Muhlis Akarsu ‘Demokrasi nerde ise ordayız’



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akarsuMuhlis Akarsu was prolific in his composition and recordings (in the pre-CD days) and fortunately many have been subsequently released on CD. The more I listen too these recordings, both solo and as part of the Muhabbet series, the more his brilliance is evident. This deyiş is from his last recording prepared shortly before he was killed in Sivas on 2 July 1993. The album was released after the Sivas events with the title Sivas Ellerinda Ömrüm Çalınır which includes the recording of that re-written version of the Pir Sultan Abdal deyiş performed by Arif Sağ (see my previous post). Akarsu’s voice is extraordinarily rich – singing in the deep baritone he favoured from the time of the Muhabbet recordings in the early 1980s –  and the songs very strong, mostly his own compositions, including the deyiş that became, after his death, so poignant Yine gönlüm hoş değil (Again my heart is not happy). Akarsu also performs the Turna semahı and Pir Sultan’s Bir güzelin aşığım. Interestingly, Arif Sağ begins his 1993 recording called Direniş (‘Resistance’, recorded only a few days before the Sivas massacre and still only ever released on cassette) with this deyiş although he credits the source as Davut Sulari while the music is credited to Akarsu on his recording.

The deyiş translated here however is an unabiguous statement, straightforward, direct. The main complexity in the translation is what to do with the word Hak. It means God, especially in the context used in the song and evokes the Alevi concept of enel-hak (I am God) often considered as an expression of the humanistic qualities of Alevi belief. However, while this translation must prevail, it does lose the other meaning of hak as ‘right’, ‘justice’ or ‘true’. Akarsu does help out however by making a slight change to the repeated last line on verses one and three. Here he uses hak in the sense of human rights, insan hakkı. I have taken the text from the book Muhlis Akarsu, hayatı, yaşamı, sanatı, şiirleri by Süleyman Zaman published by Can Yayınları in 2006. Besides the change to the repeated last line, the only other difference between the printed and sung version is in the 3rd line of verse two where Akarsu sings bilinmez (is not known) rather than görünmez (is not seen).

Demokrasi nerde ise ordayız  (Presently democracy will be with us)

Translation: Paul Koerbin

Friends, what we believe is clear

Presently democracy will be with us

We are not duped by the words of bigots

Presently democracy will be with us

(Presently human rights will be with us)

Our dead don’t come back to life again

Ignorant fatwas are not given against humans

Not among us do class divisions appear

Presently democracy will be with us

Our ways are not reconciled with division

No meddling with the beliefs of humans

No conceit, no competition with anyone

Presently democracy will be with us

(Presently human rights will be with us)

We know mankind is God and God is mankind

Our rose opens within our hearts

I am Akarsu, all of us are sister and brother

Presently democracy will be with us


Dostlar bizim inancımız bellidir

Demokrasi nerde ise ordayız

Softaların sözlerine kanmayız

Demokrasi nerde ise ordayız

(İnsan hakkı nerde ise ordayız)

Bizim ölüler’mız geri dirilmez

İnsanlara boş fetvalar verilmez

Bizde sınıf bölücülük görülmez

Demokrasi nerde ise ordayız

Yollarımız ikilikle barışmaz

İnsanların inancına karışmaz

Benlik yoktur kimse ile yarışmaz

Demokrasi nerde ise ordayız

(İnsan hakkı nerde ise ordayız)

İnsan Hak’tır Hak insandır biliriz

Gönüllerde açar bizim gülümüz

Akarsu’yum bacı kardaş hepimiz

Demokrasi nerde ise ordayız

Version of Pir Sultan Abdal’s ‘Kul Olayım’ composed following the 2 July 1993 Sivas massacre



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kul olayim

Here is my translation, with Turkish text, of the version of Pir Sultan’s famous Kul Olayım Kalem Tutan Ellere. This was included on Muhlis Akarsu’s postumous release “Sivas Ellerinde Ömrün Çalınır” recorded and sung by Arif Sağ and Sebahat Aslan. Arif told me that after a funeral service for Sivas victims someone handed him this text and he felt it was the most appropriate response he could make to the events at the time. Obviously written centuries after Pir Sultan lived by Hüseyin Aşkın though based on one of the most famous songs attributed to Pir Sultan Abdal, it forms part of the Pir Sultan tradition. I have heard this version sung in a cem in Australia. Of course much is lost in translation, most obviously the play on names. The mention of Nesimi could refer to the 15th century martyr expecially as it occurs on the same sentence as Haydar (referring to Pir Sultan and/or Imam Ali); or Nesimi could refer to Nesimi Çimen the great ‘working man’s’ aşık and victim of the Sivas massacre.  The following line about Akarsu (i.e. Muhlis Akarsu one of the greatest modern aşıks) suffers in translation since the sense of cutting of the flow of the water of life  (the meaning of Akarsu is ‘flowing water’) is lost. Similarly the next line refering to yet another victim, the prodigy and catalyst for the performance of şelpe style on the bağlama, Hasret (Gültekin) loses the meaning of hasret as longing or yearning. The reference to ‘Madımak’ in the last verse is a reference to the hotel in Sivas that was burnt down by the the rabble crowd and in which 35 of the victims (33 attending the Festival and 2 hotel employees) died. Translations only serve as an impetus to further and deeper understandings.

Postscript: the original Pir Sultan Abdal lyric was first published by Mehmet Fuad Köprülü in his short 1928 article, itself the first publication about Pir Sultan. See my translation of that article including the original lyric.

Hüseyin Aşkın (after Pir Sultan Abdal): Kul olayım mızrap tutan ellere

I would submit to the hand striking the strings
Scribe, write thus of my condition to the Shah
I would plant a rose where the blood was spilt
Scribe, write thus of my condition to the Shah

In the lands of Sivas your life is struck down
Hearts as hot as embers are broken in two
Separated from my Companion, my heart will break
Scribe, write thus of my condition to the Shah

One of you is called Haydar one Nesimi
They cannot stem your voice my Akarsu
To the world I would mourn aloud my Hasret
Scribe, write thus of my condition to the Shah

In the Madimak the fire reaches the sky
Thirty seven souls are taken all in one
Pir Sultans die and die and will rise again
Scribe, write thus of my condition to the Shah


Original text by Hüseyin Aşkın

Kul olayım mızrap tutan ellere
Katip arzu halim yaz şah’a böyle
Gül dikeyim kan dökülen yerlere
Katip arzu halim yaz şah’a böyle

Sıvas ellerinde ömrün çalınır
Kor yürekler bölük bölük bölünür
Dosttan ayrılmışam bağrım delinir
Katip arzu halim yaz şah’a böyle

Bir ismin Haydar’dır biri Nesimi
Akarsu’yum kesemezler sesini
Hasret’ime duyurayım yasımı
Katip arzu halim yaz şah’a böyle

Madımak’da ateş göğe gerinir
Otuzyedi canın birden alınır
Pir Sultanlar ölür ölür dirilir
Katip arzu halim yaz şah’a böyle

Interpreting self-naming (‘mahlas alma’) in Alevi songs


Players in the ‘web of poetic tradition’ : interpreting self-naming in Turkish Alevi sacred and secular sung poetry

This paper was accepted for the 43rd International Council for Traditional Music World Conference held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in July 2015. Unfortunately due to unforeseen personal circumstances I was forced to abort my travel en route to Astana and never got to present the paper in person. For this reason I am posting it here. The paper aims to provide a concise overview of my research interests. A PDF version of the paper can be found here: Koerbin_2015_ICTM_paper

Paul Koerbin (Copyright 2015)

“I am Pir Sultan Abdal, here in the world

Is there anything deficient in my word?

Anything lacking in my very self

I came to stand right before you!”

Here is an arresting voice to encounter in a traditional song. How meaning is experienced through such expression of the lyric persona in Alevi sung poetry has long interested me and is the subject of my research.


So, let me declare my thesis: that the mahlas – the rhetorical invoking of the poetic persona, by name, to which the song is attributed – is a device of nuance and associative force that contributes to the creative and interpretive vitality of Alevi sacred and secular sung poetry[i].


By way of introduction I wish to briefly recount my personal encounter with Alevi songs – collectively designated by the term deyiş. In the early 1980s as a jobbing musician in the genre that would later be characterised as ‘world music’ I became interested in Turkish music while working with Turkish and Azeri musicians. To nourish my growing interest in Turkish music I sought out the Turkish video shops in Sydney and Melbourne and collected many music cassette tapes. The recordings that particularly captured my attention were those rich in Alevi song – particularly the series of Muhabbet recordings and the recordings of Arif Sağ from the mid-1980s. In sound, the songs were affecting in their deep and sober vocal sonority performed to the accompaniment of just, or primarily, the bağlama which was both assured and intricate though restrained. Most strikingly, the songs were dense in lyric content. My initial response was to the sound since without Turkish language skills at the time I did not understand the content of the words. Even Turkish friends, non-Alevis, from whom I sought help in understanding these songs, were usually baffled and unhelpful. However, as I began to teach myself Turkish and find out more about the songs I was most struck by the overt expression of the lyric persona in the form of a declared name of attribution that came as the climax of the lyric – this is the mahlas. At this time I also first encountered the plenitude of publications devoted to the most influential of lyric personas: Pir Sultan Abdal, whose presence will pervade this paper.

For me, as an aspiring performer of these songs, this presented a dilemma that I had not considered before in performing traditional music; and posed certain questions, including:

  • What does it mean to perform songs that invoke attributive personas so manifestly? And,
  • What are the implications for my own performance of these ‘signed’ songs?

My purpose in emphasising my personal performing experience with Alevi song as the impetus to my scholarly interest is to raise the matter of subjectivity in my encounter with, and efforts to understand, Alevi musical culture. Simply put: is my personal experience an insight; and if so how to realise such understanding?


The way forward was provided for me by Timothy Rice’s work expressed in his seminal 1987 article ‘Towards the remodelling of ethnomusicology’ and of course in his major work May it Fill Your Soul published in 1994. Rice’s proposed epistemology provides a pathway to negotiate the antinomy between the objectivity of musicology and the subjectivity of musical experience. His model makes the object of enquiry people’s actions in creating, experiencing and using music and permits the study of musical sound to be less prominent. Rice’s model involves attention to processes of historical construction (including encounters with the forms and legacies of the past); social maintenance (including the way music is sustained and altered); and individual experience, adaptation and application. Most importantly, as Rice stated, the application of this model “demands a move from description to interpretation and explanation” (Rice 1987, 480).

In looking at these processes I structured my study along the trajectory of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical arc, moving from pre-understanding, through explanation to experience. I explored pre-understandings through textual encounters with Alevi song as authored texts perpetuated through the numerous collections formed around attributed poems. This was then followed by a closer examination and explication of the deyiş form and the mahlas as a textual integer. Finally I applied interpretive methods to a range of expressive manifestations of Alevi song: on influential recordings, at the Pir Sultan Abdal festival in the village of Banaz; and reflectively in respect to my own performances in various contexts.

In pursuing my interpretive approach I have also been influenced by the work of the late John Miles Foley and his concept of immanent art in which textual integers (and musical expression indeed) constitute places of rich associative meanings. So too the work of Thomas DuBois whose typology of interpretive strategies is instructive particularly in respect to his associative axis of attribution in which, and I quote, “a song becomes meaningful by association with a composer or performer connected with the song, or narrative character mentioned in the song’s text” (DuBois 1996, 255). Such conceptualisations help us to understand the act of attribution and the response to that attribution (by creators, performers and audiences) as interpretive strategies.


Time does not permit discussion or explication here of the complex topics of Alevi identity, the definition of Alevilik or Alevi belief systems. But I should note, as significant, the historical construction of the concept of modern Alevi identity from the long established heterodox communities in Anatolia, most specifically the kızılbaş.

Two aspects of Alevilik I wish to emphasise here are authoritative lineage and the role of the aşık. Traditional Alevi communities are connected and formed around hereditary, charismatic and hierarchical lineage and authority, encapsulated as the ocak (literally hearth). This network system of ocaks functioned to maintain social structures at the community level and connect communities together through ancient lineage. Dede (elder) families assume the authority to lead the communities in ritual, spiritual and temporal matters. In recent decades social change and movement have lessened these traditional networks. However, as an esoteric oral tradition the transmission of the texts required to support those communities in ritual remains vitally important. The agent of transmission, traditionally the aşık or minstrel though more recently this has included respected popular performers, becomes a privileged creator and re-interpreter of songs both for ritual and spiritual purpose and to express the social concerns, travails and aspirations of the community. The songs themselves continue as the primary texts of cultural experience and sacred expression.


Structurally the deyiş (songs) of Alevi tradition are characterised in part by the explicit expression of the creative persona within the lyric itself.

The lyric invokes, generally in the final stanza, the poetic voice by name – and by extension, the ostensible author. This is the mahlas, although in Turkish folk literature discourse it may also be referred to as tapşırma or takma ad. The ubiquity of this device is telling of its functional significance. It is found in secular and social Alevi song created by aşık-s on all manner of topics; and also in the most sacred of Alevi sung poetry – such as the mersiye, the miraçlama and tevhid; and the most fundamental Alevi ritual expression, the duaz-ı imam, itself an invocation by name and epithet of the sacred lineage. Yet little serious scholarly attention has been accorded the mahlas in Alevi or Turkish expressive tradition beyond the cataloguing of typologies. I would acknowledge Doğan Kaya’s work on the aşık-s of Sivas as most useful in this regard.

This is not to say that the mahlas has not had a significant role in the way Alevi sung poetry is researched and presented. However, where there has been attention to the mahlas it has been limited to – and consequently limiting in – a focus on putative historical identities and the compilation of authorial canons of texts. Most notably this is demonstrated by the exemplary case of Pir Sultan Abdal.

Interest in collecting and presenting traditional folk lyrics in a formalised way, including publication, began in the early 20th century and took off after the Turkish language reforms in the formative years of the Turkish Republic in the late 1920s. One of the first collections of Kızılbaş-Alevi lyrics was Sadettin Nüzhet Ergun’s publication in 1929 of a short monograph on Pir Sultan Abdal which included 105 nefes or deyiş. Similar monographs devoted to other poets were produced under the auspices of Mehmet Fuat Köprülüzade. This is the beginning of an impetus towards forming divan-s or collections of lyrics structured around the persona to which the lyrics are attributed by the typology of the mahlas. The earliest studies of Pir Sultan Abdal lyrics, including those by Ergun and Köprülüzade already light upon the inconsistencies of attribution noting, for example, that some lyrics may be attributed to Pir Sultan in one place and Şah Hatayi in another. Over time this has lead to a focus on percieved errors of attribution and an impetus to search for the actual identities – and by extension the eponymous creators – responsible for the lyrics. Given the well developed legends supporting the putative life of Pir Sultan – as a rebel and martyr meeting his fate on the gallows at the hands of his former disciple, later governor of Sivas named Hızır Paşa – is it not surprising that his case presents the most well developed, though not only, example of this process.

An influential work in this respect is by the Sivas folklorist İbrahim Aslanoğlu. He proposed the notion of the Pir Sultan Abdallar (Pir Sultan Abdals) identifying six separate identities. Other scholars, such as Asım Bezirci, have promoted a similar line categorising lyrics under separate identities. Turgut Koca has even proposed a distinct ‘Serezli’ Pir Sultan Abdal located in the Balkans, despite this poet’s lyric content being essentially the same as that of the corpus of lyrics associated with the Anatolian Pir Sultan. While the methods such scholars used to distinguish the lyrics include identifying supposed reference to historic events or specific locations, the lyrics are ultimately categorised under specific forms of the mahlas: e.g. Pir Sultan, Pir Sultan Abdal, Abdal Pir Sultan, Pir Sultan Haydar. And while such work is interesting and useful the conclusion that there are mutiple creators merely provides evidence of the oral tradition at play. Deconstructing and fragmenting the Pir Sultan identity is essentially an end to itself and as such works counter to and subverts an understanding of how the persona, and the mahlas naming specifically, is experienced in an essentially oral tradition.


The act of taking or receiving a mahlas is a signal event. At its most formal it is imbued with the bestowal of sacred authority. For example, the highly active, creative and influential Alevi leader Dertli Divani – born Veli Aykut in 1962 – received the mahlas ‘Dertli’ from Emrullah Ulusoy a descendent of Hacı Bektaş Veli at the age or 16 when he demonstrated his ability to improvise deyiş. Two months later another descendent of Hacı Bektaş Veli passed through his village in southeastern Turkey and again the young Veli improvised songs after which he was given the second mahlas ‘Divani’. Not only does this example demonstrate the lines of sacred authority that may be inherited through the receiving of a mahlas but it also highlights that it is associated with the process and demonstration of creative inspiration. Dertli Divani himself later gave the mahlas ‘Vefai’ to the bağlama virtuoso and singer (and deyiş creator) Mustafa Kılçık who performs with Divani both in ritual settings and in the performance group Hasbihal[ii]. The mahlas Vefai connoting ‘loyalty’ or ‘faithfulness’ both affirming and elevating this functional relationship.

Mahlas taking is an act that can represent both transition and commitment. Ahmet Edip in a lyric writes of being freed from the world into which he was born when he became ‘Harabi’ – one form of mahlas he used. The taking and expressing of the mahlas is a transcendent process, often being reported from a dream experience. However, there remains remarkable scope for playfulness and nuance in the process. The prolific Istanbul writer and publisher Adil Ali Atalay takes the mahlas Vaktidolu – expressing the reality of his busy life. Both Harabi and Meluli used a female mahlas on occasion, challenging the notion of a simple mahlas-identity relationship. In structural terms the mahlas may appear in a variety of grammatical constructions and tenses often resulting in an ambiguous or changeable voice – from subject to object for example – making the relationship of creators, performers and audience open to interpretation.


In keeping with the hermeneutical trajectory of my study, I suggest that we come closer to deeper insight into the nuances of attribution in reflecting upon ways we experience the mahlas in the transmission and performance of songs.

The deyiş ‘Gelin Canlar Bir Olalım’ is one that is intrinsically linked to Pir Sultan Abdal, particularly after its association as a clarion cry for the social left in the political turmoil of the 1970s in Turkey[iii]. It is perhaps the most fearsome and unequivocally revolutionary lyric attributed to Pir Sultan; yet is imbued with the spirit of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn. Its provenance as a Pir Sultan lyric is, like many others, contestable. Some suggest the lyric originates from Aşık Sıtkı and is included in the collection published by his grandson Muhsin Gül (along with other lyrics resembling those associated with Pir Sultan). The attribution to Pir Sultan may however have originated with Aşık Ali İzzet Özkan since it first appears in print in the 1943 collection published by Boratav and Gölpınarlı. The source of the lyric is indicated as coming from Ali İzzet’s scouring of the mecmua (manuscript) of a certain Muharrem from İğdiş village in the Şarkışla region (who of course may also be the source of the attribution). As Başgöz reports, Ali İzzet was very open about passing off the poems of other poets as Pir Sultan’s. Ali İzzet himself makes the point that he didn’t do this ‘knowingly’ but where the poems were appropriate to Pir Sultan. Aşık Ali’s comments, as reported by Başgöz, are subtle and instructive: they suggests a conscious self-aware interpretive use of the material within functional and acceptable boundaries rather than a deliberately purpetrated, ‘knowing’, deception or, indeed, an inadvertant error. Eberhard, writing in the 1950s, similarly reports that a minstrel named Mustafa Kılıç (who had been a pupil of the famous Aşık Veysel) showed ‘versatility’ in taking songs composed by Veysel and others and adding a final stanza, so that he could regard them as his own. So, perhaps, meaning is more usefully pursued in the looking at the process rather than the provenance.

The aşık Mahmut Erdal reports his meeting with the renowned folksong collector associated with Turkish Radio and Television, Nida Tüfekçi, when he played him the Divriğili Turna Semahı ‘Yine dertli dertli iniliyorsun’. Tüfekçi was enthusiastic about the semah (a sacred dance song) because of its remarkable musical qualities with multiple changes in rhythm. As with many semah the lyric component of the Turna Semahı is a compound of poems by more than one poet. In Erdal’s original version this included a not particularly remarkable (and perhaps dubious) lyric with the mahlas Pir Sultan Abdal. However so as to avoid any problems in clearing this work for inclusion in the officially sanctioned ‘repertoire’ the Pir Sultan Abdal conponent was changed to include lyric content attributed to the politically innocuous poet Karacaoğlan. Given that the content of the Pir Sultan poem was itself overtly innocuous it was the associative qualities of the name Pir Sultan Abdal at a politically conflicted time (the 1970s) that prompted this change. Interestingly since that time, the force of the official repertoire has seen the changed version of the lyric retained as the standard version, even in some Alevi contexts. This suggests that even a documented corruption of a lyric may become part of a process to be played out with new meanings rather than simply being something to be corrected. New immanent understandings emerge by virtue of its continued performance in this form; for example, the quality of inclusiveness is expressed by embracing personas or associations which are not overtly Alevi, even in ritual contexts, when acceptable and meaningful to the expression of Alevi identity.

One more example of the interpretive power of the persona associated with the lyrics must suffice. The deyiş ‘Yarim İçin Ölüyorum’ by Cafer Tan was famously recorded in the early 1980s by the virtuoso Alevi performer Arif Sağ who collected the song from Aşık Nesimi Çimen the son-in-law of aşık Cafer. Nesimi, along with Sağ, was at the fateful Pir Sultan Abdal Festival in Sivas in 1993 when 37 people were killed as the result of a riot by a religious inspired mob outside the Madımak Otel on 2 July. Thirty-three of those killed were artists, minstrels, writers and others attending the festival who died when the mob set fire to the hotel, among them Nesimi Çimen, though Sağ managed to escape the conflagration. When Arif Sağ’s son Tolga Sağ performed this song at the Pir Sultan Abdal Festival in Banaz village some years later he made a slight but significant word change in the repeated refrain of the song, singing ‘yobaz’ (bigot) instead of ‘cahil’ (ignorant). At the Festival the immanent associations of this were well recognized by the largely Alevi audience who spontaneously applauded the change. In this way, Sağ’s interpretation of Cafer’s song associated Cafer, Nesimi, Pir Sultan, the events of Sivas in 1993 and its continued remembrance with remarkable and powerful textual economy. Cafer’s song – and by extension Cafer’s poetic voice – though not originally thus, became a social and political statement, at least to a knowing audience.


My thesis, then, is that we can extend our understanding by both our interpretive experience of the songs and by recognizing the interpretive strategies applied by creators and performers. In this way the mahlas may be understood as a concise integer within the lyric that engenders immanent-associative meanings that in turn inspire and engage interpretive and creative processes. As such, the function of the mahlas becomes more like a node, a point of reference around which ‘players in the web of poetic tradition’ – to coopt John Miles Foley’s phrase – develop their creative and interpretive associations. Understood in this way the mahlas has a function in constructing social and cultural connections, meanings and continuity rather than merely asserting the perpetuation of individual creative property.




Aslanoğlu, İbrahim. 1984. Pir Sultan Abdallar. Istanbul: Erman Yayınevi.

Atılgan, Halil. 1992. Kısaslı aşıklar. Şanlıurfa: S.n.

Başgöz, İlhan. 1994. Âşık Ali İzzet Özkan. 2nd ed. Istanbul: Pan Yayıncılık.

Bezirci, Asım. 1993. 1994. Pir Sultan Abdal: yaşamı, kişiliği, sanatı, bütün şiirleri. Istanbul: Evrensel Basım Yayın. Original edition, 1986.

Clarke, Gloria L. 1999. The world of the Alevis: issues of culture and identity. New York; Istanbul: AVC Publications.

Dressler, Markus. 2007. Alevis. In Encyclopedia of Islam three. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

———. 2013. Writing religion: the making of Turkish Alevi Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.

DuBois, Thomas A. 1996. Native hermeneutics: traditional means of interpreting lyric songs in Northern Europe. Journal of American Folklore 109 (433):235-266.

———. 2006. Lyric, meaning, and audience in the oral tradition of Northern Europe. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Eberhard, Wolfram. 1955. Minstrel tales from southeastern Turkey, Folklore studies: 5. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Erdal, Mahmut. 1996. Yine dertli dertli iniliyorsun: barışa semah dönenler. Istanbul: Ant Yayınları.

———. 1999. Bir ozanın kaleminden. Istanbul: Can Yayınları.

Ergun, Sadettin Nüzhet. 1929. XVII’inci asır sazşairlerinden Pir Sultan Abdal. Istanbul: Evkaf Matbaası.

———. 1956. On dokuzuncu asırdanberi Bektaşi-Kızılbaş Alevi şairleri ve nefesleri. 2nd ed. Istanbul: Istanbul Maarif Kitpahanesi.

Foley, John Miles. 1991a. Immanent art: from structure to meaning in traditional oral epic. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

———. 2002. How to read an oral poem. Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

———. 2012. Oral tradition and the Internet. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Gölpınarlı, Abdülbâki, and Pertev Naili Boratav. 1943. Pir Sultan Abdal. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi.

Gül, Muhsin. 1984. Sıdkî Baba: hayatı ve divanından örnekler. Ankara: Muhsin Gül.

Kaya, Doğan. 1998. Sivas’ta âşıklık geleneği. Sivas: S.n.

Koca, Turgut. 1990. Bektaşi nefesleri ve şairleri. Istanbul: Naci Kasım.

Koerbin, Paul. 2011. ‘I am Pir Sultan Abdal’: a hermeneutical study of the self-naming tradition (mahlas) in Turkish Alevi lyric song (deyiş). Unpublished PhD thesis, College of Arts, University of Western Sydney, Sydney.

Köprülü, Mehmet Fuad. 1997. Bir kızılbaş şairi: Pir Sultan Abdal. In Kalemlerde Pir Sultan, edited by Ö. Uluçay. Adana: Gözde Yayınevi.

Livni, Eran. 2002. Alevi identity in Turkish historiography. Paper read at 17th Middle East History and Theory Conference, 10-11 May 2002, at University of Chicago.

Özmen, İsmail. 1998. Alevi-Bektaşi şiirleri antolojisi. 5 vols. Ankara: T.C. Kültür Bakanlığı.

Özpolat, Latife, and Hamdullah Erbil. 2006. Melûli divanı ve Aleviliğin tasavvufun Bektaşiliğin tarihçesi. Istanbul: Demos Yayınları.

Rice, Timothy. 1987. Toward the remodeling of ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology 31 (3).

———. 1994. May it fill your soul: experiencing Bulgarian music. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1998. Hermeneutics and the human sciences. Translated by J. B. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shankland, David. 2003. The Alevis in Turkey: the emergence of a secular Islamic tradition. London; New York: Routledge.

Yaman, Ali, and Aykan Erdemir. 2006. Alevism-Bektashism: a brief introduction. Translated by A. Erdemir, R. Harmanşah and K. E. Başaran. Istanbul: Cem Foundation.


[i] This thesis is more fully developed in my doctoral research, see Koerbin (2011).

[ii] Personal communication, 2015.

[iii] See Koerbin (2011) for the text and English translation of this deyiş.

Pir Sultan Abdal iconography – Tunceli Cem Evi (Dersim)


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The most famous statue erected in honour of Pir Sultan Abdal or course remains the eight metre tall statue on the hill above the village of Banaz, where it stands gazinPir Sultan Abdal statue at Tuncelig towards the distant but imposing peak of Yıldız Dağı (Star Mountain). Photographs of that statue, taken during the annual Pir Sultan Abdal festival appear in a number of places on this blog, for example here. The aşık statue on Çilehane hill above the town of Hacıbektaş while perhaps not specifically a representation of Pir Sultan, has the standing figure that may certainly be understood to embody something of his spirit. If Banaz (and it’s statue) stand at one end of the heartland associated with Pir Sultan, Tunceli (and it’s statue) perhaps provides the bookend for the eastern regions of this heartland. The Dersim is the great land of Alevi (specifically Kurdish Alevi kızılbaş) resistance and so it is fitting that a worthy icon to Pir Sultan stand here. The statue was erected a decade ago and stands in the grounds of the very fine Tunceli Cem Evi that sits on a cliff above the junction of the Pülümür Çayı (stream) and Munzur Irmağı (river) one kilometre outside the town centre on the Erzincan road. I visited Tunceli and the cem evi in the autumn of 2013. Below is my translation of the dedication monument that sits alongside the statue.

This work, constructed by Sinan Samat, has been presented to the people of Tunceli.

To set up the statue of Pir Sutlan Abdal, the patron saint of ozans, for Tunceli means to remember Imam Hüseyin, Hacı Bektaş Veli and Düzgün Baba.

It also means, again, to commemorate the Pir ozan; and Yunus Emre, Şah Hatayi, Seyit Nesimi, Fuzuli, Virani, Yemini, Kul Himmet, Abdal Musa, Kaygusuz Abdal, Şeyh Bedrettin, Aşık Veysel, Nazım Hikmet, Ahmet Arif, Aşık Daimi, Feyzullah Çınar, Davut Sulari, Muhlis Akarsu, Hasret Gültekin, Nesimi Çimen, Mahzuni Şerif, the teacher Arif Sağ and the souls lost at Sivas and all the ozans and poets wishing to make the world in which we live beautiful.

The lands of Anatolia have given rise to thousands of ozans and poets over the centuries. Our ozans who hold a special place in our folk literature carry on to our own times, in an artistic sense, the beautiful and the bitter events of our culture and the history lived in our lands. They ensure we do not forget our past. Our Tunceli has given rise to ozans who have a special place in the art of the people. Realising this journey I felt it necessary to set up this monument in memory of our ozans.

As a result of the discussions I had with my friends, we agreed on the figure of Pir Sultan Abdal as the patron saint of ozans. Endless thanks first of all to Hasan Güyüldar, Haydar Aygören, Turgut Öker and Yusuf Demir; to my friends who contributed ideas for the realisation of this project; to my sculptor friends; to all who laboured; and to my wife Filiz.

Sinan Samat Tunceli 1-8-2003

The names of the ozans mentioned are interesting and instructive. There is of course the seven great Alevi ozans, Pir Sultan, Hatayi, Fuzuli, Yemini, Nesimi, Kul Himmet and Virani. Then there are those that extend the perception of Alevi culture such as the original great Turkish mystic poet Yunus Emre, the dervish Kaygusuz Abdal and the rebel Bedrettin (who commands a strong influence among Balkan Bektaşi-s). There are the great modern, humanist aşık-s Veysel and Daimi, the latter like Davut Sulari closely associated with the Erzincan region. There is Turkey’s greatest modern literary poet (and Communist) Nazim Hikmet and the Kurdish poet Ahmet Arif famous for his poem Hastretinden prangalar eskittim (set to music and recorded by the late great Ahmet Kaya). There is, slightly curiously (though welcome) inclusion of the influential bağlama player, singer and interpreter of Alevi song (and Turkish folk music more generally) Arif Sağ, noted with the honorific hoca ‘teacher’. So too Feyzullah Çınar and Mahsuni Şerif and Nesimi Çimen who all have born the epithet of a modern day Pir Sultan. And of course, those who perished in the Madımak hotel massacre in Sivas in July 1993: Hasret Gültekin, Muhlis Akarsu and Nesimi Çimen. It is a list of greats well suited to reminding us of the richness of the culture in all its beauty and its pain, as the sculptor intends.

The statue stands in the front garden of the Cem Evi surrounded by 12 seats and a hearth. The following photographs show the context.


In the photograph above note the top right hand corner of the photograph where you can see the watchtower of the ever watchful eye of the Turkish military in this area.

The following photograph is the view looking back towards the Tunceli township.

Pir Sultan Abdal statue at Tunceli looking towards town


Pir Sultan Abdal ‘Gel güzelim kaçma bizden’


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Doğu Ekspres near Divriği mid-1990sHere is a relatively simple but very beautiful lyric that makes an appearance in the earliest Pir Sultan anthologies of Ergun (1929) and Gölpınarlı and Boratav (1943). This is possibly an old lyric and related to the verses of Yunus Emre (see Izzet Zeki Eyuboğlu)- not unknown in the Pir Sultan canon. Later collections show little variation, not surprisingly with a short and perfect gem like this, though Fuad (1977 and 1999) has some slight variations, one of which I follow.

The two Fuad variations are in the first and last lines of the lyric. In the last line Fuad has kor olmuş (a glowing coal) rather than üfrülmüş, meaning to be blown upon, as for example a hot cinder. Fuad’s version seems to be a clarifying or simplifying variant and for reasons of assonance I have gone with üfrülmüş incorporating both variations into my rendering of the line. In the first line the earlier anthologist have benden rather bizden. Given the ‘shifty’ – to use Losensky’s term –  nature of the lyric identity common in these lyrics this is not substantive change. I have used Fuad’s plural version as it aligns with the assonance of the lyric generally. Indeed this is one of the beauties of this lyric for, in the Turkish, the assonance and rhyme express the trance like mystical quality of the lyric. For this reason I have tried, rather more than I usually do, to retain something of this in the English. This does not always, or even often, work since rhyme, alliteration, assonance is much easier and more natural in Turkish with its vowel harmonisation.  Talat Halman is the best at such renderings. I don’t try and replicate the Turkish, but where I have been able to bring in rhyme, near-rhyme and alliteration without diverging from the content of the lyric, I have done so.

Other translation issues to note include the rendering of ehli hal. In the context of the mystical path, ‘hal‘ has the meaning of a transcendent state, a mystical ecstacy even. Hence my version. Erkan means the main points, principles or fundamentals of religion. I did not want to refer to ‘fundamentalism’, perhaps for obvious reasons, so ‘liturgy’ seemed to fit the bill well with its additional help in the rhyme.  Dilden dile means the same as dile düşmek: that is, to become the subject of common talk. I’m not sure I’ve rendered this entirely successfully, though I do get something of the sense and the alliteration was too felicitous to let go. Finally, elden ele causes some problems. It can literally mean ‘hand in hand’ though in this context ‘el‘ would seem to refer to land rather than hand. Fuad certainly indicates this meaning. I did contemplate a line reading ‘we will travel the land hand in hand’ having a bet each way, but perhaps wisely though better of it. My rendering as ‘we will travel the lands far and wide’ is perhaps not too removed from the literal and helps a little with the near-rhyme.

To return to the ‘shifty’ nature of the lyric persona common in Alevi lyric song, this is a great example of this device. The first two verses stress the first person plural (biz, –iz, –elim) then there is the sudden shift in the first line, the mahlas line, of the last verse to the first person singular (I am … ‘-im)) and then the second person (you, –sın) before finally returning to the first person plural. The functions of such shiftiness engaging the lyric voice of the poet with the performer and the audience, I have discussed in my PhD thesis.

Translation: Paul Koerbin

Come, do not desert us, my beauty

We are the nightingale, no stranger we

We are brothers in dervish ecstasy

We are the way within the liturgy


Let us converse on the states of joy

Let us talk ‘til tongues are tired

We will travel lands far and wide

We are the rose freshly opened


I am Pir Sultan, for what do you cry?

You shed tears of blood from your eye

What you expect from us, is it fire?

We are ashes of embers blown and burned

Gel güzelim kaçma bizden

Yad değiliz bülbülüz biz

Biz hâl ehli kardaşlarız

Erkân içinde yoluz biz


Söyleşelim hâlden hâle

Dilleşelim dilden dile

Biz gezeriz elden ele

Taze açılmış gülüz biz


Pir Sultan’ım ne ağlarsın

Gözünden kan yaş çağlarsın

Sen bizden ateş m’umarsın

Yanmış üfrülmüş külüz biz

Aşık Mücrimi ‘Şu diyâr-ı gurbet elde’ (Şen değil gönlüm şen değil)


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The performer and musicologist Ulaş Özdemir in his published collection of Mücrimi’s lyrics considers him alongside Aşık Melûli and Aşık İbreti as the great representative aşık-s of their time. This is Mücrimi’s most famous song, associated particularly with Aşık Nesimi Çimen and undoubtedly helped to the status of a classıc by superb recordings of the song by Arif Sağ on his 1983 recording İnsan Olmaya Geldim and later by Müslim Gürses on his 2001 recording Müslüm’ce Türküler. Sağ’s version is restrained, tempered with space that lets the song unfold profoundly – as is typical of that remarkable album. Gürses’s singing has a more searing quality and is beautifully delivered, like Sağ, just to bağlama accompaniment.

Mücrimi whose real name was Mehmet Özbozok was born in 1882 in Karaterzi village in the Doğanşehir locale of the Malatya region. Özdemir tells us that according to the explanation of Mücrimi’s children he was given the mahlas ‘Mücrimi’ by a descendent of İmam Mûsâ’l-Kâzım. As a child he burned his hand resulting in his fingers being bandaged in the shape of a ball and he was given the nickname ‘çolak‘ meaning crippled or one-armed. And this nickname was apparently the inspiration for the mahlas Mücrimi which has connotations of being guilty or a criminal. Mahlas taking is a fascinating subject and here we can see elements of bestowing authority of lineage, reference to the specifics of one’s life or appearance and ironic humour.

Aşık Nesimi Çimen spent some time with Mücrimi but, again according to what Özdemir reports, the song came to Çimen through his father-in-law Cafer Ağa of Sarız (Elbistan) who Mücrimi had great regard for. It was through Nesimi Çimen’s singing the song in various gatherings that it entered the repertoire of other artists; and later became part of the official TRT repertoire. In my PhD thesis I discussed another song Arif Sağ collected from the singing of Nesimi Çimen (and included on İnsan Olmaya Geldim) called ‘Yarim İçin Söylüyorum’, a song in türkü form although it has the suggestion of a mahlas in the line ‘Cafer der sevdalı kuldu’. At the time of writing my thesis I stated that I could not identify the poet ‘Cafer’, but now I would conclude that it appears highly probable that this Cafer is none other than Cafer Ağa.

The commonly performed versions omit the third verse (the ‘oh Lord’ verse) and alter the penultimate line of the last verse. That line certainly presents the biggest translation challenge. In the recorded versions this line is changed to ‘zalımlardan [or cahillerden] yedi taşı‘ and I have been guided by this variant in my translation. Even still it requires some interpretation since it would seem to be a reference to the Muslim  ‘stoning of devil’ ritual personalised and inverted in a typically deft Alevi way. I translate ‘intizar’ as an ‘expectation’ or ‘waiting’ although it may also mean a ‘curse’ though I don’t think so in this context – though it is a shade of meaning unfortunately lost in translation.

Aşık Mücrimi: Şu diyâr-ı gurbet elde

Translation: Paul Koerbin

In exile in this strange land

No joy, my heart knows no joy

No one knows of my condition

No joy, my heart knows no joy

I caused my heart injury and pain

My heart descended into despair

Whether fortune or fate, it is black

No joy, my heart knows no joy

I have wept, make me laugh, oh Lord

I am broken down, raise me up, oh Lord

My condition is clear to you, oh Lord

No joy, my heart knows no joy

I went around dizzy and distracted

I can read and I can write

Day and night I am in anticipation

No joy, my heart knows no joy

Mücrimi says, my eye, my tear

My mind is not free from grief

Stones rain upon me from tyrants

No joy, my heart knows no joy


Text from Ulaş Özdemir Şu diyârı- gurbet elde: Âşık Mücrimî’nin yaşamı ve şiirleri (Pan, 2007)

Şu diyâr-ı gurbet elde

Şen değil gönlüm şen değil

Kimse bilmez ahvâlimden

Şen değil gönlüm şen değil

Ben sinemi yaktım nâra

Gönül düşmüştür efkâra

Teccellî mi baht mı kara

Şen değil gönlüm şen değil

Ağlamışım güldür yâ Rabb

Düşkününüm kaldır yâ Rabb

Hâlim sana ayan yâ Rabb

Şen değil gönlüm şen değil

Ser-gerdân olmuş gezerim

Hem okuyup hem yazarım

Gece gündüz intizârım

Şen değil gönlüm şen değil

Mücrimî der dîdem yaşım

Gamdan ayrılmıyor başım

Adûlardan değer taşım

Şen değil gönlüm şen değil

Pir Sultan Abdal ‘Hû diyelim Gerçeklerin demine’


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The text used for the translation here comes from Gölpınarlı and Boratav’s 1943 work on Pir Sultan Abdal with the original sources given as the early 20th century publication of Derviş Ruhullah and cönk in Gölpınarlı’s possession. Interestingly it does not appear in Ergun’s 1929 collection of Pir Sultan Abdal lyrics. A version, with remarkably little textual variation was recorded by Ulaş Özdemir for his 1998 album of Maraş Sinemilli deyişler called Ummanda. The version of this song was collected from Sadık Hüseyin Dede. The principal variation being in the opening lines, “Arzusun çektiğim gül yüzlü dostum / Erenlerin demi hurdan sayılır”, and in the form of the mahlas being Abdal Pir Sultan’ım, a form that seems rather typical of Pir Sultan deyiş collected from this region.

It is one of the category of Pir Sultan lyrics extolling sincere commitment to the dervish way. While conscious of the subtlety that will be lost, I have translated as ‘dervish’ – a term in English that has a wide embrace – a number of different terms that appear in the lyric, including gerçekler (the true ones), er (man, as in one who is brave or capable), aşık (devotee) and eren (one who has arrived at divine truth). Perhaps the most difficult line in the translation, not helped by its crowning a particularly paratactic verse,  is “Biri kırktır kırkı birden sayılır” and I am not entirely comfortable with my rendering in terms of accuracy or eloquence – a work in progress. I make less apology for the rendering of the final line and the introduction of the word ‘prick’ with some of (if not all!) its English connotations (certainly in Australian idiom as someone who is a bit of a ‘waste of space’). The play on words is justified by the connection to the preceding diken (thorn) and the multiple connotations of har/hâr meaning thorn, something that pricks, to go wild, a donkey or foolish person, vile or contemptible. I have seen a version of the lyric with hal instead of har, though that versions seems to diminish the robustness of the lyric’s climax. This is a fine and robust lyric and this rendering seems apposite to my ear.

Finally a word on a couple of references that might be slightly confusing. Firstly, in the final verse (another with evident parataxis) Baghdad is referred to as the motherland (vatan) which may seem at odds with Pir Sultan’s Anatolian presence. In fact this is clearly a metaphorical reference, or perhaps more correctly metonymical. Baghdad, here referred to as a motherland, would seem to be a metonym for Pir Sultan’s identification the mystical tradition founded in Baghdad and particularly associated with Hallaj al-Mansur, who in the tradition is believe to have been martyred for his expression that he was the ‘truth’ (enel hak). Secondly, the reference to ‘Muhammed Ali’, which I follow without the insertion of a conjunction in my English rendering. To paraphrase John Kingsley Birge – whose remarkable 1937 work, while specifically based on western Anatolian and Albanian Bektashi tradition, rather than Alevi tradition, remains an essential text and of great value on such matters – this does not refer to a single personage of that name but as if two names of the once concept, which is the concept of Muhammad and Ali as complementary personifications representing the divine radiance (nur). Indeed the expression of trinity is also common in Alevi tradition, as in: Allah Muhammed Ali.

Pir Sultan Abdal: Hû diyelim Gerçeklerin demine

Translation: Paul Koerbin

Let us say ‘hu’ to the breath of the true dervishes

The breath of the true dervishes is deemed from the light

One who is brought in train to the Twelve Imams

Is counted among the beloved for Muhammad Ali

Who comes with sincere belief  does not turn from this way

A friend does not know duplicity in his friend

Who does not see the dervish is truth does not see truth

His eyes watch but he is counted among the blind

The pleasure of the world was but three days, so they say

Following pleasure there  is suffering, supposed

Of the speech and the sigh of the true dervishes

One of them is Forty – counted one among the Forty

If the true dervish stops at the halting place

If, burning like a candle, his sap dissolves

If he perceives, what remains is the true self

He is a dervish counted among the true dervishes

I am Pir Sultan Abdal – Baghdad the motherland

Passing from duplicity to unity

The one who joins the way of the dervishes sniping

Is the thorn in the way and counted among the pricks


Turkish text from Gölpınarlı and Boratav Pir Sultan Abdal (1943)

Hû diyelim Gerçeklerin demine

Gerçeklerin demi nurdan sayılır

On İk’İmam katarına düzelen

Muhammed Ali’ye yârdan sayılır

İhlâs ile gelen bu yoldan dönmez

Dost olan dostunda ikilik bilmez

Eri hak görmiyen Hakkı da görmez

Gözü bakar amma körden sayılır

Üç gün imiş şu dünyanın safası

Safasından artuk imiş cefası

Gerçek Erenlerin nutk u nefesi

Biri kırktır kırkı birden sayılır

Gerçek âşık menzilinde durursa

Çırağ gibi yanıp yağı erirse

Eksikliğin kend’özünde görürse

O da erdir gerçek erden sayılır

Pir Sultan Abdal’ım Bâğdattır vatan

İkilikten geçip birliğe yeten

Erenler yoluna kıyl ü kal katan

Yolun dikendir hârdan sayılır

18th Pir Sultan Abdal Etkinlikleri (Festival) 2007


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Some photos from the last Pir Sultan Abdal Şenlikleri (Festival) that I attended in June 2007. The location is the village of Banaz, north of Sivas.

General view of the performance amphitheatre on Ziyaret Tepe above the village.

View of Yıldız Dağı from the amphitheatre, with banners.

Banazlı aşık İsmail Şimsek opening the performances with Banazlı turning the semah.

Mercan Erzincan performing with group.

Pınar Sağ with backing group.

Aşık Garip Kamil and semah turning.

Dertli Divani

Tolga Sağ and Erdal Erzincan late on Sunday afternoon.

Lokma kurban preparation on Topuzlu Baba

Muhlis Akarsu ‘Gurbeti ben mi yarattım’


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Galata bridge at sunset 1999

Galata Bridge, Istanbul, 1999

When Arif Sağ re-emerged as a recording artist in the early 1980s having given away his arabesk career in the mid-1970s and worked as a teacher at the İstanbul Devlet Türk Müziği Konservatuarı, he released a cassette album called Gurbeti ben mi yarattım. The title song was from the Kangal aşık Muhlis Akarsu. Sağ’s recording is intimate and almost reticent – very striking in a restrained way. Oddly the cover of the cassette that I obtained in Urfa in 1987 (which I believe is the original 1981 release) has a photograph of Sağ (see photo below) that harks back to his arabesk days, dressed in yellow zip up blazer, slicked down hair and pencil moustache – totally belying the intimate sound of voice and bağlama on the recording. This would be the recording that began Sağ’s stylistic hegemony over the performance of Alevi music in the 1980s and 1990s. The iconography was yet to catch up.


Sağ recorded the deyiş again for the second of the Muhabbet series of recordings two or three years later. Muhabbet 2 is arguably the finest of the series in terms of its thematic strength which centres around the concept of gurbet – absence from one’s native place or home. Gurbeti ben mi yarattım is the final song on that recording although only three of the four verses are sung (the second is ommited) with Sağ, Musa Eroğlu and Muhlis Akarsu taking turns on the verses – a quite unusual approach for the Muhabbet series. Akarsu of course recorded the song but sadly, although a number of his recordings have been issued on CD, that one has not. However a recording of Akarsu performing it live is available on YouTube.

Gurbet is obviously the theme of the deyiş and this is deepened to almost ‘starkly bleak’ – thanks Tom Rapp! – realms with the addition of the theme of yokluk – which refers to absence, even to the degree of non-existance (it also has a meaning of poverty). I don’t think I’ve captured the full sense of yokluk so that will require working on. Another word to mention is sıla in the mahlas line which I have rendered as ‘returning’ but it really means return to family, friends and one’s native place – the opposite really of gurbet. A good translation here for imkân also rather eludes me. Having tried ‘possibilities’ it sounded too lumpen and ‘practicalities’ would be even worse. For the moment ‘chances’ it is. The deyiş is in the short koşma form (semai) with only 8 syllables per line which gives it a simple directness; but it is constructed with typical economy and finesse.

Muhlis Akarsu: Gurbeti ben mi yarattım

Translation: Paul Koerbin

Destitution has compelled me

Was it I who created the exile?

It came and took my youth

Was it I who created the exile?

I received neither letter nor news

Parted from my country and home

I felt the loss of all that was mine

Was it I who created the exile?

Evening comes and the shadow settles

Winds blow against my hope

Absence constrains my chances

Was it I who created the exile?

Akarsu, don’t think about returning

Don’t believe this isolation has passed

How I fell upon helplessness

Was it I who created the exile?


Turkish text from Muhlis Akarsu: yaşamı, sanatı, şiirleri ve dünya görüşü by Süleyman Zaman, 2006.

Yokluk beni mecbur etti

Gurbeti ben mi yarattım

Gençliğimi aldı gitti

Gurbeti ben mi yarattım

Ne mektup ne haber aldım

Yurdumdan yuvamdan oldum

Her şeyime hasret kaldım

Gurbeti ben mi yarattım

Akşam olur gölge basar

Umuduma yeller eser

Yokluk imkânımı keser

Gurbeti ben mi yarattım

Akarsu sılayı anma

Bu ayrılık geçti sanma

Çaresizdim geldim amma

Gurbeti ben mi yarattım

Latife (Melûli) ‘Mey içtim sarhoşum bugün’


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Otel Fahri İstanbul 1995Aşık Melûli is surely one of the master Alevi poets of the twentieth century. Indeed his life spans nine decades of the century. Born in 1892 his real name was Karaca and was educated both by an Arab hoca and for a decade in an Armenian school in Afşin. As well as his mother tongue Turkish he spoke Arabic, Armenian, Farsi and Ottoman Turkish. He died in 1989 aged 97. Like another remarkable Alevi, Edip Harabi, Melûli composed some deyiş using a female mahlas persona as well as his more usual mahlas (Melûli). This is an example of Melûli’s female persona using the mahlas Latife. The examples of Melûli and Harabi using multiple and different gendered mahlas persona suggests a more subtle and sophisticated function for the mahlas naming convention than mere authorial attribution.

The poem is fairly straightforward in regards to translation, although difficult choices are necessarily made that colour the interpretation of the translation. One of the challenges is whether or not to translate ‘Pir’. I have a strong inclination to leave such terms untranslated since they carry so much culturally specific meaning. It has the sense of teacher, master, saint, guide and the head of a dervish order. In this version I have however committed a translation, opting for ‘Dervish’ which I expect to carry various connotations for the reader in English. The use of the word ‘Pir’ is just one expressive element that points to a mystical reading; yet one of the great characteristics of the song, particularly emphasised by the choice of mahlas, is the possible wordly interpretation. It is certainly this position that can be seen in Aynur Haşhaş’s recording while performed to the classic Alevi melody she replaces ‘Pir’ with the more ambiguous terms ‘canım’ and ‘yar’.

There is no doubt this lyric is provocative and forthright. Melûli does not avoid the language of religion saying his Kabaa (Mecca) is the tavern (meyhane). He dismisses the intolerant as ‘barking guard dogs’ (kelb rakibin ürümesi). I have tried to render the implied intimidation of the latter line with the idea of ‘patrolling hounds’.

A word should be said about the form of the mahlas ‘Latife’m’ which perhaps should read ‘my Latife’. However, convention suggest that the mahlas is not understood as a possessive construct but an expression of person (be it first, second or third). So forms such as this are understood to be a contraction of the first person verb to be, that is ‘Latife’yim’.

I should also note that we are fortunate to have an excellent introduction in English to Melûli by Hans-Lukas Kieser in his book chapter titled: Alevilik as song and dialogue: the village sage Melûli Baba (1892-1989). Kieser reveals Melûli as a remarkable figure of provincial ‘enlightenment’ in the late Ottoman period. The principal source for Melûli’s life and work and from where my text comes from remains the book Melûli divanı ve Aleviliğin tasavvufun Bektaşiliğin tarihçesi by Latife Özpolat and Hamdullah Erbil.

Postscript: a note and reminiscence on the picture. I generally try to use pictures from my travels in Turkey that have some tangential (and not always obvious) connection to the text. That may be true of this picture too, but it is also a small nostalgic reflection on fondly remembered friendly cheap workers’ hotels that could be found in Sirkeci in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now sadly replaced by poorly gilded (and much more expensive) tourist hotels. This was a room in one of my favourites, the original (and long departed) Otel Fahri on İbni Kemal Cad. when it was a quiet street (photo taken in early 1995). On one occasion, perhaps the time this photo was taken, there was a night time tavern restaurant around the corner squeezed in on Ebussuut Cad. near the corner of Ankara Cad. where gypsy musicians from Şişli would pass through – with much jolity, bonhomie and much drinking of rakı. When I visited the following year the tavern was gone, without trace (like something out of Robert Irwin’s Arabian Nightmare – but that is another story)  and Necmettin Erbakan was Prime Minister. I am not necessarily drawing a connection, but the belly dancer on the İbo Şov – Tatlıses is the great ‘Vicar of Bray’ of Turkish culture – also disappeared at this time, as I recall. The eagle-eyed will notice some travelling essentials in the picture – bottle of water (none other than ‘Sultan Su’), chocolate, cassette walkman – remember those! – leather jacket, tissues and book which, if  I must own up, was an old edition of John Buchan’s Greenmantle that, as is my practice, I donated to a hotel draw somewhere down the track in eastern Turkey).

Latife (Melûli): Mey içtim sarhoşum bugün

Translation: Paul Koerbin

Today I drank wine and was drunk

I swear, I cannot hold my tongue

Today I was so pleased with my Dervish

I swear, I forgot all about death

The world appears completely empty

My Dervish brings me pleasure

He is exuberant whenever he loves

I swear, I love my Dervish

The morsel the Dervish proffers is permitted for me

The tavern is my pilgrim’s kabaa

The barking of the patrolling hounds

I swear, does not block my way

Let the Dervish come and be cross with me

Let my arm embrace his neck

Let the arms that are drawn away be broken

I swear, I cannot withdraw my arm

If I enter his embrace uncovered

If he sleeps and I love silently

If he awakes and he speaks rudely

I swear, I cannot withdraw my hand

I am Latife I am so shameless

I love greatly and I am so brazen

I know nothing of shame and honour

I swear, I will pluck my rose


Original Turkish text from Melûli divanı ve Aleviliğin tasavvufun Bektaşiliğin tarihçesi by Latife Özpolat and Hamdullah Erbil (2006)

Mey içtim sarhoşum bugün

Tutamam dilim vallahi

Pir’imle çok hoşuma bugün

Unuttum ölüm vallahi

Dünya tümden boş geliyor

Pir’im bana hoş geliyor

Her sevdikçe cüş geliyor

Severim Pir’im vallahi

Helal bana Pir lokması

Hacc-ı kâbem meyhanesi

Kelb rakibin ürümesi

Kesemez yolum vallahi

Varsın banan Pir darılsın

Kolum boynuna sarılsın

Çözülen kollar kırılsın

Çözemem kolum vallahi

Girsem koynuna gömleksiz

Uyusa ben sevsen sessiz

Uyansa dese edepsiz

Çekemem elim vallahi

Latife’m çok hayâsızım

Çok severim çok yüzsüzüm

Ar namus yok habersizim

Çalarım gülüm vallahi

Pir Sultan Abdal ‘Hak’tan inayet olursa’


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This deyiş makes its first appearance in publication in Gölpınarlı and Boratav’s 1943 collection. It is one of the many deyiş collected by Aşık Ali İzzet Özkan, in this case from Hüseyin Efendi from Kale village in Divriği. This is one of the clearest most insistent of the kızılbaş ‘optative’ lyrics recounting the desires and hopes that the triumph of the Şah (Shah) and the coming of the Mehdi will bring. As is common in these lyrics, mention of the Shah evokes both the great Shah Ali (Şah-ı Merdan, although not with that epithet in this case) and the Safavid monarch, unnamed although the reference to Husrev with its connotation of the ‘great monarch’ Cyrus makes this clear. It is indeed a battle cry, mentioning holy war (gaza) and the sword of Ali, Zülfikar. The lyric has an  almost ecstatic quality in its repetition the dervish’s cry for victory. The mahlas is slightly odd being in the genitive case although the following line dramatically shifts the lyric to a personal declaration. I have left ‘Rum’ untranslated in this version although it could be translated simply as ‘Anatolia’.  Good stuff. This early draft translation leaves some terms untranslated that I will probably consider translations for later: bey (chief, noble), paşa (someone of high rank) and dede (devish leader, from the ehlibeyt line).

Pir Sultan Abdal: Hak’tan inayet olursa

Translation: Paul Koerbin

If by the grace of God

May the Shah come to Rum one day

In holy battle may he strike Zulfikar

Against the unbelievers one day

May all tribes come together

May they be slaves for the Shah

The destitute in the land of Rum

May they rejoice and smile one day

May they raise and bear the banner

May the Shah sit in Istanbul

May he return the captives from the Franks

May he release them to Horasan one day

May he gather together bey and pasha

May he sieze the four exremities

May the monarch march and enjoy

May Ali establish court one day

That the Shah’s rose was born

That abundant mercy rained down

That happy days were born

May such a world rejoice one day

My dede Mahdi must come

Ali must establish the court

He must break down injustice

May he wreak vengeance one day

Pir Sultan’s work is but a sigh

I am in expectation of the beautiful Shah

The administration that is sovereign

May he be its master one day


Original Turkish text from Gölpınarlı and Boratav (1943)

Hak’tan inayet olursa

Şah Urum’a gele bir gün

Gazâda bu Zülfikarı

Kâfirlere çala bir gün

Hep devşire gele iller

Şah’a ola köle kullar

Urumda ağlıyan sefiller

Şâd ola da güle bir gün

Çeke sancağı götüre

Şah İstanbul’a otura

Firenkten yesir getire

Horasana sala bir gün

Devşire beyi paşayı

Zapteyleye dört köşeyi

Husrev ede temaşayı

Âli divan kura bir gün

Gülü Şah’ın doğdu deyü

Bol ırahmet yağdu deyü

Kutlu günler doğdu deyü

Şu âlem şâd ola bir gün

Mehdi Dedem gelse gerek

Âli divan kursa gerek

Haksızları kırsa gerek

İntikamın ala bir gün

Pir Sultan’ın işi ahtır

İntizarım güzel Şah’tır

Mülk iyesi padişahtır

Mülke sahib ola bir gün

Pir Sultan Abdal ‘Sultan Suyu gibi çağlayıp akma’


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Çaltı Suyu near Divriği

This text first appears in Cahit Öztelli’s collection, Pir Sultan Abdal Bütün Şiirleri published in 1971.  Öztelli gives the source as being collected by Pertav Naili Boratav in the Çukurova region – a region wonderfully and magically evoked in the novels of Yaşar Kemal, but not particularly associated with Pir Sultan. This also makes the location of the Sultan Stream seem uncertain. The most identifiable Sultan Suyu is in the Malatya region, but a small stream of this name could be a local feature of any place. The mention of a wintery mountain peak does rather suggest central Anatolian location, though the location of the stream is hardly of great importance. Sadık Gürbüz included the song on his 1977 recording of Pir Sultan Abdal deyişler with the same melody as sung by Ruhi Su among the private recordings from the period 1970-72 later released on CD in 1990 as Sultan Suyu Pir Sultan Abdal’dan Deyişler (number 20 in the complete recordings of Ruhi Su). Gürbüz and Su both omit the third, and distinctly Alevi, verse in their recordings.

Pir Sultan Abdal: Sultan suyu gibi çağlayıp akma

Translation: Paul Koerbin

Don’t gush on burbling like the Sultan Stream

It will become calm, don’t worry foolish heart

Man’s mind is in mist as a wintery mountain peak

It will be reached, don’t worry foolish heart

A greeting from us to the one going to the friend

Damn the liar and damn the ignorant

How many enemies there are to ambush us

They will tire, don’t worry foolish heart

Worthy Ali is before us as leader

Do you think the work of God could collapse?

One’s short span in the world has ups and downs

Vigour will return, don’t worry foolish heart

I am Pir Sultan Abdal for the secret way

What has befallen us, let it remain here

That towards which we strive is hope

It will be reached, don’t worry foolish heart


Original text from Cahit Öztelli, Pir Sultan Abdal Bütün Şiirleri (1971)

Sultan Suyu gibi çağlayıp akma

Durulur, gam yeme divane gönül

Er başında duman, dağ başında kış

Erilir, gam yeme divane gönül


Bizden selâm söylen dosta gidene

Yuf yalancıya da, lânet nâdene

Bunca düşman ardımızdan yeltene

Yorulur, gam yeme divane gönül


Şah-ı Merdan önümüzde kılavuz

Yıkılır mı Hakk’ın yaptığı havuz

Üç günlük dünyada her yahşı, yavuz

Dirilir, gam yeme divane gönül


Pir Sultan Abdal’ım sırdan sırada

Bu iş böyle oldu, kalsın burada

Cümlemizim yeltendiği murada

Erilir, gam yeme divane gönül