by Holly A. Case
Dost Mektupları (Letters of a Friend) is a collection of correspondence between James Baldwin and the Turkish actor Engin Cezzar (pronounced Jezzar). Although they were written in English with a spattering of French (Baldwin) and Shakespearean English (Cezzar), the letters have only been published in Turkish. This may seem odd, but if you know much about Baldwin, one of the things you probably know is that the estate has mostly forbidden publication of his correspondence, and denied biographers permission to cite directly from his letters.
What this means is that in Letters of a Friend, readers of Turkish can glimpse a side of Baldwin that few have seen: Baldwin in his own words to a friend. Except that Baldwin's words are in Turkish, and Baldwin didn't know Turkish…
Bear in mind that excerpts from the letters cited hereafter have been translated from English into Turkish by a translator, and then back again from Turkish to English by me. I have not seen the texts in English. My translations may therefore bear only an impressionistic resemblance to the original.
The title of Baldwin's first novel is Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). In Letters of a Friend, this title appears in Turkish several times. On page 16, it's rendered as Git Onu Dağlara Söyle, which translates literally as Go Sing It to the Mountains. The word for “tell” and “sing” are the same in Turkish, which seems appropriate, given that Baldwin's title is also the name of a well-known song. A footnote tells us this is the title under which the book was translated in Turkey, but I can't find it anywhere. On pages 43 and 54, the title is given as Çık Dağ Başına Orada Anlat, which translates as Go Out and Tell It There on a Mountaintop, which is closer to the injunction in the original, if still somewhat awkward.
Part of the problem is that “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which is the title of an African-American spiritual composed the year the Civil War ended (1865), does not quite ring with the same soulful ecstasy in Turkish, even when it is correctly translated. All of the cultural resonance of the phrase—the pain and sorrow of enslavement, the hope of freedom, Protestantism with a rhythm profoundly unlike the Lutheran populist pounding of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—is absent from the Turkish.
What can be heard in the Turkish rendition (Git Onu Dağlara Söyle) is the echo of a famous verse by a Turkish writer, Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, titled “Dağlarda Şarkı Söyle” (Sing a Song in the Mountains). The final stanza, in which the line appears, goes like this:
Uzasan, göğe ersen, If you stretch, you'll reach the sky,
Cücesin şehirde sen; You are a dwarf in the city;
Bir dev olmak istersen, If you want to be a giant,
Dağlarda şarkı söyle! Sing a song in the mountains!
Ironies abound in this distorted echo. One of them is how the verse seems to trace the arc of Cezzar's acting career.
The letters between Baldwin and his friend are intimate, but infrequent. Baldwin wrote many more than Cezzar. The bulk of the letters recount the trials and triumphs of their professional lives; the word “meteliksiz,” meaning “broke,” appears with striking frequency.
Early in the correspondence, Cezzar lamented having no work and no prospects. Then he got a big break. In 1959, Elia Kazan offered him the role of Sammy Goldenbaum in the American theatrical tour of Dark at the Top of the Stairs. “I had been waiting for this chance for years,” Cezzar told his Turkish biographer decades later. “I seized it. I signed a one-year contract, sighed a great big sigh of relief, and then…to Istanbul.”
There, Cezzar met a Turkish director who asked him where he'd been, what he'd been doing. The actor spoke with pride of his big break. “America was already a magic word,” Cezzar recalled. After closing with the story of Kazan's contract, he awaited his audience's reaction. “So you're not coming back to Turkey?” the director asked, and then let it drop that he was staging Hamlet. “Wouldn't you like to play Hamlet?”
“Just look at those words!” Cezzar recalled. “Who doesn't want to play Hamlet?” He accepted the role on the spot and started rehearsals the next day. From the first of October of 1959, Hamlet opened to a full house every night. Cezzar: “I won instant fame. Twenty-four years old. With the 200th performance we broke a world record. From the time it was written till that day it had never had a longer uninterrupted run anywhere.”
Meanwhile, Baldwin had long been planning and promising to visit Istanbul, but there were several false starts. Cezzar had not even told Baldwin about his Shakespearean coup. In a footnote to a letter from November 11, 1959, Cezzar later reflected: “It seems in the excitement of the play and drunk on success, I hadn't even written to tell him!” On February 10, 1960, Baldwin sent a telegram from France announcing a further delay in his plans to visit Turkey: “I'M BROKE I'M LATE I'M SICK IF YOU CAN COME HERE PLEASE LET ME KNOW BY TELEGRAM JIMMY.” A parenthetical remark by Cezzar is appended to this transmission in Dost Mektupları: “(Of course I couldn't go. Hamlet every night!)”
Cezzar, it might be said, had exchanged a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage (“If you want to be a giant, Sing a song in the mountains!”). Or so it seemed to some. In March of 1960, Baldwin told his friend that the reason he hadn't yet come to Turkey was because he was trying to find a way to get Cezzar back to the US. “It's my understanding that what's happening to you in Turkey resembles what is happening to me and especially to blacks here.” What was happening (besides Hamlet) in Turkey? Cezzar left no footnote of explanation.
A few months later there was a military coup in Turkey. The two friends lost contact. On May 2, 1961, Baldwin wrote to Cezzar again from New York: “At last! During that coup I was starting to consider an appeal to our wonderful CIA to find out where you are.”
“Freedom,” Baldwin said in a speech on civil rights in 1968, “is a much overused word, and it may not be as real as slavery, which is a very concrete thing. But freedom is what one is after.” Baldwin once told his friend, the Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal, that he felt free in Turkey. Kemal, who was thrown in prison for his views on several occasions, replied: “That's because you're American.” Baldwin also said he didn't feel like a black man in Turkey. Kemal said that's because in Turkey the equivalent of black is Arab. Baldwin's Turkish friends called him “Arab.”
In his letter to Cezzar following the 1960 coup, Baldwin expressed joy and relief at having reestablished contact, and then wrote about the US. (Many leftists in Turkey and elsewhere believed the US had supported the coup out of fear that Turkey was planning to break with NATO and form closer ties with the USSR.) “You have no idea how much I envy you your superior situation, dear friend,” Baldwin began:
My country offers a stunning sight from afar, doesn't it? I can't even imagine how it looks. I think I've been here too long. I'm so sick of the debates that my brain is buzzing and I'm becoming increasingly grumpy. [I]'m sick and tired of people going on about skin color; to hell with it. May as well volunteer to be an astronaut. [I] really need some time away from this country.
In October of 1961, Baldwin finally did travel to Turkey, showing up unexpectedly at Cezzar's wedding party. Over the next decade he made several long visits. An entire book has been written on Baldwin in Turkey, and there are chapters of several others on the same topic.
The poet who wrote “Dağlarda Şarkı Söyle” (Sing a Song in the Mountains), Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904-1983), was an Islamist and a Turkish nationalist. His problem with cities was that they were the domain of urban secularists and Jews. The Turkish president Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has incorporated many of Necip Fazıl's principles into his ideal of a “New Turkey.” “If there is a New Turkey, a great Turkey today,” Erdoğan said in 2014, “it bears the signature of Necip Fazıl.” One of Necip Fazıl's ideas was about freedom: “A person is not free; a dog or a donkey is free.”
Baldwin once said, “Love has never been a popular movement and nobody has ever really wanted to be free.” Baldwin and Necip Fazıl would likely have agreed on the second point, but of the two only Baldwin wanted love to be a popular movement; “love” not in “the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace.” In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin recounted a visit he had made to the then-leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who pressured him to join the movement. Baldwin was put off by Muhammad's “single-mindedness,” the source of the movement's power. “I felt that I was back in my father's house,” Baldwin recalled, “as indeed, in a way, I was.”
In Baldwin's semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, there's a scene in which the young Baldwin character is given a certificate of achievement at school for an essay he had written on the history of New York. When he shows the certificate to his father, the stern patriarch is unimpressed: “Might have been nice if you'd written something about the Bible, something about your own people, and God.” “I will next time, Sir,” the boy replies meekly.
“I'll tell you this,” Baldwin later said in an interview, “My father frightened me so badly, I had to fight him so hard that nobody has ever frightened me since.” Indeed it seems in a way that Baldwin was forever giving answer to his father's injunction. First he went into the church and became a preacher, then he became a writer who wrote about his “own people.” But he never seemed fully satisfied with the result, and periodically wished he were an astronaut. Sometimes it seems as though Baldwin knew how to frame the problem, but could not bring himself to formulate a solution. His eloquent speech on civil rights ended abruptly with a plea to those present to figure out what needed to be done, and do it. “Thank you,” he said, and sat down. “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble,” he wrote in The Fire Next Time, “the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”
Necip Fazıl wrote something similar. “In the end there is just one song, the creak of the coffin.” But Necip Fazıl was unlike Baldwin in that he saw religion, nation, and “single-mindedness” as virtues. “A truly Turkish history has yet to be written,” he wrote. “If it had been, there would be no more questions.”
For his own part, Baldwin refused to dispense with questions in exchange for power. He wrote of his father that “he wanted power. He could not bend, he could only be broken.” In that respect the son did not mimic the aspirations of his father. If the preoccupations of those inspired by Baldwin are any indication, then questions are the very essence of his legacy. “A constant questioning,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me, “questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”
Cezzar's last letter to Baldwin is dated November 13, 1979: “See here, my dear Arab, as soon as you've read this letter, write to me.” They were in touch thereafter, but had a falling out over a film script and never saw one other again. In 2007, Cezzar made one more epistolary contribution to the Letters of a Friend. “Dear Friend, 'Arab child' Jimmy,” it begins, and then cites Ecclesiastes I: 8-9 (in Turkish the Ahd-i Atik):
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.