To mark Sunday’s performance of “The Ballad of Those tho Drink the Sun” celebrating the life and work of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, Platform is publishing a book excerpt on Nazim Hikmet, poetry & technology, the Euphrates versus BP’s Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. This is an edited excerpt from our upcoming book “The Oil Road: A Journey from the Caspian to the City” – due out with Verso in September. Platform will be presenting the book at Marxism on July 7th and at the Peace News Summer Camp on July 29th.
Sunday 17 June promises to be a special occasion as world music choir, Songlines, present its most successful and original work to date, The Ballad Of Those Who Drink The Sun, at its home in Highbury’s celebrated Union Chapel at 8pm. A song cycle that loosely follows the events of Turkish poet Nazim Hizkmet’s life, his many loves in letters and poems from prison, the original cantata composed for the centenary of Hikmet’s birth in 2002, is updated and revised with new compositions added reflecting the current turbulent times of mass global protest, the search for alternatives and the race to save our natural world.
8pm Sunday 17 June – Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, London N1 2UN – Tickets: £12/£8 in advance
Excerpt from Chapter 14 of The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian to the City
EUPHRATES VALLEY, CENTRAL ANATOLIA
I love my country:
I have swung on its plane trees
I have slept in its prisons.
Nothing lifts my spirits like its songs and tobacco.
It seems endless.
it seems that it is endless to go around.
Edirné, Izmir, Ulukıshla, Marash, Trabzon, Erzurum. All I know of the Erzurum plateau are its songs
and I’m ashamed to say
I never crossed the Taurus to visit the cotton pickers in the south.
‘İstanbul House of Detention’, 1939, N. Hikmet
Passing through Erzurum and Erzincan provinces, the Doğu Ekspresi (Eastern Express) stops at countless village stations with no platforms. Sometimes the train halts in open fields, where the passengers wait patiently to board. At other times we make five-minute stops, but nobody climbs on or off the train. Once, a young boy walks alongside the carriages selling quinces to passengers. Mehmet Ali reaches down from our window to buy a couple. We are already four hours late – did he see us coming, or was he waiting here the whole time?
As the train moves across the Erzurum plateau, we take turns reading Nazım Hikmet. Ground-breaking both within Turkish literature and internationally, Hikmet’s poems evoke the romantic beauty of the villages and towns of Anatolia while explicitly confronting the political oppression. Hikmet, a lifelong member of the Turkish Communist Party, was imprisoned for over a decade and stripped of his citizenship. Sent into exile, he spent long periods in the Soviet Union, travelling south to Baku and Tbilisi to be closer to his homeland. He believed that harnessing industrialisation to socialism would rescue the toiling poor from poverty. Both his aesthetic and social visions were heavily inspired by Futurism.
I sat at his deathbed
He said to read him a poem
About the sun and the sea
Nuclear reactors and satellites
The greatness of humanity
‘The Optimist’, 1958, N. Hikmet
Hikmet remained persuaded of the liberating power of technology throughout his life. Fifty years later, many on both the right and the left remain convinced of this kind of modernity as a solution to social, environmental and economic problems. So much of the literature around the BTC pipeline, from within the industry, in governments or the media, sees the project as essentially benefiting human development, and the problems it creates as easily solvable.
Yet Hikmet believed in the need for a change in power relations. He regarded inequality as the underlying cause of suffering, for which political shifts were the essential primary solution. Technology was merely a tool to be harnessed and put to use by social struggles. The real solution lay in people, not the machine:
Love clouds, machines, and books
But people above all.
‘Last Letter to my Son’, 1955, N. Hikmet
As we read, the railway enters a landscape of steep canyons and narrow gorges. This is the area of Lot B of BTC in Turkey, the second of the three sections of its route between the Caucasus and the Mediterranean. In the distance we catch glimpses of occasional pipeline markers. Opening the back door in the last carriage, we get a better view by hanging off the rear of the train, catching the wind and watching the river we are shadowing. The tracks share the gorge it has cut from the surrounding rock over millennia. Rope bridges span the water, reminding us of Borjomi.
This little river, jumping and foaming over rapids, is the Firat, the beginning of the Euphrates. It has yet to gather momentum from the rain falling on the mountains of the Taurus, before broadening out and feeding the fertile crescent of Syria and Iraq. We are still very close to the Black Sea, but any crude that leaks from BTC here would drain into the Euphrates, bound towards Fallujah, Basra and the Persian Gulf.
It is strange to think of these two rivers running in parallel – the first visible, accessible and composed of a substance we ingest daily, the second buried and carrying a liquid most of us have never seen, touched or smelled. Both are very present in the landscape we are travelling through; both cross multiple borders; both cause wars.
But these two rivers – of water and oil – do not flow peacefully alongside one another. One is slowly choking the other. The mighty Euphrates is drying up. In Syria families flee its drought-stricken valley. In Iraq, the shrinking of the river has decimated farms along its banks and left fishing communities ruined.
The changes to the Euphrates have many causes, among them the building of hydroelectric dams and irrigation schemes. But alterations in the climate and shifts in rainfall are central – hence the destructive relationship between these two sister rivers. Once burned, the heavy black liquid that flows towards industrial society fills the atmosphere with carbon, helps alter the temperature of the world and assists in the suffocation of the river.