Tom Solomon – Reflections on Music and Exile

Thomas Solomon

In June 2012 I experienced a quite moving concert in Istanbul.[1] Both my ticket and the concert poster on the wall at the entrance to the venue named the performing group as “Metin&Kemal Kahraman,” indicating the presence of the two brothers Metin Kahraman and Kemal Kahraman, plus their small group of accompanying instrumentalists and singers. But of the two brothers, only Metin was actually physically present on stage. His brother Kemal lives in exile in Berlin, and cannot return to Turkey, the country of his birth, because of charges against him related to leftist activity — being a member of a banned political organization — during the 1980s. As Turkish social scientist Leyla Neyzi explains, “Unable to enter Turkey, Kemal does not have German citizenship either, living in the in-between legal status of refugees.”[2] When performing outside of Turkey, the two brothers can share the stage to perform the music they have created together and released on several CDs, all of which are freely available in Turkey and in other countries.[3,4] But for concerts within Turkey, Metin alone represents the Kahraman brothers on stage, even though the name of the group always also includes Kemal’s name and thus acknowledges his part in the creative process behind the music.
At the concert I attended, when Metin first took the stage along with four other musicians, there was an empty chair next to him on the stage. At first I thought that this empty chair was intended to evoke the present-absence of Kemal — emphasizing that a place was reserved for him on stage, but that he could not take that place because of his exile status in Germany. It turned out that the chair was actually meant for singer and group member Maviş Güneşer, who joined the other musicians on stage after the first few numbers. But still the idea of the empty chair as a metaphor for Kemal’s absence stayed with me. Towards the end of the first set, a guest singer also joined the group on stage for a few songs. An additional chair was brought out for her. After she finished her guest spot and left the stage, her chair remained, unused on stage until the end of the concert. Again, an empty chair, seemingly indicating a present-absence — a space reserved for someone who should be there, but left unoccupied.
The name of the venue in Istanbul where this concert took place, “Haymatlos,” provides an additional layer of meaning. This is the Turkish spelling of the German word heimatlos. Heimatlos is a legal term in German for “stateless,” but it also, being derived from the word Heimat (“homeland,” “motherland”), has more emotional connotations than the rather dry legal term “stateless” in English, evoking sentiments such as those that would be conjured up by phrases such as “without a homeland” or “having no motherland.” So for this concert, the group Metin&Kemal Kahraman was performing in Turkey — but without the integral member Kemal, who remained in stateless exile in Germany — in a venue named after the Turkish spelling of the German word that itself means “stateless” and evokes displacement from one’s motherland.
The music of Metin&Kemal Kahraman performed at the concert is itself a music born out of, and intensively reflective on, the experience of exile. The Kahraman brothers are originally from Dersim, a province in eastern Anatolia that is the historical homeland for a people distinct in culture, religion and language from the Sunni Muslim, ethnically and linguistically “Turkish” majority population of the Turkish state in which they find themselves embedded today. While Dersim was historically a multi-ethnic region (including a sizeable Armenian population before 1915), the majority of the Dersimli (literally, “people of Dersim”) spoke (and still speak today) an Iranic language called Zazaki (or, in the Turkish name for the language, Zazaca).[5] This language is often lumped together with Kırmancı, Sorani, and Gorani (the latter two spoken in Iran and Iraq) as a “Kurdish dialect,” though linguists have suggested that Zazaki should be considered a distinct branch of Iranic that entered Anatolia from northern Iran as a result of a historical migration separate from that of speakers of Kurdish.[6] Zazaki is currently included in UNESCO’s list of endangered languages.[7]
Perhaps even more important than language to the identity of the majority of Dersimli is their Alevi faith, a heterodox religion distinct from the majority Sunni Islam that surrounds them. While Alevis are found throughout much of Turkey, the Dersimli Alevis’ particular inflection of Alevism is deeply rooted in the spiritual geography of the region, with holy sites such as the mountain Düzgün Baba being important places of pilgrimage.[8] Regardless of the origin of their language or their distinct religious affiliation (and regardless of essentializing primordialist discourse), from a critical-historical perspective what makes the contemporary Dersimli “Kurdish” together with speakers of the more properly Kurdish language Kırmancı (mostly concentrated to the south and east of Dersim), is their common recent experience of subordination to republican Turkish state power (in contrast to the relative political autonomy they historically enjoyed during most of the Ottoman period), and their ongoing geographical, economic, social, cultural and linguistic marginalization within the modern Turkish republic.
In his famous 1984 essay “Reflections on Exile,” the late Palestianian literary scholar and cultural critic Edward Said discussed some aspects of the politics and aesthetics of exilic cultural production. Being a literary critic, Said drew primarily on examples from literature (such as novels and poetry), with the result that the asethetic issues he discussed remained primarily at the textual level. As deeply embodied forms of cultural expression combining sound and language in performance, musical evocations of exile offer other kinds of possibilities for the aesthetic exploration of the condition of exile. In this essay I want to explore this more embodied dimension of music and exile. I suggest that the notable absence of the exilic subject him- or herself in the homeland paradoxically becomes a kind of embodied presence, and that those who have been exiled leave their embodied traces in the places of origin they have been exiled from. I call these embodied traces a “present absence.”
Said evocatively described exile as “a condition legislated to deny dignity — to deny an identity to people,” and as “the perilous territory of not-belonging.”[9] This characterization of exile is apt for the recent historial experience of the people of Dersim, and for the subject position Kemal Kahraman occupies as a musician in exile, maintaining through his creative work a connection to the identity and geography that he has been forcefully separated from.
In the republican era (since the establishment of the modern Turkish state in 1923), the people of Dersim have experienced an ongoing forced Turkification in regard to culture, language, and religion. Even the official name of the province was changed — from the ancient name of Dersim to the new Turkish-language derived name Tunceli (“bronze hand” or “bronze land,” depending on how one interprets it) — as if to literally wipe any trace of the Dersim identity off the map of modern Turkey. The newly-imagined Turkish republic, Turkish in ethnicity and language, and de facto Sunni Muslim in religion, had no room for ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities, and where such minorities were asserted they were suppressed through a series of draconian and often violent measures. In Dersim these included the militarization of the region and forced removal and transport to exile of the people beginning in 1936-37, legislated by the Turkish National Assembly through the Act of Resettlement in 1934 and the Bill of Tunceli in 1935. After a series of localized resistance actions, now collectively referred to as the Dersim Rebellion, these events came to a head in 1938 with a violent military response that, according to official figures, left some 13,000 people dead and nearly 12,000 deported from the region and forcibly resettled elsewhere (unofficial figures put the toll of dead and displaced much higher), leaving it largely depopulated by the end of 1938.[10] Many of the displaced eventually returned to the region by the 1950s. But as Neyzi notes, significant out-migration from Dersim to large cities in Turkey for economic reasons also began in the 1950s, and escalated again during the 1990s as a result of the civil war in southeast Anatolia between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), now with the added element of migration to the diaspora outside of Turkey.[11] Zazaki-speaking Dersimli living in European countries such as Germany and Sweden have since the 1990s been active in a Zaza and Alevi cultural revival, creating new literature and music in Zazaki language.
A historical consciousness of the traumatic and violent events of the 1930s, and again since the 1990s — and an understanding that these two eras are actually part of a single ongoing process — forms the background for the music of Metin&Kemal Kahraman. Their music is a music born of exile. It is a music that explicitly reflects upon and aestheticizes the experience of longing for home, the experience of displacement, the experience of being haymatlos.[12]
The concert I attended drew widely on the group’s repertoire as represented in a number of CDs released since the early 1990s, including songs in both Zazaki language and in Turkish. Besides the visual aspect of his absence from the group on the stage, Kemal’s present-absence in the group’s performances in Turkey is embodied in the resulting changes in the group’s sound. In those of their recorded songs where Kemal’s husky baritone provides the lead vocal, the replacement in live performance of his voice with Metin’s more lilting tenor changes the tone of many of the songs. The instrumental element that Kemal provides in the group’s recordings is also a noticeable present-absence in concerts in Turkey. Metin’s primary instrument is acoustic guitar, while Kemal plays a number of varieties of Antolian long-necked plucked stringed instruments collectively referred to as saz, each with timbres, ranges, and scalar possibilities distinct from the even-tempered guitar. The brothers’ recordings are often characterized by a delicate interplay between Metin’s guitar and the various kinds of saz played by Kemal. In concerts in Turkey where Kemal doesn’t play, the band does not replace him with another saz player; Istanbul-based musician Serdar Keskin joins in on second guitar. This can limit the repertoire the group plays when performing live in Turkey, and a number of songs and instrumental pieces in which Kemal’s saz part is integral to the arrangement simply do not appear in the set list. For those familiar with the group’s recordings (as presumably much, if not most of the audience was at the concert I attended), the absence of Kemal’s voice and saz from the group’s live sound when performing in Turkey is thus a constant reminder of the displacement and disruption that exile creates.
In the musical evocations of exile emanating from that concert stage in Istanbul, Kemal Kahraman’s exile in Germany and present-absence from the stage became a metaphorical extension of — or perhaps better said, one more concrete substantiation of — the historical and contemporary displacement and exile of his people from Dersim. Without Kemal’s distinctive voice and saz playing, the music powerfully embodied the sense of cultural loss resulting from that displacement and exile, and the violence an uncompromising state perpetrates on the everyday lives of the people it claims authority over. Kemal’s doubly exilic status seemed to be embodied in the empty chair on stage during the concert, a reminder — even if unintentional and emergent — of his present-absence. For me, at least, that empty chair concretized the idea that, as Edward Said has suggested, despite the beauty and power of much artistic creation rooted in the exilic experience, exile’s “crippling sorrow of estrangement” — the “essential sadness” of exile — “can never be surmounted.”[13]
Thanks to Kemal Kahraman, Martin Greve and Ozan Aksoy for reading a draft of (a longer version of) this essay and commenting on it.
1. This paper is a much abridged version of an essay I have published online under the title of “Music of Exile, and the Empty Chair” at
2. Lela Neyzi, “Embodied Elders: Space and Subjectivity in the Music of Metin-Kemal Kahraman,” Middle Eastern Studies vol. 38, no. 1 (Jan. 2002), pp. 89-109, this quote from p. 89.
3. For a TV clip showing Metin and Kemal performing together, see
4. See the discography below for a list of recordings by Metin&Kemal Kahraman and notes on where they may be obtained.
5. Speakers of this language may also refer to it by the name Kirmancki, which itself has variant pronunciations and spellings such as Kırmancki (the character ı or “i without a dot” being a distinct letter in the alphabet) or Kirmanjki; the name Dimili is also used. Due to the similar spelling of Kirmancki and its variants to Kırmancı, the latter being the name of another, distinct language spoken in adjacent areas in southeast Anatolia, I use the name Zazaki in this essay in order to avoid confusion, while recognizing that this choice may seem arbitrary to some people familiar with the linguistic geography of the region.
6. I briefly discuss the “Kurdishness” (or not) of Zazaki speakers, and give references to some further relevant literature, in the article “Whose Diaspora?: Hybrid Identities in ‘Turkish Rap’ in Germany,” in Music and Identity in Norway and Beyond: Essays Commemorating Edvard Grieg the Humanist, edited by Thomas Solomon, 253-267, Bergen: Fagbokforlaget (2011).
7. See the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger,; search under the term Zazaki.
8. An anthropological study of symbolism in the belief system in Dersim, in which sacred geography plays a key role, is Dilşa Deniz, Yol/Rê: Dersim İnanç Sembolizmi: Antropolojik Bir Yaklaşım, Istanbul: İletişim (2012).
9. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in his Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays, pp. 173-186, London: Granta (2001); these quotes from p. 175 and p. 177; originally published in the journal Granta in 1984.
10. For an overview of events in Dersim in the 1930s, see Hans-Lukas Kieser, “Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938” in Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence,
11. Neyzi, p. 89 & 95.
12. For specific examples supporting this point see the discussion of several songs and a videoclip included in the longer version of this paper (see link in note 1 above).
13. Said, p. 173.
[studio albums]
Metin&Kemal Kahraman.
1993. Deniz Koydum Adını. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
1995. Renklerde Yaşamak. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
1999. Ferfecir. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
2000. Sürela. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
2003. Meyman. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
2006. Çeverê Hazaru. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
2011. Saé Moru/Şahmaran. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
[field recordings]
1997. Yaşlılar Dersim Tiirküleri Söylüyor. Lızge Müzik Yapım.
[This album represents part of the Kahraman brothers’ project of documenting the oral history of Dersim through field recordings of songs performed by elderly men and women in Zazaki and Turkish.
All the above CDs are available from, a USA-based distributor of Turkish music and books, with an English-language website. The CDs are also available from Turkish distributor, which operates a website only in the Turkish language. The website for the Kahraman brothers’ own music company,, was not operational at the time of the writing of this essay.