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ÇOBANZADE: A CRIMEAN TATAR POET AND TURKIC SCHOLAR

Bekir Sidki Çobanzade: Kirimli Türk Sair ve Bilgini by Ismail Otar
Istanbul: Lebib Yalkin Yayimlari, 1999.
(ISBN: 975-96834-1-5)

Reviewed by Inci Bowman

Bekir Sidki Çobanzade (1893-1937) may be a familiar name in the Turkic world, especially among Crimean Tatars. Many remember him as a poet who wrote nostalgically about his native Crimea and as an authority on Turkic languages and literature who taught at the University of Baku, Azerbaijan. In the midst of a successful academic career, at the age of 44, Çobanzade (pronounced cho-ban-za-de) was arrested by Communist authorities for alleged subversive activities against the state, sentenced to death and executed. Of course, his writings have outlived him. His poetry, in particular, has continued to enjoy popularity among Crimean Tatars in diaspora.

While there is considerable literature on Çobanzade, it remains scattered in newspapers and journals published mostly in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey. His poetry appeared in anthologies and books dating from the 1920s and 1930s (hence long out-of-print), and in Crimean Tatar periodicals such as Lenin Bayragi (Tashkent), Emel (Istanbul, Ankara), and Kirim (Ankara). Because Çobanzade's poetry has been relatively inaccessible to a wider audience, the recent publication of Bekir Sidki Çobanzade by Ismail Otar is particularly noteworthy and welcome.

Çobanzade was born on 15 May 1893 to a family of humble origins in the village of Argin near Karasubazar (Belogorsk) in Crimea. His father was a shepherd (çoban), and his last name means 'son of shepherd.' As a young boy, he helped his father herd the sheep, and these early experiences in the countryside left a lasting impression on the sensitive boy. Many of his poems are replete with descriptions of Crimean pastoral scenes.

He received his early education at the Rusdiye in Karasubazar, graduating in 1908 or 1909. Recognizing Çobanzade's exceptional abilities, the local Cemiyet-i Hayriye (Society of Charitable Works) sent him to Istanbul, where he completed his high school education in 1914. In 1916, he went to Budapest (Hungary) to enroll at the University of Peter Pazmany. He was engaged in doctoral work at the Academy of Eastern Studies, his research involving the Kipchak Codex Comanicus and the problems of pronunciation in Turkic languages. He received his Ph.D. in 1919 and stayed on the faculty there for another year. After spending the spring months of 1920 at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland), he returned to Crimea via Istanbul. The years he spent in Budapest were very productive. Most of the poems and stories published in the Otar volume were composed during this period.

Çobanzade lived in Akmescid (Simferopol) from the latter part of 1920 to the end of 1924. He taught Crimean Tatar language and literature at the Pedagogy Institute, and accepted the chair of Turkology at the Tavrida University in 1922. He also served as director of public education within the new government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as well as in several other official positions.

Early in 1925, he moved to Azerbaijan to become professor of Turkology at the University of Baku. There he taught comparative Turkic languages, including Azerbaijani language and literature. A well-known scholar in his field of specialization, Çobanzade travelled widely in Central Asia and lectured at the Universities of Tashkent, Kazan, Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The bibliography of his professional writings include 130 items. He had a remarkable facility with languages. In addition to Turkic languages, he knew Arabic, Persian, Hungarian, Armenian, Georgian, Russian, French, German and English.

In January 1937, Çobanzade was placed on leave without pay by an order of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Azerbaijan Institute of Languages and Literature, and subsequently arrested. The alleged charges against him included: attempting to separate nationalist republics from the USSR; Pan-Turkist activities against the Communist Party and the Soviet government; involvement in armed struggle and terrorism in Crimea, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Dagistan; and working as an agent of the Turkish and Polish Intelligence. It is believed that under extreme duress and torture, Çobanzade was forced to admit the alleged crimes. During a 20-minute trial, he was found guilty and condemned to death. He was executed on 13 October 1937. (*) Twenty years after his his death, in response to an appeal from Çobanzade's wife, a military court of the USSR reversed the decision against him. The court declared that the charges against Çobanzade were baseless.

Otar's book on Çobanzade includes 84 poems and more than a dozen stories, essays, and letters. Over one-third of the poems are appearing in print here for the first time. As far as it can be determined, Çobanzade published only one book of poetry, Boran (1928), in his lifetime, and all of the 25 poems from that edition are in the Otar volume. The previously unpublished poems come from Kaval Sesleri (Sounds of a Shepherd's Pipe), a set of three hand-written notebooks that belonged to Çobanzade, now in Otar's possession. Similarly, some of the prose included here are from Kaval Sesleri and remained unpublished until now.

Otar's edition is unique, as it brings together in one volume all of the known poems of Çobanzade in the original Crimean Tatar. Further, Otar provides Turkish translations, the original version appearing next to the Turkish version on the same page. The steppe dialect spoken in Crimea was Çobanzade's native tongue, as opposed to the dialect spoken in the coastal areas (yali boyu). The latter is said to be closer to Turkish than the steppe dialect (çöl agzi). Thus the author renders a valuable service by providing the translations, as Turkish is more widely spoken than Crimean Tatar. Even for those fluent in Turkish, it is not always easy to understand Çobanzade's original Tatar.

In the first part of the book, Otar gives a summary of various publications on Çobanzade's life and work. Also included are a bibliography of Çobanzade's professional writings and a list of publications about him, both prepared by Safter Nagayev. The vocabulary of more than 2,000 Tatar words and Turkish equivalents (pages 203-32) compiled by Otar will be especially helpful to those trying to study Çobanzade's poetry and prose in the original. The final section of the book comprises the reproduction of Kaval Sesleri (pages 233-82), Çobanzade's 58 poems in his handwriting, which is in Arabic alphabet. The publication of this manuscript, which has remained in private libraries for nearly 80 years, is a notable contribution to Çobanzade scholarship.

Çobanzade poetry deals with a variety of topics: the beauty of Crimean countryside; nostalgia for one's homeland; the courage, honor and bravery of Crimean Tatars as well as their vulnerability, ignorance and fatalist behavior. He was keenly aware of the humiliation and deprivation his people suffered under oppressive Russian policies over the years, and the ensuing waves of exodus from Crimea. He regretted that his people did not struggle to keep their land, but took the easy way out, bowed to their fate and left their homeland.

As my neighbors emigrate
As they drink their last cup of coffee
I would like to be there so that I can say "Stay!"
So that I can say "There is nothing like your homeland!"
(From Ah Tabilsam, Budapest, 1917)

His perception of what the authorities had done to his people is expressed in another poem:

Hey, swallow, swallow! Spread your wings wide!
If you get caught by the enemy on the ground,
You may be deprived of a homeland, like the Tatar!
....
Sorrowful people, great people! People with stunted lungs!
I was born amidst you, I am one of you. I am a weed in your garden,
I am a weed in your garden.
(From Kollar Demir, Bas Emen, Budapest, 1919)

Çobanzade wrote rich and beautiful poetry. One must read him not only for the sheer appreciation of his poetry but for what his writings reveal about people's attitudes and social conditions in Crimea and elsewhere he lived. In one of his later poems, Kalpak Mihraci, written in November 1926 in Baku, Çobanzade describes a group of men at a coffee house, chatting and drinking to a new Kalpak (traditional head-gear in Crimea and the Caucasus) one of the fellows is wearing. The dialog is delightful and the imagery powerful.

The reader will find the samples of Çobanzade's prose included in the Otar volume just as engaging as his poetry. His story On Dort Casimda, which is appearing in print for the first time, describes the meeting and flirtation of the 14-year old Çobanzade with a Russian young woman (somewhat older than he) in the country. Daughter of a wealthy family, she lives in Moscow but spends the summers in Crimea. She speaks Crimean Tatar, she says she loves the Tatars, and purchases embroidered head scarves (traditionally worn by Tatar women). A lovely story!

In a 1918 essay published in Hungarian, while studying in Budapest, Çobanzade provides valuable information about multi-ethnic Crimea soon after the Russian revolution. Titled From the Homeland of a Young Tatar : Crimea, it includes his views on Crimean Tatar education, its shortcomings, and restrictions placed on Tatar institutions by Russian authorities. After all, that is why he had to go abroad to study. He sees his native language and culture as part of the wider Tatar world. We learn, for example, that Tatar students from Crimea, Kazakhstan, Kazan and Siberia can meet at a student gathering in Istanbul and talk in their own dialect. Yet, they can easily understand each other and even sing their own songs together.

The brief preface Çobanzade wrote to Kaval Sesleri summarizes best what his writings, especially his poetry, entail and what they meant to him:

Even if my writings do not show anything, they at least reveal the grief-stricken and broken Crimean Tatar, who has moved away and scattered wide, who may die today or tomorrow and disappear from the face of the earth, and his faults, shortcomings, feelings and his sorrow. If history turns its attention to Crimea someday, and if one Crimean Tatar searches for another, my writings may surface. It is quite all right, if this does not happen. Crimean Tatars lost their flag, their glory, and their land. What if I were to lose a few nights without sleep and days in grief and haze. The pleasure and happiness derived from writing these lines would be sufficient for me. Even if no one spoke it, to me the Tatar language is still rich, delightful and good because it embodies my people's centuries-long sorrow, their anxious and yet brave voice.
(Preface to Kaval Sesleri, 25 December 1919)

In sum, Ismail Otar's Bekir Sidki Çobanzade is an important publication, and no doubt it will lead to better understanding and appreciation of the poet and the Turkic scholar. One hopes that Çobanzade's writings will be translated into other languages, as he deserves to be known by a wider audience.

(*) According to another account, Çobanzade was not executed in Baku but sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, where he was seen walking with a group of prisoners in December 1938. This eye-witness account was published in 1942 and has led many to think that Çobanzade died in Siberia. A recent study shows, however, that he died in Baku. His burial site is unknown.

Posted: 10 August 2003


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