Neyzen Tevfik


Born in Bodrum on 24 March 1879, this eccentric figure of Turkish literature was in the habit of fashioning whistles and flutes from reeds when he was still a boy. At some point, young Tevfik decided that his preferred instrument was to be the ney, a reed flute that is especially popular in Mevlevi music and for this reason he added the word neyzen–flute-player–before his name and so he is known today. According to Avram Galanti Bodrumlu, a childhood friend of his, Neyzen Tevfik’s music and poetry were inspired by the sea. Certainly there have been few artists whose work demonstrates the close relationship between music and poetry as his does. Neyzen Tevfik was known for his colorful, bohemian lifestyle and for verse that could be savagely caustic in its wit. He often introduced himself as "Neyzen Tevfik, whose three-dimensionality is manifested in his music, his poetry, and his rakı." His poetry is imbued with social awareness, philosophy, and depth and it invites the reader to partake in a rational, common-sense morality. As a poet, Neyzen Tevfik is unique in the literature of the late Empire and early Republic.

During his lifetime, two books of his work, Hiç ("Nothing") and Azab-ı Mukaddes ("The Sacred Torment") were published. Many other anthologies of his poetry and satire were published posthumously. Neyzen Tevfik was also the composer of works of Classical Turkish music. He died in İstanbul on 28 January 1953.

Neyzen Tevfik

The disbeliever's book has neither beginning nor end.

A few pages from its middle is all we ever grasp.

For religion's sake and fear of blasphemy we endure woe.

Reason cannot perceive where righteousness may go.

The Fisherman of Halikarnas on Neyzen Tevfik

He was a dark and desiccated lad, rendered swarthy in the torrid air of Bodrum that scarcely heard of shade. His name was Tevfik. He would run barefoot along the soft beaches caressed by the Arsipel making the water ring out as he drew his toy boat attached by a cord to the end of an oar up and down the crescent-shaped arc of the harbor. The beach was lined with the leaf-thatched bowers of coffee-houses to which customers would repair and sit on straw mats while they sipped their coffee and gazed out stolidly, lost in the vacant horizon between Karaada and Istanköy.

The customers greeted a stranger passing before the cafes and they offered him a cup. From his pocket, the stranger drew out a long reed-flute. He made it sing. When he heard the warbling flute, young Tevfik halted. The twittering sounds of the other boys who had been running along with him dragging their own boats disappeared into the distance. Tevfik dropped onto the sand. His eyes shut, he listened with the ear of his soul. The darkness behind his closed eyes seemed to pale and he could vaguely make out his toy boat. Its masts stretched slowly into the sky and sheet upon sheet of sail unfurled. The voice of the flute was creating brand-new worlds. The boy breathed deeply, burning with a longing to set sail. His soul begged to set out and fill his breast to overflowing with freedom. Just then a shadow appeared before him. To the shadow the boy said "Who are you?" "I am your fate" the stranger replied. "And the helmsman of that caique."

"Where would you go?" the boy asked. "To the unknown" said the enigma.

"And what fare will you demand of those who board your ship?" young Tevfik asked in his innocence.

The man replied: "I shall demand that they be utterly themselves."

"And who are your passengers?"

"Those who will sacrifice everything for the sake of a nothing."

"Where will you be taking them?"

"To that part of every man that is alone. Nay, to an unknown deeper even than that."

"Is the way there easy?"

"There’s nothing more difficult. But there is nothing that those who travel that road love more excepting only their journey through this world."

Young Tevfik continued to ply his questions.

"How do you know when you’ve gotten there?"

"When I see the distance in their eyes, I know."

"Well if you don’t charge a fare or anything, how do you make money? I haven’t got any myself."

"Our journey is not to make money."

As he said this, there was an irresistible summons in the helmsman’s voice. Joyfully the boy boarded the caique. The flute in the bower-sheltered cafe was shrieking deliriously.

The waters beneath the vessel seemed to dissolve. The whispering of the sea faded away into the distance below and was gone leaving nothing but silence to be heard–a silence that seemed to reverberate. Suspended, the caique sailed through a void. Suddenly the flute’s voice reverted to bass and just as abruptly dark shapes began quivering and shaking as if they were alive. The peals of their thunder resembled a cascade of huge mountains being overthrown. Like an avalanche the darknesses collapsed. A luminescence resembling moonlight awoke in the void and spread like ripples in every direction. In that sweet light, the boy could see himself again at last. There was no caique beneath him nor gunnel beside him; nor was there any mast, nor helm, nor helmsman. There was nothing: nothing but himself.

The boy looked at the trees. Way in the distance below he could make out a huge, gushing waterfall. Moonbeams striking the vapor smoking high above the fall had created a rainbow. It seemed to the boy as if he were standing upon it, but somehow he was not quite sure whether the man-child known as "Tevfik" was himself, or whether he was the rainbow arcing there, or the waking luminescence, or the splashing waterfall, or whether he was all of them all at once. One thing he did know however: his toy boat had set out on a voyage from which there was no return and that henceforth, he and the reed-flute would never be parted.

The flute’s voice paled and faded into a melody that called from somewhere deep in his soul. The boy felt a coolness on his brow. Laurel leaves springing from his own soil, from his own water, from his own sun had formed a wreath and like a pair of lips encircled and kissed his brow, crowning him with the seal of an artist as pure and as innocent as light. The boy brought his hand to his forehead. In the touch of the fresh leaves was the coolness of the moonlight, of the rainbow, of the splashing waterfall.

In the bowered cafe the sound of the flute had now ceased. Standing exhausted on the sand, the boy’s hands hung down, his head collapsed forward against his chest. And yet he seemed to be glowing. The toy boat floated on its side in the water. The boy raced off towards the Tepecik side of the bay. Among the reed-beds there he made himself a flute. He struggled with it. He blew it from the right. He blew it from the left. Finally he got a sound out of it and then with the voice of the reed-flute he began the narration of the journey of his soul.

That night when the boy’s father was instructing him in Mevlana’s Mesnevi he said "Tell me now. What have you memorized?"

The boy recited:

And the sound of that reed is fire, not wind:

Whosoever lacks that fire, ‘tis better he not live.

And as he repeated it, tears welled up in his eyes and a sob burst from his knotted throat.

"What’s wrong?" his father asked. "Those words" the boy replied. "I just realized today they were talking about me."

(Translation copyright ©1999 by Robert Bragner)

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