“Tünel” – Ömer Bedreddin Uşaklı

Image Caption: The Tünel descends along its single line. (Photo: Şevket Uygun, from R. Sertaç Kayserilioğlu Osmanlı’da Ulaşımın Serüveni Vol. I, page 238)

In the course of my dissertation research I’ve spent a good deal of time down one particular side-alley that is only tangentially related to my project, but has served as a way of exercising some different historical muscles in my brain when the dissertation starts to overwhelm me. That subject is public transit in Turkey, and I’m sure there will be more posts along this line in the future.

One of the many things that fascinates me about the history of public transit in Turkey – particularly tramways, ferries and funiculars in Istanbul – is the way these technologies worked their way into the literary and visual culture of their times. In the course of reading press from the late Ottoman and early republic period, it’s surprising how often public transit is the setting for short stories, poetry, cartoons, and political commentary.

Which brings me to a poem written by a quite young Ömer Bedreddin (Uşaklı) [1904-1946] that I recently came across while working through the early republican era journal Hayat [Life], called “Tünel”. Hayat was a fairly popular literary and intellectual journal published in the mid-1920’s and routinely featured new poetry alongside long editorials that usually focused on sociological issues facing Turks in that time (Necmettin Sadık’s famous essay “Are women becoming men?” was published in Hayat in 1927). This poem, which I’ve presented below in modern Turkish transliteration and my own humble translation, is written from the perspective of an Anatolian villager who is encountering Istanbul’s famous underground funicular, the titular “Tünel”, for the first time. It’s an interesting, comical, and somewhat derisive take on the rapid modernization of Istanbul’s cityscape, and the changing demographics of a city recovering from a decade of war and occupation. Enjoy!

Tünel – Ömer Bedreddin
Originally Published in Hayat December 30, 1926

Ey daha dört ay evvel hasretle yolculara,
Büz gibi kaynaklardan taşan sulara
“Geçit vermem!” diye dik başını sallayan dağ!

İşte beklediğin dev soluyarak yaklaştı;
Yamacın arkasından siyah saçları taştı;
İşkenceye hazır ol; işkenceye dayan dağ!..

Çınlayan tiz sesiyle, demirden etek ile;
Paslı bir güneş kadar korkunç tekerleğile;
İşte o dev içinden zulmeti sürdü geçti

Aç kartal seslerini bülbül diye dinleyen,
Şu taştan zincirlerin kasvetiyle inleyen
Zalim kalbine “too! too!” diye tükürdü geçti…

English translation (by James Ryan)

Ah! As it had said four months ago to the yearning travelers,
Like the ice cold spring to the boiling waters,
At the foot of its slope the swaying mountain said, “No Entrance!”

Ah ha! The giant approached the waiting passengers panting;
Its black head descending from the back of the slope…
Prepare for torture; this mountain brings torture!…

It rang with a shrill sound; with slopes made of steel;
With a rusty rolling as frightful as the sun;
Ah, that giant drove with a darkness inside him, and halted…

Listening to the hungry eagle’s voice cry like a nightingale,
Boarding these stony shackles gloomily,
It passed into the heart of darkness spitting, “toot! toot!”…

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