In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Despatches to my Gazan Son


At the end of last year I translated into English a long poem by the distinguished Turkish poet Cahit Koytak. In Turkish, the poem is called “Gazze Risalesi.” It was written in 2008, but could just as easily have been composed last Summer, during the Israeli bombings which took place then, too. It seems that not much has changed in Gaza over the last seven years.

The poem consists of an extended lament and protest and meditation, in almost biblical terms and tones, on the fate of the Palestinian children in Gaza, in the shadow of the Israeli wall. First the poet addresses a young Palestinian called Yusuf, then a young Israeli called Joseph.

I have no doubt that the poem should be read in many other languages besides Turkish. For the apparently unending and irreconcilable stand-off between the Palestinians and Israelis, is not just a distant local affair, between “foreigners”. This conflict near Galilee takes place on a continental and historical fault-line that runs through the flesh and awareness of every European, since Europe’s connection with Jewishness is an ancient and barely redeemable entanglement, as is the connection between the three great faiths which share the Old Testament as holy book and claim the same hot patch of the Earth’s crust as holy land. And that entanglement continues unresolved, creating new victims, new scapegoats, new nightmares, new sin and new shame, every day.

The poem is soon to be published in book form by the Yunus Emre Institute, the Turkish equivalent of the British Council (the Institute is named after the Sufi poet Yunus Emre, who lived in the thirteenth century).

The Yunus Emre publication will not just contain the Turkish original. There will be an English translation and maybe even an Arabic one, as well.

I wrote the English translation, working partly from a literal English translation by Mevlut Ceylan, a Turk himself who has lived in London for many years. Doing it has introduced me to the poem’s author, Cahit Koytak, whom I had grown to love even before I met him in June of this year. With his assent, I have entitled the English translation “Despatches to my Gazan Son,” a slightly different meaning from the original.

For the Turkish word “Risalesi” is difficult to translate adequately into English. It apparently implies “Chapbook” or “Notes”or “Jottings” – something produced in pencil or by degrees or in episodes – not a formal whole.  “Despatches” has some of that feeling, though with obvious military connotations. But the poem is full of almost familial love and grief and outrage, as well. Hence “…to my Gazan Son.”

You can read my English version of the poem here.

But it is becoming available in other forms and media, besides hand-held book and text online.

For instance, it is already on YouTube, now in two different languages – Turkish and English.

The Turkish is a recording of Cahit Koytak’s own voice, with his Turkish words appearing onscreen at the same time as his voice speaks them.

And the English is a recording of my voice, accompanied by my English translation in the same way. My son Nik did the recording.

Both films offer the same succession of photographs of Palestinian children in Gaza, those pictures downloaded from the internet by two of Cahit Koytak’s sons.

Also, an online journal of good quality called “Electronic Intafada” has published some short excerpts from the English version, at the same time providing links to both the You-tube films. The magazine’s editors chose the excerpts. I think they’ve chosen well.