Over the phone, Moris Farhi's raspy voice resounds with the leisured articulation of a native-born Briton. His birthplace, however, is Ankara, Turkey’s capital. Farhi, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the vice-president of International PEN, the worldwide literature organization, says he still can catch smells of his native land in his dreams, and, when awake, he tries to recapture them by strolling among the cafes of London’s mainly Turkish, Greek and Cypriot-populated Green Lanes.
Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers defended the neighborhood during the riots of early August, which doesn’t surprise Farhi. “They created a phalanx and the rioters left,” Farhi said. “That’s still very much the Turkish spirit.” He goes to the area often to listen in to arguments of politics, which he finds nostalgic. “We knock [back] a few glasses of rakı and get involved in discussions. It's in a way an ambience that has been transported here, with the immigrants, but that was the general air of [the] Istanbul that I grew [up] in.”
When the 76-year-old Turkish writer first arrived in London in 1954 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), England had not long before ended its war rationing. Food was still scarce, streets were empty after 6 pm, and the only choice for socializing was in pubs, he recalls. Farhi couldn’t wait to get back to Turkey. “It was really like landing [on] Mars,” he said.
The Istanbul Farhi left behind after his graduation from Robert College, now Boğaziçi University, where novelist Orhan Pamuk and poet Lâle Müldür also studied, was full of café life and late nights. After finishing his program at RADA, he stayed in London partly because of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Turkey. For many years, he wrote for television, but he began writing novels with the encouragement of his late wife, psychotherapist Nina Gould. Farhi began working with International PEN in the 1980s in response to the imprisonment and torture of writers in Turkey.
Though he doesn’t consider himself to be a commercially successful author, his fourth novel, “Young Turk,” which takes place in Istanbul during the 1940s and 1950s, has appeared on US university syllabi and has received the 2007 Alberto Benveniste Prize for Literature for its French translation.
His latest work, “Songs from Two Continents,” is a powerfully sparse collection of poetry created over his lifetime. The book reads as if it were created in one steady pen stroke, celebrating sex, the body, women and Istanbul, with later contemplations of death, age and separation. “A Hungry Queue,” one of the Istanbul-based poems, recalls the dodgy backstreets of the Pera District in central Istanbul.
the fat, the thin, the bald, the hairy,
the student, the baker, the coppersmith, the sailor
and the useless like me
at the wrought-iron doors of a brothel
in the slums of Istanbul
In fistfuls, Farhi brings up that other world in the first half of the book before the shadows of lost family memory overtake the remainder of the collection. The only shortcoming of what is otherwise a poignant and bare set of songs is the obliqueness of some titles like “A Hungry Queue.”
But this highly personal and cleanly written collection has its place in Britain, which has been the scene of multicultural for many years. Some of Britain’s best writers, such as Zadie Smith (“On Beauty”) and Hanif Kureishi (“The Buddha of Suburbia”), have been credited with opening up this literary avenue. Farhi has his place, too. He sees himself as an exile based in the United Kingdom, but what is obvious in his work is the model for co-existence, which prevailed at Robert College in the 1950s.
“It's been 57 years since I've been here,” he said of London, “and I still consider myself Turkish in many ways. In some ways, often people called my generation ‘Atatürk's children’ because our ideal was that we would make Turkey into a role model for all nations. At least my circle had this idealism, and I think I still make use of it.”
Maria Eliades is an Istanbul-based writer who covers Turkish literature and culture.