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The people’s poet

Letter from Anatolia

The popular appeal of Yunus Emre, 13th-century poet, storyteller and Sufi mystic, still extends from Azerbaijan to the Balkans, while in Turkey his portrait graces the 200-lira note. Roger Norman looks at the life of a man from a humble Anatolian village whose wit, wisdom and humanity live on

A few years back, when I lived in Eskişehir city centre, I would often almost salute Yunus Emre. There was an appealingly unmonumental statue of the poet not far from our door to which I would raise my hand or nod my head as I passed. I knew little of him apart from a few verses, including one with the refrain, touching enough to any exile, “a stranger so forlorn as I”. The last verse runs:

Yunus gets no help or pity
No cure for his calamity
Drifting from city to city –
A stranger so forlorn as I.

Probably because of the diminutive statue, I got it into my head that he had been a small guy, though perhaps this was also due to the modesty of his character conveyed in his poems – the opposite of an aggressive crusader.

I am not here on earth for strife
Love is the mission of my life. Since we are all actually nothing
What are all of Solomon’s riches? The Lords are wild with wealth and might.
They ignore the people’s plight
Immersed in selfhood which is blight… One said: I wish I could see this Yunus.
I’ve seen him, the other says. He’s just
another old lover.

Today’s humanists like to link Yunus Emre with Dante, Petrarch or Erasmus, on the basis (one supposes) of such comments on the quest for God as “I looked and looked but failed to find / I found him inside man at last,” and “See for yourself: God is man, that’s what he is.” Certainly he was no respecter of the forms of religion, nor did any exclusive claim to righteousness impress him. “We regard no man’s religion as contrary to ours / True love is born when all faiths are united as one.”

For me the comparison with the medieval and Renaissance humanists misses the mark. He seems closer to Rumi than to Erasmus, and closer to Chaucer than to Dante. Rumi (born 1207) was a contemporary, and since they lived in broadly the same neck of the woods it’s quite likely, as the stories relate, that they met. Yunus was born in Karaman or Bolu or Eskişehir – somewhere in central Anatolia, at any rate – and Rumi lived for many years in the Seljuk capital of Konya. They were both travellers, poets and mystics; perhaps they even shared a sense of humour. Here is the record of one conversation:
“What is your opinion of my Mathnawi?” Rumi asks.
“Not bad, but I would have done it differently,” says Yunus.
“How so?” says the master.
“I would have said,” Yunus replies, “I took shape as flesh and bone / And here I am as Yunus.” At 26,000 verses, Rumi’s *Mathnawi* is longer than the *Odyssey* and *Iliad* combined, and Rumi might have found this an impertinent comment, but apparently didn’t. Another story has Mevlânâ (“the Master”) saying: “Wherever I go, I find this Türkmen poet has preceded me… I cannot surpass him.” The language of Rumi’s poetry was Persian, the style and structure obeying the rules of the Arab–Persian literary tradition. He was an educated man, his milieu the *medrese*, the Sufi lodge, the company of the learned. Yunus by all accounts was a self-taught Anatolian villager. When we first meet him in the stories he arrives at the lodge of Hacı Bektaş Veli, bringing with him a basket of wild pears, trying to exchange them for a bag of seeds to take back to his village, to save it from famine. “I’ll give you a blessing [or “holy breath”] instead,” says Hacı Bektaş. But no, it’s seeds that Yunus is after. “I’ll give you ten blessings for each pear,” the Hacı offers. Thanks, but no. So Yunus is given a large sack of seeds, and only on his way home, reflecting on the Hacı’s generosity, does he feel that he may have missed an opportunity. He turns back, but it’s too late because Hacı Bektaş has already assigned him a teacher – Taptuk Emre. Yunus ends up serving Taptuk for 40 years, gathering fuelwood in the hills. Each of these stories bears its Sufic explanation, naturally. The wild pears stand for native or intuitive knowledge, to be exchanged for the seeds of genuine wisdom. Yet despite the clear links with the Bektaşi order, Yunus always seems to stand apart in some way. As a poet his medium is the vernacular – the colloquial Anatolian Turkish of the time. The structure of the poems is very simple, based on the number of syllables and which ones are stressed. The rhythm is clear and strong, not only to the scholar or linguist. Take this short *tekerleme* (riddle): *Çıkdım erik dalına / Anda yedim üzümü / Bostan ıssı kakıyıp / Der ne yersin kozumu*. Translated in a correspondingly spare fashion, we get something to this effect: “I climbed a plum tree / and ate a grape. / ‘After my walnuts, are you?’ / called the gardener.” Unravelled, the riddle suggests that the climber (or quester) thinks he’s after one thing and finds something different, but the owner of the garden (*bostan ıssı*) knows that it’s the nut or kernel that really matters. Imagery of fruit, seed, nut, branch, leaf is very common and not hard to interpret – although there are levels of complexity, as you would expect. The plum, for example, is a fruit of which only the outside flesh is eaten, while the kernel is left untouched… Forty years of collecting wood for Taptuk Emre are made more laborious by Yunus’s insistence that only straight wood is good enough for his teacher’s hearth. Bent, crooked or damp wood is not to be allowed. The statue of Yunus Emre at the main entrance to Anadolu University, larger and more impressive than the one in the city centre, depicts Yunus shouldering his faggot of perfectly straight, evenly sized wood. The students walk past it every day, most of them no doubt oblivious to its significance. Foliage grows closely around and above the statue and many users of the gate may even be scarcely aware of the figure of “the old lover” observing them. I have not heard the insistence on straight wood interpreted. Perhaps the message is also straightforward: no degree of attentiveness is too much for the wise teacher… or something of the kind. There’s a hint of irony here. I don’t mean regarding student-teacher relations in this age, but because Yunus Emre might not have been the greatest supporter of the current university system. “Too many words are a fitting load for an ass,” he said. And elsewhere: “Poor Yunus, raw and tasteless, finally got cooked, glory be to God.” One wonders just what role the university degree would have played in that development. Still, there can be no real objection to the presence of Anatolia’s greatest poet – as he is now widely called – at the entrance to a university. But can the same be said about another contemporary appearance of the great man – the place where he is spotted most frequently these days – on the reverse of the 200-lira banknote? For the people responsible for that astonishing decision, I offer a last comment from the poor man’s poet: *Hypocrites claim they make no gain
Through any means which might be illicit
The truth of it is: they only refrain
When certain that they cannot grab it.*

Roger Norman is a novelist and teacher living in Eskişehir;

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 53
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  • The Princes Islands

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  • Büyükada: the Writer’s Island

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  • Heybeliada: Notes on a Smaller Island

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  • History on a plate

    Three groundbreaking archaeological exhibitions shine a spotlight on great Anatolian empires and their champions. Istanbul showcases John Garstang’s illuminating work on the Hittites. Berlin celebrates the work of Friedrich Sarre, who brought the Seljuks to life. And treasures from the Phrygia of King Midas head for Philadelphia

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Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
£15.00 / $19.47 / 643.56 TL
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