On the sweet sadness of Turkish gatherings and Soviet cartoons.
When I was eight and my brother nine years old, we moved from Ankara to London where we awaited clearance for our father’s work in Copenhagen. Our parents were both thirty-three, without income, and endlessly creative about our finances. It was a year of free museums, of shuffling through metro gates with a single ticket, of boxes of sweaters sent to us by our grandparents. When we were bored of the few toys we’d brought from Turkey, my brother and I made puppets from newspaper sheets, sticking their limbs together with glue.
It was a strange year, in our house with a fake fireplace, situated at the edge of a cemetery. Our parents made friends with a group of young Turks—students, doctors, a ticket-booth worker at the cinema—and met up with them for nights of fasıl. Someone played the oud, and the others sang along with the help of a small black book called Ah, Those Beautiful Songs.
A fasıl is a gathering to sing classical Turkish music, grouped by maqams, or melodic modes. As a social event, the goal of fasıl is a communal purge of grief.
I complain to no one, I cry at what I’ve become
I shiver, like a felon, at my fate.
A recurring theme of fasıl songs is lost love and impossible reunion. Their landscapes are the obscure hours of dusk and moonlight, when boatmen row in solitude and lovers wait with diminishing hope.
Every day I wait, crestfallen at these shores.
The day sets, the birds return …
These songs are also about the scarcity of time, and many are Ottoman poems set to music, especially those of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, whose shadowy verses perfectly match fasıl’s somber atmosphere: “We are at the horizon of an evening without return … ”
In my childhood, seeing grown-ups suddenly desolate, singing with lowered heads, I would wonder what great misfortunes had befallen them. Fasıl had the ability to open a door—to call forth sadness in everyone. Even my great-uncles, who could sit like marble through the happiest occasions, would sing:
You’re a rose in my heart, withered without blooming
Always, I am wretched, always full of sorrow.
Children didn’t partake in the singing, though from time to time we would be humored with a lively song. “Oh nightingale, lovely bird, where are you now?” But these were exceptions and didn’t belong to fasıl, whose purpose was to wade deep into the waters of melancholy.
The word fasıl comes from the Arabic fasl, meaning episode, section, break, or interlude. It is a thing set apart, just like the musical gathering which is a contained period—a passageway into emotion otherwise kept in check. As such, it is also an episode of meditation, requiring its participants to be present in the face of rising emotion. Fasıl allows for sadness, not as a sickness or something from which we turn away in discomfort, but as a ritual of intimacy.
One of the most famous classical Turkish singers, whose songs and interpretations often accompany fasıl gatherings, is Zeki Müren, lovingly known as Pasha. In his lifetime, Müren was admired by everyone. His death in 1996, while he was on stage, was a national tragedy. Adults talked about the power of Müren’s voice, the beauty of his interpretations, his love and respect for his fans. At the end of performances, he would bow low, thank the audience again and again, and wish everyone “the very best.” In interviews, he spoke shyly, almost with apology. It seemed that he was always asking for pardon, even if he was the country’s greatest celebrity.
But to children, the most remarkable thing about Müren was his appearance. He polished his nails, painted his eyelids and plucked his brows. He wore heeled shoes, glittery costumes in purple and gold, large jewels on his neck and hands. We were puzzled by his uniqueness—by the fact that he was allowed to be this way.
Whenever Müren’s appearance was discussed, grownups suggested that this was his constitution. “He was created this way,” my grandmother would say, without defining the specifics. Müren’s appearance was touched on only vaguely, and with some embarrassment, always teetering on the edge of a taboo. I felt that Müren was shielded from an otherwise unwelcome topic. We were to let him be, because we felt tenderness for him, perhaps even more so because he embodied things which were shunned. Müren’s persona was like the interlude of the fasıl, clearing up space for another way of being, albeit nebulous, within the rigid rules of society.
With time, fasıl became less frequent in my family. Gatherings began to be dictated by the preferences of younger generations, and the old fasıl singers would contend themselves with one or two sad songs. Now, when I meet up with friends in Istanbul, we might go out to taverns around Beyoğlu, where the pleasure of comradely singing has become an industry. Clarinet, violin, and darbuka players go from table to table taking tips and requests, and the night escalates to an overflow of emotion. These evenings bear little resemblance to the subtle shades of gloom in the fasıls of elders. They are closer to cheering at a football game than to the slow and steady heartache and its patient observance of darkness.
What is foreign to us youth is not necessarily the sadness—we can shout along to lyrics of heartbreak in bustling taverns—but the slowness. In traditional fasıls, single words are sung over the span of several seconds; a string of three words can take minutes; refrains are repeated over and over. At that speed, they hardly sound like melodies at all, but a long, drawn-out moan. Their shape can only be detected by an attuned sensibility, hard to master in our world of split-second attention spans and saturated colors.
That year of fasıl gatherings in London was in the nineties. It was also a year of Donald Duck t-shirts and Ace of Base, dorky jokes and quirky haircuts, movies where children in baseball caps and roller skates had litters of dogs—fictional worlds of crisp happiness. But for me, these dazzling images were superimposed on this experience of childhood, which was subdued and tinged with sadness.
My memory of childhood is a fog, not because I don’t remember it, but because it felt like a twisting and tuneless hum, like light filtering through the curtains in the afternoon, making the dust particles dance. In films and cartoons, this interior fog was snatched away—as if we might be tainted by our own minds—and replaced with a spotless joy.
But in Soviet cartoons, produced by the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio by artists on a state salary, melancholy is present everywhere. Their lack of commercial concern is apparent in their unresolved narratives and wide spectrum of subtle emotions. In their innocence, wonder, and muted colors, these cartoons are at once a nostalgia for childhood and an expression of childhood itself.
Perhaps most famous are the adventures of Cheburashka, a droopy eyed mix of bear cub and monkey. Cheburashka sings that he was once a nameless toy at whom no one ever cast a glance. “At first things weren’t working out for me,” Cheburashka says, “and it would even happen that no one congratulated me on my birthday.”
Then, Cheburashka makes friends with the crocodile Gena and the two go on rides sitting on a blue train. They have the look of orphans, hopeful and forlorn, fearful that their happiness will be taken from them. They, too, sing about the passing of time:
Slowly the minutes pass far away,
Don’t wait to meet with them again.
And even though we are a bit sorry for the past
The best of course is still ahead.
The particular voices that sing and speak in Soviet cartoons are not too different from the voice of Zeki Müren—gentle and hushed, and with such graceful resignation it may break your heart. The stories they tell do not treat sadness as a villain which must be conquered or pushed away; they bestow it with its own, soulful beauty. Rather than pulling their spectators out of the dim lights of childhood, these cartoons—utterly different from the ones I grew up with—accompany them into the fog.
In his 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows,” the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki laments a traditional aesthetic of obscurity that is lost by the dazzling advances of modernity. The essay is an ode to the muted, the murky, and the dim, as they vanish in favor of the bright and clear.
Like the traditional, paced fasıl, Tanizaki writes that Japanese music is “above all a music of reticence…most important of all are the pauses.” But its atmosphere is rendered lifeless with radios and gramophones. So, too, the atmosphere of traditional Japanese homes is lost with electric lighting. He writes that these shadows should at least be preserved in art. “In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”
The masterpiece of Russian children’s animation is Yuri Norstein’s 1975 “Hedgehog in the Fog.” Norstein is known as the Golden Snail, because of the painstaking slowness with which he produces his works—several years for several minutes of film. Norstein’s work is the territory of dreams and memory, of familiar images that expand into existential journeys, in an autumnal palette that is more shadow than tint.
In the cartoon, a hedgehog sets out on his daily evening walk to visit his friend the bear. The two of them will sit on a log and count stars, have tea and raspberry jam. But on his way, Hedgehog sees a resplendent white horse rising out of the fog. Intrigued, he takes a step into the fog, then another, and before he knows it he has lost all sense of direction and is assaulted by the shapes of the forest appearing and disappearing in fragments. An owl, at first mischievous, turns demonic. Bats flock at him screeching. Perhaps they are the outward manifestations of the voices in Hedgehog’s head.
Hedgehog is helped by strangers—a dog retrieves his pouch, a firefly briefly lights the way—but no one can actually deliver him to safety. A moment of enlightenment comes early on, when he stumbles against the trunk of a tree, and looks up to see its magnificent branches. For an instant, everything is clear. But this isn’t the usual story of a quest or a narrative of triumph. It feels, rather, like a spiritual search, where enlightenment might arrive early but will drag us deeper into darkness.
Exhausted, Hedgehog finally gives himself up to the flow of a stream. He hears the voice of Bear calling out to him, but he doesn’t react. “I’m totally soaked,” he says calmly, “I’ll drown soon.” There is nothing in this scene to hide from a child, even though it is full of despair. We want Hedgehog to hold on, to fight for his life. Instead, he quietly lets go of his will to live. For a second, he sees the face of the white horse looking down on him.
It’s only then, when Hedgehog has released himself completely, that an unseen “Someone” lifts him from below and carries him ashore. Hope is always present, and always a step ahead; it does not emerge gleaming, as we might expect. It is, rather, tucked into the act of gathering and giving voice to sorrow. It is fashioned from shadows and the comfort of acknowledging them.
At the end of “Hedgehog in the Fog,” the two friends sit side by side once again, looking at the stars. Bear is out of breath, overcome with worry for his friend. He says that he called and called for Hedgehog. He’d set the samovar to boil, put juniper twigs in the fire.
Hedgehog sits beside him, his miniature face smudged with bewilderment. It is clear that nothing will be the same—already he seems foreign to the simple worries of his friend, and lonely. But he thinks nevertheless that it’s wonderful to be together again. And then he remembers the white horse, appearing out of the blur, looking down on him.
“How is she,” he wonders, “out there, in the fog?”
Aysegul Savas is a writer based in Paris. Her first novel, Walking on the Ceiling, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.