken from the Allied Forces several times. Eventually, he left Istanbul and joined the National Assembly gathered in Ankara during the War of Independence .

As a member of the National Assembly, his ultimate work was the "İstiklal Marşı" (Independence March) that was voted and accepted as the national anthem of Turkey on Mar. 12, 1921.

However, Akif was among the opposition group in the National Assembly in Ankara, too. After the War of Independence was won against the Greek occupying forces and the Turkish Republic was announced, Akif found himself in a shaky position as the new administration followed him via the secret police. Because of this, he decided to go into voluntary exile in Egypt and left Istanbul in 1925.

Akif's years in Egypt were silent but sorrowful. He was not involved in any political matters, though he was known not to be on good terms with the Kemalist rule in Turkey. The last book of "Safahat" published in 1933 in Egypt in the old Ottoman script is meaningfully entitled: "Gölgeler" (meaning "shadows"). It is clear that the Kemalist rule and revolutions after 1923 shadowed many adversaries like Mehmet Akif. The book of "Gölgeler" opens with "Hüsran," meaning "frustration."

Frustrated, severely ill, lonely and elderly, Akif returned to Istanbul in the summer of 1936 just before he died on Dec. 27 the same year.

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