I have known Cüneyt Ayral for nearly forty years. I can safely say that I have been a close witness to his many complementary and diverse activities, such as photography, poetry, editing and publishing, journalism, travelogues and novels. During the last few years his rôle as a writer has come to the fore and the appearance of new editions of his books has particularly interested me. These works are not merely a reflection of his evolution but form a series of milestones on the road of an “extraordinary” personnage. I have already commented on some of these works, and I consider that the time has come to make an assessment.
Nedim Gürsel: I first met you when you were a young photographer. In the 70s in Ankara at a dinner given by Mrs Hayrünnisa Kadıbeşegil, the editress of the magazine Oluşum “Genesis”. Enis Batur and Figen (Batur) were also there. Later our paths crossed again in Istanbul, in Nice but more often in Paris. You took some beautiful photos and you wrote poems. Then your autobiography and your narratives were published in quick succession. Do you not feel that being so productive in different areas can bring about a certain dispersal?
Cüneyt Ayral: In fact, I always thought of myself as a “poet”. Whether or not my poems are good is for the reader to decide. However the definition which was given by my master, İlhan Berk, certainly played a decisive rôle in my life. He called me “the underground worker of poetry”. A line by Vüs’at O. Bener , “children in their deathly black uniforms” also had a great influence upon my poetry.
He read it to me one morning in Ankara, while looking out of the window.
I began writing prose when the Elma Edition in Ankara asked me for an autobiography after reading an article about me, written by Şermin Terzi for the newspaper Hürriyet in 2001. Thus I can truthfully say that my evolution from poetry to prose was motivated by a commission.
I had great fun writing my book entitled YOLCULUK ” Journey”, but it worried me a lot too. The critiques of readers encouraged me to develop my prose. But the main question was always ” how and where to begin”. Your friendship and comradeship and also our long discussions about literature taught me a great deal. I can thus say that you were, to some extent, the “vector” for my move towards the novel and the narrative.
My prose is often criticised because of my habit of “saying many things with few words”, which I inherited from Vüs’at O. Bener. It is almost impossible to find any long descriptions or sophisticated sentences in my books. If I compare my style in different types of prose , I find it the same whether in a press article analysing current events, in an autobiography speaking of the past or in the fiction of a novel.
N.G: In ” The Songs of Istanbul” you told of your observations concerning the city. Then you became the publisher of a newspaper “Kostantıniyye”. Now that you live abroad, how do you see today’s Istanbul, from inside and from outside?
C.A: To tell the truth I have only once looked at Istanbul from a distance. It happened after four years of voluntary exile. It was then that I noticed the great change and the new dynamism of the city. I was completely amazed. Since then I have continued to live abroad. All sorts of things happened to me in Istanbul, practically everything that can happen during anyone’s lifetime. I have even been kidnapped, stabbed and near to death there. So now I prefer not to look at Istanbul from the outside, but to live fully in whichever place I may be. But when I go there, (as you yourself once said , “Istanbul is no longer a city to which I return, but one to which I go”)we look at each other and I listen to Istanbul.
Just look at the statement of the Prime Minister,who has been at his post for the last ten years, concerning the Marmararay project (a new metro line), which in my opinion is very important for Istanbul. He said, in so many words, that the project was behind schedule because work stoppages were occurring for pieces of pottery and dishes. A mentality capable of referring to archaeological discoveries as ” bits of pottery” is at the head of the government of Turkey. What hope is there for a city which is historically one of the richest in the world in a country governed by this sort of person? Two years ago I travelled back and forth across the Bosphorus on the ferry boat taking photos of Haydarpaşa station and Leander’s Tower. We can understand the necessity of ending the activity of a historical railway station. For example, the Gare d’Orsay in Paris (Musée d’Orsay today). But all my courage is not enough to oppose a way of thinking that is prepared to transform a historical monument into a hotel, a shopping mall or a business centre. The present government is hostile to art and artists. It is liberticide.
Nowadays all the world- famous globalised brands are available in Istanbul. But the Akide sweets, the Turkish delight from Haci Bekir have lost their original tastes. The Sultanahmet Köfte (meatballs) have been assimilated by the fast-food trend. Enormous shopping malls have drawn the population away from the Bosphorus or Sarayburnu, and the coast of the Sea of Marmara from Sirkeci to Bakırköy has become a long barbecue ground. Why should I contemplate this Istanbul? What makes a city “a city”, is primarily its inhabitants. But where are they?
N.G: Can you tell the story of the “Kostantıniyye” adventure with all its ups and downs?
C.A: I think that the newspaper “Kostantıniyye Haberleri Gazetesi” was one of the best examples of local journalism in Turkey. Nowadays it is used as teaching material in universities abroad, and its collections are in their archives.
I published that newspaper for five years and spent a total of $768,000 on it. If I had kept that money for myself instead of using it for the newspaper, I should be able to live comfortably nowadays without any money worries , but it was my choice and I have always stood by my decision. The newspaper was banned by “our State”, under the pretext “that it was a reminder of Byzantium through the use of the ancient Greek name for Istanbul, and thus disturbed the established moral order”. The editorial offices were searched by policemen carrying automatic arms. So we changed the title of the newspaper and continued to publish it under the name of “News of Our Town”, while filing a petition to the Court of Appeal.
We won our appeal and the Prefecture of Istanbul did not pursue the case. Nowadays noboday hesitates to pronounce the names of “Kostantıniyye”, “Constantinople” or “Byzantium”. The citizens recently chose Byzantine purple as the colour for the municipal buses. I sometimes wonder if this city is not a sort of abstract major force which impregnates people deep inside themselves.
Nonetheless, Kostantıniyye Haberleri Gazetesi remains an important document because of its contributors, who could be described as “the top of the class” and who thought and wrote for Istanbul. I continue to be proud to have published it. All the rest is unimportant.
N.G: My next question stems from my point of view as a novelist who has never written any poetry, but who has written a great deal about poetry, How did you go about changing from poetry to prose writing? Was it a painful process?
C.A: It was not painful at all. Since poetry for me is not simply a form of writing but a “lifestyle”, a way of feeling and seeing what you are looking at and interpreting it. I think it is possible to see this poetry in my novels. I make no conscious effort to include poetry in my novels, but, since it is a way of living, this sensation automatically transpires in everything I write. The only thing that should be stressed is that that a novel is maybe more attractive.
Poetry is our traditional form of expression, but there are fewer and fewer readers. Editors, who are more and more “industrialised”, are not eager to publish”poetry books”, because they do not sell well. It is not the same for novels. There are more readers and it is easier to communicate with them.
Let us take the example of a collection of my poems called 7 Tangos, which were dramatised in Argentina by Mario Morales. A Turkish painter, Melek Atakan painted a picture for each of the poems. There was an exhibition. But because of a lack of funds, the stage show will not be able to travel to Istanbul. Poetry is subcet to this sort of problem. If we consider writing to be an adventure, the labour pains are the about the same for poetry as for prose. For my part, I have two different stances concerning novels and poetry. I can change what I have written in a novel, but a poem must remain as it was when I wrote it to begin with. It is impossible for me to revise or change it. I have a taut relationship with poetry, whereas my relationship with prose is more friendly and flexible.
N.G: You lived for a long time in Paris and in Nice. You have published some travelogues. Did these cities make an impression on you?
C.A: The city which most impressed me was Hong Kong. For the moment I have written very little about it, but I hope to do so very soon, maybe in a novel.
Another city is Mexico D.F. where I stayed for about ten days. I should very much like to go back there. I dream of living for a time in Mexico.
Bologna, in Italy has a special place in my memories. I have mentioned it several times in my novels. In my cookery book, soon to be published, there will be several references to Bologna.
I was captivated by Hong Kong because of the the smells of cooking everywhere, by the ambition and rapidity of its inhabitants and by their way of looking at life. I never had a home of my own there, I was always staying in hotels, but I learned a lot about “home life” there through visits to the homes of my friends. I have made several long stays in Hong Kong, both during the British rule and after the return to China. I observed their integration during this period of transformation, their differenciation and their way of preserving their identity and their Hong Kong characterisitics. It was impressive. I wrote a lot of notes about this city in my diaries and I know that they will resurface in my writing. I have more than four and a half cubic metres of archives, you know.
Now, for my relationship with Paris and Nice, which you slipped between the lines of your short question !
I lived in Nice for eight years, but if you were to ask me for the name of a street for example, I should probably be incapable of answering. Nice did not particularly mark me, unlike Paris, which I have known for about 35 years. Anyone who has lived in the Rue de Turbigo for four years without interruption must of course have been influenced in some way!
My novel Zaman Bitti (“Time is Over”) begins with a glance out of the window of my flat in the Rue de Turbigo and ends at the same place. In my book Notes from Paris I wrote a great deal about this city and I continue to do so. Notes from Paris 2 has just been published. It contains essays which I wrote in Paris and in Nice. Paris is my freedom ! I feel “at home” there. Nearly all my friends live there. Paris is the place where one can live free from all prejudice, where everyone can be himself and where nobody looks critically at another (or at least I am not conscious of it). Also Paris is where I managed to bring up my children, which is no mean feat. If I have more memories of Paris than of Istanbul it is for another reason. I have many memories of Istanbul but they hurt and tire me, whereas those of Paris do just the opposite.
N.G: To come back to “Notes from Paris”, we can say that this city has a special meaning for you. Why is that?
C.A: I see that you are not satisfied with my previous answer, but you come back forcefully with another question on the same theme….
For thirty one years I frequented the Café de Flore in Paris I no longer can go there because it has become too expensive! I have lived in Rue Saint Sulpice, Rue des Saints Pères, Rue de Turbigo and Rue de la Convention. I have experienced there every delight and every pleasure that life can offer. In Paris I learned what makes a prostitute, a homosexual, a sadist, a masochist, a lesbian … In Paris I learned of the joy of street demonstrations and seeing the positive results they brought. Here I saw with my own eyes and through my own experience that the State exists for the people and is not an empty word as it is in Turkey. As an artist I found the consideration and respect which I lacked in my native land…. What more can I say, Here is an anecdote. In my autobiography, Yolculuk, I related episodes of my life and mentioned a number of people by name. One of these people registered a complaint, so I was summoned to the office of the State Prosecutor in Paris in order to make a statement. He was very surprised to learn that I had only told the truth, supported by proof and by naming witnesses… He added his own comments and sent the document to Turkey. Finally I was found guilty, but they did not succeed in seizing my book. I think that is probably a sufficient answer to your question “Why?”
N.G: In your autobiodraphy you describe your childhood, your family and close friends. Is this book a complete picture of your life or will you write a sequel?
C.A: You know me so well that it is not difficult to guess at the reply you are seeking. No, I have not told everything in that book. Yolculuk is more like a questionnaire based on the theme of justice. I tried to illustrate the injustice in Turkey by means of a an amusing life-story. We are talking about a book in which I found the courage to tell the story of a failure. I give a certain number of clues without following them up. I did not speak at all about certain aspects of my life and I know that I shall never do so. This is not a refusal to confess, but I think, on the contrary, that there is no point in talking about successes or in trying to capitalise on pride stemming from certain experiences.
There will be a sequel. I have an idea for a book about Houses and Hotels in which I have lived. The first book was a critical survey of justice. The second will be an attempt to relate contemporary history and sociology over the last sixty years using certain episodes of my life in this context. My readers will be able to take stock of the changes that have taken place in Istanbul, Hong Kong, Paris, Nice, Sri Lanka. I am working on it and hope that it will be a work of some importance. I want it to be a document witnessing the transition from the 20th to the 21st century.
N.G: “In Gümüs Gölge” (“Silver Shadow”) you write about a transvestite. What was your aim? To create a marginal character or to break the taboos, fight traditional values?
C.A: The attitude towards “transvestites” in Turkey is different from that encountered in other countries. In Turkey there are many transvestite prostitutes in the streets of Antalya, Adana, Bodrum, Izmir, Ankara, Eskisehir or Bursa. Then there are others, such as Huysuz Virjin (Grumpy Virgin), an actor, or Bülent Ersoy and the late Zeki Müren who are famous singers. They have their individual characteristics of course. Zeki Müren was a “crossdresser”. Bülent Ersoy is a transsexual. Virjin is a crossdresser on stage but I know nothing of his private life. These three artists are much appreciated in Turkey. They have a large following and record audiences. The official ideology, however, is capable of sending them into exile, as in the case of Bülent Ersoy, or of changing the name of the street in Istanbul where a large number of transvestites are to be found, from “Sormagir Street” to “Baskurt Street”.(“Enter-without-asking Street” becomes “Head Wolf Street”)
The transvestites who work in the streets risk becoming the victims of ill-treatment by the police, such as the policeman nicknamed “Süleyman the tube”, because of his habit of hitting with a rubber tube. They are pursued by the police and condemned to pay fines. Sometimes they are assassinated and their murderers are not sanctioned according to the law. The most regrettable part in all of this is that a star such as Bülent Ersoy, who is appreciated and accepted by society, does nothing to defend these people and condemn their suffering. A number of qustions concerning Turkey come to mind.
However, I know a transsexual doctor who works in a public hospital under her female identity and who is fighting for the rights of others within a number of associations.
Having made these remarks, now let me come to my novel “Silver Shadow”.
It is an account of the love stories of a Turkish transvestite who becomes a luxury prostitute in another country and gives the reader some “uncommon” insights into different Turkish sexual practices. Those who read this book will see people in the street in a new light, and will probably question their own lives, their repressed fantasies and their aspirations, and will conclude that there is no place for the “impossible” in human life. The “neighbourhood social pressure” which is prevalent today all over Turkey, has become so oppressive, that I cannot imagine any writer in the country daring to create such a marginal character. It would be a complete challenge to all traditional values. This oppression is no longer possible in the 21st century. All persons living in society must recognise the differences of others, assimilate these differences and learn to live with them.
N.G: Turkey has become increasingly conservative. What is your opinion on this? Could we say that your position is “atypical”?
C.A: All my life I have preferred being “myself” and this stance has been described as “abnormal”, not only by my family but also in society. I am not sure of the reason. Maybe my desire to “live in the future” influenced this behaviour. I do not know and I have not even thought about it. Each time that I look at myself in the mirror I cannot see myself otherwise but those around me see a different image. Because of this I have never been able to fully live my loves nor accomplish my enterprises. The persons with whom I really get on wonderfully well are my daughter Roxane and my son Sinan. Both of them have managed to accept me and love me “as I am”. In reply to your question, yes, my position is atypical, I am atypical!
I have never denied my ideological “anarchism”. If, in order to pacify my soul, I listen so often to the ballad written for the Italian anrchist Pinelli, there must be a link, as also to my admiration for Tchaïkovski.
To come back to Turkey; society there is made up of very different peoples. The population has a nomadic past and today the country has undergone forced migrations because of the destruction of villages during the last few years. Istanbul is a metropolis which has become the target of these internal migrations. Consequently all the nomadic characteristics are present in the members of this society and their “conservatism” should be considered from a particular viewpoint.
Did the “veil” problem exist twenty years ago? Of course not ! Where did this problem come from? From the size of the bread….
In a society where the distribution of revenues is unjust, and which has nomadism as its “principal characteristic”, people vote according to the size of the bread, their share of the cake. They behave in accordance with the wishes of those who “share out the slices” without asking any questions. Nobody cares a hoot, and when the doors are closed, the “silver shadows” are reflected on the walls rather than walking the streets….
N.G: I’ll leave the last question to you. If you wish me to ask you another one, I will let you reply to it as well. As an epigraph to my narrative ” “Ogleden Sonra Ask” (Love in the afternoon), I chose a line by Baudelaire: “I am both the wound and the knife”. What do you think of that? Ask yourself such a question, question Cüneyt Ayral from A to Z without kicking the ball into touch.
C.A: If I had thought of it earlier I would have used that line as an epigraph for my novel “Silver Shadow” !
The only question that I could ask myself would be “Are you not tired of being yourself?” And the answer would be” I am very tired !” However, I have never been able to do without myself,; some people have called it egoism and others have gone along with it while facing the facts. Some have tried to share a semblance of life together. I have welcomed them all with great affection.
I have fallen out with some and have borne them a grudge, but I have expressed everything in words without letting anything fester inside me. I prefer to forget certain sequences from my life which made me unhappy or which have caused me physical pain and I remained silent on those accounts. I have managed to do so until these last few years. As I grow older, my resentments from the past have resurfaced, and I have begun to settle my accounts with certain people who took me for a fool.
You have known me for nearly forty years. Do you remember those times when I sent my chauffeur to fetch you at your home, or those long walks together when we were searching for a Chinese restaurant? Didn’t we discover together the most infamous parts of Paris and write a few lines about each of them? Did we not hold forth together, in our anger and vexation about those who had insulted us, and then pardon them together and savour the moments of new-found appeasement? You must surely remember your laments when you found a listener in me for your distress, and also my euphorical days when I came to find you saying, “Well, are we going?” We continue to exist as long as we can still share with our readers the echos we left in the bars of Istanbul, the slums of Paris, the cafés in the port of Nice and on the thick walls of the château of La Napoule.
I won’t kick the ball into touch.
I have always liked to impress people. Losing my fortune, my considerable material riches has never made me sad. When I realised that I had compromised my children’s futures, I suffered deeply. They were always very understanding and never judged me (at least until now)… It has been said that I was in love with love. Not at all! I have always been in love with somebody, without really succeeding in speaking about it and in living that love. The reason is the fact that I have simply “always been myself”.
As I already mentioned, I consider poetry to be a way of life in every detail. Writing, for me, is a “necessity”, in the same way as eating and drinking water. If I cannot write, then I consider these moments to be “inexistent”.
I think it is more important to love than to make love…
I have known a lot of people, but I have had few friends and that has always made me sad….
Translated By Beverly BARBEY
from French translation