Bulent and the Blue Fusus
The Story of a Translation, by Angela Culme-Seymour
[This article first appeared in Vol. 26 of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, 1999.]
It all started one morning in the spring of 1973. Bulent and I set off from his brother Mahmud's house - which was on top of a hill called Küçük Çamlica outside Üsküdar - and headed south. The lane leading to the main road was narrow and deeply rutted and Bulent sitting beside me was looking gloomy and apprehensive. Once he said reprovingly, "Angela". "We'll soon be there", I told him. "Inshallah", he muttered. But soon we were, bowling along the new highway to Ankara. I was driving our blue 1954 diesel Mercedes, bought in Germany for £30. Bulent had only driven once in his life - across a small strip of desert in Egypt; quite enough, he said.
Now he was happy and unscrewed the thermos, had a sip of black coffee and lit a cigarette. Presently he started peeling an orange and feeding me segments. Then he had a little snooze and when he woke up opened the packet of sandwiches and had a snackette and another sip of black coffee.
After an hour or so we started climbing uphill to a place called Bolu, where we had lunch and filled up with petrol. I remember that it was there that I lost the cap of the petrol tank, leaving it on the roof of the car. From then on we had a variety of make-do - something the Turks are very good at - petrol-tank caps: old caps from oil cans now hammered out and kept on with wire, caps of wood or cork, caps from old cars standing in car graveyards. Later on, when the exhaust fell off (yet again), a young Turk fitted a new one from an old drainpipe.
We arrived in Ankara that evening and stayed in a small, narrow hotel painted a hideous mauve colour. It was called the Çiçek Palas, the Flower Palace.
In the morning we went to a café for breakfast and on the way back a heavy rainstorm broke out. The street we had to cross to return to the Çiçek Palas had turned into a rushing torrent. As we stood on the pavement, hesitating and getting very wet, a short stocky man attracted Bulent's attention, leaning over and pointing to his back. He wanted to give Bulent a piggy-back through the flood. A crowd gathered, shouting encouragement, and then there they were, the little Hercules pushing his way through the swirling water, almost hidden beneath Bulent's rather larger body, which was shaking with laughter. Luckily I too was carried over a few minutes later. I had been afraid it might have been thought unseemly. When I was deposited on the opposite pavement Bulent was still laughing, tears running down his face.
Soon the rain stopped, the sun shone, and we set off for Konya. We arrived that evening. I have no memory of our hotel there - surely more comfortable than the Çiçek Palas. In the morning we were driven up the main avenue in a horse and carriage; Bulent was to take me to the tomb of Jalaluddin Rumi, and as we drove along he told me something about him.
A line of women were standing before the railings outside the mosque, their hands outstretched palm-upwards. When we came out I joined and copied them and closed my eyes. As we walked away Bulent said, "Well, what did you feel?" I said I didn't know exactly - a sort of feeling of love perhaps - or maybe I had just been imagining it. "It's all about love", Bulent said. "Why should you have been imagining it?"
That afternoon we went to try and find some original writings of the great Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi. Bulent told me he was possibly the greatest sheikh of all time; it was very important.
We entered a dull, modern building and found a dull, modern office. I think it was like a sort of English County Council place - the Muhtar's office. A portly man in a tight brown suit listened to Bulent politely, then ushered us in and motioned us to sit on two leather-covered chairs, which were standing in a row with others against the wall. Bulent sat with a lugubrious expression on his face and lit a cigarette. The portly man had sent a very small boy out to bring us coffee, and then to find the librarian.
After a few minutes an even smaller boy brought us the coffee in two little white cups on a round brass tray hanging on three chains.
Then boy number one returned and said the librarian was waiting outside. We found a tall, thin, pale young man wearing spectacles and looking solemn and shy, or perhaps nervous. I remember walking in silence through the narrow streets until we reached a grey house on a corner. In his own domain the librarian seemed more assured and he led us into a rather dark room lined with bookshelves. Books were tightly and neatly arranged. He seated us at the end of a large table of some sort of dark-brown polished wood. He sat next to Bulent and they both talked for some time, but I knew very little Turkish then. The librarian seemed interested and impressed - he almost smiled. Then, abruptly, as if he had made a sudden decision, he got up and left the room.
"Three hundred and fifty", Bulent said when we were alone. "Three hundred and fifty books Ibn 'Arabi wrote, perhaps more."
The librarian returned with a sheaf of manuscripts, and with care and reverence laid them out on the table, large sandy-coloured sheets covered with old Arabic script.
"His own writing", he said to Bulent. "Ibn 'Arabi's own writing." He took off his specs and his eyes were filled with tears.
Bulent's hands hovered over them, his palms outstretched, as if he were protecting something too precious to touch. He murmured "Mashallah, mashallah", but his voice was almost a whisper.
I have remembered that afternoon for many years, but at that time I did not, of course, know, nor have any idea of how the Sheikh's work would become such a part of our, and so many other people's, lives.
The next chapter, so to speak, which was to lead to that first translation of the Blue Fusus, began back in Mahmud's house in Küçük Çamlica. I think I have not yet mentioned that this house was called Hülkibey Evi - Hülkibey being the name of the owner. Although I had grown very fond of it, it was the most dilapidated and uncomfortable house that I have ever spent any time in. As well as Mahmud, nine dogs lived there, though only one indoors. This creature was called Bonny, a sort of hairy orange lump, legs about four inches long, the rest of him more or less touching the floor. One of his eyes was like a squashed black currant, the other half covered by matted orange hair. Every four seconds, night and day, he gave a sort of dry cough. Sometimes Mahmud would shout at him, "Bonny, shut up!" But of course it was useless.
The front door of the house, which Mahmud called "La Porte Sublime" (The Sublime Door), was patched with bits of wood or cardboard attached with string or wire. The path leading up to it was strewn with old bones, torn pieces of newspaper, skins of watermelons, rather like the waters of the Bosphorus at that time. (It is clean now.) Mahmud spent many hours of each day in a deckchair on the balcony from which you could look down over a hill covered with mushrooms and tiny wild flowers, which ended at the Sea of Marmara (now all built over). Or he would be reading on his bed, which was like a sort of wide V, almost touching the floor in the middle, rising at each end. M's feet were at one end, his head at the other, back to the light. There were bookcases all round the room, he knew where all the books were, and two big black tin trunks, whose contents also he knew exactly. He delighted in reading very carefully through brochures and labels on medicine bottles which claimed such remarkable cures. But he read anything - French, English, the old Ottoman script, which he also wrote with ease. Bulent said he knew more than he did. Well...
One evening when the three of us were sitting drinking red wine at the table in the sitting room, Bulent said to Mahmud, "Where's your French Fusus?"
Mahmud said, "My Fusus, my dear fellow?" He often called Bulent "my dear fellow" or "mon cher" just to tease him. "Why do you want my Fusus?"
"Angela's going to translate it into English", Bulent answered. I began, "Am I? But I don't know if..."
"You will", Bulent said. Then Mahmud told me where it was, so I went and fetched it and opened it at the table. "You can't have that one," Bulent said. "You'll have to go to Paris and get another."
Just like that?
Before we left Hülkibey Evi that year - I think it was about the end of the summer - I read through Mahmud's Fusus two or perhaps three times and did not understand all of it, not at once, but I thought, "Yes, I think I will be able to. I will." It was then, really, that I made the decision. Of course I didn't really have a choice.
I had lived in Paris for several years after the war and I remembered the shop that I thought would have such a book. That was where I would go.
I flew over to Paris two or three weeks later. I dived into the metro, emerging at Montparnasse, turned up the boulevard on the right-hand side and walked up towards the Place St Germain.
I walked up slowly in case I should miss the shop and then there it was, just as I remembered. I went in and asked the man behind the desk, "Titus Burckhardt, La Sagesse des Prophètes?" He knew it at once. "Up there in the corner of the top shelf on the left-hand side - if there is one left..." he added doubtfully.
There was one, exactly one, sitting there waiting for me. I could hardly believe it. "The last one in the shop", I told Bulent when I telephoned him that evening.
"Mashallah", he said, not sounding particularly surprised; and immediately afterwards, and quite severely, "When are you coming back?" And then, as he always did when I was away or about to go, "Don't let me worry."
I started the translation at the table in Hülkibey's sitting room. I remember one evening more and more people came in - they were Mahmud's strange assortment of friends: the Thin Boy who seemed to be dogged by ill fortune, every job he did, everything he sold - mangoes, aubergines, melons - all collapsed in days. Then he would sit around in despair until he had another idea. The fat Persian, Ruhi Bey, who drank until he fell, with the bag in which he carried the manuscript of his enormous book that was to change the world; and the thief with his charming old-world manners, who had stolen from his father's house every stick of furniture, every window, every door, even the floorboards, and once tried to steal our blue Mercedes. Sometimes I would find him lying on his back in the woods, an empty bottle by his side. If he was awake and saw me he would spring up, bow low and kiss my hand, enquiring politely after Bulent Bey Efendi and myself.
With all these people in the room it was not a good place to work. Sure enough a drop of wine fell onto my book. I quickly packed up and retired with an oil lamp to my room.
I translated more peacefully in our flat in London, in Mme Ayashli's house in Beylerbeyi, back in Hülkibey's house the following spring, and then in Side. (Finally, in Bitez, though we did not then have our own house.)
Side was built round the ruins of a Greek port and had a large, beautiful and well-preserved theatre on the edge of the sea. Standing up at the top of the seating you could see both to east and west long, long stretches of empty sand.
We stayed in the Pansyon Hermes which belonged to a family of Cretan origin. The mother, a screeching old lady, came to clean. Her son, Mustafa Güzel (M. Beautiful) absolutely adored Bulent. When we finally left he fell at his feet and held Bulent's legs and cried, "Don't go, don't go. If you go my life will fall into ruins." And years later when I was alone one day in Izmir airport, I saw him again. He was quite different, his young Cretan looks had gone and he was rather fat. He came and sat beside me and said, "You see? My life is over. Everything wrong. Everything." Though how I never knew. Bulent's room was meant to be the grandest, with an adjoining bathroom which, unfortunately, had no water at that time. My room was across the courtyard in which grew an orange tree, a fig, jasmine, hibiscus, tiny gladioli, pansies and very small sweet-smelling narcissi. In the corner a sickly-green nylon curtain hid an outdoor shower.
One evening, when I went over to see if Bulent had finished researching for the Sultans book, he said in a rather gloomy voice, "I've started writing."
I said, "Oh wonderful" or something like that. He thrust a page into my hand and said, "Read it to me."
So I read. What I read was a long, long, rather involved Proustian sort of sentence, which comprised the whole of the first paragraph. I stopped. Bulent was looking at me. "What on earth did all that mean?" he said, and then laughed and laughed, and so did I. But in the end it was a great book. [Published as The Last Sultans, see Bibliography]
The evenings were still cool and before dinner we usually sat near the wood-burning stove over in my room and drank raki and played dice or backgammon, which he nearly always won. But once, in Beylerbeyi, when the dervish was standing behind me, and he saw I was about to lose again - he put his hands on my shoulders and said, "I think its time 'our daughter' (as he called me) won a game", and against all odds, I did.
About twice a week we went into Manavgat market where Bulent wandered about pointing at vegetables, fruit, olives or sacks of rice with his NHS stick which he had had since his hip operation, when I first met him.
The young - or old - men in the market soon knew him, appreciated his knowledge of their products and respected him, also his manners towards them.
"How much?" or "Kaç Kurush?" he would ask (Kurush were like farthings, they no longer exist), pointing at a case of oranges or aubergines. If the price was outrageous he would laugh and say reprovingly, "But my child" or "my son" or "my lamb", which sounds rather funny in English. They called him "Bey Efendi" or sometimes "Uncle" or "Elder Brother". "At least they didn't call me Grandpa", Bulent muttered the first time.
Bulent was always tremendously polite, generous, thoughtful and tactful, equally to people selling aubergines as to a prince or princess. Not only was he a Sufi, a mystic, but a man of the world in the best sense, of wide interests: archaeology, history, music, painting, books, languages, people. I nearly forgot to mention chickens, and even dancing, which he was very good at. Once at Side he went onto the stone dance floor - it was out of doors - and danced in the Turkish way, rolling his shoulders, for about thirty seconds only. Everyone stopped and a famous Turkish singer called Zeki Müren sent us a bottle of champagne. Anything he did or played he did wholeheartedly. He loved good food and drink and parties (and was a brilliant cook), and he adored flowers, especially orchids. He could even get angry or delighted over a game of Scrabble or mah-jong.
Sometimes he laughed until tears ran down his face, "Ah! Aman, aman", he used to gasp as he tried to stop. He was what I would call a whole person. He also had enormous patience. When I first met Bulent I soon realised that certainly I had never known anyone like him. He was indeed unique. For that matter we are all and each unique. But - to borrow from George Orwell - some are more unique than others. Bulent was one of those.
At last the translation was finished. There were not many word-processors or computers around in those days, and we gave the manuscript to a girl called Drusilla to type. When she came to the end of the chapter on Seth she looked out into her dark garden and Seth was standing there, she said. She was very frightened, but she went on after a few days. Seth did not appear again.
When it was done, Bulent and I went through it together, including the notes, and then the first rough copy was printed and the proofs had to be read. This took place in a village called Hamsi Köy high up in the hills south of the Black Sea coast not far from Trebizond. Although Hamsi Köy means "Anchovy Village" it was known not for anchovies but for sütlaç, a rich creamy sort of rice pudding, the best in Turkey Bulent told me.
After the first evening at the village when the sun revealed a huge expanse of mountains and forests, rain and mist descended and remained for the rest of the time we were there.
Bulent had taken a small cottage on the side of a hill where the proofs were read by Grenville Collins, Simon Blackwood, Hugh Tollemache and Richard Hornsby. This cottage was actually little more than a sort of shack. With the rain and mist, there was damp and even rivulets of water everywhere, running down the walls, forming little pools on the stone floor, and at night there were mice and probably rats. (On the third day it had started to rain inside the place.)
I stayed in a nearby hotel, and even there you had to put on wellingtons or go barefoot to get to the loo at the end of the balcony. I spent hours sitting at a table on the landing where there was a stove, playing bezique with a furiously quarrelling Turkish couple.
Anyway it was there, in Hamsi Köy, that the book was finally ready for the publishers. Two days later (still no sun) we drove down to Trebizond and had dinner in a restaurant where quails strutted about over a floor covered with sand - and we slept in dry beds. The next day Simon Blackwood flew back to London with the proofs.
The following autumn the "Blue Fusus" - as it was called eventually - appeared in print. It then became, and still is, essential reading for students at the Beshara School. Since that time, of course, there have been Bulent's translation from Ismail Hakki Bursevi, a massive work in four volumes, known as the "White Fusus", and many other truly excellent books and papers on Ibn 'Arabi, his life, his work, his philosophy, his poems, in particular Dr Ralph Austin's Fusus and Sufis of Andalusia. By comparison the 1975 Blue Fusus seems very, very small indeed.
But to finish I just wanted to say that the credit should not so much go to my translation, but to Bulent for saying, when his brother Mahmud asked him why he wanted his Fusus, "Angela's going to translate it." So - his idea. You didn't argue with Bulent's ideas.
Now that is clear, I feel I can quote those two lines that David Everett wrote in about 1790, pointing out what can happen to very small beginnings.
Large streams from little fountains flow;
You can read other reminiscences of Bulent by Angela Culme-Seymour in Bolter's Grand-Daughter, her autobiography.
In this section:Child Across Time
The Blue Fusus