An Ottoman Philosopher: Sakalli Celâl


He witnessed every moment of Istanbul’s transition from Ottoman to Republic; he inspired the culture-art and idea collections of the period with his marginal life; He did not like to think about his office, position, fame, money, stamp, tomorrow’s good fortune, and he went from this world without leaving a single line of written works against such avant-garde ideas; a deep Ottoman understanding and rich inner world.

A Couch Grass In Our World Of Thought
He was born as the third son of Admiral Hüseyin Hüsnü Pasha, who was abundantly complimented and appreciated by the Navy Ministers as a well-known statesman for his courage and honesty. The date is March 1886. His father served in the navy hierarchy and senior state authorities, from the Naval Command of Crete to the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, the Inspectorate of New Warships and the Minister of Medicine. Mahmud Celâl grew up in an extremely strict discipline and idealistic parental control starting from his childhood. There is a rich library in the house of Ayşe Melek Hanım, who is a mother fond of aristocracy and gusto, and an archetype of strong and powerful father. Mahmud Celâl begins to recognize and love books before he can even learn to read and write properly. He was sort of obliged to do so, but he will not want to leave the books he has received in his life ever again.

Besides being a son of a pasha, Mahmud Celâl, who has a reclusive personality in different creations that does not fit into shapes and patterns since childhood, starts to read the books of his older brothers who were students of the Naval School. Many of these are in French. The foreign language education he received from the French governesses of Dame de Sion triggers this interest. After a short period of time, one of the most respected schools of the period, Mekteb-i Sultanî (Galatasaray High School) years will begin. From here he is sent to the Université Paris-Sorbonne for higher education. While he wants to study mechanical engineering, he is directed to international political education of the social sciences because of his mother Ayşe Melek’s disapproval. It is rumored that as a form of protest he begins to grow his beard during this period. This is how the beard story develops into a trademark.

Bohemian, Contrarian and Patriotic
He cannot return from Paris with high education, but his beard, which he believes to represent freedom, rebellion, and inability to fit into his container has already taken his place on his cheerful face. Tevfik Fikret is one of the greatest names in Turkish literature is the head of the school he loved throughout his entire life. He asks Fikret to let him serve as an assistant teacher in order to transfer his French, in which he is proficient in literary language proficiency and capable of producing philosophy, to young students. It is immediately accepted and he is appointed for the préparatoire classes in the 1908-09 academic year which has just begun.

The preoccupation of teaching will be the favourite job of Celal in his life. There is such a rambling feature of him that it is his ability to simply embody the most complex and difficult abstract issues, and to tell them easily.

At the end of the same year, he gives a break to his teaching duties upon his own willingness. Because a reactionary uprising started in Istanbul against the Committee of Union and Progress, which was dominant on the administration at that time, and the Movement Army was supplied to the Army in order to suppress it. The chief of staff of the army sent from Thessaloniki to Istanbul under the command of Mahmut Şevket Pasha is Kolağası Mustafa Kemal.

The March 31 uprising was suppressed, the Constitutional Monarchy administration cares more about educational activities on the basis of enlightenment and modernization. Sakallı Celal, perhaps affected by the idealist decision of the spirit of this period, immersed himself in the decision to continue teaching in Skopje.Rumelia lands had the most enlightened and libertarian atmosphere of the empire at that time. Sakallı Celal reflects the ideals of modernization and civilization to his works in Skopje. He sets up a football team from the students and handles the matter with such dedication that he brings them uniforms and football equipment from abroad. When the region’s uncharted voices reach the mufti and then to the Ministry of Education, the ticket to Mahmud Celâl Bey’s return to Istanbul, which they call “the infidel unashamed of his beard” due to his beard, is cut off.

A “Lonely” Idealist True To His Name
Regardless of the contradiction between rebel sides and military discipline of his personality, he applies for rearmament. It can be thought that Sakallı Celâl’s sensitivity in this period was concessions made from his ideals and sensitivities in order to contribute a little bit to the ordeal of the payitaht (capital). His demands are rejected and as teachers are required in the country and he is re-directed to the profession. He, as a paşazade (son of a pasha), does not regard this situation as a burden; He continues his duties as a French teacher in Kastamonu, Izmit and Ankara. As a young Ottoman scholar who was immersed in the Paris culture, who has seen the Sorbonne, he embraces his work satisfied of being able to contribute to the Anatolian enlightenment, albeit a drop in the ocean. During the First World War, he is assigned as the deputy principal of the Sultanate of Ankara. As in Skopje, Kastamonu and Izmit, in an important and crowded high school in Ankara where the Republic will be built; he was the deputy principal was trying to explain the importance of art, science, philosophy, and vice-verse to his students; and always advised them to follow the enlightenment, he did not even reach the age of thirty. During this period, he returns to Istanbul due to the death of his father.

“This Is Not A Painter’s Cube!”
Most of the idealist teaching adventures full of love for teaching of Sakallı Celâl, which started in Mekteb-i Sultanî (high school), Skopje, Kastamonu, İzmit and then continued in Ankara was realized mostly during the Ottoman period. After the proclamation of the Republic, he was once again summoned to Ankara Sultanisi (High School of Ankara), but this time he was principal of the high school. His idealism would soon end with his resignation from his duty as the principal when the Deputy Minister of Education Hamdullah Suphi Bey requests him to graduate some high school students who had a couple of years for their graduations. In order to meet the demand requirements of the Courthouse Law School and other higher education institutions, it is determined that the students who were not subjected to ‘elusive’ (power-loving, rigorous) exams during their senior year’s graduation that year and the students who have one year of time before graduation to be graduated as a matter of form. Sakallı Celâl Bey, the director of Ankara Sultanîs, gives his first answer verbally. “This is not a painter’s cube!” He then abandones his teaching profession for almost twenty years, never to return.

“The Gardener Endures Thousands Of Thorns For One Rose”
Sakallı Celâl is a Melami person as well as being idiosyncratic. For example, it is known that he worked as a foreman in a fig factory in Aydın, where he distributed all his earnings to poor people in the surrounding villages after leaving the teaching profession. Or he has been heard from the language to the ear that he has engaged in the works of engineering in Gülcemâl Ferry and worked as a fireman in the Eastern Express. Haldun Taner, one of the most important story writer, play writer and essayist in Turkish literature, described Sakallı Celâl in an anecdote in his book of portraits titled “Only the Skin may die, not the lives” (Ölürse Ten Ölür Canlar Ölesi Değil).

“Captain Şefik, the famous cavalry of the Ankara Ferry, told me that a bearded dockman who wrapped the ropes on the front deck recited to him Lamartine’s poem“Le Lac”by heart. He had asked the chief engineer about him because he had never seen this dockman who spoke French so well, and he told that this bearded person wanted to go to İzmir without a ticket! Celal Bey could easily borrow that much money from his friends if he asked from them. But he chose not to do.  He loved games like this… ”

In 1934, when the surname law comes out, Sakallı Celâl chooses the surname that suits this man best in the world. “Yalınız (Lonely)”… But on the other hand, he is an indispensable name for intellectual societies and crowds. There are quite many people who are fond of him and who appreciate him.

When Sakallı Celal passed away in 1962, he did not leave a single written work behind. As his teacher Tevfik Fikret said in a verse, “You will go to a path where you know you deserve all alone”, he has left his aphorisms that we used without knowing that many of them were his own. “The gardener endures thousands of thorns for one rose” wrote on his tombstone.


What People Say On Behalf Of Sakalli Celâl
“Listening to Celal is the sweetest of pleasures and the most selected of enjoyments.”
Ahmet Haşim

“An old-time hero who cannot be understood and comprehended with today’s shallow and corrupt criteria.”
Melih Cevdet Anday

“He was really unique, neither had any precedent before, nor had a future after him.”
Vedat Nedim Tör

“The existence and value of well-mannered Celal, who did not give a bite to bourgeois patterns, was known and understood by few people. He is indeed a spring flowing in vain through steep mountains, lush forests, steppes in the middle of a spring flowing in vain.”
Haldun Taner

Aphorisms Of Sakalli Celâl

“Turkey’s pseudo intellectuals who run towards West on the deck of a ship sailing towards East think they have become westernized.”

“In this country, the concerned people are uninformed and the well-informed people are irrelevant.”

“Such ignorance is possible only through education.”

“For a girl to suppose and to reckon a shaved man is beautiful is rather sorrowful.”

“For man, intelligence is like a pearl in a mussel. Not all of the people have intelligence.”

A Flâneur In Istanbul
From the 1930s onwards, he returns to his original spring, and in the streets of Istanbul, especially in the streets of Beyoğlu, in bookstores and cafes, he recites French poems from Lamartine to Baudelaire; lives as a Melami philosopher in a bit of a sloppy, very bohemian manner, but he was well respected by those who know him. Those who know him are not surprised when they see him sweeping bushes in Nisantasi to pioneer the rights of garbage collectors.

A “Mysterious Celebrity”
Sakallı Celâl never gets help from anyone during his life. According to the rumor, in order not to appear ostentatiously, his overcoat is worn out on purpose and he stands on his own feet with a sack filled with books and a beard he calls ’freedom‘. All thinkers, writers and professors of the period treat him with honour and show great respect. As Rasih Nuri walks with his teacher, Professor Kerim Erim, he says that Erim kisses the hand of a scavenger on the way and that he is Sakallı Celal Bey…Orhan Karaveli

By: Necati Bulut
*This article was  published in the  November-December issue of Marmara Life. 

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