Provocative, iconoclastic and virulently anti-Islamic, the writer Aziz Nesin was either loved or hated by the Turks. As news spread of his death in the Aegean holiday resort of Cesme, security forces took up positions in the town on the assumption that he had been assassinated.
In fact, doctors judged that Turkey's best-selling author had succumbed to heart failure on his hotel bed in the early hours yesterday after a typically busy day signing the last of his more than 90 books and plays. He was 79 years old.
Nesin was one of the few Turkish writers to be translated abroad and won at least six international awards from countries ranging from Italy to the Soviet Union. Two volumes of his work appeared in English under the title Istanbul Boy and he was particularly popular in Eastern Europe.
A chronicler of daily life's absurdities rather than a grand man of letters, Nesin satirised the petty bureaucrats and hypocritical politicians common in the state-dominated developing world. Caustic prose exposed the sycophancy and wasteful futility of small-minded officialdom. Nesin was determined to make a difference. Punning on the fatalistic Turkish proverb "So it comes, so it goes", he made the title of his autobiography So it Comes, So it Will Not Go On.
Nesin was born in humble surroundings in 1915. He was educated in an Istanbul charity school before enrolling as a military cadet and winning a place at Istanbul's prestigious military academy. But the short, pugnacious Nesin left the army as a lieutenant and decided to make his mark as a prolific journalist and writer.
He went boldly, even rashly, against the conformist Turkish grain, especially in later life. Turks of all kinds recoiled in shock at pronouncements like "Turks are stupid", "God does not like the Turks", or "Turks are like turkeys in a Nasreddin Hodja story".
Left of centre in his sympathies, Nesin had a piercing wit which won him criticism from left and right. Later he waged an unrelenting war against Islamic fundamentalists. Most tragic was his role on 2 July 1993, when he attended a meeting in Sivas, a conservative town in central Turkey's fundamentalist heartland. "What should I believe in the Koran, written a thousand years ago?" he asked his audience, mainly local Turkish Alevis, a heterodox Shia sect long in conflict with Turkey's Sunni majority. "I am not a Muslim, I am even an atheist. The Koran should change for our age, we have to write something for ourselves."
By evening a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim crowd had gathered outside the hotel where Nesin, other intellectuals and Alevi artists were forced to take refuge. Some young militants set the hotel alight. Whipped on by radicals, the crowd then shouted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") as the building burned out, killing 37 people inside. Nesin was lucky to be reached by a fire ladder at an upstairs window. He believed it was because his companion had lied and shouted that a police commissioner was stuck in the room. As it was, the crowd and even the fire-fighters beat him all the way to a vehicle that rushed him away.
Nesin was unrepentant. He preserved the blackened shirt he was wearing at the time in a small museum-shrine at what he thought of as one of his proudest achievements, a dusty quasi-orphanage in the Thracian countryside west of Istanbul.
There he would meet his interviewers in a jumbled office, his thick, white hair dishevelled and his clothes often grimy. The young boys, sent by their parents to imbibe Nesin's version of secular Western values, circled round the building with cones of paper, swatting and collecting flies that drifted in from nearby cattle farms.
Over lunch cooked by the children and accompanied self-consciously by classical music, Nesin told of the strict condition under which he accepted his boarders: minimal contact with their parents, in case they should slip back into "reactionism".
"Turkey is going down a dangerous road; it never learns lessons," he would say in driven tones, listing absurd religious anomalies in the supposedly secular state. "We are still living things that went out in Europe 400 years ago."
Aziz Nesin, writer: born December 1915; died Cesme, Turkey 6 July 1995.
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