Ali Nesin is a logician and group theorist at Istanbul Bilgi university; he’s the author of many popular math books in Turkish, including one with the intriguing title Mathematik ve Korku (“Mathematics and Fear.”) Many of his undergraduate students have gone on to excellent Ph.D. programs in Turkey and abroad, including a couple here at Madison. He also runs a summer school, called the Mathematical Village, in Sirince. This August, the Turkish government abruptly shut down the school, citing Nesin for “education without permission.” The Turkish press and mathematicians around the world worked quickly to publicize the shutdown, and within a week the school was reopened; though Prof. Nesin still faces charges.
For those of us outside Turkey, the immediate question was: why would the federal government be shutting down summer math camps in the countryside? The answer is that Ali Nesin’s father was Aziz Nesin, Turkey’s most popular satirist under many regimes unreceptive to satire, and as a consequence, an occasional convict. As a socialist and an atheist, he was one of the few people whom military nationalists and Islamists could enthusiastically agree to oppress. The Mathematical Village is built on land owned by the Nesin Foundation, whose income comes from ownership of all of Nesin’s works; and as such, it smells bad to the power structure in Turkey. Thus: “education without permission.”
(Warning: my knowledge of Turkish politics is very fragmentary; if I’ve gotten important elements of Nesin’s story wrong, please correct in comments.)
After learning all this, I borrowed Nesin’s Turkish Short Stories from Four Decades (trans. Louis Mitler) from the library to see what the commotion was all about. Lots of ironic little stories here — in fact, the irony is so classically and deftly deployed that the book could easily be taught in a high school English class to illustrate satire. “We Resemble You,” “The First Woman Ever to Understand Me,” and “Don’t You Have Any Donkeys In Your Country?” are especially good examples: let me boil this last one down to the underlying joke to give some sense of Nesin’s approach. A Turkish guide is traveling through the countryside with an American rug collector. They come across a peasant with an old, mangy donkey. The collector instantly recognizes the donkey’s filthy blanket as a spectacular antique carpet, and orders the guide to buy it. But don’t tell him we want the blanket, the collector warns the guide, tell him we need a donkey; otherwise he’ll realize the blanket is valuable and overcharge us! The peasant warns the guide that the donkey is lame, sick, and weak, but the guide insists he wants it. “Alright then,” the peasant says, “the price is $5000.” He explains to the shocked guide that if the American is so anxious to have such a bad donkey, there must be some reason for it.
The collector is disappointed, but $5000 is still much less than the value of the rug. So he agrees to buy the donkey. But when the peasant unties the donkey and leads it to the collector and guide, he takes off the blanket and slings it over his shoulder. Now the collector is really starting to get worried, and the guide tries to convince the peasant to include the blanket so that the donkey doesn’t catch cold and die.
“I can’t do it,” the peasant says, “absolutely not.”
“Because this is my good luck donkey blanket.”
The guide asks the peasant what he could mean by this, and the peasant explains:
“I used to be a poor man who barely made a living selling donkeys. Then my father died and gave me this blanket. Now, two or three times a year, an American or European comes and buys one of my donkeys for $5000 apiece! At that rate I’m a rich man!”