Ashik Sah Turna

05.26.2017

Sahika Gurler


I started playing oud at the age of eight. The oud was never a popular instrument among young people in Turkey. I always hid my talent from my friends because most of them didn’t even know what an oud was. It was my family’s decision. My mother and father love the sound of it. My teacher was a famous oud player and loved me like his daughter. He always wanted me to pursue my music career and become an “ustad” (maestro) like him. He always thought “I have lutist’s hands”.  Music makes us different. Everyone’s reaction is different to music and it never made me happy. I was alone, melancholic and sensitive, and this is how I started to play the ney. I was more into its philosophy rather than instrument itself. Finding your true self with the guide of the “Masnavi”.

 I saw many famous ney (flute) players’ performances in Turkey. In 2001, I went to see a performance in the Ramadan events in the Blue Mosque compound. It was not the first time I was seeing a Sufi whirling performance; however, it was the first time I saw a “saz”(a musical instrument) player in that kind of performance. It was a trio orchestra: oud, saz and ney. It was extraordinary for me because as a classical oud player I was taught to underestimate traditional Turkish music, which is most often performed with a saz. Performers were all dressed in white ethnic clothes. The place was full of people from all around Turkey. The trio played pieces from Ashik Veysel, Rumi and Ashik Mahsuni Serif. I loved the harmony in their music but after couple of songs I was puzzled by the repertoire. As a new ney player, I was looking for Sufi poems or wished to see Ashiks who were looking for “real love.” Ashik Mahsuni’s poems were tabu back then and still are. He was a Turkish protest folk singer, poet and author. “Ashik” indicates his position as a respected musician and his Alevi religious affiliations. Serif suffered intimidation by having his house burnt down, being investigated and accused by Turkey’s State Security Court for protesting against the government, including declaring, “I am both Kizilbas and Alevi” before fleeing in 2001 to Germany, where he died. Until 2000, both Kizilbas and Alevi sects of Shi’a Islam were not allowed to openly practice their religion. This is why the audience was surprised to hear Ashik Mahsuni poems in the Ramadan event near the most well-known Sunni mosque. We all felt lucky to witness that courageous performance and fortunately, it was the longest final ovation I have seen in my life.

 

For years, the ashik tradition in Turkey is seen as something related only to the Alevi sect despite of the long history behind it. The Alevi are one of the heterodox Islamic orders. In Anatolia, Turks who belong to it represent a minority. The Alevi literature depends on Bektashism, which traces its origins to its founder, Haci Bektas, thus placing it ahead of other similar literatures. The poets who are devotees of Bektashism influenced to other literatures by their poems; they also developed ashik literature in the 15th century. There are a lot of poets in Bektashi tradition which has experienced some changings and transformations in over the course of time. Ashik Mahsuni Serif is the most well-known ashik who used his saz to express his political views. There are many others after him, like Ihsani, Ozan Arif… However, my main focus will be on the lesser known but more politically active blind woman ashik, Sah Turna.

 

Maliheh Shamsizadeh defines the word ‘ashik’ by saying, “it drives from “ışık” in Turkish which means “the light” and āšiq (عاشق: “in love, lovelorn” in Arabic) that many years ago the poets who interpreted poems with Islamic content were called “ashik”.”1(Shamsizade, 2011) Ashik poetry dates back to pre-Islamic time and is recognized as a branch of folk literature which is still appreciated by the many today. Ashiks is also a voice of the society. Minstrel literature is the collective set of values which have been handed down from generation to generation and filtered through centuries of experience with its some certain rules.

The essence of minstrel poetry, deeply engaged with the religion, traditions and daily life, contains moral sentiment and cultural texture depending on the culture. Ashik literature is enriched by the religious Sufistic belief and has been nurtured by daily life matters. Ashiks bring out unfair and distorted relationships between individuals or in the society through dramatic expressions. According to Cafer Ozdemir, ashik tradition is described as a plain language spoken by folk and a convention in which national issues are dwelt on with saz/baglama. This tradition has been performed by “ashiks” who have grown up in folk by assimilating the convention.2

 Erman Artun argues that, during the Ottoman era, ashik literature was evolved around Islamic philosophy, in other words, sufism, and the life-style in Ottoman Empire. However, ashik literature began to put forward more ideas like social justice, political views and social values towards to the end of 15th century.3  There were three processes, releasing from sanctification, cultural differentiation and individualism as a result of Turkish nomads settling in permanently, enabled Ashik literature took a different direction.

 

 

According to the scholars, ashik tradition was brilliant in 17th, 18th and 19th centuries of Ottoman period.  During this period so many strong representatives were trained and they reflected culture in many ways and moved it to the following generations. Cafer Ozdemir argues that, “there is no doubt that a poet cannot produce works which are independent of the values of the community in which she/he lives. In this context, saz poets living in Ottoman period have tried to express people’s cultural values in addition to the elements belonging to the future.”4

Despite the long history of ashik literature, there have been few female minstrels who perform as an Ozan ashik to draw public attention to the issues related to the community and society. It is surprising to see that there are more academic studies regarding female minstrels have been carried out recently. It is still debatable if social gender and social norms play a big role in bringing female minstrels to the forefront in ashik literature. Women minstrels faced problems due to their woman identity. According to Sevilay Cinar, “as a reflection of their social role in performance of their art, we have come across with their lacking the natural training process within the tradition, insufficiency of technical knowledge about it, restrictions in providing circumstances for performance, sazvocal performance being within a limited voice range, musical hybridization, shortcoming of self-confidence in performing their art.”Sevilay Cinar in her article, The Social Role of Women Minstrels and Their Problem of Locating Themselves Within the Minstrel Tradition, made an effort to explain the reasons of why the tradition under consideration is less popular among women, in consistence with the implications of their social role. Cinar argues that, “although the women minstrels who took part in the study lived and were brought up in different regions, although they created works in different types and forms, a qualitative similarity between the works they have produced attracts attention. Despite all the differences, the “womanish spirit and sensitivity” in their works imposes itself as an unchanging social identity.”6 There are a number of women minstrels whose poems and music are crazy passionate and are mirrors of social life.

Şah Turna is one of the major female ashiks known as a contemporary woman minstrel. She is a unique folk song singer writing her music and poems. Şahturna Ağdaşan (Şah Turna / Şahturna) is one of the first women (professional) Ashiks in Turkey. Âşık Şahturna was born in 1953 in the village of Kaynarca, near Sivas. She lost her sight to measles and smallpox at the age of three, yet during her childhood became interested in music as she listened to the folk songs sung by the Alevi dedes who came to her village singing and playing. By the time she had begun to write poetry, she had already been able to memorize songs of the great folk poets Pir Sultan and Hatâyî, songs her father sang.

Sah Turna was too much in love with music to renounce her vision. She explains her story of losing her sight at age three due to variola and her submission to instruments-words like this: “I was so in love with instruments, I mean being a blind woman is not important for me… I did not want vision… I wanted an instrument. When my father took me to the doctor I said to the doctor: ‘Doctor, please tell my father to get me an instrument, I don’t want eyes.’ The doctor understanding my love for instruments and music encouraged my father to buy me an instrument. I started playing the cure (with2-3 strings, instrument played with a pick) as soon as I picked it up as if I had been playing it for years people around me started listening to me with shock and admiration. Increasingly this interesting art flow of mine started to become a legend.”7

Sah Turna expresses her passion for music, the instrument, saz and challenges throughout her the minstrel tradition. Her father used to read her poems written by Pir Sultan Abdal, one of the pioneers of the minstrel tradition as well as many other well-known ashiks. She states that learned all these poems by heart and started writing her own after memorizing a lot of poems.8  Sah Turna explains this interest and talents with these words: “I was so in love with music that I would make a radio from mud, put the bees in the radio I made and then try to catch melodies from the bees’ sounds.”9 Sah Turna was raised in Alevi religious beliefs which are branch of Shi’a Islam that is practiced by many Turkish- Alevis and strongly influenced by Sufism.

The Alevi cem ritual is ideally structured around a set of practices called “the twelve services” and is performed by twelve assistants. Arzu Ozturkmen in her article, Staging a Ritual Dance out of its Context: The Role of an Individual Artist in Transforming the Alevi Semah, puts ritual in an order. She argues, “The ritual begins with the prayer led by the dede
who then invites his assistants to participate. Services are (1) the dede, (2) the rehber (guide), (3) the gozcu (“eye keeper” who maintains the order of the ritual), (4) the ceragci (light keeper), (5) the zakir (folk singer), (6) the supurgeci (sweeper who marks the ritual space), (7) the saki (drink master), (8) the sofraci (cook), (9) the pervane (a person guarding the inside and the outside), (lo) the peyik (caller who invites people to the ritual), (11) the iznikci (cleaning person),
and (12) the bekci (doorman).10 Sah Turna was a Zakir in the Cem House for years. People from other villages would only come to her town to witness her divine performance. Sah Turna was seen as an extraordinary human being by many. They couldn’t understand how come ‘a blind little girl’ could memorize so many poems/songs and actually write them. Some brought their ill babies to her and asked if she can say some prayers to baby’s ears so they can find some relief. Some believed that only by touching her they could get closer to the divine. However, Sah Turna had never seen something divine in herself. She only thought she was born with a love of music and opposition to the injustice. Alevi belief is line with human right discourse. Sah Turna states that as Alevis, we believe that we cannot be silent to injustices in our society. If one considers himself/herself as Alevi, she/he cannot be on the side of the oppressors. An Alevi can identify himself/herself as a socialist because she/he supports modernism, democracy, and progressivism. I was deeply impacted by this ideology so, l used my saz and words to also talk about the issues like human rights, oppressor and the oppressed.

She eventually left her little town and became a regular performer, composer and started touring for concerts and released several albums. The reason she left her town is that, her father wanted her to get medical attention. ‘He never gave up’, she says. However, her father again had to face with hurtful truth, ‘there is no cure’.  She was 14 years old when she came to the capital of Turkey, Ankara. According to Selahattin Bekki, Sah Turna became ‘more political’ when she started living in Ankara 11, however, in the interview with Zeynel Gul, Sah Turna mentions Ashik Mahsuni Serifs visit to her house in Sivas. According to her, Mahsuni heard her fame and wanted to meet with her. One night he appeared at the door and introduced himself. That night no one slept, Sah Turna says. They talked and sang for hours. Next day, in the morning Mahsuni asked her if she wanted to perform in the Bektashi opening festival with him and many others like Ashik Veysel, Daimi, Nesimi…And that was the moment for her.  In 1964, her name gradually began to become known in, and before long she began to receive invitations to sing in festivals. 12The 1970s and 80s were a turbulent time in Turkish history, and Sah Turna often used her saz, poems to express her social and political views. She toured around the country with some other activists, artists, journalists and composers. Turna thus became an established, devoted folk music artist, ozan who used her saz and iconic lyrics of her songs for widespread change. Through her saz and iconic words, she confronted the darkness and injustice and brought out the issues such as freedom of thought, anti-imperialist views and oppressed minorities.

She took participated in free-speech conferences led by international movements with her friends who are also intellectuals. Due to speaking her voice and political views in a time where Turkey was marked by right-wing/left-wing armed conflicts, in the context of the Cold War, she was convicted of criminal of thought and sent to prison. Because of the song she performed in the festival which also appears in the documentary, Asiklar: Those Who Are in Love, made by David Grabias. Sah Turna sings;

For years you have kneeled to the master, haven’t you been crushed enough citizen? If you are rich, your well-being and time is asked for, if you are poor, your heart breaks. The one that tells the truth has his gallows built, isn’t it enough that you are hanged, citizen?”13

 She was arrested only minutes after her performance. She was accused to make communist propaganda. They even accused her for being a Soviet agent and trying to spread communism in Turkey.  She had to stand to tortures in prison. Police used violent techniques but she didn’t reveal herself as a communist. However, she said in the torturing room that, “I do not know what communism is, I am only telling what I see in my songs but I will learn everything about communism and I will become a communist when I leave this place”. And that’s what she did.  She was released with Ecevit Amnesty in 1974. She found volunteers who can read socialist/communist books to her. She didn’t leave her house for three months and only listened mind-blowing ideas of Marx, Stalin, Lenin and others.

Sah Turna was taken to court several times because she never stopped criticized the political system in her performances and supported a variety of left-wing political groups. She also never stopped writing ‘Love songs’ but even in her love songs authorities looked for political statements to put her back in jail. Not so long after she got arrested again for unsubstantial accusations and sentenced to 12 years in jail and 5 years in exile. Meanwhile, same year she was invited to PEN annual conference in Belgium with famous Nobel-candidate writer Yasar Kemal. In the conference, Yasar Kemal with Abidin Dino started a campaign for Sah Turna and collected 420 signatures. They also started international campaigns with other intellect around the world. In a month, more than 200 attorneys volunteered for Sah Turna’s case.  Unfortunately, all these efforts did not change her situation. She was forced to flee to Germany. She was expatriated as a result of her revolting against the government when the military intervention took place in 1980. As a result, she was stripped of her citizenship on August 9, 1984. She was in exile in Germany for a long time. She has been performing her songs and carrying out her cultural activities and her folk songs-turkus that synched with her hands-on activism since 1978 all over Europe and Turkey. She regained her citizenship on July 1, 1992, and though she sometimes works in Turkey as well she continues to live in Berlin, where she works at a culture and arts center she founded and which bears her name.

 

Fatma Ahsen Turan argues in the “ Female Minstrels within the Minstrelsy Tradition and the Problems They Encounter, “Compared to the freedoms of male minstrels such as the upbringing environment with masters, their apprenticeship period, their necessity to be where they produce their art where they have their literary gathering, their participation in ‘fasıl’ and battle of words and their ability to usually produce their art on the move, due to the limitations in society and as a part of their artist identity, women minstrels have faced some conflicts and nuisances.” 14 Some women Asiks were restrained by their family some by their husband and his family after marriage. However, according to Turan, “due to their determination women minstrels could not be stopped by the rules made and implemented by society, they could not obviate the liberty of words. When women could not easily say their love for someone, women minstrels virtually broke taboos and bravely expressed their feelings. Not just for themselves, they were also translators for society’s oppressions and national issues.”15Unlike others, Sah Turna’s family was always very supportive and proud to have a daughter like her. Even when she went to jail at the age of 14, her father gave speech in the village coffee house and said, “my daughter did nothing wrong but told the truth”. 14-year-old Sah Turna’s ‘Crime of thought’ was not easily accepted in her community but her family stood by her side always. She did not shy from the social realm in her lyrics. Âşık Şahturna made it a matter of life to examine social issues in her songs and to talk about these issues. She compares herself to the sixteenth century Alevi poet Pir Sultan Abdal who was executed for proclaiming and defending his religious beliefs and I think she has a right to do that. She could be the most influential ashik if she would have gotten the attention she deserved. I personally heard about her the first time a after watching David Grabias’s documentary. When I used our beloved search engines to find out more about her, only few articles came up. I checked more than hundred YouTube videos but I did not come across with her ‘communist propaganda’ songs. They are still seen as a threat to the public in Turkey. She is communist, blind and a woman, of course she did not have a chance in the Turkish society which has been ruled by authoritarian regimes. If Sah Turna sang songs like Asik Veysel, whose songs carry messages like peace and unity, she could also have been one of the most-renowned ashiks of the century like him.

Conclusion

Female ashiks, who are the representatives of oral poetry tradition in Anatolia, carry on the folk literature to future generations by using traditional Turkish musical instrument saz and their spoken skills. Female ashiks who have proven their worthy have not only been accepted in the society but have also taken on an efficient role in the carrying on of the Turkish language and literature and tradition to the future generations. Female ashiks also have been highly responsive to political circumstances.

Ashik Sah Turna contributed greatly to Turkish folk music. Her Alevi-Tasavvuf theme songs have had a great transformation starting from her adolescence years. She had faced with number of accusations. She was almost killed by the authorities during her detention, but she did not stop using her saz and poems to express her social and political thoughts. In addition, Sah Turna spent more than 5 years in prison, which is more than any ashik did in Turkey. She resisted to leave her instrument even at the hearing claiming that she and her saz committed this “crime” together. In spite of her dedication and strong rebellion to the injustice system, she never got society’s attention and appreciation as much as Ashik Veysel and Ashik Mahsun-i Serif received. In other words, I believe that because of her political stand, she was not promoted by the media and scholars as she deserved.

 

 

 

References

  1. Shamsizadeh, Maliheh, Formation, Development And ChangesOf Ozan-Ashik Tradition Inhistorical Process(A Study OnUramia Ashik Tradition),Academia.edu, 2011,p.2.
  2. Ozdemir,Cafer. The Tradition of Minstreling In The Words Of Minstrels, The Journal of International Social Research, Volume: 4 Issue: 17, Spring 2011, p.130.
  3. Artun,Erman. Asik Edebiyati Arastirmalari, Kitabevi, 2008.
  4. Ozdemir,Cafer. The Tradition of Minstreling In The Words Of Minstrels, The Journal of International Social Research, Volume: 4 Issue: 17, Spring 2011, p.130.
  5. Cinar, Sevilay. Contemporary Female Âşiklar and Âşik Music Tradition of Turkey, E-Journal of New World Sciences Academy, Gazi University.
  6. Cinar, Sevilay. Contemporary Female Âşiklar and Âşik Music Tradition of Turkey, E-Journal of New World Sciences Academy, Gazi University.
  7. Turan,Fatma Ahsen and Saluk, Reyhan Gokben. Female Minstrels within the Minstrelsy Tradition and the Problems They Encounter, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 5, No. 7(1); July 2015.
  8. (Bingol Hidir Ali, interview with Ashik Sah Turna www. com, 2009)
  9. Turan, Fatma Ahsen ve Bolçay, Ezgi (Editör) (2010), Sazın ve Sözün Sultanları Belçika’da Yaşayan Halk Şairleri, Gazi Kitabevi, Ankara, p.463.
  10. Ozturkmen,Arzu. Staging a Ritual Dance out of its Context: The Role of an Individual Artist in Transforming the Alevi Semah ,Asian Folklore Studies, 64, No. 2 (2005), pp. 247-260, Nanzan University.

 

11.Beki, Salahaddin. 1980 Sonrasi Asik Siirinde Siyasi Soylemler, Journal of Turkish Language and Literature, Volume:2, Issue:1, Winter 2016, (51-56)

12.13 Grabias, David. Asiklar: Those Who Are in Love, 1969.      http://search.alexanderstreet.com/preview/work/764464

14.15.  Turan,Fatma Ahsen and  Saluk, Reyhan Gokben. Female Minstrels within the     Minstrelsy Tradition and the Problems They Encounter, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 5, No. 7(1); July 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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