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Writers' Room: Meltem Halaceli

  • By Canan Marasligil
  • 12th June 2013
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Our Translator in Residence, Canan Marasligil, interviews Meltem Halaceli about family heritage, the cities she loves, and Europe's relationship with Turkey.

Let's start with an easy one: could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Meltem Halaceli and I was born in the Netherlands. I love poetry, language and contemporary art, particularly those produced in the Middle East. I love Beirut, Amsterdam, Istanbul and Hatay for very different and similar reasons. I’m currently writing a book about the life of my Ottoman Arab grandfather who witnessed the First World War. Right now I’m travelling through Turkey for a few weeks to gather stories and anecdotes about him and the events he witnessed before the Turkish Republic was founded.

What made you want to write this book? When did you start?

The journey began in 2006, when my father brought the memoires to the Netherlands. I was halfway through my studies in Arabic language and culture when my father asked me if I wanted to translate them. It became an assignment that grew into my Master thesis. His life was full of tragedy. When I read it the first time, I felt deeply that we live on the shoulders of our ancestors: whose feet are rooted deep in the earth to carry us. I decided to write down the story for a wider audience, and that’s when I started to search for the traces more professionally.

You’ve travelled to several cities in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon for your research, which are all important to your family history. What did you learn from those travels? 

Every city has touched my heart in different ways. Beirut has done this with its limitless nightlife and the detached way people live together. I love Lebanon for its art and literature. Syria is the country, the jasmine and the poetry my family and the larger part of the Arab alawites living in Turkey nowadays have lost. My aim is to bring some of the richness that Syria bares back in to our lives.

As a Dutch citizen, how do you feel about the debates around Europe, most especially Turkey's possible entry into the European Union?  And do you observe these issues from a Dutch or Turkish point of view?

The EU has always put up barricades to Turkey’s membership. But I don’t know if Turkey needs the EU: if we take economic interests into consideration, it’s the other way around. Europe is already present in Turkey, when according to latest statistics more than 2000 Dutch companies have invested in Turkey. With the recent political and social events there, as well as the widely spread protests against the president, the peace-process with the PKK and so on, I think Turkey has the chance to become a mature democracy. I hope we will see a society where more personal freedom is allowed, and where civil society issues, like environmental awareness, freedom of speech and freedom for women are more efficiently organised.

Do you think writing can help overcome certain identity issues? Does writing allow us to be without borders? 

I certainly think this is true. When I’m writing I don’t have the burden of passports and language barriers: I can fly into the head of someone who lives somewhere else.

Your book will be published in Dutch: would you like it to be translated into other languages? 

I write in Dutch, but with an Arabic and Turkish flavour. There’s a voice in my heart that tells the story, like the Hakawati or elderly in the Levant tell a story. When I write in Dutch, this voice is also present. So I’m already translating the rhythm and rhyme of it into Dutch, without even being fully aware of it. But I’d be honoured if my book was be translated into other languages: I hope into English, Arabic and Turkish. Translation is like crushing a border and reaching the other side. There are good and bad translations, of course, but I still believe translations are crucial if we want to meet someone living in another continent, or another era.

What would you like to work on next? Would you like to write fiction for instance or will you rather continue research and exploring your roots? 

I want to write something different. Love and spirituality are themes that play a role for me now. But I do feel there will always be a connection with my roots as this is what most inspires my work.

You join us in London this week to talk about the many voices of women from Turkey. The event will try to explore some of these voices with you and writer Ece Temelkuran. How do you feel about being part of such an event? Do you think the voices of women in and from Turkey are heard enough, around the world and in Turkey?

I don’t think the voices of women are heard enough, so I’m also putting my grandmother into the book, even though my grandfather doesn’t really speak about her in his memoirs. I think it’s important the book and I are able to speak about events that haven’t been written down, and that shed light on the position of the Arab Alawi minority in Turkey. The religious leaders and experts on this subject here are sometimes happy and surprised when they hear that a woman is writing about them. I’m really happy to have been invited to take part in the event – so thank you for the opportunity!

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  • Very interesting interview and a good analyze about Turkey regarding democracy..nice!

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