Burhan Sönmez: The Yellow East, The White West

Barcelona - Ateneu Barcelona. 6/04/18. Retrato y rueda de prensa de Burhan Sönmez escritor turco de origen kurdo que presenta su nuevo libro traducido al catalán "Istanbul, Istanbul" en L´Ateneu Barcelonés. Fotografía de Luay Albasha

Burhan Sönmez is the author of four novels, which have been translated into forty languages. He was born in Turkey and grew up speaking Turkish and Kurdish. He worked as a lawyer in Istanbul before going to Britain as a political exile. His writing has appeared in newspapers including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, and La Repubblica. He translated the poetry book of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake into Turkish. He lectured in Literature at the university of METU. He received Vaclav Havel Library Award in 2017 and the EBRD Literature Prize in 2018. A board member of PEN International, he divides his time between Istanbul and Cambridge.


When I was a child, in a small village in the middle of a steppe, my mother would tell us fairy tales, under the dim light of a gas lamp. In a tale, she would say, there was a palace between Black Sea and White Sea where lived a prince and princess. For us, little kids, it was magical to imagine places beyond our village, how could we know how far was a sea. And we did not know that White Sea meant Mediterranean Sea in some other language.

Anatolia, the main land of current Turkey, is a peninsula situated between Black Sea in the north and White Sea in the south. My village is right in the middle of that vast land. Many Kurdish tribes, along side Turkish tribes, ran into Anatolia coming from eastern lands hundred years ago. The tribe of my village presumably came here about three centuries ago. Who were here then? When we ask this question to elderly people they easily answer: there was no one here, apparently this open lands were empty and good for the flocks and herds of our ancestors.

Reading and studying in big cities have given my generation opportunity to search and understand the memory and fate of the land where our grand-grandparents were born and buried. Now I know that this place was not an empty land. There were Greeks and Armenians. Before them were Galatians, Phrygians and others. They all have now been forgotten by local people. Forgetting is an epidemic disease that runs within human cultures.

Anatolia has become home to many civilisations from the Hittites in the second millennium BC to the Ottomans in the second millennium AD. The longest rulers were Romans who had occupied Anatolia for nearly two-thousand-years until Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453.

The modern name Anatolia was coined by the people who lived on the western coast of Aegean Sea. It means “east” or “where the sun rises”. Ottoman Turks came from the east and headed for Constantinople the capital of Eastern Roman Empire that was ruled by Caesars traditionally. When Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II captured the city he claimed to become the inheritor of Roman Caesars and began to use the official title of “Kaiser-i Rum” (“Caesar of the Romans”). His authority was celebrated by Orthodox Christian subjects too and they called him “Sultan Basileus” as protector of Orthodoxy.

Sultan Mehmet II desired to spread his power across old Roman territories and sent his army to invade Italy, an attempt that ended up in failure. Before long his proud title of “Caesar of the Romans” was forgotten and overpowered by other, newly obtained, title that was the Caliph. His grandson Selim I invaded Arabia in 1516 and Ottoman sultans had become the Caliph of Muslims until twentieth century.

Of the history of Caesars and Caliphs another kind of culture might have developed in Anatolia and across White Sea. Mixing of races, migration of nations, and interaction of cultures are feeding a new, and hopefully positive, way of understanding each other. If we have not lost our neighbours of different nations and religions everything could have been different.

The idea of nation states created opportunity to flee the oppression of old empires while it paid a high price by leaving other nations and cultures on the other side of the fence. We ended Ottoman Empire one hundred years ago as around the same time we lost the people of other nations on these lands. Elderly people in my village do not have knowledge that once there were other nations here.

In the olden times cardinal points were described by colours. South was red (e.g. the Red Sea); north was black (Black Sea), and west was white (White Sea / Mediterranean). The east was yellow (or sometimes blue). Despite three seas of colours there is not a sea of the east-colour like Yellow Sea. In the east was Anatolia, that’s how old Greeks named it, “east-land”. It is an inland, a pastoral country between seas, while Mediterranean is a sea between lands. Ancient people named Mediterranean “the Great Sea” or “Our Sea” or more properly “Internal Sea” (Mare Internum). The name Mediterranean refers similar connotations as “in the middle of lands”.

Since we have captured the whole picture of the earth and assumed the knowledge of it from primary school onwards we do not need to look in maps any more. Maps are everywhere and so we do not see them. We forget how powerful is the connections of lands, rivers, mountains and seas. We do not perceive how important the history of maps that reflect the universal development from migrating primates between continents to moving armies of destitute people towards rich countries.

Maps were created by people to broaden our view of the world beyond geographical lines by seeing that the earth had no borderline at all. The language of colours and the reference of names helped to communicate with in a different symbolisation of human contact. Caravans that travelled Silk Road to east and west, and ships that crossed White Sea to south and north were not carrying only fine fabric or good wine but also art, desire, fear and hope for another kind of world. Maps store these diverse worlds in their memory with colourful shades. Maps have a memory that we created ages ago and now we are about to lose it.

White Sea was the first sea that I saw when I was at high school at the age of seventeen. After realising how enormous was it I believed that it was a world on its own. White Sea was a single, closed up entity. By consisting countries, continents, and islands, it did not need anything else. It was self-sufficient. There was a world of White Sea and the other parts of the planet were the rest. Maybe that is why during ancient times it was also named as “the centre of the world.”

After developments of ages we now like to believe that nations should have left many of prejudices behind. That is why it is strange to see that still there are national-cultural rivalries in our times. Is Turkish coffee in fact Greek coffee? Is Greek yogurt that I buy in Italy actually original Turkish yogurt? Though this kind of little rivalries sound annoying it also shows how powerful is the constantly changing form of culture. Culture flows like fluid. It goes into soil, reaches underground currents. It evaporates like air. It rains like clouds, runs like rivers and fills in the vast seas.

The first coffee shop was opened in Istanbul’s Galata district in 15th century as soon as the city was captured by Ottomans. The European took coffee as a Turkish drink of Istanbul while Turks composed songs saying that their coffee had originally come from Yemen. People of Yemen would say that their coffee was brought from Ethiopia by Somali merchants. Only following the various shapes of the word coffee in different languages (kahve, qahwah, kaffa, koffie, kafe, café) is good enough to show how immense is the transforming power of culture. It can break any wall and cross any border. Of course it is not always innocent and self-regulate. When you visit today’s Istanbul you will witness that the whole city has been captured by American coffee companies. It will not be surprising to come cross a Starbuck’s on every corner. Global trade has always influenced countries in the past but it has never seized the whole world as much as it does today.

Then we feel to ask: what is the meaning of east or west any more? Does east still mean the place where the sun rises? Or, is the White Sea still the centre of the world?

The White Sea of Mediterranean used to be like a universe, closed upon itself. It had a black hole, named Gibraltar, through that it could swallow anything. The only thing it swallows today is the weak boats of immigrants who are facing death to cross the giant waves of this great sea towards north. They carry their culture with them, their fear and their hope. But none of these merits has a a market value in world trade and they end up disappearing in the deep water. Still we can ask another question: is it possible to stop the current of nations from one land to another? Has not that current formed the existence of human kind on the planet since the travels of primates and first tribes?

When I went to school I realised that both Black Sea and White Sea were a long long way from my village in the countryside. Then I noticed that my little village was right in the middle of the land between those two seas. The palace my mum told in her tale was located in our village. Like the prince and princess, who got cursed and lost their palace, before long we got cursed too and left our home for cities. That is the destiny of mankind to leave home, to change, to be changed, and to create a new home. We are not any more destined to die in the same land where we were born. We are strolling around to find a new soil to be buried in. As everything changes maybe fairy tales should change too with one exception. Fairy tales are for happy endings, and we want our lives to have happy endings too.