Obituary: Musa Moris Farhi MBE

Turkish writer who campaigned for freedom of thought and literary expression


The Turkish prizewinning author, poet and screenwriter Musa Moris Farhi, who has died aged 84, committed his life to helping persecuted and imprisoned writers all over the world. But these were not the only causes adopted by a man as generous in spirit as in talent. Extinction Rebellion campaigners would approve his concerns for climate safety and nuclear sanity, expressed in his final novel, In My End Is My Beginning, to be published post-humously.

A distinctive figure with his calm, handsome face and flowing white hair, Musa’s poetry, read out in his deeply sonorous voice at PEN or Exiled Writers events, spoke powerfully and movingly for the oppressed.

“Benign exile can spawn complacency,” he wrote in a review of a new translation of The Arabian Nights.“Old age, with eyes at the back of its head in trepidation for children’s future, has no time for philosophical questioning of the meanings of existence --- which have long been hijacked by the overlords of politics, war, religion and economics. It is their armoured policies that must be defied, even if such defiance perishes in the wilderness.”

Anthony Rudolf, founding editor of the Menard Press, described Musa in The Fortnightly Review as “the supreme Thou, the ultimate mensch”, and recalled his compassion, generosity, wisdom, intelligence, gentleness and loving-kindness. “He was a civilian pasha, a great and old-fashioned patriarch, yet one who could not be faulted in terms of modern mores.” It was this empathy that led Musa to become a trained Samaritan as well as a vice president of International PEN and a patron of Exiled Writers Ink.

Yet Musa was not free from his own bouts of depression, a “temperamental melancholy,” as Rudolf described it, partly due to the fact he was writing in his third language, after Ladino and Turkish, and partly to a sense that his achievement was under-recognised.

Yet Musa earned heartfelt tributes from colleagues, writers and supporters of his work. Dr Jennifer Langer and Maureen Kendal, respectively founding director and chair, Exiled Writers Ink, wrote: “Over the years he was a good friend to so many refugee and migrant writers in our network. Perhaps he understood their troubles and sensibility because of his own experience of having been exiled from home.

“He -- had fled from Turkey aged 19 because of Antisemitism and the oppressive political climate in which freedom of expression was suppressed. Yet retrospectively, he believed that he had run away from himself.

Musa Moris Farhi was born in Ankara of Turkish-Jewish parents. His mother Paloma Cuenca had left Salonica in 1932 and married Hayim Farhi, a Bulgarian Turkish-born Jew. All her extended family died in Auschwitz, which haunted mother and son, and may have triggered his incipient melancholy. Due to the financial privations of the war years plus a tax on all minorities, in 1946 the family moved to Istanbul where his father took over the family textile business, and his brother Ceki was born.

Having graduated from Bogaziçi University with a B.A in Humanities in 1954, Musa saw nationalism and Islamism on the rise and moved to Britain that year, to study textiles in Bradford, and join the family business.That future, however, did not resonate with him and he enrolled at RADA. After graduating in 1956 he settled in London and following a brief acting career he began writing TV scripts; a film, The Primitives; and a stage play, From The Ashes of Thebes. He helped set up the Dr Who series and even appeared in one or two episodes. He married fellow-Sephardi Monique Hassid, and they divorced amicably after 12 years. In 1978, he married Nina (neé Gould) Sievers, who was divorced, with a seven year old daughter Rachel.

“His passion to protect others from harm -- and his inexhaustible desire to make people happy, may have sprung from tragedy, the death of nearly all his mother’s Jewish family in the Nazi death-camps,” suggests the author and poet Maggie Gee. It is a view echoed by Rudolf, who believes his dark heritage “colours his Jewish humanism.”

“He anticipated 9/11 in a novel called The Last of Days, written, astonishingly, in 1983.” writes Gee. “ The excluded and marginal of the world, from the Roma to Andean Indians, were the heroes of his work.

“At the end of his life, he experienced great happiness living by the sea with his partner Elaine Freed and completing his final novel, In My End Is My Beginning. He felt keenly the danger of resurgent antisemitism in Europe, and wanted his friends to take it seriously.”

Musa, whom I first met at a writers lunch in a Camden Turkish café, run-down and shabby but brimming with ideas and debate, was always willing to give literary advice and support to younger writers. I found his friendship genuine, sensitive and kindly; there was not a jarring note in his character.

Despite many literary accolades, he remained modest and true to himself. His work, translated into a multitude of languages, included the novels The Pleasure of Your Death (Constable, 1972); Journey Through the Wilderness (Macmillan/Picador, 1989); Children of the Rainbow (Saqi, 1999) which received two prizes the “Amico Rom” from the Associazione Them Romano of Italy (2002), and the “Special” prize from the Roma Academy of Culture and Sciences in Germany (2003), Young Turk (2004) and A Designated Man (Saqi, 2009). The French edition of Young Turk received the 2007 Alberto Benveniste Prize for Literature.Musa’s poetry appeared in international publications and in the anthology of 20th Century Jewish Poets, Voices Within the Ark (Avon, US, 1979). He also published short stories in international anthologies and magazines. His essay, The Courage To Forget, appeared in Index on Censorship (2005). Another, God Save Us From Religion, is included in the collection, Free Expression is No Offence (Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, (Penguin Books, 2005). A third, All History is the History of Migration, given at the “Know Your Place?” Conference in November 2005, was also published by Index on Censorship in 2006. His films, in which he made the occasional fleeting appearance, included The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) – From Russia with Love (1963) – and You Only Live Twice (1967) .

Musa was appointed MBE for “services to literature” in the Queen’s 2001 Birthday Honours List, and in November that year was elected a Vice President of International PEN. He was a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature and The Royal Geographical Society. He donated over 20,000 books, to the library, named for him at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, where he studied.

His agent Jessica Woollard, of David Higham Associates, said: “Musa was a man with a heart big enough for all the world. As a prize-winning writer, he could turn his hand to anything. His writing was robust, rich, sensual, entertaining and culturally expansive.”

He is survived by his step-daughter, Rachel Sievers, her daughters Zara and Isla, his partner Elaine Freed, his brother Ceki, and cousin Nicole Farhi. Nina predeceased him in 2009.


Musa Moris Farhi: Born July 5, 1935. Died March 6, 2019

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