On April 13, 2021, Turks and indeed the world lost a great scholar, an honorable man of ideological struggle, an exemplary human being, and a true intellectual and humanist in every sense of the word. He never wanted to be described as an “academic,” he did not like that word, for he firmly believed that an “academic” does not necessarily equate to a scholar or an intellectual.
He had always told me that he would depart from this world when he wanted to do so. I like to think that İlhan Hocam decided to migrate to another location. He was not a religious man but he was a man filled with love for humanity—especially for those who were wronged, persecuted and punished for their beliefs and ideological struggles. He despised those who were using peoples’ religious beliefs as instruments for political manipulations and exploitations. He shared the many personal details of his own sufferings with me. He told me the chilling descriptions of a prison cell and how he survived it, and how he later ended up in the United States of America. Turkish literature was like his Holy Book in prison and throughout his entire life. He was accused of being a communist, a “danger to society.” After hearing him reciting the poems of Nazım Hikmet with unheard of passion, he became not only my real mentor, but my dear comrade. We sang the song “Jandarma, biz komünistiz…” (“Gendarme, we are communists…”) together on many occasions at his modest house in Bloomington, Indiana.
That modest house was perhaps more of a classroom to me than anywhere else on the Indiana University campus. It was like a medieval university unto itself where lectures and discussions could last all night in the most natural and deepest sense of the concept of education. I will never forget those precious memories and the immense knowledge that I accrued in such a unique setting. To this day, Professor Başgöz remains the utmost authority of Turkish folklore and oral literature in the world. His many priceless books and hundreds of seminal articles in this field are the greatest testament to his scholarly legacy. But perhaps what most people do not know is that İlhan Hoca was also an expert of modern and classical Turkish literature. His skills in recitation and deep knowledge in interpretation of those literary traditions guided me immensely in my own humble scholarly adventures.
I witnessed him laugh like a child amused with a toy when he discovered something new in the field of Turkish Studies but I also saw him cry like a collapsed man who is in severe pain when some negative news came from Turkey. He was perhaps the greatest Turkish patriot I have ever met in my life. He used to phone me: “Kemal Paşa, come and watch the Kurtuluş (Liberation) with me” each time something horrible happened in Turkey. It was a movie about the Turkish War of Independence. As we were watching the movie, Professor Başgöz was pacing back and forth, nervously. When I asked him why, he said “it is a habit from my prison times.” I learned who Atatürk was from him. I learned what Turkish secularism was from him, I learned why the Atatürk Revolution was needed by all of humanity from him. When he told me he did not know when he was born because it was never recorded properly, he also told me that the great leader Atatürk visited his elementary school class and therefore he was born when the Republic of Turkey was born!
Each time I knocked at his front door for another visit, as soon as he saw me he began reciting with joy the following couplets by a 17th century Turkish sufi poet:
Gitdün ammâ ki kodun hasret ile cânı bile
İstemem sensüz olan sohbet-i yârânı bile
Bâga sensüz varamam çeşmüme âteş görinür
Gül-i handânı degül serv-i hırâmânı bile
Sîneden derd ile bir âh ideyim kim dönsün
‘Aksine çarh-ı felek mihr-i dırahşânı bile
Devr-i meclis bana girdâb-ı belâdur sensüz
Mey-i rahşânı degül sâgâr-ı gerdânı bile
Hâr-ı firkatle Neşâtî-i hazînün vâ-hayf
Dâmen-i ülfeti çâk oldı giribânı bile
You’re gone—I’m alone in the company of longing
I no longer want sweet talk with friends if you’re not there
I dare not go to the garden without you,
The laughing rose is red as fire, swaying cypress a pointed flame
Let me tear a cry from my breast, let me voice such pain
The wheel of the sky turns backward, along with the shining sun
The passing cup at the gathering is a whirlpool of sadness without you
A whirlpool of bright wine inside the turning bowl
What a shame! Poor Neşâtî is so sick with grief and pain
Both the skirt of companionship and its collar are torn by separation’s thorn
İlhan Hocam, it is now my turn to cry. I will never forget you. I am truly grateful for everything you’ve done for me and for many others. Hakkını helal et!
May you rest in peace wherever you are, and may your cycle be forever!
Your student, Kemal (Silay)