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09 December 2023

Yasar Kemal, Turkish novelist, dead at 91

This file picture dated February 9, 2011 shows Turkish author Yasar Kemal talking with the media during a demonstration to support Turkish sociologist Pinar Selek at the entrance of a courthouse in Istanbul. Yasar Kemal, 92, died on February 28, 2015 in Istanbul. (AFP)


Yasar Kemal, one of Turkey's best-known novelists with worldwide readership, has died, his doctor said on Saturday. He was 91.

Kemal died at Istanbul's Capa Hospital where he was admitted on Jan 14 and was being treated in its intensive care unit for multiple organ failure, Dr. Mehmet Akif Karan said.

Kemal was the author of "Memed, My Hawk" a story about feudal relations in Turkey's traditional southern regions in 1955. Like most of more than 35 other novels, he has written, it was widely translated.

The character of Memed was drawn in part from Kemal's memory of his mother's brother, an outlaw named Mayro — "the best-known outlaw in the eastern Anatolia, Iran and Caucasus areas."

Kemal's ability to delve into human nature and bring out the universal traits in his characters has made his novels widely accessible. Nine of his novels were made into films.

"My adventures are aimed at exploring the mystery of the human," he said during an award ceremony at the presidential palace in December 2008.

When he was a boy, he listened to his father sing Kurdish songs on a hilltop overlooking their village in the southern province of Adana. These were sagas of Kurdish heroism — of wars, lost sons and migrations in past centuries; of nostalgia for lands left behind.

Kemal never promoted his Kurdish background. Few people actually knew he was a Kurd.

"I'm a Turkish writer — of Kurdish origin," he once said.

However, he felt the push to speak during heydays of clashes between autonomy seeking Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish troops in the mid-1990s. But he was convicted for an article denouncing racism against minorities in Turkey, especially Kurds. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison for "inciting hatred and promoting racism." The sentence was suspended.

"I couldn't sleep at nights for a year," Kemal said. "I had pangs of conscience. 'You are a writer. You have to speak up,' I kept telling myself."

Kemal is survived by his son, Rasit Gokceli, and his second wife, Ayse Semiha Baban.