The number of people seeking refuge is far larger than the available location after the war period. When the figure of immigration reaches hundreds or even thousands, it becomes harder and more difficult in every aspect to start a new life. The situation within Anatolia is exactly the same after the war. Yaşar Kemal tells the story of an island deserted by the exile of Greeks under such a circumstance and which provides life to people with everything it possesses. It seems as tough the island is waiting to be accommodated with people. Greeks left everything they owned back on the island and the only ingredient missing is the people who will bring color to the island with life and in return benefit from joie de vivre ambiance of the island. Yaşar Kemal locates such people on the island that by his own words it is impossible to find better people neither in old China nor in ancient Europe or in behind Kaf mountain or in Kurdistan. Each one of them holds a different skill. One of them is the best horse breeder whereas another one the best mechanic, one of them is the best fisherman, the other best cook or best tailor etc.
Each one of them has a different identity. Greeks, Chechnians, Kurds, Turks, People of Black Sea and Alewis spend their lives by appreciation and in endearing environment. Problems and happiness are concerns for each and every one of them. Despite their identities, languages, beliefs are different; their stories are similar. They are open for listening and understanding.
They frequently speak of war and let out the fear and hate engraved within them. They tell their mind accompanied with lessons learned. What they tell is not objective but experienced first hand.
One of the interesting and impressive expressions on war is as follows; “every man who survived the war is disabled, half dead if you will. No one remains the same person once experienced war. He is deteriorated and crippled. Those people do not feel happiness until their moment of death. They keep looking for a desolate world to escape to and forget all about the filth that is the world.”
When talking about the Yezidi slaughter, one of them says; “is not war the biggest crime, is it not the biggest wrongdoing, disgusting unbecoming and undoing of men who sends the life thirsty youth to kill each other?”
Zehra, love of Poyraz the protagonist of the story, complains about men by stating; “as long as I have known myself these men have been fighting. They have been dying and they have been killing. They burn down towns, cities and mountains. They burn babies and children. They force people out of their homes.”
Nişancı (Marksman) Veli is the mysterious character of the story and he is also the best fisherman. He says while gasping at the beauty of one of the ladies “if men are able to adore such beauty, what is this war? what is this fight, humiliation, hostility against water coming from the spring, bird hurling through the air and the butterfly gracefully gazing on the leaf? Are the insane, insane I say? My years have passed and I am just what is left of me after being sculpted by wars, death, atrocities, friendships, love and happiness. I have been through a lot, but I did not understand men. What a weird and insane creature. Damn you.”
Stories of children orphaned by the war and who strive to survive by themselves are also told in the book. You can not withhold yourself to think on the current issues while reading about their stories. It is fascinating to see how the approach towards these children has remained the same although there were minor differences in details. The story of children takes place during Baytar (Veterinarian) Cemil’s journey to Van to reach to his family and love after his survival from the war. Cemil meets sufferers of war one-by-one when he reaches Van to see his family and love following his survival from Sarıkamış. Firstly, Armenians accept him as a guest. He senses the fear of Armenians. The fear of imminent death at the doorstep. Van is desolated and that is a sight Cemil could not bear to see. He meets Armenian, Kurd, Yezidi children orphaned by the war on the road. Their condition is heart-breaking. The children are left for death in trenches. Those with a little strength left in them steal food from the city and run away while being attacked by villagers or towners with horses and guns. Children counter with sling shots and stones. In the next scene many children are dead and some towners are wounded. Cemil runs off to the district governor and starts to jabber upon his sight “they are dying, dying, they are in agony. Hundreds of children took shelter in a trench. They are all naked, they are dying.” District governor pays no attention to his words, but in the end he jumps off his chair and shouts “Do you know who those children are, officer? They are not human, they are locusts. They are not children, they are monsters. They burned down this grand country, they destructed it. They pillaged the villages and towns. They killed people and raped little girls. They are Armenian, Kurds, Yezidis, Chaldeans, Gypsies; they are bastards of the whole world. Killing them is justified in the four books. You do not know them. It is fortunate for us that they are dying. We are getting disposed of these locusts, rhinos with human facades, blood-sucking monsters.”
Cemil leaves the office of the district governor with haste triggered by all that he has heard. He reaches the city square and asks for help. Throughout the course of his begging for help, the city is dead silent. Nobody pays any mind to him or his words. An old man comes near him and says “do not stare like this, son. Do not pain yourself. Everybody is used to death now around here. It is so common that someday they will honor child-killers with gold. He who kills more children will be assumed as a hero. Get on your horse and ride away officer. I am a soldier too and I understand you in my heart. I served for 11 years. I have been in all wars. Most of the people in war lose a lot in them, they become deranged and get used to blood. Only a small part of them find the strength to oppose to blood and killing. Go by your way my officer, my boy, before those blood-thirsty men harm you. There is no salvation for those in that trench. Whatever we do, they will die my son.”
The striking aspect of the story is that although the atrocities and injustice experienced, people found a new life in collaboration. Story of an Island is the story of knowing how to live but never forgetting the reality, cruelty and atrocity of all events which have come to pass. The story is Yaşar Kemal’s stand to exist and sustain hope despite all evil and negativities.
In this aspect, Yaşar Kemal portrays the island in such a way that it is more impressive than any description of heaven in most books. The island is so amazing that best peaches, figs, pomegranates, olives, grapes are cultivated on it. The honey of the island is one of a kind and can not be found elsewhere. Every inch of nature is strikingly gorgeous and the houses are only to be dreamed of. People on the island acknowledge the value of these beauties and they protect them. They know how to co-exist. Money is not of sacred value for them. They spend money for each other and they are annoyed by it. Money earned from the unique peaches, olives, figs and pomegranates of the island are distributed to the habitants of the island and the remaining amount is kept for common expenses and emergencies. Everything is how it should be or even better in this story.
Yaşar Kemal states in detail what war and exile costs in his trilogy of “Story of an Island” and moreover he hints his perfection as an author with little touches of his surprising competence in nautical knowledge while indicating that a new and radiant life might be founded after depressing and heart-breaking times.
It is disturbing to be faced with the current status of the world particularly related to immigration after reading such an inspiring book. On the other hand, under these hard and rough conditions, what we need is undoubtedly the story of people who know how to live together and understand each other. Most importantly we need to walk in their shoes, in other words we do not need experts, organizations and institutions to sit, think and decide on what is best for immigrants, what we need to do is to listen to immigrants. Reading about people who are neglected from the sensitive, experienced and competent words of Yaşar Kemal teaches us about the facts of the events experienced and advises us to be hopeful despite all. Isn’t it all we really need!
Note: “Story of an Island” series by Yaşar Kemal consists of four books.
Look, the Euphrates is Flowing with Blood (1)
Ant Drinking Water (2)
The Cocks of Dawn (3)