Melis Kaya: Were Ahmet Kaya alive, he might still be in prison or in exile (1)

What was Ahmet Kaya like as a father? How does Melis Kaya regard those who apologize for their role in his lynching? What sort of music would he be making if he was still alive? Melis Kaya and I had a conversation about her father, Ahmet Kaya…

“People still visit them with flowers in hand each day,” said our tour guide last week upon noticing our surprise at the sight of the fresh flowers decorating the graves of Ahmet Kaya and Yilmaz Guney, two Kurdish artists who are separated by 100 meters where they lie in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Melis Kaya

Ahmet Kaya, who was subjected to a lynching campaign on February 10, 1999 at the Magazine Journalists Association award ceremony and who lost his life in exile in Paris on November 16, 2000 remains at the heart of politics, culture, arts, and academia in Turkey today. Still, articles, books, research, and songs take him as their subject. Everybody holds a memory or an idea of Ahmet Kaya, but his daughter Melis has always been the one person whose thoughts and feelings are known the least.

What sort of father was Ahmet Kaya? How does she, as his daughter, regard those who apologize for their role in the lynching campaign against him? Had Ahmet Kaya lived, what kind of music would he be producing today and with whom? What was the magic in his music that made everyone listen? What did music, the streets, Kurdish, Istanbul, Turkey, society, exile, and isolation mean to Ahmet Kaya? Why is it that Turkish society is unable to extract itself from the lynching spiral? How can the sense of victimization that is at the crux of lynching be overcome?

We finally present to you a lengthy and detailed conversation on Ahmet Kaya with his daughter Melis Kaya. The interview was intended to be released on the anniversary of February 10, but we chose to postpone it due to the February 6 earthquakes.

Why have you not given a long-form interview before?

I was never made an offer like yours for an interview to be published in writing and at length. In addition, since I knew you by name, I didn’t feel the need to hold back from accepting your offer, but generally speaking, if Ahmet Kaya is the topic of conversation, I have always assumed my mother (Gulten Kaya) to be the relevant speaker. This is why I have always opted to stay back.


What kind of father was Ahmet Kaya?

In his home and in his private life, my father was an overwhelmingly affectionate and vivacious man. He was witty, laidback, patient, libertarian, and compassionate. He was never strict or stern. When I look back at my childhood, I am not overcome by a sense of not having experienced a feeling a child should experience with regard to their father — but I do miss him very much. I feel a profound need for his mind, his love, his foresight. At times, for example, I want to give him a call, to tell him of the things that are going on. I wish to myself that we could at least talk on the phone. What would our relationship look like, what would our topics of conversation be if he were alive; I think of these things often.

This year, Emin Alper and Ozcan Alper, both prominent directors in Turkey drew attention with their impressive films. Emin Alper's "Arid Days" and Ozcan Alper's "Dark Night" are films that complement each other and which both focus on lynching. How do you feel when considering the isolation to which a person is condemned when being targeted en masse by lynching campaigns by certain groups?

I will speak to you from the perspective of two identities. The first, is as the child of a father who was lynched, rather than as the daughter of Ahmet Kaya; the second is as a Kurd from Turkey. There is a historical context that merges these two identities, but that context does not give rise to the exact same emotion. Moreover, the things I feel today are different than what I felt during my childhood after my father was lynched.

What sort of difference is this?

I can better see now that the matter is not personal, but that it has a societal, historical, and political dimension.

You were 13 years old when your father was attacked at the award ceremony of the Magazine Journalists Association on February 10, 1999. What did you feel then?

Things were happening at home, people were frantic, but I remember that I was unable to make sense of what was going on. Of course, they were also trying to shield us. But things were said at school, one way or another, people brought up the incident, but I was unable to fully understand what was meant.


What were people saying at school?

On the school bus, one student asked me, “Haven’t you guys fled Turkey yet?” At the time, I attended one of the MEF International Schools in Ulus. It was purportedly one of the “elite” schools in Istanbul at the time. I remember thinking, “Why should we run? What could have happened?” With time, I began to understand. My father was jailed briefly in February 1999, while these conversations to which I was a witness were taking place and the court proceedings were ongoing. But we were not at all afraid since the notion of a prison was not foreign to us. My mother had also had a brief stint in jail, longer than my father’s, and before his imprisonment. Their friends from prison and their allies would often come and go to our home. They would reminisce about their time in prison; these things were familiar to us. The picture was gaining clarity, slowly but surely. In the end, my father left the country on June 16, 1999 to go on a tour abroad, which had already been on the books.

When did you watch the video footage of the night of the lynching?

I was only able to watch the footage much later. My feelings when I first saw the videos and when I see them now are parallel, but not identical. I know that my father would attend such ceremonies only out of obligation, I know that he did not enjoy them or want to attend. That night, before the lynching began, when he walked into the premises, he probably thought to himself, “What am I doing here among these people?” From the moment he held the award in his hand and began to say, “I dedicate this award to the Human Rights Foundation and to the Saturday Mothers,” my father’s language was already a foreign one to those in the audience that night. He was confronted by people blissfully unaware of the things happening in this country, people living in their own pretty worlds, yet abiding by certain codes in their actions. When one thinks upon those codes, one feels peculiar things with regard to the historical and sociological roots that form the environment for collective lynching.



What do you mean?

These people attacked Ahmet Kaya not because they had any particular or substantive ideological background, but because they were operating based on the codes that they have been inculcated with and which they know affords them privilege in this country. The result is an aggression that is extremely primitive, quite barbaric, and very stupid. Lynching is the collective brutality of people who one by one become belligerent, drawing power from one another even without fully comprehending what it is that they are doing. Moreover, I believe that in Turkey there is a very significant fear of being left in the minority.

What do you believe is the reason for this?

People in Turkey are terribly afraid of being left alone, of becoming the ‘other.’ This is a fear that has deeply embedded itself in the genetic makeup of this society. And this is why they do not harbor goodwill towards minorities or towards the ‘others.’ They are unable to identify themselves with them. And this is what feeds the lynching phenomenon. This is the feeling of, ‘if the person next to me is standing, is kicking, is flinging cutlery, then I must do the same so that I am not left alone.’ As such, perhaps many of the people who participated in the lynching were not really aware of what it is that they were doing. This is one aspect of what happened during the lynching attempt on Ahmet Kaya on February 10, 1999. Of course, we must also think about the raw nerve struck by uttering the words “Kurd” and “Kurdish” in front of such a crowd and the pitiful state of those who rose to recite the “Tenth Year Anthem”* in protest.

What is the conclusion you reach when you think in detail about this?

Popular figures in Turkey are described as being “widely adopted by society.” The desperation to retain that role among the people attacking Ahmet Kaya that night says quite a lot. Take a look at that now historic photograph of the people on the stage after my father’s speech. You will see there not the strength of people who have become one, but rather their weakness. Some of the people who participated in the lynching that night are today overcome by such shame and weakness that they would even deny their presence at the event. But history remains, the photographs exist, and just as they cannot go back in time to rewrite its events, the mark of this shame will never be erased from their countenances. No matter how regretful the people who participated in that lynching may be, this regret is not sufficient to remove them from the photograph of that event. How was it that the so-called “elite” and “white” crowd “in full rig” turned barbaric all of a sudden? It would be unfathomable to explain to any enlightened mind that these people hurled knives and forks at an artist for simply voicing that he would soon sing a song in Kurdish.


Analyses regarding lynching crowds often say that the individual minds cease to operate, and the “crowd mind” takes control…

There is a crowd mind at play, but no crowd consciousness to speak of. But is ignorance enough to clear the blame of the people who participated in that crowd mind and lynching for the crime they participated in that night? No, most definitely not. Because the root of the issue is joining in that “group think” in the first place. You cannot simply say, “I only did so because everyone else was doing it.” Because if each and every one of you had not chosen to individually act in a certain way, then that “everyone” you speak of would not have formed. This is why every person is responsible for their own personal history, and as long as those people are alive, they will be responsible for what they did that night. The forks they flung at Ahmet Kaya will continue to chase them. Why did they not ask in that moment, “What am I doing right now? Why am I on this stage, in this group, in this lynching?”

There are people such as Savas Ay, Mehmet Aslantug, and others who had this reflection that night and refused to participate in the lynching, but there were also people who joined in despite being Kurds themselves…

The certain Kurds who participated in the lynching are not that big a matter. Feeling the need to exclaim, “Look, I am not like him” when a person is being lynched in front of you for expressing that they will release a song in Kurdish is truly an existential problem as much as it is an identity problem. What sort of self-reflection are they engaged in right now? How does the Kurdish public view them now? As I’ve said, the point here is not whether one is a Kurd or not, the point is being able to remain human. When I look at Mehmet Aslantug or Savas Ay, I see the requisite qualities of being human and the practice of these qualities, and not more than that.

In addition to the perpetually oppressed groups in Turkey, there are also those privileged groups who believe themselves to be the true owners of the state. At certain periods, this group is also at risk of losing its privilege, and so they often turn their own crisis into a reaction against others or into grudgery. Can we say that this grudge is behind the lynching?

Perhaps, but sensing an existential threat cannot justify an attempt on someone else’s life. I wrote my master’s thesis on the double stigmatization of non-Muslim homosexuals. When discussing the stigmatization and isolation faced by these individuals who already exist as part of othered groups, I saw that within each group, there are spheres micro-power that diffuse layer by layer down to the very last individual. What I mean to say is that being part of a minority or oppressed group does not in itself eradicate discriminatory practices. Yes, at some time or another in this country, Islamists or conservatives, or the Kemalists today, have faced pressures, but these experiences did not foster in them a sense of empathy with the Kurds who have always been under a constant state of repression. I am saying that this is what we have to think about. Isn’t it quite odd that not one person who participated in the lynching of my father stopped to think “I might one day be the person being lynched?”

I see quite a large number of books behind you. What sorts of topics or books pique your interest?

Generally speaking, I love literature. To be honest, I do not read much about the situations that I presently find myself in or have experienced. For example, I have never sat down and read to understand “What is lynching?” Because we have witnessed and experienced what it is, and what shapes its consequences. I completed my higher education in France where your advisor during the doctorate or master’s thesis is not generally an expert in your field. Because the intention of the professor who has agreed to work with you is to learn about a topic that they have little knowledge on alongside you. Having come from this school of thought, my tendency is to generally read on topics that I know little about.

Is this the case in music as well?

Much more so in music. I was born into a home with a lot of music, many instruments, and a lot of songs. I played classical piano for a long time because my father wanted for me to take piano lessons to warm up to music. But in the end, there was no professional musician in me. Like I said, because I grew up in an atmosphere of music, arts, literature, and politics, I did not place music at the heart of my career.


What kind of music was listened to in your home?

From Iron Maiden to Victor Jara, from Janis Joplin to The Doors, from Ruhi Su to Asik Mahzuni, from Sivan Perwer to Koma Amed, many different types of music were listened to in my home. At one time, my father used to listen to Joe Cocker so much that he began to sing some songs at home in his style. An attentive listener can easily notice a reflection of the similar vocal techniques in the song "Icimde Olen Biri Var” (“There Is Someone Who Is Dying In Me"). Kurdish and Turkish music and folk songs were also played in our home, as well as jazz and classical music. Of course, since my mother is Alevi, Alevi folk songs were also listened to. My father used to listen to Miles Davis a lot. Music is still a very important part of my life.

What was it that pushed your father to sing in Kurdish for the first time only in the year 1999? Was singing in Kurdish something he had put off until then, or was it something he had just begun to desire recently?

In my opinion, there was always a yearning in my father’s inner world to sing in Kurdish. For as long as he lived, my father carried in his heart the wound of not knowing Kurdish. He reflected on this a lot, and I believe his proclamation on February 10 was the expression of this self-reflection. “I am a Kurd and for twenty years I have sung for you Turkish songs… I have sung in your mother tongue. Because for years this country did not allow me to be taught my mother tongue.” This is the wound my father carried. I also think it took him some time to find a song that was in tune with his own soul.


I believe that when he chanced upon Xosnaw Tilli's "Karwan,” he felt that this poem fit very well with his own soul and musical style. I think he had a long and separate journey to identify the first Kurdish song he would sing, which is why I think there was more than one reason why my father waited until 1999 to sing in Kurdish. However, the biggest reason was always the obstacle placed between him and his mother tongue. He had always expressed how much it hurt that he couldn't speak his mother tongue.

* The “Tenth Year Anthem” is a patriotic anthem that venerates Turkish nationalism written on the anniversary of the tenth year of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.

To be continued.

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