Hero or Traitor? Jon Gorvett Reports from Istanbul on Celebrations to Mark the Birth of Nazim Hikmet 100 Years Ago. Although Few Would Deny His Genius, the Political Controversy Which Surrounded Him in Life Continues Unabated. (Mosaic)

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"Will my funeral start out from my courtyard? How will you get me down from the third floor? The coffin won't fit in the elevator, and the stairs are awfully narrow." ... Nazim Hikmet, My Funeral, Moscow April 1963.

A burial can be a tricky business, as Nazim Hikmet's words illustrate. As time passes, dealing with a hero from the `losing' side can pose many problems -- particularly when words are what the hero is famous for, and those words form such powerful, lyrical poetry.

A hundred years ago this winter, one of the world's greatest modern poets, Nazim Hikmet, was born in the then-Ottoman city of Thessalonika. His life -- much of it spent on the run, in prison, in fear of assassination, or, finally, in exile -- is being celebrated this year at a series of events around the globe. In January, one of these events was held at the Royal Festival Hall in London. There, a packed house witnessed a recital of some of Hikmet's best-known work in English, followed by a rapturous performance of the same in Turkish, sung and danced, as much as it was spoken, by Genco Erkal, one of Hikmet's greatest interpreters.

In Turkey, hardly a week has gone by without some recital, discussion or comment being made on Hikmet's life and works. However, amongst all this celebration, the sound from those narrow stairs, as the pall-bearers try to squeeze the coffin down, has become increasingly disturbing -- with shouting and even the sounds of a struggle rising above the otherwise decorous hymns of mourning.

"We are facing a ruthless attack," claims poet Ahmet Telli. "They are trying to incorporate Nazim into a view of the world which he was totally opposed to ... they are trying to turn this commemoration into an official ceremony."

Nazim Hikmet was a member of the Turkish Communist Party, and remained a committed Marxist all his life -- despite expulsion from the party for a period after the war, and the fact it was illegal to be a member. By the time he was 31, he was facing 61 years and six months in a Turkish prison, having already spent most of his 20s in and out of jail and in and out of the country. In Moscow in the 1920s, the then-capital of the revolution, he had met Mayakovsky and the other Russian futurists and begun writing poetry that also broke the rules -- rejecting the formalistic, aristocratic traditional forms in favour of blank verse and a conscious attempt to "take the poetry out of poetry". Thus his poems read simply, but with a fierce musicality, a thumping rhythm that carries authentically strong feelings as well as political messages.

"When the aesthetic structure of Nazim Hikmet's poetry is examined," says poet Sukran Kurdakul, "even those who disagree with everything he stands for politically must acknowledge that he was a great poet."

And those who disagree with everything he stands for are many -- though their responses to him have often been a little confused. Principal among his opposers in recent years has been the rightist National Action Party (MHP), which now forms the second largest bloc in the ruling coalition government. They have consistently labelled Hikmet a traitor to the national cause and blocked any attempt to officially rehabilitate him. In the 1970s, militants from this group, known as the `Grey Wolves', were responsible for the killing of dozens of communists in the dirty war that led up to the 1980 coup. Despite this, their leader at the time, Alpaslan Turkes, concluded his closing speech at an MHP congress once with a nationalist-sounding quote -- which turned out to be from a poem by Nazim Hikmet.

Skip forward to 1999, and still more strange bedfellows. At the closing session of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conference in Istanbul, the highest representative of the Turkish state, then-President, Suleyman Demirel, finished off his address to the principal leaders of the capitalist world with a few lines of verse -- which were, once again, part of a poem by Hikmet. …