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Musa Moris Farhi.

In Memoriam.

Photo: Elaine Freed

Comments delivered in shortened form at Woodvale Cemetery, Brighton, on March 19, 2019.

By ANTHONY RUDOLF.

. . .

I.

IT IS TEN years to the week that I spoke at the funeral of Musa’s second wife, Nina. Here we are again, after too many deaths and dementia and cancer diagnoses in my and your circles (the older we are, the more there are), not to mention worsenings in the political and civic domains. Offsetting deep griefs and harsh realities, there have been countless acts of devotion and kindness and love, and a disproportionate percentage of these are to be laid at Musa’s open door. Many of you will have read the homages to him on the PEN website. Each is unique and yet each closely and touchingly reflects the others.

Musa was the supreme Thou, the ultimate mensch…the most haptic person imaginable, a soft touch in every sense.

Musa was the supreme Thou, the ultimate mensch. Published accounts and our own accessed memories reveal his multitudinous combination of qualities – time, compassion, generosity, wisdom, intelligence, gentleness, empathy, loving-kindness. Musa was the most haptic person imaginable, a soft touch in every sense. If you were in pain, needing consolation and advice, perhaps when experiencing a rocky marriage or a professional betrayal, he was your man. It was typical of him to become trained as a Samaritan, often working the night shift. But he was human, all too human, and he too needed support. On a bad day, if it was his turn to feel vulnerable or self-pitying, he would say “I’m a busted flush”.  “Fuck off, old Turk”, I would say, “you’re a star”, and I would try yet again to counter his intermittent sense of worthlessness. Another approach was to say with mock severity, yeah yeah, you’re a busted flush, get over it, move on.

Notwithstanding these moods and latterly physical pain, the work never stopped, for he was a practising professional, schooled in those early years of script-writing, plotting his novels and stories on structural grids and on a scale that amazed a minimalist like myself. But even on a good day, he could be deeply insecure, although the ambition is there for all to see. This was in part due to a temperamental melancholy, in part to the knowledge that he was writing in his third language, after Ladino and Turkish, in part to a sense that his achievement was under-recognised.

Our friendship began in 1978 when his voice seduced me over the phone, just as it had seduced Nina a few years earlier. Thanks to a tip-off from the Turkish Cypriot poet Taner Baybars, I had called Musa for advice and information concerning a world poetry anthology I was co-editing, and he invited me over the same day for a classic Musa-cooked cholesterol-laden lunch with wine and fags. This was the beginning of a very close friendship, that of two brothers without familial tensions. Early on I learned that he had mapped out the future in terms of books. He knew exactly which major themes he intended to write about, and despite private and public responsibilities, he went on to do just that. We must be grateful that, in recent years, thanks to the care and love of his partner Elaine Freed and the skills of professional medics, he lasted as long as he did, and carried on working. He bore his physical pain stoically, always more concerned about others than himself.

2.

MUSA WAS BORN in Ankara on July 5, 1935. His father was one of the Young Turks. As a young child, Musa was dandled on the knee of Ataturk. His mother Paloma Cuenca had left the deeply rooted Salonica Jewish community in 1932 to marry Hayim Farhi, a Bulgarian Jew born in Turkey. The marriage had been arranged by uncles. Musa was haunted by the fate of his mother’s extended family, all murdered in Auschwitz after the community was deported. (The Salonica Jews have a significant place in Primo Levi’s If This is a Man). Her names remind one of the Iberian roots of European Sephardi Jewry. Iberian too is the name Farhi, a version of Pereira, Portuguese for pear tree. Musa’s father died in 1977 of a rare disease endemic to Balkan Jews and sub-Saharan Africans, Kaposi Sarcoma. His mother lived till the year 2000 and I met her in London a couple of times. Socially speaking, she married down, although her husband was a cultivated and intelligent businessman, who spoke eleven languages. She was deeply damaged by her endless reflection upon the fate of her family.

Musa’s educated concern for the marginalised and the dispossessed stemmed from this dark heritage, a heritage which colours his Jewish humanism, just as his resolutely secular republican and democratic heritage sprang emotionally not from his adopted country but from the best of Turkey as represented by his family. He loved his homeland. He never experienced anti-Semitism there. Turkey from the Inquisition to World War Two welcomed Jews and at least guaranteed safe passage. Erich Auerbach, a Jewish refugee from Austria, wrote his major book Mimesis in Istanbul. It was a source of grief and anger to Musa that in recent years the countries which meant most to him — the UK, Turkey, Israel and France — have not been seen at their best, if I may use English understatement of a kind that was foreign to him and his writing.

It is significant that the book readers loved best was perhaps his least characteristic in terms of rhetoric and structure, Young Turk, the sweet and mellow partly autobiographical stories about his childhood including the bathhouse episode where boys as well as girls were taken by their mothers and could thus see naked women in a natural way. Boys were allowed in until puberty but Musa, characteristically, had to be banned earlier because he looked too closely. The female form divine was key to his life, key to his imaginings, key to his soul. He believed in oneness and harmony and the abolition of boundaries (he was sometimes at dialogical odds with Nina over the nature of boundaries), symbolised by and incarnated in love, romantic love, including but not reduced to its sexual and certainly not sexist dimension. He was a civilian pasha, a great and old-fashioned patriarch, yet one who could not be faulted in terms of modern mores.

The war years involved the family in great deprivation — thanks to a heavy tax on all minorities and two years in a camp for Musa’s father. But freemasons and Muslim neighbours secretly and anonymously ensured that the family did not go hungry. They moved from Ankara to Istanbul in 1946, where his father took over the family textile business and his brother was born. Musa was enrolled in an elite American boarding college high above the Bosporus, Robert College, later Bogaziçi University. Here he met up again with his closest friends from Ankara, Selim Baruh and Asher Mayer, the other two musketeers. At that time Musa wanted to be an explorer but, good at school essays, he began to entertain thoughts of becoming a writer. As happens so often, we find one particular teacher inspired the future writer and actor, Hilary Boyd, who cast our friend in school plays. Some of Musa’s best fables involve the school, as recounted in Young Turk.

Following graduation, Musa, like Selim and Asher a year or two earlier, decided to go abroad, despite the risk of losing his first love, Nadya. One reason for leaving was his strong abreaction to the rise of nationalism and Islamism. His lodestar was the great secular and socialist poet Nazim Hikmet who, like Musa’s mother and Ataturk himself, was born in Salonica and imprisoned in the year Ataturk died, 1938. Musa used to circulate duplicates of Hikmet’s poems on love and war and mortality.The poet was only amnestied in 1951 when, aged 49 and frail, he fled to Moscow to avoid military service. Musa’s own reasons for leaving were not only political: he wanted to get away from his parents’ unhappy marriage; nor could he face a lifetime in the family business. His decision to leave had profound personal repercussions for his beloved and loving younger brother, Ceki. This permanent departure and escape remained a source of guilt throughout Musa’s life.

3.

AFTER CONSIDERING VARIOUS options with his father, including getting his military service over and done with and taking up a scholarship at an American university, he crossed his fingers and agreed to go to Bradford to study textiles, with the implication that he would enter the family business. Bradford was not a million miles from his heart’s desire, RADA, in London. And so, in 1954, his parents, with hope but without illusions, took him to Yorkshire. The technical college was down the road from the school of art where David Hockney was then a student. One wonders if they met in a pub. Musa writes drily how he operated the sheep-scouring machine, an activity which for sure does not match painting from nude models. Bradford, he wrote, “offered few distractions: a few cinemas; guzzling beer in the evenings until the smoky, dingy pubs closed; rugby – which, defeated my athleticism with the shape of its ball; furtive assignations with lonely Italian women who, given the post-war shortage of manpower, had been brought to work in the mills; and ballroom dancing for those who fancied a sophisticated activity.”

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Every weekend Musa escaped to London and went with his fellow prince, Asher, who was at medical school, to flirt with, as they put it, Jewish princesses at Jewish clubs. Musa, for all his hostility to organised religion, did not stray from the fold when it came to marriage and other major relationships with women. His Jewishness was second nature, ethno-culturally deep rooted, and without conscious neurosis. Observing his friend’s permanent unhappiness in his Bradford studies, Asher, typically proactive, contacted RADA and managed to get him enrolled him for the open auditions. Musa was offered a place. His parents rushed over from Turkey to dissuade him but in the end they acquiesced. At RADA each term you were faced with tests. If you failed, you were out. He practised his English diligently in remedial classes and found an inspirational teacher, Richard Ainley, whose passion for flawless movement inspired Musa to take up fencing, weight-lifting and folk-dancing. Later these would come in useful when he did stunt-work to earn money between acting roles.

It was at RADA, while playing Petruccio and spanking Kate in a production of The Taming of the Shrew, that he fainted and woke up round the corner in University College Hospital with hugely swollen testicles and agonising pain from an adult attack of mumps. The outcome of this was infertility, biological infertility that is. Still, if he could not be a biological father, his manifold compensation would be to become a benevolent patriarch and the best possible step-parent, uncle, grandfather, friend, and friend shading into brother, as I have said. Nor did infertility equate with impotence, to put it mildly.

Musa was missing his younger brother Ceki, and Nadya. But love requires proximity, even the idealised version this Turkish Jewish troubadour proclaimed. Asher left for the USA after abandoning medicine for what would become a stellar career in the tourist industry, pioneering specialised cruises. He died in 2004. Now, with Musa gone, Selim in Paris is the last survivor of the musketeers, a distinguished interior designer and owner of their collective memory. After RADA, Musa had plans to go back to Turkey and start a theatre but the country continued to head in the direction of religiosity and ultra-nationalism; Atatürk’s secularism and minority rights were floundering. Authoritarianism and populism flourished and press censorship and arrests of conscientious journalists increased. In these circumstances, his rational, tolerant and supportive father advised him to stay and “train” in England until the situation improved, which of course suited Musa.

By now he had married a fellow-Sephardi, Monique Hassid, who also wanted them to stay in London. Musa’s father had forlorn irrational hopes that Musa and Monique would follow in the footsteps of Musa’s uncle who had founded a company in Paris in 1953, Pre-Maman, which would become a very successful business several years before Mothercare started in the UK (1961). Pre-Maman was where Nicole Farhi, Musa’s first cousin and friend, began her distinguished career with designs for pregnancy wear. The London Pre-Maman, under the aegis of Musa and Monique, never happened and was never going to happen. Musa would henceforth be a classic voluntary exile like the other characters interviewed in Marius Kociejowski’s God’s Zoo, a sophisticated and moving book about a particularly colourful and vital aspect of London. The marriage itself lasted twelve years and ended amicably.

4.

MUSA WAS ONLY able to obtain small parts as a foreigner or weirdo and had a realistic sense of his thespian talents. If you look very closely you can see him in From Russia with Love and You Only Live Twice. Some years later, in Murder on the Orient Express, he aroused the ire of Ingrid Bergman on account of an unscripted and accidental clumsiness when he was playing an ice-cream (or was it trinket?) seller on a station platform. Out of work most of the time, he earned a living washing dishes in restaurants, carrying bricks at construction sites, driving minicabs and performing occasional stunts.

However, after years of reading scripts for theatre, film and TV purely for the story and the professional possibilities, he had an epiphany concerning method and style. The old buried dream resurfaced and he decided to have a go at becoming a writer. This meant mastering written English, his third language. Thus began the lengthy search for his own voice: by trial and error, imitation and differentiation. He looked to Sufism, to Conrad and other writers for inspiration, to dictionaries and thesauruses for lexical treasure, and later, in his maturity, he would look into his soul, his heart and his mind for the elaboration of the stories and themes which had been on his agenda for years. Like Yeats at the conclusion of his great poem about creativity, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, Musa would lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. The exploration would be of inner space but would always be rooted in the social and political worlds of minorities.

At the same time, he sent out sample scripts of a relatively conventional kind. Early in the 1960s, with TV drama expanding as a genre, he began receiving commissions, including episodes of The Onedin Line and Paul Temple and at one point two stories involving Hannibal for Doctor Who. The Hannibal scripts were not broadcast at the time but filmed and published forty years later. He was also writing plays whose bias was towards mythic or folkloric themes. These were decidedly unfashionable and the only play which has survived is From the Ashes of Thebes, intended to complete Sophocles’s Theban Trilogy. Thus, vaulting ambition on Musa’s part, and not for the last time. Later he would derive great pleasure and pride in the theatre success of David Hare, husband of Nicole Farhi, now a top fashion designer and sculptor.

During these years Musa’s earlier defence of Nazim Hikmet saw new expression in what would become a life-long commitment to the writers’ organisation P.E.N. Around 1970 he became particularly involved in the work of P.E.N. to defend writers in prison, one of the best human rights causes in the world. Eventually he became chair of the national and international committee. Human rights have to be defended always and everywhere and not only in the obvious countries, the usual suspects. The life and work of Musa the specifying universalist and Musa the multiple particularist were in rare harmony, and expressed with rare eloquence. He was particularly outspoken about the countries he loved when they behaved badly, such as Turkey towards the Kurds.

5.

IN 1975, HE MET Nina (neé Gould) Sievers, a divorcée, who had a daughter Rachel, aged seven. Nina and Musa married in July 1978. Nina’s chronic condition, lupus, flared up in the early eighties. The suffering she endured led her to abandon a PhD at Queen Mary College and a promising future in academia after brilliant studies in the social history of the Jews under the benign and genial aegis of that great authority on the East End, our mutual friend Professor William Fishman. She trained in psychotherapy, a discipline in which, so she believed, she could empathise with the pain of others as, famously, she did until the end. Throughout the marriage, in the houses and flat in Hampstead Garden Suburb which we all loved visiting, whether solo or for dinner parties cooked by Musa whose cuisine was, to put it mildly, not vegetarian, the couple encouraged each other’s explorations in fiction and in psycho-analysis — not without conflict between them some of the time.

Before he met Nina, Musa had published a thriller, The Pleasure of your Death, commissioned by Constable on the strength of his TV play, The Crack-Up. The thriller was, rightly, well received, and Constable wanted more. At this point, Nina, as Musa said, “pounced”. It was time for him to attempt serious literary fiction. Faced with such a challenge, how could he refuse? The background was the Yom Kippur War a few years earlier and his ever-present concerns: instability and increasing fanaticism in Turkey. Musa researched and wrote The End of Days. This was published in 1983 and did well, especially in the USA. His invented Warriors of Jihad predicted Al-Quaida and Dayesh. Over the next years Nina’s life’s work as a therapist continued and she began writing major papers. All the while she was becominging more ill and all the while Musa continued to look after her and, battling his demons, continued to write novels: Journey through the Wilderness published in 1989, Children of the Rainbow in 1999, Young Turk in 2004 and A Designated Man in 2009, books built upon big themes: revolution in Latin America, the destiny of Gypsies and so on. In 2005 he wrote an important article for Index on Censorship, ‘Courage to Forget’, countering tendencies, including his own, to remember the worst. He could have quoted Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Absence’: “We forget because we must”.

The last three books and his Songs from Two Continents in 2011 were published by Mai Ghoussoub at Saqi until her untimely death and then by her colleagues. He had found a home. The fulsome and heartfelt acknowledgments in all the books give some idea of his attitude towards community and co-operation. Shortly before the couple moved to Heathview Court in about 2005, their final residence in Hampstead Garden Suburb, they had, to put it mildly, a problem about space. Musa solved this with an extraordinary gesture: he gifted his library of 20,000- 25,000 books to his old college in Istanbul. Friends came over to select souvenirs before the books were trucked away to the eventual Farhi Room in the university library.

6.

IN 2009, NINA DIED. For almost two years life was hell on earth for Musa. But drink and fags and friendship and instinct and élan vital à la turque brought him through — to the point where he could work again and love again, and the two were linked. In late 2010, thanks to an inspired introduction by a mutual friend Carole Seymour-Jones, Musa met Elaine Freed. Like himself, she was widowed, and like himself had spent many years looking after a sick spouse, now deceased. Elaine has had many creative and administrative roles in the arts, including co-founding the Guild of Glass Engravers. In 2011, Musa settled in Brighton to be near Elaine, herself new to the area, and to Rachel and family. The new couple moved back and forth between his flat on the border of Brighton and Hove and Elaine’s house in Steyning, the village of Fannie Cornforth (name-check the Pre-Raphaelites). Once again, it was “beginning of story”, as Louis Armstrong says in High Society. For almost a decade Elaine remained more than a match for the old Turk. Over the years Elaine too has had her share of ailments but the couple’s mutual devotion and care was deeply moving to witness. And their banter and lightness of touch always did me good as a visitor, not least when I myself was in busted flush mode.

The good news is that Musa’s final novel, In My End Is My Beginning, was completed before he died. This amazing fable, with its cast of Dolphins and Leviathans and Saviours, is a warning, a risk-taking roman à thèse, a great cri de coeur, concerning our planet, a planet which is so greatly at risk from climate upheaval and nuclear weapons, from greed and stupidity, from the criminal failure of the political economy. He also found the resources to write other short texts in prose and poetry. The children’s books of his dreams remain unwritten. A few weeks before he died, I asked him to contribute to a group of stories about the seven deadly sins for Paula Rego to illustrate. Each writer was supposed to choose one sin, and keep it to a thousand words. Typically, Musa said he would write about all seven in a single story, quite a challenge for a non-minimalist. We discussed it in our final phone call a couple of days before he died. He said he had made a start.

Recently Elaine and I went through his computer. First, we found a folder containing his essays on public themes, some unpublished. I think these would make a worthwhile posthumous book. And then, forever frozen in its incompletion, the most recent file: it contains a couple of pages about Septimus, who embodies all the deadly sins. The narrator, a thousand-eyed chameleon, is scornful about these sins, most of which he considers to be quite minor. If Musa had to die, how characteristic of him to do so mid-story, with his boots on. This was no busted flush.

Perhaps surprisingly, he was a shy and modest man and hated being the centre of attention, but even he could not avoid his funeral ceremony. One of our private jokes was to say: “Don’t die, I’ll kill you if you do”. Well, I, an honorary musketeer, have to kill him and imagine he has returned: finish that story, old Turk! Yet like Joe Hill, in the great song we both loved, Musa never really died. Like Joe Hill, he would say, don’t grieve, organise. Organise for the causes he held dear: writers in prison, democracy, climate safety and nuclear sanity. This was a man. This was my brother. This was my friend.

The day after the funeral, Elaine and his brother and step-daughter accompanied his ashes to the sea at Brighton, where some of them were scattered. The rest will be scattered in the Bosphorus at a later date. Musa will be in his element.

Musa Moris Farhi MBE

Born 1935 — Died 5 March 2019


Anthony Rudolf is the founding editor of Menard Press. His recent books include European Hours (Carcanet 2017) and Silent Conversations (Seagull 2013).

Note: I acknowledge Musa’s own unpublished autobiographical notes, which he was preparing at the request of a Turkish publisher. He hated having to do it, much preferring to fabulate and mythologise in fiction.

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