Melis Kaya: The Kurdish identity is a state of being in permanent exile (2)

“When the words Hakkari or Botan are uttered, the dengbej culture comes to mind. But Ahmet Kaya’s story did not flow in the channels of that river, so many of his struggles were derived instead from the streets. The result is something eclectic.”

In the first part of this interview, exiled artist Ahmet Kaya’s daughter Melis Kaya had shared her perspectives on the social conditions that facilitated the lynching campaign against her father and the longing he had to produce music in his mother tongue. In this second part, Melis Kaya reflects on the magic of Ahmet Kaya’s music that enabled him to make his way into the homes of millions, his unique ability to capture the shared sentiments of a diverse audience of millions, and the isolating experience of political exile.

Derya Bengi wrote the following about Ahmet Kaya’s music: “Two main themes emerge from Ahmet Kaya’s songs, including Safak Turkusu (“The Dawn Ballad”): the prison and the mother. “The Dawn Ballad” was released as part of Kaya’s 1986 spring album of the same name. After his first two albums in 1985, the influence of which was limited to left-wing circles, this third album resonated widely in a society attempting to heal from the wounds of the September 12 coup. Kaya’s song "Fly Birds, Fly,” which he composed in 1988 from the poem Riza Tevfik had written in the pre-Republican period, includes the line "There is no cry in response to my shout.” Ahmet Kaya, who released seven albums between 1985 and 1989, perhaps found the real answer to his cries among members of the younger generation who had escaped the persecution of September 12 because of their age, but who were still deprived of seeing a way out, a horizon for their future. Can Kozanoglu writes the following on Kaya's music: 'That music did not appeal to the “oldies” who could not shake off the feeling of victimization they had inherited from the ’70s. Instead, [the music] hooked in a brand-new generation which would have preferred the late ’70s to the ’80s. The music took hold of the young people from poor neighborhoods who had lost even the meager hope of sitting at the table. These youth were who were concerned with “How must I rebel?” were a step ahead of the refrain “How could I not rebel?” that they were accustomed to hearing in the [famous] Kucuk Emrah song.’”

From an outsider’s perspective, the fact that Ahmet Kaya wielded the language of the street particularly well would be noted before any political or musical analysis. Perhaps this was compensation for his inability to speak his mother tongue, but ultimately, he had also come from the streets. Everything he reflected in his songs was his own reality. That is, Ahmet Kaya’s discography is his akin to an autobiography.


What made his songs resonate so widely with so many different segments of society?

I think the charm in his music was that he was coming from the streets. My father truly was a man whose heart beat in the streets. In addition, my mother, who had been a political prisoner at Metris for 4.5 years and who had lived through September 12, had a direct influence on my father and his music. With regard to Derya Bengi and Can Kozanoglu’s analyses, one must remember that the ’68 and ’78 generations had a different organizing structure, a different sort of consciousness. Because Ahmet Kaya emerged when those generations were experiencing oppression, and not when they were at their peak, he instead appealed more to the generation coming after his own. Initially, his music was regarded as peculiar. People used to say, “Is this arabesque, or what is this?” Neither were people able to clearly categorize his tone, his lyrics, and his style of playing the baglama as fitting any specific form. Adopting the lens of any other listener, and not his daughter, I think Ahmet Kaya did not care about whether he fit a particular category or appealed to a given set of people. Since he did not trouble himself with concerns such as “the leftists should like me,” “so and so generation should embrace me,” or “everyone should like me,” with time, he was actually able to foster a healthy and authentic connection with his audience.

To your mind, what was the basic struggle that cultivated your father’s political stance?

My father was originally from Celikhan, Adiyaman, but he was born in Malatya and his family migrated to Samatya, Istanbul when he was yet a child. As a result, he was nourished by a multicultural atmosphere. Moreover, his family was perhaps more modern or maybe braver than the typical working-class family of his time and milieu. While other parents in a typical working-class family hope their children become white-collar workers, my grandfather buys my father a baglama. When the family migrates to Samatya, my father meets Armenian people and begins to work at an Armenian records store where he encounters the long-haired Blue Jean wearing revolutionaries. The street is again the location that facilitates his relationship with the revolutionaries, in the form that the revolutionary culture takes on in the streets. When we take a bird’s eye view to look at the places Kaya has been, we feel what his struggle was over, more than we can explain [in words]. When the words Hakkari, Botan, or Serhat are uttered, the dengbej culture comes to mind. However, Ahmet Kaya’s story did not flow in the channels of that river, and so many of his life’s issues are derived instead from the streets. Something eclectic emerges as a result. The fact that my father’s method of embodying a Kurdish identity was more radical and more outside the lines, is perhaps due to this. His music captured the same qualities.


Was this also the case for his relationship with the left?

Of course, his relationship with the left also falls outside the typical patterns. As a result of all the above, he cannot gain the full acceptance of by any community. He would ask, “Kurds don't like me, Turks don't like me, leftists don't like me, and right-wingers never did anyway. If so, who are the millions of people buying my cassettes?”

In her piece for Express magazine, Merve Erol says: “While unsolved murders, forced migration, and counter-guerrilla activities increased in the 1990s as the 'low-intensity war' in Turkey grew, Ahmet Kaya’s audience continued to diversify even though he emphasized his Kurdish identity more and more. So much so that no one doubted the validity of the aphorism: 'Ahmet Kaya is a legend who the leftists listen to at full blast, the Islamists with the volume turned down, and the nationalists in secret.'”

People who are so transparent that one can see through their backs when looking at their faces and who do not calculate the risk of anything in their lives, are very easy to read by those who sit opposite them. For example, when you listen to the famous French musician, Serge Gainsbourg, his guileless nature is clear to behold. You take his emotion and identify it with your own. This also holds true in the Ahmet Kaya phenomenon.


Do you think this disposition of your father made him more sensitive to wrongdoing? Can we evaluate the impact the February 10 lynching had on him through this lens?

Sure, but my father was also left so alone. Consider that you find it impossible to walk through the streets due to people’s overwhelming love and attention, yet on the very next day, the same people stand before you to curse at you, or to recite the Tenth Year Anthem or the National Anthem. Can you comprehend the extent of the heartbreak and sense of isolation resulting from this cruelty? How and why can a person’s life change so vastly over one night? To become an object of hatred in the eyes of the entire country in the space of a single day when on the preceding day he was everyone’s darling, and to experience this only for wanting to sing a single song in his mother tongue, was an evil that someone like Ahmet Kaya could not bear. Moreover, this malevolence persisted during his exile, lest he ever return. My father was heartbroken and alone in the streets of Paris.

Do you think his close friends had a part in your father’s loneliness, hurt, and heartbreak?

Most definitely. I witnessed first-hand how my father was abandoned. He had no one left around him save for a few close friends. He was abandoned by the people that you would think should have been beside him or believe must have been there. The consequence was that my father passed from this world in terrible heartbreak.


How did the Kurdish diaspora in Europe receive your father?

The identity of being Kurdish is by its very nature, in one sense, a state of being in permanent exile. Even the Kurds who did not leave their native lands, were forced to live as though in exile, wherever they were. But of course, there is a world of difference between being a Kurd in Turkey and being a Kurd in the diaspora. If you are in exile and you are sure that you cannot return, this feeling is much more intense. When my father came to Paris, his Kurdish friends had long since internalized the condition of exile. Consequently, their feelings and the feelings of my father, who could not come to terms with his exile, could not be reconciled quickly. My father had friends in Paris whom he met with very often, and whom he loved and valued. But this was not enough to defeat his sense of loneliness.

What did he miss most in Turkey?

He missed Istanbul, his life there, his family, and us very much. He was unable to fit in here, and unable to match the spirit in Paris. He was unable to force himself into the molds of the diaspora, just as he was unable to do so in Turkey. He could neither stay nor live in Turkey. He stayed [in Paris] for a year, at most. Normally, those who come here for political reasons accept after a while that they cannot return. But my father could not. In any case, if he had lived any longer, he probably would have returned one day and gone to jail. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time enough.


Some figures involved in the lynching campaign against Ahmet Kaya have apologized. Do you accept these apologies?

We are not cruel people. But neither are we the only ones from whom they need to ask forgiveness; there are millions of people who love Ahmet Kaya. I wonder what the people who say nowadays, “My chance of going to an Ahmet Kaya concert was stolen from me” make of these apologies? Moreover, my father was still alive after the first night of the lynching, yet the lynching continued clear as day. Why did they not apologize then? How can they say to me, "We killed your father, we're sorry?” As soon as their mouths form this sentence, it sways in the void and becomes meaningless. The apology may be well-intentioned, but when I am its intended recipient, I interpret it as “We killed your father, we apologize,” a statement which becomes meaningless as soon as it is uttered. Therefore, it is impossible [for them] to establish with me a discourse of "making peace with the perpetrator" that puts the family in the position of choosing whether to forgive or not. Being the recipient of such an apology doesn't make me feel good, it actually hurts even more. I am not the addressee of the apologies of those involved in the lynching against Ahmet Kaya.

So, are there no doors open for those involved in this lynching?

Can a convincing answer be given to the question asked by millions of people, "Why did you do this to this man?" If that is possible, maybe there is an open door, and perhaps only after that, their apologies will find their right place instead of hanging aimlessly in the air.

From this point of view, are you saying that "there is no apology for a person who was lynched?”

Does an apology hold any meaning after the targeted person has died?


In a sense, however, there is an Ahmet Kaya who lives on and who is kept alive, who is always on the agenda in Turkey, whose voice echoes constantly in homes, on the streets, and in places of gathering…

You can see a lot of crossover in my father's discography. He sings rock, but also folk music; he sings in Azerbaijani as well as he does Alevi folk songs… Cliché though it may be, everyone finds something of themselves in him because he makes music that appeals to the various peoples of Turkey and can rally them in a shared emotion. As Derya Bengi says, there is a longing for the mother in his music, as well as love for the beloved. Ahmet Kaya talks about prison, about oppression and rebellion, about exile and the condition of being a refugee. He talks about the Kurdish mountains. The things he relays are both very real and very authentic. They are the things inside all our homes; his songs are of our thoughts and our feelings when we lay our heads on our pillows at night. Ahmet Kaya represents our homes, so it is no coincidence that his voice continues to echo.

How do you think he achieved this?

Perhaps the fact that he didn’t fit into any molds and that he went beyond the mathematics of music made him special.

Could another reason be the persistence of the political and social conditions amidst which your father first made his music?

This is what we all assume at first, but I think it would be a disservice to cite this as the only explanation for the unique nature of his music. Of course, his music was a protest; and yes, he did have a problem with the system. He made songs that revolved around a cause. But his music possesses a quality beyond this. After all, he translated into songs the voices in our heads, and the thoughts and feelings we do not know how to articulate even to our family members. Therein lies the secret of his ability to make his way into thousands of homes. Of course, as the peoples of Turkey who feel incessantly that history repeats itself, we are always going through [the same] cycles. And so, the songs Ahmet Kaya made in the 1980s also translate into today's political climate. Likewise, social codes are resistant to change. Take exile, for example. Today, we are experiencing a similar situation to the political exiles of the 1980s. In recent years, tens of thousands of people from Turkey have had to go abroad. The same rings true for the mother theme in his music. Still, tens of thousands of mothers wait for their children at the gates of prisons. Still, mothers wait to locate the dead bodies and bones of their children. Still, the Saturday People occupy the streets.


Do you often listen to Ahmet Kaya music?

Certainly. To this day, when I have difficulty expressing my troubles, I listen to Ahmet Kaya, and he speaks for me. His music has an interesting magic. I think Ahmet Kaya is a person of music who knew this society and its individual from back to front, down to its very last cell.

If Ahmet Kaya were alive today, how do you think his musical journey would have evolved?

I also think about this sometimes, and when I do, I feel sorrow — because, in this respect, we have been deprived of so much. He was going to write beautiful lyrics, make compositions, and sing songs. He was brave in his own time, but perhaps with age, he would have been even more musically daring. We are also in the midst of a digital era, and I have always wondered how he would have adapted to this age. He would probably have produced highly experimental work. He might have wanted to do something with young protest music artists like Ezhel, he could have found him to be close in style to his own.


How do you think he would have reacted to his songs being covered by other artists?

In general, tribute albums get a lot of criticism because listeners usually want to continue listening to the song from the voice of the artist they first heard it from. But I think my father would have been very happy to hear other artists reinterpret his songs in various styles. He used to enjoy seeing how many different ways a song could be sung, how endless the possibilities were. I mean, he was an artist who was very open to experimentation. He was constantly experimenting at home. One day, before my father had ever released an album, he went backstage at one of Ruhi Su's performances and played the baglama for him. Ruhi Su told him, "This is no way to play the baglama, and nothing will ever come of you.” This is why my father titled his first concert "Baglama.” Even this says a lot about his delight in experimentation and his desire to break the mold even at the very beginning of his musical journey.


Recently, a film was made about Ahmet Kaya, but its release was prevented as a result of the objections of your family. Similar things have happened in the past. What is the reason for your sensitivity on this subject?

Ahmet Kaya’s story is one that hangs on a knife-edge, but it is not easy to tell his story. Of course, there comes a point where you cannot tell people “You can’t write this,” “You can’t film this,” “You can’t say this is.” So even if a film is to be made, it must be done according to certain norms and principles. Objecting to a movie that does not accurately portray Ahmet Kaya’s story is our most basic right as his family. If the person who made this film was in the same position, and if someone came to him and said, “Your father was not like that, he was actually like this, and I’m going to talk about him in such and such way,” would he find this acceptable? That aside, we’ve already been battling misconceptions about Ahmet Kaya for years. These misconceptions are the reasons that our lives took this route. For this reason, our sensitivity on this topic should be understood. In addition, we are still here, alive, as his family. How accurate can information about Ahmet Kaya obtained without once speaking to us or listening to us be?

Were you not consulted before a film was made about Ahmet Kaya?

No. If a good film was made about my father, if we were persuaded on this matter, why would we prevent its happening? There is no limit to the cruelty and shamelessness of certain people. They are pushing the perception that we are objecting because we demanded a fee from the producers of the films, and “found the money to be little.” What do we want with your money? Ahmet Kaya's story is vulnerable to exploitation in all directions, which is why we have to be so cautious.

Have you ever thought of producing an Ahmet Kaya movie?

I hadn’t considered it. Of course, one day, there will come a project or a filmmaker that will match Ahmet Kaya's spirit, and when that time comes, I would love to see it. But I don't think it's time for the movie yet.

Is it because you feel like the story will come to an end if a film is made?

Maybe. Although, I don’t think the story ends when the movie is made, we really have to wait for the right time. Because although 22 years have passed, Ahmet Kaya's pain is still so new, so fresh, not only for me as his daughter, but also in society as a whole.

What do you think is the reason for this?

Because the injustice was so monumental. So hard, so young of a death. It is such a grave injustice to have died from a heart attack at age 43 in exile without having committed any crime. This is why society has not been able to reconcile with his death. This heavy pain lies at the heart of rumors like “Ahmet Kaya lives, he is in Italy, he has lost some weight, he has shaved his beard, we’ve seen him.”


President Erdogan’s interest in Ahmet Kaya and that he has shed tears while listening to his songs are common knowledge. If Ahmet Kaya were alive today, what do you think his approach would have been to Erdogan's policies?

Undoubtedly, he would have interpreted this period in his own unique way and taken up his own position. Had Ahmet Kaya lived, he might still be in exile or in prison today. That's why we must remember again and again what Ahmet Kaya went through and why. Frankly, I am unsure of my answer when I am asked, “What would your father think, what would he do if he were alive?” Because I, as Melis, cannot speak for him. My father was a game changer and a person who inspired surprise. It is necessary to come to terms with his lynching and the social and political issues that facilitated that event, and to take a lesson from the incident.


You have been living in Paris for many years, though you keep track of the agenda in Turkey. What does Turkish society look like from where you are?

No matter where I live, as someone who was born and raised in Istanbul, I cannot speak as though I am outside the bounds of this society. When I survey the historical context, especially the history of the republic; I see a wounded society whose head was pushed further down each time it attempted to rise.

How do you think this wound can heal?

The gaps between the layers of society and the peoples hinder recovery. But anything solid can evaporate, and any wound that is not gangrenous may heal. As long as we manage not to become what we criticize, we can build a new life and a new country. Unfortunately, we are not able to achieve this in Turkey yet, and we have not been able to avoid becoming what we criticize. These pitfalls may be avoided through a correct reading of recent history and through learning lessons from the past. We can succeed when we listen more attentively to each other and when we learn the right lessons from the past. We don't have any other option.


Ahmet Kaya expressed similar wishes and hopes before almost every concert but to no avail. Doesn't this shatter your hopes?

If we lose hope, we cannot live. We have to keep that idealism alive inside us and work harder to make it a reality. Otherwise, we will be trapped by a world in which pessimism reigns supreme. We must read more and listen more. Listening is regarded as a passive act, but it is often more difficult than speaking. We must conquer this difficulty [of listening] as well. We have next to us a group that claims, ' I know the Kurd better than the Kurd knows himself.’ These are people with whom we are aligned politically, yet they do not listen to us either. They talk at us incessantly. You cannot comprehend the Kurd’s struggle without ever listening to a Kurd. This is not an issue that can be understood by way of theory! When you speak on behalf of a Kurd, an Armenian, or a homosexual individual or you simply address them instead of listening to their individual and societal traumas, your words cease to have impact or worth.

Some parents who experienced the brutality of September 12 kept their children removed from politics in order to protect them. Have you experienced similar overprotectiveness?

I was never given warnings along the lines of "dear daughter, don’t ever say that you're Kurdish, something might happen to you." Neither were my parents particularly dominant personalities who sought to enforce a pedagogy of “let us raise this child in this fashion, and direct them in this way.” Nor was I spoiled or handed things on a silver platter by virtue of being the child of a famous artist. I grew up listening often and talking little, and I internalized what I heard. In addition to that, I came into myself as an individual through some personal effort.

What was it that shaped you politically?

Wherever I may be in the world, my fundamental values are those of freedom, human rights, and democracy because I grew up in a country that suffered extensively from the lack of these things. Therefore, these values ​​and, of course, a commitment to being principled, shape my stances in life.


You mentioned that "The identity of being Kurdish is, in a sense, a state of being in permanent exile.” Do you plan to return to Turkey one day?

Cavafy has a line that reads, "You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore / this city will always pursue you.” Those who are in exile and cannot return have not truly left Turkey. Despite having lived in exile for decades, Turkey is still the sole focus of such people. Yes, I live in Paris and have made a life for myself here, but I do not live as though I will never return. On the other hand, we should not overlook the enormous distinction between not being able to return for political reasons and being able to return at any time. Since I have not experienced the weight of the feeling of knowing that I will not be able to return, I cannot say anything on the matter.

As you noted, many people have been exiled from Turkey to Europe in recent years. Do you observe any difference between the conditions of those who came in the 1980s, '90s, and those of new exiles?

I certainly do not want to make a comparison, because I know that each exiled person carries an individual burden. But my father's, for example, was a very heavy, very lonely exile. There were very few people around him here. But especially those who have been exiled since 2015 are not so alone. Fortunately, they do not have to shoulder this burden alone, and they give each other support. They don't let each other fall.


Doesn’t the fact that there is still a popular opposition to the government in Turkey despite intense pressure inspire hope?

The opposition also has its privileged and unprivileged segments. Today, when the Kemalist opposition is compared to the Kurdish opposition, the causes of the former are conceived as much more legitimate and are recognized by the current government. The same goes for the opposition that the current government made yesterday or will make tomorrow. No matter who is in power or where you are within the opposition, the moment you position yourself against the Kurds, you create a bubble of protection around yourself. In other words, as long as you stay at a safe distance from the Kurds and the Kurdish problem, you can comfortably engage in opposition and politics in Turkey. This is why the bridges my father often mentioned have not been built. But where do we stand in this balance? Where do the dissidents who have been imprisoned or exiled unlawfully stand?

Elections are approaching in Turkey. Kemal Kilicdaroglu initiated his campaign with the phrase "I promise you, spring will come.” What do you think will be Turkey's spring?

We are all waiting for and dreaming of spring. Turkey will experience that spring when certain political prisoners are freed, when we cease to be a society of fear, when there is respect for one’s free will and identity, when a new rationality and politics which embraces all layers of society is constructed.

Finally, what is your favorite Ahmet Kaya song?

This is an extremely difficult question. My favorite Ahmet Kaya songs are constantly changing. For example, in the past months, I had been listening to “Arka Mahalle” (“The Back Neighborhood”) a lot. These days, I'm listening to "Yetis Nerdesin” (“Hurry, Where Are You"). Instead of listening to albums, I always hang on to certain songs. Sometimes my yearning for my father rears its head, and I feel the need to hear his voice. At those times, I turn his music on just to hear his voice in the background. That seems to be like having a conversation with my father.

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