“A few years ago, I sent a few students of Urdu from Istanbul University to the Pakistani consulate in Istanbul, advising them to converse with Pakistani staff there to improve their Urdu,” said Prof Dr Halil Toker, the head of the Urdu Language and Literature Chair at Istanbul University, who was recently here to attend an international conference on Urdu.
He paused for a few moments, perhaps to contain his emotions. There was an unmistakable note of pain in his voice. Staring me in the face with his piercing blue eyes, he resumed: “But when the students came back, they were flabbergasted. The response they got from the Pakistani consulate was simply disgusting. First, when they tried to talk to Pakistani staff in Urdu, the reply came in English. Do you know what response the students got when they told them that they would like to talk to them in Urdu since they were learning Urdu? The Pakistani staff said, ‘Kya pagal hogae ho? Urdu kyoon seekh rahe ho? Kya dunya mein tumhen aur koi kaam nahin?’ [Have you gone mad? Why are you learning Urdu? Don‘t you have anything else in the world to do?]. It was very difficult for me to cool them down and persuade them to continue their studies.”
He continued as I looked at him in disbelief: “Another sorry tale is about how the indifference of the Pakistani consulate in Istanbul landed me in big trouble when I arranged an international conference on Allama Iqbal. I was assured of assistance, but when the guests began arriving and I asked them to fulfil their promises, they refused to cooperate with me. I cannot tell you what I had to do and how I collected money at the eleventh hour from different Turkish institutions to accommodate the guests. And mind you, it was a ‘show’ to promote Pakistan, Pakistan’s national language and Pakistan’s national poet”.
Then he told me how the Iqbal Chair and Urdu department at a Turkish university were abolished because of a lack of interest of the Pakistan embassy in Turkey. Perhaps my embarrassment and resentment were writ large on my face as Dr Toker quickly added: “Well, that was quite a few years ago, I hope now you have better people there and let’s think things have since improved.” Then he informed me how proud the Iranians were of their language and how they helped any Turkish student who wanted to learn Persian.
Born in Bakirkoy, Istanbul, on April 3, 1967, Dr Halil Toker did his MA in Persian from Istanbul University in 1992. (His first name is ‘Khalil’, which he spells as ‘Halil’ according to Turkish script). His MA dissertation involved both Urdu and Persian as its topic was ‘Life and works of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’. His dissertation that earned him a PhD from the same university also dealt with both Urdu and Persian as the topic of his research was ‘The Persian and Urdu poetry in India and the poets of the Bahadur Shah II era’. Joining the Persian Language and Literature Department at Istanbul University in 1990 as an assistant, he continued his academic pursuits and research work which earned him promotions, ultimately elevating him to the posts of senior professor and the head of the chair.
“What prompted your interest in Urdu?” I asked. “As everybody knows, the Turks have great love for Pakistan. The great affinity and love showed by the Muslims of the India-Pakistan subcontinent for the Turks and Turkey during the Balkan Wars and the Khilafat Movement earned a permanent place for the Muslims of this region, Pakistanis and Pakistan in the hearts of the Turks. So I naturally had good sentiments for Pakistan and since I was studying Persian for my BA at Istanbul University, I knew Urdu was Pakistan’s language and it had great similarities with Persian, Arabic and even some vocabulary of Turkish. What made me fall in love with Urdu was a Pakistani teacher, Prof Dr Ghulam Hussain Zulfiqar. He came from Punjab University’s Oriental College to teach Urdu at our university. He was a great teacher and made learning Urdu a great fun. He would teach us a lot about history of the subcontinent, too. While with him, Urdu seemed so sweet; it was like music to ears”.
At this point, this writer quietly thanked God for sending at least one good and devoted Pakistani to Turkey. Dr Toker is all praise for his teacher Dr Zulfiqar, who helped him not only complete a dissertation that involved both Persian and Urdu but also encouraged him to choose a topic for a doctorate that concerned Urdu as well. Another teacher for whom Dr Toker has great love and respect is Prof Nazeef Khwaja, the Yugoslavian-born Turk who headed the Persian department at Istanbul University back then and helped Dr Toker a lot.
“Do you have any regrets about choosing Urdu as your special field of study and research?” I asked. “No, I have never regretted that. In fact, I am very happy that I chose Urdu. For those who know Persian, Urdu is easy to learn. When I don’t find a word for what I want to say in Urdu, I put a Persian word there, or an Arabic word. Even some Turkish words would do sometimes,” he says and laughingly adds: “And you people are on such occasions rescued by English.”
What does he think about teaching Urdu in Turkey? The answer is not a pleasant one, but it somehow reflects what our national character has come to be: “Many Turkish students want to learn Urdu, they love Pakistan, but the attitude of Pakistanis discourages them. When students want to talk to Pakistanis in Urdu, they insist on using English. But the Turkish students who study Urdu do get jobs. It’s not a problem; so the future of Urdu in Turkey can be brighter only if….” Dr Toker knows Urdu, Persian, English and Hindi — in addition to his native Turkish — not to mention Punjabi which, according to him, is his ‘susraali zabaan’ (the language of the in-laws). Having married a Pakistani girl from Lahore, he speaks Punjabi fluently. To his credit, there is a long list of literary and academic achievements. He has penned 26 books, of which most are in Urdu and include translations from Turkish into Urdu, collections of his own Urdu poetry, Pakistan’s travelogue, a book on Iqbal, translations of Iqbal’s letters into Turkish, translation of Iqbal’s ‘Javed nama’ into Turkish, a book on the Kashmir issue and a book on basic Urdu grammar. He has also published more than 200 articles and papers in Urdu, Turkish and English.
Toker Sahib has contributed a number of articles on Urdu poetry and classical Urdu poets to encyclopaedias published in the Turkish language. As if this was not enough, he is the editor of an Urdu quarterly, Ertibaat, published from Istanbul. In recognition of his services many organisations have conferred upon him awards but one feels that this friend of Pakistan and a great admirer of Pakistan’s national poet and Pakistan’s national language does merit a national award by the people and government of Pakistan.