The Birthdays of Nâzım Hikmet

Saturday, January 16, 2021

These are busy times up at the Borderlands Lodge. The spring semester began this week, so starting up with classes again has been taking up a lot of my time. As hectic as the first week of the semester can be, it's really nice to see the students again. 

Yesterday marked the birthday of Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet. Well, at least the 15th of January is the widely-accepted date for his birthday. At the same time, however, there is some disagreement regarding when exactly Turkey's best-known poet was born.  

According to Memet Fuat, the son of Nâzım's third wife Piraye and Nâzım's stepson, Nâzım was not born on January 15, 1902, but rather in late 1901. In his book Nâzım Hikmet: Yaşamı, Ruhsal Yapısı, Davaları, Tartışmaları, Dünya Görüşü, Şiirinin Gelişmeleri, Memet Fuat writes that Nâzım was born on November 20, 1901, but that "in order for him to not appear one year older for the sake of 40 days" (i.e., from Nov. 20 until the end of the calendar year), his parents chose to make his birthday January 15. Meanwhile, in one of the letters Nâzım's fourth wife Münevver wrote to him in the late 1950s, she notes that she had always thought his birthday was January 2. Nâzım, for his part, alternated between writing his year of birth as "1901" and "1902" in documentation that he completed at Moscow's Communist University of the East in the early 1920s. 

Why wouldn't Nâzım know his own birthday? Perhaps he knew his birthday under the Rumi calendar that was in use in the Ottoman Empire when he was born. After Turkey and the USSR adopted the Julian calendar in the early 1920s, maybe he never bothered to figure out exactly what his date of birth was. 

In the letter to Nâzım that I refer to above, Münevver realizes that, with the change of calendars, January 3 on the Rumi calendar was actually January 15 in the Julian calendar. But the fact that she is thinking this through in a letter written to Nâzım in the late 1950s is telling. Indeed, in another letter she sent to 
Nâzım at around this same time, Münevver mentions that--according to her calculations--Nâzım's birthday on the new calendar was actually January 14.

Münevver also notes in this letter, written in March of 1959, that birthdays themselves had not been particularly important to early 20th century Ottoman families like Nâzım's. She writes that "in the old days there was no such thing as birthdays here. I've noticed that old women have no idea when their children were born. My father wrote down my birthday. I still have the paper."

Whether Nâzım was born in late 1901 or early 1902 does not strike me as a particularly important detail in and of itself. Nevertheless, it is symptomatic of a larger issue relating to what we know about Nâzım Hikmet's life: over 100 books have been written about him--he's the most-discussed figure in Turkish history after Atatürk--yet even some rather basic details about his life are still murky. 

One reason for this, in my view, is because the vast majority of books about Nâzım simply repeat one another's anecdotes. Stories get passed down from one biography to another, without anyone raising questions about their plausibility or checking them against documentary evidence. And, to an extent that is truly surprising given the vast number of pages that have been devoted to discussing his life, the narratives surrounding Nâzım Hikmet are still largely shaped by Nâzım's own writings and the memoirs and recollections of his friends and loved ones. Indeed, many of the stories filling these memoirs and recollections originated with Nâzım himself. Almost sixty years after his death in Moscow in 1963, Nâzım continues to play a large role in shaping the narratives surrounding his life. 

This is one reason why, when I started researching my book on 
Nâzım in 2016, I was surprised to notice that none of his biographers had looked at the enormous amount of materials pertaining to Nâzım's life in the archives in Moscow. While archival materials are by no means a "silver bullet," they do have the advantage of having been written in the moment, in contrast to the rather rehearsed-sounding stories about Nâzım that get recounted again and again in the biographical literature. 

Indeed, it is precisely because archival sources can be contradictory--such as the paperwork in Moscow in which Nâzım records his year of birth alternately as 1901 and 1902--that makes them seem genuine, if not always accurate. Compared to the well-polished stories that Nâzım's biographers tend to uncritically repeat, the contradictions that I saw in the archives actually felt quite refreshing. 

No particular source is perfect, but when juxtaposing the archival materials available re Nâzım in Moscow, Istanbul, Amsterdam, and Washington, D.C. with the published sources that have typically been used in Nâzım-related biographies, I think it's possible to find a pretty interesting harmony.  

If you're interested in checking out what that harmony might look like, check out the two articles I've written about my research on Nâzım based upon these archival and other materials: here and here

Hopefully there will be a book for you to look at sometime soon as well. I spent most of winter break working on my book proposals, so I hope to be able to find a good publisher before too much more time passes.  

Also see: 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.  

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