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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