If you’d asked me the subject of Ottoman poetry, I would have told you it was God. I would not have been completely wrong, but Professor Sooyong Kim of Koc University surprised me today with some of additional possible interpretations.

First, “ghazal” poetry was love poetry, and one


interpret it as referring to the writer’s love for God. It was repetitive and not supposed to be original. The poets leaned heavily on conventions – the beloved was always moon-faced, fair-skinned, black-haired, cypress slender. As Prof. Kim said, the themes were similar to country and western music: I have a beloved, the beloved ignores me, so I go drinking at the meyhane (the tavern). The poet writes in the first person in the first and second stanzas, and in the third stanza switches to the third person.

So far, ghazal poetry sounds a bit odd to modern ears but nothing too surprising. (Actually, I suppose drinking forlornly because God won’t respond to one’s entreaties could be considered a very modern attitude.) What I did not expect, however, is that Ottoman Turkish had gender neutral pronouns. Thus, ghazal poetry could be written about a beloved and one need never say if that person was a male or a female. Often, indeed, the subject was meant to be a boy. But was the writer was expressing homosexual love? Perhaps – or perhaps, says Professor Kim, the poet could have been speaking in Platonic ideal terms.

So…is a particular ghazal poem about God? about a woman? about a man? Was it meant to express physical or spiritual love? Your guess is as good as the next interpreter’s.