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Cemil Kermencikli and the Crimean Tatar National Identity

Mubeyyin B. Altan

"The national identity of Crimean Tatars" has been one of the ubiquitous topics of discussion. The question of "Are we Crimean Turks or Crimean Tatars?" remains in the minds of many of my compatriots, whether they are in Turkey, Romania, Crimea or in the United States. This question had been addressed in the past, is being addressed now and will be addressed many times in the future.

Before attempting to address this issue one more time, however, I would like to remind the readers that the Crimean Tatars currently are one of the few nationalities who remain divided; more than half of its population still lives in Central Asia, the original place of deportation, the "Surgun." Those who were able to return to their ancestral homeland are faced with a highly crucial issue of privatization of land, the land of their ancestors, the land of their fathers and their children, which is practically given away to everyone else but to Crimean Tatars. This is not much different than looting of Crimean land by Catherine II and Potemkin in the 18th century, who freely distributed hundreds and thousands acres of Crimean land even to the butlers and housekeepers of the Russian and European elite. Crimean Tatars then became "landless " in their own homeland, which forced over a million and a half Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea, to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire. Simply put, now the Crimean Tatars are once again faced with a serious problem of becoming "landless" in their own homeland. In light of this grim socio-political situation of our nation, we continue to insist on questioning our national identity. In response, I submit the following summary of an article written by the son of Cemil Kermencikli, a victim of Stalin's purges in the 1930s [1] and one of his poems, "Tatarim" [I am a Tatar]. Kermencikli was a popular Crimean Tatar poet, teacher and writer. Let us briefly return to the article, which takes us back to the 1930s, the ever-oppressive Stalinist era:

It was June of 1937, a letter from Kezlev ( Yevpatoria) arrived, asking my father to go there immediately. My father got ready in a hurry and took me along with him; I was thirteen years old then. A man named Fetislamov, a man much younger than my father, had sent the letter. I was in that room where a three-hour discussion about two of my father's works, a collection of poems and a collection of short stories (written after the bourgeois revolution) took place. As far as I know the Soviet authorities (OGPU) had asked Fetislamov, who knew my father well, to translate my father's aforementioned works from Crimean Tatar to Russian....

Apparently my father told my mother what had gone on, because after that day my mother's face changed, she was crying almost everyday. She was baking special Tatar foods such as çigbörek, Köbete and sariburma (all meat pies) more frequently than usual. On June 27, a car appeared in front of our house, three men got off, two of them came into our house, and the third one remained outside. One of the men introduced himself and asked for my father. My father was in the village; he had gone there to read the newspaper to his fellow villagers. My mother asked me to go and inform my father about this and somehow managed to give me two books and asked me to dump them into the outhouse. Apparently my parents had already planned this action. I went to fetch my father as I was told. He was reading a newspaper to his fellow villagers. I quietly called him aside and told him about our visitors. He knew right away that he was in danger. He turned to his friends and addressing whole group said: "Cemaat [Folks], this is goodbye, farewell; I don't think we'll see each other again!" He then took out his handkerchief to wipe away his tears, and the entire group, young and old was crying with him as he rushed home to face his "guests."

When we came home our "guests" were waiting. My mother had prepared food and invited our "guests" to join us, but they declined. They went right to work to search every room in the house including the barn and the chicken coop. Then they went to the school and searched everywhere for those two works of my father. They could not find them. Then they gave us fifteen minutes to say good-by to my father. We were all crying hysterically when they took my father away. After that frightening day, three of us were forced to leave school and help our family to survive. My brother was just accepted to the Teacher's College in Milotopol. Suddenly the attitude of all the village people toward us changed, everyone was trying to avoid us. Not only they stopped visiting us, but they were doing everything possible not to come face to face with any of us, because my father Cemil Kermencikli was a (Crimean Tatar) nationalist, an enemy of the people....

My father was taken from the Sak/Kezlev (Yevpatoria) detention center to a much larger Akmescit (Simferopol) prison. Visiting the inmates was very difficult, indeed; lines were long and tedious. Visitors, mostly women and children were treated harshly. Waiting lines were quite long, maybe a kilometer long, it took almost a week of waiting in line to get to the door of the prison.... After weeks of waiting we were given a date to see my father in ten days; my mother was so happy. Ten days later we were at the prison gate. Visitors were all lined up, groups of ten were formed. It was finally our turn, they took us to the second floor of the prison. There were three sections: the first section belonged to the prisoners; the middle section was for the guards and other prison staff, who were placed between the prisoners and the visitors; and the third section was for the visitors. By sheer luck my uncle (my father's brother) and my father were placed next to each other. My uncle, Yakup Kermencikli, was given 15 years of imprisonment and 5 years of house arrest and my father was sentenced to 8 years, with 5 years of house arrest (both for being Crimean Tatar nationalists). The twenty-minute visit with our father went very quickly, it seemed like a minute. When the time was up women and children were all crying. It would not be wrong to say that the walls of the prison were shaking from all that commotion.

The first letter from my father arrived in the beginning of 1938, stating that he was a lumberjack, chopping down trees, and he was allowed to receive packages from us once every three months. There were three lines in his letter that was crossed out for obvious reasons. Soon after the first letter another letter arrived. It somehow was not censored; I still don't know how my father was able to send that letter. He had named the people who turned him into the authorities. When they heard about the letter, they came to us to confess that they were beaten up by the secret police forcing them to turn my father in. They came to our house crying their eyes out, telling us what they had done. They did so to save their own lives....

Now there are no more tears, everything is forgotten. My sister and I were barely able to finish the seventh grade, and my brother, the tenth grade. We received my father's last letter on June 12, 1941. I remember the address as if it was yesterday: Levi Bereg Selo Talaga, No: 136/2, Arkhangelsk.... In 1959, my sister received a letter from the military court in Odessa declaring my father's innocence: Cemil Kermencikli was unjustly punished for a crime he never committed.

It is all in the past, but the unhealed wounds are still very painful; there is no medicine to ease this pain. I never forget the beautiful faces of my beloved father and my uncle. The collection of poems written by my father forces me to remember that frightening period.... I want these poems to be printed in your journal (Yildiz), so I can share them with my people...."

Cemil Kermencikli was a popular Crimean Tatar poet, a teacher and an intellectual. In his poem "Tatarim," he express his strong feelings about his national identity. He strongly declares his national identity to his oppressor, the Soviet regime and the Russian chauvinists, who for various reasons have been trying to ethnically cleanse Crimean Tatars and create a "Crimea without Crimean Tatars." Cemil Kermencikli's loud cry and insistence on calling himself a Tatar was against the sensibilities of Russian and Soviet oppressors, not against anyone else.

Ercivan Kermencikli, son of Cemil Kermencikli, who witnessed the terrible events as a thirteen-year old and lived through a portion of the Crimean Tatar tragedy, wrote about his father's arrest by the Soviet secret police. His father's only crime was being a Crimean Tatar, a loyal son of Crimea. He suffered, his beloved family suffered and his beloved people suffered (and still suffering) because he clung on to his national identity. He called himself a Crimean Tatar. Whenever one questions the national identity of Crimean Tatars, I suggest that we remember Cemil Kermencikli, and read his poem "Tatarim." One must also remember that Cemil Kermencikli was only one of the hundreds of Crimean Tatar intellectuals along with thousands of ordinary Crimean Tatars who perished during the 1930s.

The following is a free translation of Cemil Kermencikli's poem "Tatarim" [I am a Tatar], followed by the original version in Crimean Tatar. Translated into English by Mubeyyin Altan.

I AM A TATAR

A cloud is hanging over my head,
Telling me: " Forget about your Tatarhood!"
No, my friend, forget it,
And keep these words in mind forever:
No matter what you say, I am a Tatar, son of a Tatar,
And will always be proud of my Tatarhood.
The gentle spring breeze may be blowing,
Bitter and brutal winds may surround me,
The earth, sky, mountains, rocks, and the oceans,
May rise to stop me from walking on,
Even then I will not search for an alternate route,
I will lie down right there,
But insist on saying – I am a Tatar, son of a Tatar.
Ominous lightning may be flashing forever,
There may be thunder striking here and there,
Rain, snow, hail and ice may be pouring down for a thousand year,
Floods may be destroying everywhere,
I will be rising, falling and sinking,
Even then, as I am being buried, I'll insist on saying that I am a Tatar!
Even when the earth perishes, the oceans overflow and cascade,
And the sun and the moon become afraid and disappear,
Even when the earth and sky unite
To denounce and conceal the Tatarhood,
I will destroy the earth and the sky,
Before I denounce my Tatarhood,
Because I am and will always be a Tatar!
The Archangel Gebrail may become your witness,
Angel Mikael may ruin my destiny,
Azrael [the angel of death] may appear with his sword,
Esrafil [another angel] may recite his last prayer,
I will insist on justice for a thousand year,
And when rejected, I will still insist on saying - I am a Tatar.
When the throne of God changes hands (worlds),
When the tablet of God's decrees appears in front of my eyes,
And all hell breaks loose and tells me that I am not a Tatar,
I will push them all aside and
As I enter Hell, I will remain a Tatar.
Even when the powerful is your ally,
And they ask the Huris of Paradise,
Even when every nationality is given a place in Paradise,
But Tatars are evicted from there,
I will burn in Hell,
But will insist on saying - I am a Tatar, I am a Tatar, and I am a Tatar.

TATARIM

Bas ustumde dolasiyiir bir bulut
Mana diyur "Tatarligin, sen unut!"
Xayir dostum, sen bu dertten farig ol,
Su sozleri xatirinde eyi tut:
Sen ne dirsen, Tatar oglu Tatarim,
Tatarliktir o benim iftixarim!
Latif baar ruzgarlari kuserse,
Dort tarafdan acci yeller eserse,
Yerler, kokler, daglar, daslar, denizler,
Yuz cevirip yollarimi keserse,
Yol aramam, ortalikta yatarim
Amma derim- Tatar oglu Tatarim!
Korkunc semsek, ic durmayip cakarse,
Er tarafi yildirimlar yakarse,
Bin yil yagmur, burcak, kar, buzlar yagip,
Dusen seller ortaligi yikarse,
Yukselirim, alcalirim, batarim,
Yer altina kirsem, yine Tatarim!
Dunya batsa, derya tassa, caglasa,
Ay, kunes de korkup kacsa, aglasa,
Yedi kat yer, yedi kat kok birlesip,
Tatarligi inkar etse, saklasa,
Yeri, koku birbirine katarim,
Inkar etmem, yine Tatar, Tatarim!
Cebrail sana shaatlik iderse,
Mikhail de kismetimi keserse,
Azrailin elinde kilic kelip,
Esrafil de son suresini okurse,
Ukuk uzerinde bin yil yatarim,
Red iderse, zorle derim- Tatarim!
Ars-i ala axirete inerse,
Levx-I mexfuz koz ogume kelirse,
Yedi ceennem,sekiz cennet, bir sirat,
Avaz keser, Tatar degilsin derse,
Cumlesin bir tarafa atarim,
Ceenneme kitsem, yine Tatarim!
Almanlar senden taraf olurse,
Cennet urilerinden soralirse,
Er millete Cennetten yer verilirse,
Tatar olan, Cennetten kuvulurse,
Abdiya- cihande, yanarim,
Lakin yine Tatar,Tatar, Tatarim!

[1] Ercivan Kermencikli, "Dehsetli Gecmisni Xatirlap." Yildiz, No. 2 (March-April) 1991, pp. 60-61.

Posted: 15 December 2003


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