Ali Suavi

Posted on September 25, 2011


“Bilmeyen ne bilsin bizin? Bilenlere selâm olsun” -Yunus Emre

If you take a lucky left turn off Bahariye Caddesi, you may experience a creeping tranquility. Eventually, you realize that the survival instinct that keeps you on edge walking around Istanbul has drifted away. You are on Ali Suavi street, and vehicles are strictly forbidden between the hours of 9am and 9pm. You are first struck by the surreal number of mannequins simultaneously wearing adult diapers, splints, eye-patches, neck-braces, and slings. Some of them even have on cooling eye-masks for their migraines which a person in need of all those things at once must surely experience quite often.

As you continue, you will notice the medical supply shops slowly give way to cafes and artisan kiosks.

Most people on this street are heading to the Nazim Hikmet Kültür Merkezi, a cultural center dedicated to the famous Turkish poet who died in exile for his communist sensibilities. Communist movies and concerts are often held there. You might be wondering what a communist concert would be like. Well, it might start out with a Cuban band because all good communists must like cuban music. After a few songs, then a competition is held to determine who can give the longest speech. Trophies are also given out for most redundancy and longest mic check. After the “concert” is over, beards and mustaches fill the streets and start chatting about philosophy or economics…I don’t know because I don’t speak Turkish. I just look at the young men my age and even younger and reflect on the inferiority of my own facial hair.

My ignorance of Turkish doesn’t allow me to say this, but I can’t help thinking of Ali Suavi street as an intellectual playpen. No doubt sophisticated conversations and astute observations are mixed in with the constant tinkling of teacups in the many cafes. It’s just, for me, the length and fullness of the beards belie the naiveté and innocence of full-throated Marxism rather than the maturity of socialism.

Anyhow, it’s a wonderful little street of innocence and ideas, hopes and fears, shared over tea and coffee. All of this, under the watchful eye of a mannequin in weather-beaten, rain-stained, adult diaper reminding us just how fleeting all of this idealism and youth really is.

This lovely street is where I live, and I never gave much thought to its namesake. Ali Suavi’s bust rests on top of three giant books at the beginning of the street. It’s a perfect statue for cats to sleep on and for vandals to spray paint.

My friend recently lent me the most fascinating book I’ve ever read about Turkey. I’m still not finished with it, but I ran across Mr. Suavi’s name.  The book is The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. In spite of the title, it’s a fun read. There are so many things that most of us don’t know about Turkey, but one of the most surprising and little known are the changes to the Turkish language.

Before I came to Turkey I was aware of the change from the Arabic script which the Ottomans used to the Latin alphabet, and I knew that Atatürk made these changes as part of his westernization of the country.

Here is Atatürk teaching the new alphabet to some folks. Apparently, he was a pretty good teacher, but I’d like to see him try this rather dull presentation with my 6th and 7th graders.

However, there is much more to the story of the evolution and creation of the Turkish language than simply changing the alphabet. I can’t tell the whole story, you’ll have to read the book, but I will share a couple of things with you.

First of all, Turkish was a language of the common people of Anatolia. Whereas, Ottoman was spoken only by the aristocracy and rulers. One of the reason’s for this is that Ottoman was sort of like Kirby. You remember him? I’m not talking about the old vacuum cleaner brand which I remember us having as a kid.

I’m talking about the pepto bismol colored video game character from Kirby’s dreamland.

Kirby could inhale his enemies and receive their superpowers this way. Here he is inhaling Super Mario thereby gaining the power of plumbing and getting high on shrooms. This is similar to the Ottoman language. It inhaled Persian (Farsi), Arabic, and French thereby gaining the superpower of having insane amounts of words. It also inhaled too much Persian grammar structure and the annoying elements of Arabic where everything has to be either male or female. Like in Spanish how tables are females and books are males. So you can imagine just how difficult to speak this language became.

Meanwhile the common folk of Anatolia kept on speaking Turkish which sounded less and less like Ottoman. It got to where the groups of people were not only separated by economic status, but also language. When new laws written in ornate Ottoman were read aloud to the townsfolk, no one could understand them so no one could follow them.

Geoffrey Lewis, the author, documents a hilarious tale showing the bewilderment felt by ordinary Turks when they had to listen to Ottoman:

“…there is the tale of the sarıklı hoca ( the turbanned cleric ), who, wishing to buy some mutton, addresses a butcher’s boy with the words […] ‘O apprentice of the butcher, wilt thou bestow on me one oke avoirdupois of ovine flesh?’ The perplexed boy can only reply ‘Amin!’ (Amen!).”

So you can see the problem with this whole setup. It had to be changed. With the revolutionary thinkers who began to spring up in defiance of the Ottoman rulers, came the idea that the language needed to be drastically changed.

According to Lewis,

Ali Suavi (1837-78) was one of the first to take a national stand in the matter of language: he urged the avoidance of non-Turkish words for which there were good Turkish equivalents and, like Süleyman Paşa and Şemsettin Sami after him, spoke out against calling the language Ottoman.”

Ali had a newspaper called Muhbir, and he described the philosophy behind it as this:

“Everything which can legitimately be expressed, [this journal] will write up in the ordinary language used in the capital; that is to say, in terms that everybody will be able to understand.”

I’m really beginning to like the cut of this man’s jib. A brave thinker who stood up for the average Mehmet on the street. There is so much more to the story of the Turkish language, but there is no time. I just wanted to share the part about Ali.

So next time you are strolling down Ali Suavi Sokak, browsing for neck braces and handicrafts, think about the contributions of Suavi and how language affects almost everything.

Also, I recommend this book for anyone who truly wants to understand the state of modern Turkey. The most interesting parts I haven’t mentioned for certain reasons . However, the way the language reform was carried out, for me, almost perfectly embodies how most everything about Turkey as we find it today has been carried out. I’ll leave you with a quote I found very moving from the book. This is from the famous Turkish folk poet Yunus Emre:

“Bilmeyen ne bilsin bizin? Bilenlere selâm olsun. (What should the ignorant know of us? To those who know, greetings.)”

A nice cafe on Ali Suavi Sokak: