Sabahattin Ali Park and Monument

Kırklareli, 2009

From the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 until the end of World War Two, the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP) tolerated little opposition from political parties, other groups and individuals. The CHP early on adopted a radical secular ideology: Turkish nationalism based on ethnicity and a rigid Kemalist doctrine based on centralism. Groups with alternative political projects and perspectives were often subject to repression. In fact, the two political parties that had formed alongside the CHP in the 1920s were closed down on the grounds that they had connections with outlawed groups. Freedom of expression was strictly limited. Such political pressure was not only directed toward other parties, but against dissident journalists, intellectuals and other public figures who were critical of CHP policies. Many were exiled or imprisoned, and some lost their lives in the process. 

During this period of single-party rule, the intellectual and writer Sabahattin Ali refused to self-censor his ideas. In 1932, he was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison after reading a poem critical of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Following his release, he was forced to write a poem proclaiming his “love” for Atatürk to keep his teaching position. In the 1940s, Ali published political and satire magazines, which were all eventually banned, and he was jailed once more, this time for three months. Racist government officials who supported the fascists in Germany during World War Two were opposed to the content of his novels and other writings. Intelligence agents perceived him as a “dangerous communist” and tracked him wherever he went, prompting Ali to attempt to flee Turkey. Since he was not allowed to legally exit the country, he planned to secretly leave through Bulgaria. The facts of the case are still not clear, but Ali disappeared on this journey in April 1948, and his body was found two months later. He was 41-years-old. He is considered one of the early cases of state-forced disappearances, a practice that resumed in the 1990s as an instrument in the fight against Kurdish separatists. Years after his murder, a man proclaiming himself a patriot, Ali Ertekin, said he was the murderer. In a 2012 book about the death of Ali, Ertekin said in an interview he had also worked for the Turkish intelligence service. Ali is considered one of the early cases of state-forced disappearances, a practice that resumed in the 1990s as an instrument in the fight against Kurdish activists.

The concept of memorialization in honor of Sabahattin Ali emerges from initiatives of dynamic memorialization. Since the 1990s, a group of local intellectuals had been organizing a cultural festival called the Sabahattin Ali Culture Days. The Association for Supporting Contemporary Life embraced the project in 1994. Efforts by local activists also led to permanent areas of memorialization. In 2010, a public parked named for Ali was opened in the center of the northwestern town of Kırklareli; in addition, the avenue by the park was named after him, and a bust of Ali was erected at the park. One reason for his memorialization was his valuable contributions to Turkish literature, while another was the way he died: his forced disappearance.

This memorialization was an important step, especially because it included Sabahattin Ali’s relatives. His daughter Filiz Ali joined cultural activities celebrating him in Kırklareli. These events kept Ali alive in the collective memory, and affected his daughter as well. Filiz Ali’s father  did not have a grave where she could go to mourn him. A symbolic grave was then built at the site that a local individual claimed was the place where Ali was killed, The annual events in his honor are something of a consolation for the family. Meanwhile, his books continue to top lists of the most widely read books in Turkey. After the passage of 70 years following his death, the copyright restrictions on his books were lifted in 2019, so his works are printed widely by publishing houses, reaching many readers.

There are no legal or political barriers in the memorialization efforts concerning Sabahattin Ali's work. The most serious matter is determining who was responsible for his forced disappearance. When the trial ended in 2013, some parliamentarians asked the government to conduct a new trial. The Interior Ministry, however, refused all such demands and announced that Ali's file had been closed. For the culprits to be held accountable, the government must show determination to open state files. In this context, the major question in Ali’s memorialization is whether such activities can be transformed into bringing the secret historical event to light. Although the Education Ministry has included his books on its list of 100 Fundamental Works, the necessary effort to reveal the details of his forced disappearance remains lacking.