İpek Cem Taha

Director, Columbia Global Centers, İstanbul

Prominent Turkish singer and writer Zülfü Livaneli, who has launched his new book ‘Serenade for Nadia’ in New York, is seen with İpek Cem Taha. (Photo: Rengim Mütevellioğlu)

Zülfü Livaneli has been one of the leading symbols in Turkey in the quest for rights and justice. An artist who feels equally comfortable with the traditional Anatolian saz, the pen or the microphone, he is an international name followed by millions as a musician, writer, and political activist…Many generations grew up with his songs, and they accompany us from weddings to funerals and from political rallies to celebrations. He flows naturally from composer to performer, from author to politician, from international diplomat to film director… While his titles and awards grow each year, he has remained truthful to his essence beyond fame and recognition.

He is known as a man of peace and someone who endeavors to build bridges between nations through culture and art. Livaneli’s books have been translated into thirty-seven languages and last week he was in New York for the launch of ‘Serenade for Nadia’ from Other Press. Translated by Brendon Freely, the novel is based on the real-life sinking of a refugee ship during World War II.

Livaneli’s U.S. publisher, Judith Gurewich, called the novel a ‘page-turner’ at the book launch event. She also said something that most would agree with, that is if you encounter Livaneli through his book and then discover all the other lives he has been living, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. As Judith put it during his book launch, “you read a fantastic story and then you discover there is a legend behind it.” Serenade had topped Turkish bestseller lists for many years and still remains a best seller.

It was a good coincidence which we discovered about a month ago that Zülfü would be in New York the same week that I would be traveling here. As such he was hosted at Columbia University for a lecture titled ‘The Role of Literature in Societal Transformation,’ which also caused a major queue for a book signing following the talk. Being quite the Renaissance man, Zülfü also managed to have three nights of concerts where both his Rumi Suite, and Livaneli songs took center place. The musicians were mostly of our region, including Demet Sarioglu and Ara Dinkjian- and also utilizing many traditional musical instruments of the same geography. The Rumi Suite, with verses from Rumi and Zülfü’s compositions, was sung by Lara Nome Doyle.

From Jewish to Syrian refugees

Livaneli believes in the role transformative role of literature on society. He feels that literature should be accessible and also a positive force for society. When choosing his many topics for his novels and also his writing style, he says that he keeps these principles in mind. If you are familiar with his music, you can perhaps sense the same kind of intense emotion in his books as you do while listening to his music.

The author uses a historical canvas as a backdrop for many of his novels. In Serenade for Nadia, the historical backdrop of what happened to Struma and how it happened, gives him an interesting setup that ties in the main character, Maya Duran, a single mother of a teenager, working at the Istanbul University. While most World War II stories are told from a European lens, this one also has Istanbul and parallel stories that we do not always associate with that time period, as Turkey was not a party to that war.

In essence, Serenade for Nadia and the plight of refugees is as real today as it was during the World War II. You do not need to look further than the Aegean or the Turkish Greek border in the past days, to see how the same sad serenade is being played in the same region. The plight of Syrian and other refugees to access European countries is not the responsibility of Turkey only. We need to take a much more collaborative and responsible approach as an international community as the refugees, whether internally or externally displaced now have reached over 70 million people. Turkey is currently hosting to over 4 million Syrian refugees and with Coronavirus on the rise, refugees also remain a very vulnerable population.

Just like World War II created destruction and refugees, so too are the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, to mention two of Turkey’s neighbors, creating widespread devastation which pours into geographies both adjacent and away from these countries. The response of global youth to climate change has been that they are ready to take action and work towards a collective approach to save the planet. The refugee crisis is one such issue that requires collective solutions and joint responsibility.

The West and especially Europe should get out of the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ mode and accept that this is, in fact, a European problem as well.

Zülfü Livaneli is a valuable voice of conscience not just for Turkey, but also for the international community. I am delighted that his universal tune is being sung in many more places, whether as music, movies, poetry or prose.

We need camaraderie and inspiration to keep realizing that we do not have a future – if not a collective one. And voices like Livaneli help us not to forget that.