Alev ve Kül: From the Ashes of a Collection

In the summer of 2021, I was lucky to oversee Seda İzmirli-Karamanlı’s incredibly thorough work cataloguing the remaining Ottoman newspapers from Bulgaria in the Endangered Archive Collections. İzmirli-Karamanlı made sure that each of the digitized items was accompanied by suitable and accurate metadata. Her work allowed us to upload them and share them with interested users for the first time since the images had been created. The newspapers were a welcome resource for those looking to learn more about Turkish cultural production in Bulgaria (at least judging from the response to her wonderful blog on the topic). They also highlighted the relative neglect with which such resources have been treated in this country. İzmirli-Karamanlı’s work got me thinking about another such example of Bulgarian Turkish writing that we hold in the British Library collections, a piece I’ve long wanted to learn more about. It’s a short novel called Alev ve Kül, and its broader context shows just how important it is to make accurate metadata accessible to all.

Double-page spread of white paper. The right-hand page is blank except for writing in pencil. The left-hand page features two thicks black lines going horizontally and three vertical down the right-hand side, with two stylized faces made of geometric shapes at the top, and Arabic-script writing in the centre.
Cover page of Alev ve Kül along with its shelfmark from the British Library.

Alev ve Kül was written by Ali Kemal Balkanlı, who was born in Istanbul in 1900 and died in Ankara in 1992. A brief biography of the author is available from the Türk Edebiyatı İsimler Sözlüğü, which is where a lot of the information from this section comes from. Apart from that, I have found a copy of a biographical entry on him written by Osman Koca, complete with examples of a few of his poems and articles; and a now defunct video about him produced by Alev Dergisi. It might be a bit odd to think that a writer who was born and died outside of Bulgaria would have written a Bulgarian Turkish novel, but there’s more to this story than what first meets the eye. Balkanlı’s family originated from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and it was Ali Kemal’s father, Osman Nuri Bey (Balkanlı), who migrated to Anatolia.  

Yellowed clipping from newspaper with text in black ink arranged in six columns. The header is larger, in the centre, and features stylized images of a book against a night sky and two men in traditional Ottoman dress
An article by Ali Kemal Balkanlı on Bulgarian Turkish migrants, originally published on 2 March 1951. The article is from the SALT Research Collection (FFT115003) and is reproduced here according to their usage restrictions (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Ali Kemal was sent to Filibe (Plovdiv) for his primary schooling, but returned to Istanbul for high school, before studying at İstanbul Üniversitesi’s Faculty of Law. He also attended graduate studies in Italian language and literature at the Istituto Vittorio Alfieri while working for the Turkish Embassy in Rome. In 1922, he made his way back to Bulgaria, where he remained for the next 15 years. There, Balkanlı taught in Turkish schools in the north of the country before returning to Filibe. From this city, he worked for a number of different Turkish-language publications, including the newspapers Dostluk and Çiftçi Kurtuluşu, of which he was the Administrative Manager (1926-30), and Balkan Postası (1934-36). Upon returning to Turkey, he became a civil servant in the Finance Ministry. He retired in 1955 and thereafter devoted himself to publishing activities, including the magazine İslâm. As a bit of an interesting tangent, Ali Kemal had a sister, Hüsniye Balkanlı, who was also a novelist. Her works include Aşk ve Nefret and Güzel Hatice, published in 1950 and 1958 respectively.

Perhaps because of his activities in the Civil Service, Balkanlı doesn’t have many titles to his name (considering his long lifespan). WorldCat produces only 18 hits, of which a few are repeats and most are unrelated references. The Milli Kütüphane’s catalogue does better, giving us 24 titles (14 unique hits), ranging from 1953 (Gözden ve gönülden geçenler) to 1990 (a translation of Konstantin Jireček’s  Belgrad-İstanbul-Roma Askerî Yolu). The list also includes an article from the magazine Yeni Tarih Dünyası entitled ‘Sırp Sığındığı’na ait Yeni Vesikalar’, published in issue 2 (11) in 1950. Two more of his articles can be found through the İslamcı Dergiler Projesi.

Balkanlı was presumably fluent in at least five languages: Turkish, Italian (from his studies), Bulgarian, French, and English. The last three I’m making an assumption about given his translation work. After all, he did produce translations of four Jules Verne novels between 1961 and 1972, including Cinq semaines en ballon (Balonda beş hafta), Une ville flottante (Yüzen şehir), Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine (Bir Çinlinin başına gelenler), and Les Indes noire (Kara elmas diyarları). He’s also got translations of works by Enid Blyton and Sophie Rostopchine, Countess of Ségur, and it does seem as though this aspect of his oeuvre was focused on children’s literature (and not of the progressive kind).

Ali Kemal’s translation work in Turkey undoubtedly stemmed from his experience as a translator in Bulgaria. Although it doesn’t seem that he was involved in the running of Tefeyyüz Kütüphanesi (the publisher of this work), a search of their titles reveals that he had, apparently, translated İsmail Hakkı Okday’s 1911 Asir İsyanı. Indeed, translations of Okday’s writing seem to be the main thrust of Tefeyyüz Kütüphanesi’s mission. Of the 30 hits that come up when you search “Tefeyyüz Filibe” on WorldCat, only two of them are not Okday’s works: Alev ve Kül and Hasip Safveti’s (Hasib Ahmet Aytuna; a brief Wikipedia article is here) Şen alfabe, which also shows up as Şen kıraat if you search for “Tefeyyüz Plovdiv”. Dr. Nimetullah Hafız, in his Bulgaristan’da Yayınlanan Türkçe Kitapların Bibliyografyası (1858-1984), claims that a physics textbook, Hikmet, was also produced by the publisher in 1933. Other than this, Tefeyyüz published Okday’s Güney Arabistan meselesi, Bulgaristan endüstri durumu ve ipek endüstri, Ankara vilayeti gazete ve mecmuaları, Adapazarı gazeteleri, Afyon-Karahisar gazeteleri, Hadramut, Bulgaristan ormanları, and Bulgaristan yemiş ve sebze ihracatı. In my experience, this usually means that Okday fronted the money for Tefeyyüz, but that still remains to be seen, as does Balkanlı’s precise role in the venture.

Balkanlı’s original work is eclectic, comprising a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. We have works on education, such as Sosyal sonuçlar bakımından terbiye (1964); and those on the anthropology, both of the Balkans, including Şarkî Rumeli ve Buradaki Türkler (1986), and elsewhere, Dini inançlarımıza yanılgılar (1988). In 1958, he published a book of poetry, entitled Sebû-yi ilham. All of these titles match those given in the Türk Edebiyatı İsimler Sözlüğü entry, which also carries a reference to a 1932 publication entitled Yeni Türk Lugatı. This item appears to have been one of the many school texts that Balkanlı wrote while in Bulgaria. Given that it’s the only Bulgarian title in the list, it’s clear that most of what is, or was, available to those who studied Balkanlı’s works comes from Turkey-based sources.

There’s not much out there by way of scholarship on Alev ve Kül. Perhaps I’m hindered by the fact that I don’t read Bulgarian, but I doubt it. During a visit to Sofia University in 2016, I met a Lecturer of Turkish who bemoaned the lack of interest in the country for its Turkic-language literary heritage – and that was for the classical literature of the Ottoman court. Given Ali Kemal’s departure for Turkey, and the relative obscurity in which Alev ve Kül has languished since publication, I’m willing to bet that this early novel has sparked even less interest among Bulgarophone scholars and readers than Baki or Yunus Emre.

I do, however, have access to Turkish-language scholarship, and here we don’t fare much better either. My Google searches have revealed only three papers that address this novel. Two of them do it in passing. In Fatih Çodar’s 2019 Master’s thesis ‘1980 Sonrası Bulgaristan Türk Romanında Göç’ (Kırklareli Üniversitesi) and in Dr. Müzeyyen Buttanrı’s ‘Bulgaristan Türk Edebiyatı’, the work is described alongside a number of other novels as being one that addresses both national feelings and the social situation of Bulgarian Turks, presumably during the 1920s. Nothing else is given away, except that the author, similar to many other Bulgarian Turkish intellectuals, migrated to Turkey.

The third paper, however, makes it clear that such qualifications are the product of broad generalizations, and a general lack of knowledge about the content of the work itself. In his 2021 article ‘Bulgaristan’daki Türklerin Romanı (1912-2021)’ (from the Balkanlarda Türk Dili ve Edebiyatı Araştırmaları journal), Dr. Atıf Akgün sets Alev ve Kül apart from the other novels of the period – and in some way from the first decades of the Socialist period as well – precisely because it doesn’t deal with national identity. Rather, this is the first novel about love to come from a Bulgarian Turkish author and, as such, Akgün qualifies it as the first purely literary work of longer prose fiction to be produced by the community.

Double-page spread of white paper with black inked text in Arabic script on the left-hand page. This is topped by a row of long black rectangles packed tightly together atop a row of black circles with dots in them. On the right-hand page is a frame made of intertwining lines around text in Arabic script mimicking calligraphy.
The first page of the text, and the calligraphic logo of Tefeyyüz Kütüphanesi.

Alev ve Kül is a story about two friends, Ulvi and Nihat, the “burning” obsession of the former, and the romantic escapades of the latter. Earlier works of fiction discussed the evils of cultural, religious, or linguistic assimilation, and the protagonists’ pride in their Turkish origins and communities. Akgün describes many of these as being longer stories or tales, rather than novels as per the dominant Western European understanding of the term. The current work leaves national identity aside, and Ali Kemal prefers to use the text to look at his characters’ emotional states and psychology from a different angle. Maybe this makes Alev ve Kül less interesting or relevant for scholars. I think that it demonstrates a broadening of the literary field, allowing high literary vehicles to become ends in themselves, rather than means towards national consciousness formation, or political motivation.

Perhaps “high literary vehicles” is a bit of an overstretch. Alev ve Kül made its appearance twice. It was first published serially in 1926 in the Sofia-based Dostluk Gazetesi. The work proved to be popular, and a complete volume of it was produced by Tefeyyüz Kütüphanesi in Filibe in 1927.  Dostluk’s editor presented the monograph to the newspaper’s readers in the 75th issue, calling it “one of the most enticing and interesting chef-d’oeuvres” (“edebiyatın en cazip ve en câlip şaheserlerindendir”). This is the copy held by the British Library. It’s a pulp edition, and is a pretty rare find. In fact, Akgün admits that he hasn’t read the entirety of the novel, as he was only able to find its serial form in issues of Dostluk that were missing the first three sections. Evidently, the 1927 publication of Alev ve Kül is a unique work in more than one way.

Double-page spread of white paper with Cyrillic-script text stamped in purple ink on the right-hand page, with a seal at the top and missing words filled in in blue by hand. A red-ink stamp at the bottom bears the seal of the British Library.
The acquisition stamp of the Aytos Muftiate showing the date of acquisition as 6 February 1945.

What’s so special about the item on hand? Well, the work contains various stamps that provide us with some indication of how it got from Filibe to London. If we start from the most recent (and easiest), the red British Library stamp on the book tells us that it was purchased and acquisitioned by the Library on 15 January 1993. It’s possible that the actual purchase took place much earlier, but there’s nothing to suggest that this was the case.

More interesting is the large stamp on the back of the book attesting to its acquisition, or cataloguing, by the Library of the Muftiate of the city of Aytos on 6 February 1945. There’s also a signature of the person who, presumably, acquisitioned the work. It looks like “M. Recebi or Recebov”, but that’s largely based on matching it to the inscription on the front cover. There, we see the addition of the words “S. Zaycharı Aytoski”. Zaychar is a town near Aytos, and the “S” might refer to “Selo” or “Village”. Although the Muftiate still exists – today it is the Burgaz Muftiate, responsible for the entire Burgas region – I can’t find any information about its library. I’ve reached out to the current organization to see if they might have more information to share and have yet to hear back from them.

A close-up of a half page of white paper with two horizontal bars and three vertical in black ink, with text in Arabic script in the middle and bottom-left corner, two images of faces made out of geometric shapes, and handwritten text in Cyrillic script in black ink in the top-right corner.
A close-up of the title and handwritten inscription on the cover page.

The cover of the book identifies it as the first member of a series called Edebi Romanlar Külliyatı. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find other members of the series, if they existed. From the back of the book, however, we learn that Ali Kemal Balkanlı did indeed write much more while he was in Bulgaria. The publication listing provided by Tefeyyüz Kütüphanesi contains four volumes of Türkçe Güzel Elifbesi; two of Tabiat bilgisi (Hafız claims that they were produced by Nefiz in 1936);; two of Hayat-i İctimaiyede İnsan; and one of Mekteplerimiz hakkında Dertleşmek; all of them in publication. In addition, eight more titles are to appear: two volumes of Malumat-i vataniye; and one each of Türkçe Güzel Kıraat-i Muntahıbat; Rüşdilere Mahsus; Hak ve Küvvet: İctimai; Hayat ve Tahassüsat: Felsefi; Ahlak-i İctimai: İctimai; Din ve Felsefe: Felsefi; Gönül Hicranleri: Edebi Roman; and Hayat-i İctimaiyede İnsan: Müteakıp Kitaplar.

Double-page spread of white paper with black inked text in Arabic script. At the bottom of the right-hand page are three black squares with white oblongs cut out. At the bottom of the left-hand page are three stylized towers, the outer ones with circles atop them and the middle with a tear drop outline. Below them is a white mustache on a black background.
The list of Ali Kemal’s works, possibly all published by Tefeyyüz Kütüphanesi.

I can’t find any evidence that the planned titles were published, whether on WorldCat or on the Milli Kütüphane’s online catalogue. The National Library of Bulgaria’s not great when it comes to searching online for Turkish-language materials, and I’m not all that certain that legal deposit legislation would have existed or been rigorously enforced in Bulgaria in the 1920s and 30s. As more and more cataloguers put metadata about their collections online, I’m hopeful that more clues might fall into place. Until then, however, we’ll have to be satisfied with what little information we have on-hand.

Finally, why delay talking about the novel itself? Alev ve Kül translates as Flame/Fire and Ash. Given that the novel is about obsession, friendship, and romantic love, it’s not that hard to see where the allegory lies. For Dr. Atıf Akgün, Alev ve Kül is a metaphor for the toxic relationship that develops between these two friends. Most of us like to focus on the burning passion at the start of a love affair, but it’s clear that Ali Kemal also wanted to bring in the aftereffects – physical and emotional – of that passion once the fire has died down.

Balkanlı doesn’t waste much time on set up. Right from the get-go, we’re plunged into the relationship between the protagonists Nihat and Ulvi. It appears that the book is told from the point of view of Ulvi. Parts are recounted through his journal entries, which are more frequent towards the beginning of the work. They provide us with a clear and very open window onto the character’s internal life, which can, at times, seem a bit melodramatic in his approach to love and the meaning of life. Despite the melodrama, and the slightly artificial approach to the impact of love and loss upon an individual’s emotional development, they do create a rich tapestry of the goings-on in both Nihat and Ulvi’s lives. Combine this with the repeated and symbolic appearance of fire, smoke, and ash throughout the novel, and you understand why Akgün sees this is the first true attempt at a literary – rather than socially edifying – novel amongst Bulgarian Turkish authors.

Double-page spread of white paper with black inked text in Arabic script. On the right-hand page is a row of large black boxes atop a row of intermittent smaller black rectangles
The start of chapter 3 of the text.

The language of the text is pretty easy to follow. Given the date of the work, it clearly precedes the worst excesses of the Türk Dil Kurumu’s purification campaign, and there are no examples of the tortured linguistic inventions of the 1930s. But neither is it overly flowery or complicated, with a real spoken, vernacular flow to the language. There aren’t many complicated syntactic turns or obscure poetic phrases. To be frank, if someone so little versed in the inner workings of Ottoman literary constructions as your humble servant can follow it easily, then I think it’s safe to say that Balkanlı’s aim was not to overcomplicate the idiom.

I’m willing to guess that the simplicity of the language stems from various factors: the tail end of the Ottoman linguistic simplification movement; Balkanlı’s long-standing interest in pedagogy; and the fact that it first appeared serialized in newspapers. The last aspect doesn’t show up so clearly in the text of the 1927 monograph, as the chapters are of varying lengths, and there’s no clear means of discerning what appeared where at what time. The presence of interesting geometric breaks, headers, and footers seems to be entirely decorative in nature. This matches the cover of the book, which features two stylized faces, probably of women, as well as deconstructed pens.

At this point, it feels like I might have written a piece as long as the novel itself. For a work that failed to produce a long-lasting fascination or reader base, this might be a bit surprising. But it’s small, obscure works like these that I’ve always found to be intriguing. Everyone knows why a buyer or curator would have acquired copies of Yaşar Kemal’s İnce Memed or Halide Edib Adıvar’s Ateşten Gömlek. But figuring out why someone would have purchased Alev ve Kül, and how they would have got their hands on it, leads us down winding paths that reveal so much more regarding provenance and acquisition ideologies than mass-produced works ever could. Sometimes, these buys are all just a bit of intellectual stimulation to  break up the monotony of everyday tasks in a cultural institution. But, on lucky occasions, they open wide a window onto people, places, and procedures that would have otherwise remained hidden. In sifting through the ashes of a once-blazing fire, we might just find a gem of a text to reconnect us to the broader importance of our work.  

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