A chestnut tree in the Borisova Gradina in Sofia is not much more than a tree in a park for passersby or Sofia residents. But it has much of meaning for many Turks. The verses of Nazım Hikmet, the greatest poet of the Turkish language, echo in the minds of a generation. It is the place his wife refers to in a letter and symbolizes the extent of their separation in his poem, "I Got a Letter from Münevver Saying."
Turkey banned its greatest poet’s poems for decades, but Hikmet has been vastly praised around the world and his work has been translated into dozens of languages. The irony of his world-famous poems being banned in his own country is illustrated in his verse, "forbidden in my Turkey, in my Turkish." Though he traveled all around the world, seeing sights many only dream of, he was never content. In his autobiographic poem, he writes, "At my thirty-six, I crossed four square meters of concrete in half a year / at my fifty-nine I flew from Prague to Havana in eighteen hours."
During his exile, the bitterest moments were spent closer to home, while he was visiting Bulgaria. The similarities of the place drove him crazy: the smells, the food, the Turkish spoken by the Turkish minority. He wrote some of his best poems in Sofia and in the Black Sea coastal town Varna. He called to his son Memet, from Varna, across the Black Sea, in his unforgettable verses, damning himself with the thought that home was just across the shore, "Do you hear me, my son, Memed..."
Nazım Hikmet wrote his poem about the chestnut tree when he had already been exiled for five years, and had been agonizingly missing his wife, son and country. Being in Sofia and in Varna did not help him at all.
Why do his verses appeal so much to the soul that readers want to read the poem over and over again and try to follow his footsteps to Boris Park in a foreign city? It must be his sentimental feelings, which he conveys so intensely and so vividly, helping his poems live on for decades. It must be that he is such a master of words that what he wants to say lives on and on.
For generations of Turks who love his poetry, his poems mean a chestnut tree in Boris Park in Sofia, the burning sensation in your hands when you softly touch a Turkish ship on the shore of Varna, or the kalkan tava (fried turbot) you eat on any Black Sea coast. When visiting his grave in Moscow, it also reminds readers of his poem stating his wish to be buried in an Anatolian village with just a tree marking his grave.
Under the chestnut tree in Sofia’s Borisova Gradina, (The name of the park must have returned to what it was during Münevver’s childhood) sitting on a bench, prompts another poem written in Sofia where he says he even "misses the visiting room at Üsküdar Prison." This is a huge park and as it says in the poem, filled with lots of sun and lots of shade. The benches are nice and comfortable. Chestnut trees and other trees make one forget of everything but Nazım Hikmet. His sufferings, his mastery of the Turkish language is so powerful that reading other poetry becomes a challenge. On the 46th anniversary of his death on June 3, 1963, one can’t help but salute his poetry. Every word he has written echoes in minds and hearts. Similar to any other fantastic work of art, his poetry made a mark on history, a mark that no decade, or change of regime or change of mind or change of geography can take away. I GOT A LETTER FROM MÜNEVVER SAYING
by Nazım Hikmet
Nazım, tell me about the city where I was born.
I was still little when I left Sofia, but they say I knew Bulgarian...
What kind of city is it?
I heard from my mother Sofia is small, but it must have grown -
just think, it's been 41 years.
I remember the Boris Park. My nanny took me there mornings.
It must be the biggest park in Sofia.
I still have pictures of me taken in it... a park with lots of sunshade.
Do sit there. Maybe you'll run across the bench where I played.
But benches don't last 40 years; they'd have rotted and been replaced.
Trees are best - they outlive memories.
One day, go sit under the oldest chestnut.
Forget everything, even our separation - just think of me.
I WROTE A LETTER TO MÜNEVVER SAYING
by Nazım Hikmet
The trees are still standing, the old benches dead and gone.
Boris Park is now Freedom Park.
Under the chestnut I just thought of you.
And you alone - I mean Memet, Just you and Memet, I mean my country...
Varna, May 1957,
(translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, New York, 1994)
by Nazım Hikmet
I entered Sofia on a spring day, my sweet. Your native city smelled of linden trees.
It is my fate to roam the world without you, what can we do?
In Sofia, trees mean more than walls.
Trees and people blend together here,
especially the poplar about to step into my room and sit on the red kilim...
Is Sofia a big city?
Grand avenues don't make a city big, my rose,
but the poets remembered in its monuments.
Sofia is a big city...
Evenings here people pour out into the streets:
Women and children, young and old, what laughter,
such noise and bustle, the buzzing crowd up and down, side by side, arm in arm, hand in hand.
Ramadan nights in Istanbul, people used to promenade this way
(that was before your time, Münevver).
NoÉ those nights are gone... If I were in Istanbul now, would I think to miss them?
But far from Istanbul I miss everything, even the visiting room at Üsküdar prison...
I entered Sofia one spring day, my sweet. Your native city smelled of linden trees.
Your countrymen welcomed me like you'll never know.
Your native city is my brother's house now.
But even in a brother's house, home can't be forgotten.
Exile is not an easy art to master ...
May 1957, Varna, (translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk , New York, 1994) Lıfe of Nazım Hikmet
Nazım Hikmet was born in 1901 in the Ottoman Empire city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki in Greece) to a civil servant father and a painter mother. His grandfather was a poet and Hikmet was introduced to the world of rhymes and verses at a very early age. He published his first volume of poems at the age of 17. Avant-garde ideas were already brewing inside him, and attracted by the promises of egalitarianism delivered by the Russian Revolution, Nazım Hikmet went to Moscow in 1922. There he enrolled at the University of Moscow. He returned to Turkey in 1924 but was soon arrested for his writings in a communist magazine. He managed to flee to Moscow in 1926, where he continued writing. A general amnesty permitted him to return to his native land in 1928. As a member of the banned Communist Party outfit, he was placed under intense round-the-clock scrutiny by the secret police. Hikmet spent five of the next 10 years behind bars on various frivolous and fabricated charges. Though frequently in and out of prison, Nazım Hikmet never stopped writing. Meanwhile he also worked as bookbinder, proofreader, translator, reporter and screenwriter to make ends meet.
In 1950, Nazım Hikmet was awarded the International Peace Prize by the Soviet Union, an honor that he shared with Pablo Neruda. After an international campaign he was released from prison but he lived under police control. He once again escaped to Moscow. He was provided accommodation in the writers’ colony of Peredelkino in Moscow. On July 25, 1951, he lost his Turkish citizenship. He became a Polish national and traveled extensively to countries such as Africa, China, France, Italy, Cuba, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. He died on June 3, 1963. His grave is in Moscow.