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from the October 2017 issue

The Terrorist Upstairs

Hellbent on avenging his brother's death, a preteen Turkish nationalist plots to kill his upstairs neighbor.


My brother became a martyr for this country when he was twenty years old. He went and stepped on a landmine in Çukurca so that all of you could stroll down the well-lit, wide city boulevards. I was seven then. On the day of the funeral they put a handsome commando uniform on me, one with a blue beret. They said the terrorists would win if I cried, so I held it in, I didn’t cry once. I stood up straight as the procession passed in front of me carrying my brother, I snapped a soldier salute to the coffin draped in moon and star. At that moment everybody looked at me, some even moved to embrace me and started to cry, as if I were the martyr in the coffin. I got pretty pissed off at this. “Stop crying,” I yelled. When I yelled like that all the cameras turned to me, and that night I was the top story in all the main news reports. The next day, the papers ran “A Soldier’s Salute from a Martyr’s Brother” as their headline. “Boy shouts ‘Stop crying,’ strikes true blow against terrorism!”

All of a sudden I’d become famous. But I didn’t let it go to my head, I handled the fame well despite my young age. Even though I loved my brother deeply, I buried my pain inside me for years, didn’t show it to anyone. Thinking maybe they’d forgotten me, I called up the main news agencies a couple times and told them that even though two-three-five years had passed I still hadn’t cried. One of the men who worked in the news center said, “Good for you, son, keep it up.” I asked for the big names, Uğur Dündar, Ali Kırca, but they didn’t put me through. No one did a story on the dry-eyed stoicism I displayed, the psychological blows I dealt terrorism for five years—they just looked the other way. Corrupt sons of bitches.

Then it happened. One of the terrorists who killed my brother moved in upstairs. You couldn’t tell where his hair ended and his beard began—after all, the animal was used to living in the mountains. Whenever he went up the stairs I would watch from the peephole, press my ear against the door, and listen to his footsteps. At night I would use a wrench to hit the heating pipes that went upstairs to make scary noises. Finally I couldn’t stand it, I went to our family’s shop.

“Let’s kill him, Dad,” I said. “Let’s avenge my brother.”

My father said, “Don’t worry, Allah will give him his.”

“But he won’t. If you aren’t going to kill him, let me do it. Turkish pride and principles demand this.”

“Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“Give me your gun, I’ll kill him. I’m twelve years old, I won’t have to do a lot of time, I’ll be out before you know it.”

“And I’ll break your little legs!”

“Remember how at my brother’s funeral you said ‘Take me too, commander, I’ll go fight.’ Remember how you rocked me in your arms and said ‘I have one more son, let me give him for this country as well.’ Now is the time to fight, Dad! Come on! Why do you look so scared? Or are you one of those bogus nationalists who go on a two-day crusade after every martyr’s funeral?”

He couldn’t answer me. I wrote him off completely. I went to my mother. I asked for my father’s gun, she wouldn’t give it to me. I went to the local Hearth, said that I wanted to see the chairman of the province. The boss stood up to greet me, he likes me a lot, in fact every year he replaced the commando uniform he’d first given me with a new one. Right away he ordered a Tang for me. I explained the situation.

“All right, Nurettin,” he said. “Don’t you worry. I’ll tell our boys, they’ll see to it. If it’s like you say, we won’t put up with him here.”

The boss, bless him, had the terrorist beaten up immediately. From the window I saw him entering the apartment, he was having trouble walking, they’d handed his ass to him. He couldn’t leave the house for a week. But it wasn’t enough. It won’t ever be enough, just beating him. I waited two weeks, there were no further operations, the terrorist healed, began to stroll down the streets again. I went to the Hearth again, “Mister Chairman, I want you to carry out the promises you gave me,” I said. “The blood-thirsty baby-killing bastard is still living upstairs from us.”

The boss said, “I hear you, Nurettin, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Nothing?”

“The kid’s a student. He’s not up to anything.”

“What, so we’re going to wait until he gets up to something?”

“He can’t. Don’t worry, he can’t do a thing. We scared him good.”

“But why, boss, why?! If the man’s a terrorist let’s put a bullet in his head, give me a gun and I’ll do him in.”

“We laid our weapons to rest, Nurettin. We don’t get our hands dirty any more, things aren’t like they used to be.”

“What the hell are you talking about, boss?” I said. “Just last year you mowed them down because of the bid on the parking lot behind the stadium.”

The boss’s hands shook with anger. He was just about to slap me when he got hold of himself.

“Go, Nurettin, just go,” he said. “Don’t get on my nerves!”

“I’m not going.”

“Nurettin, get out of here!”

“I’m not leaving, boss.”

Two or three men took me by the arm, they roughed me up all the way to the door, saying "How dare you speak to the chairman like that."

“I’m a martyr’s brother, you bastards,” I shouted. “I’m more of a nationalist than all of you put together.”

The boss came out of the room and pulled the men off me.

“Idiots, did I tell you to hit him?” he asked.

“But boss,” they whined, but the boss didn’t listen, just slapped them all. But he still had anger to vent, he aimed a kick at one of them, threw his prayer beads at another one’s head. Like I said, the boss likes me a lot. But because of the political circumstances there was nothing he could do.

It had come down to me. I put the terrorist under surveillance, I would try to render him inoperative using my own capabilities. I would strike him in his lair. I searched for the gun we had at home, but my mother had hidden it well, maybe even destroyed it, perhaps because she’d seen how determined I was. I turned every cupboard inside out but I still couldn’t find it. As a result, though, I did find my mother’s savings, her gold bracelets. Right away I sold them for cash at the jeweler’s. I went to the store that sold hunting goods, I was going to buy a shotgun. The man wouldn’t sell it. He listed off a ton of things: I had to get permission, I had to fill out the form, I had to be over eighteen, on and on, the blood was pounding in my brain, the man and I were at each other’s throats, he threw me out of his store. Fine then, I figured I’d at least get back the bracelets. The bastard jeweler wouldn’t give me back what he paid for them, he cheated me out of a bracelet. That evening as I headed back home, still furious, I picked up a decent-sized rock from the ground and threw it at the terrorist’s window—bull’s-eye, the glass came down in a crash. I stationed myself at the garden wall of the opposite apartment. The terrorist came to the window, looked around, then went back in.

This window-breaking incident kept me calm for two or three days, but after that I started getting really pissed off. These men martyred my brother and all I can do is break some windows. There was an outrageous injustice in this. I was ashamed to look at my brother’s picture on the wall. I was ashamed to reread the letters he had written while in the army, letters I’d read hundreds of times afterward. I had to come up with a different plan.

I decided to stab him. I sharpened my commando knife. But wouldn’t it be dangerous, this knifing business, what if he pulls out a gun? Let him try, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s suicide to pull a gun on a Turk. I took my knife and headed out, then turned back at his front door. I banged my fists against my head, what was I even doing? I had to be somewhat logical, I couldn’t let him shoot me down like a partridge, two martyrs from the same family, they would be dancing with joy then. I came up with a strategic plan. I would make it look like a neighborly visit and go into his home, then catch him off guard, hit him over the head with a blunt object and knock him out, then while he was out I would jump on top of him and cut his throat. I put my knife in my back pocket and headed out. Just as I was about to knock at the door, I went back home again, took some cake from the kitchen and put it on a plate. Then I headed up and knocked at the door. A weight had settled in my stomach, my heart was thudding and thumping. I couldn’t stand the excitement, I ran away. Battle psychology, you know. By the time the door opened I was already one floor down.

“Who’s there?” asked a girl’s voice.

Where’d this girl come from?

“It’s me,” I said.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the downstairs neighbor’s son. My mom made a cake, I thought I’d bring it up.”

I climbed the stairs. She took the plate. “Thank you, it’s very thoughtful of you,” she said. She was the most beautiful girl I’d seen in my life, her breasts had filled out, she was drop-dead gorgeous.

“Come in if you want,” she said. “We’re watching a movie.”

Since she’d said "we," she was in league with the terrorist. What a shame, she was the greenest-eyed girl I’d seen in my life, but the color of her eyes was instantly gone from my mind. What movie were they watching, I wondered? What else would it be, it’s an intra-organizational instructional film. They were going to trick me into joining them. Why else would they invite me in?

“Well?” she said.

“Well, what?”

“Come in, if you’re going to, or else I’ll just close the door. We’re not going to stand here like this all night, are we?”

I went in.

The terrorist called out “Who’s there?” from inside.

“The son of the downstairs neighbor, hon!”

The terrorist extended his hand and said “Hello," gave me a leer. “I’m Semih.”

It’s a code name, hon, no one will buy it. I’ve been combating terrorism since I was seven years old, I’ve seen so many things in my time. I shook his hand, “I’m Nurettin,” I said. I didn’t let go of the hand in my grasp, looking straight into his eyes. “My real name, of course.”

He laughed. He was trying to seem charming.

“We’re at the best part of the movie. Let’s finish this and then we’ll chat,” he said. He sat down in his place and unpaused the film. I glanced at the movie, romantic French cinema, not even close to organizational material, they’d probably changed it when I came in.

The beautiful girl asked, “What do you want to drink?”

I looked around, they were drinking beer.

“Beer,” I said. “Don’t look at me like that, I’ve drunk plenty before.” The girl went into the kitchen. The terrorist code-named Semih was a laid-back guy, he didn’t even look at me when I said beer, like he was going to brainwash me so easily. He hadn’t even fixed the windowpane.

It was a lie, of course, the bit about me drinking beer before, but I’d decided to do as they did to avoid suspicion. Fifteen minutes later the film ended. By now the girl had pretty much wrapped herself around Semih, they were enjoying themselves. Terrorism is a very comfortable line of work: a beer in one hand, a lady in the other, a movie in the VCR, the bastard was having a ball. When the film finished, the terrorist ate the cake. He still wasn’t full, he ordered pita for all of us from the kebab restaurant. The organization was giving him the money, of course, that’s why he was so generous. While our commandos are eating snakes in the mountains, these guys have pita and kebab every day, they’re living the high life. I was waiting for the girl to leave so I could carry out my plan, but she just wasn’t going. They called somewhere, asked someone to sign in for her. I couldn’t understand what the signature was for. I couldn’t dwell on it either, I decided to kill them both immediately. After all, the girl had said "we." Still, at the last minute I would probably get all sentimental and not be able to kill her. First of all she really was incredibly beautiful, looking around like a wounded wolf, just like the blue she-wolf Börteçine who watched over the ancient Turks. If eyes are the window to the soul, my job was a very difficult one indeed. Second, I wasn’t entirely sure she was a terrorist, there was a chance she was an innocent citizen. I asked about their political views.

They laughed. They didn’t have the guts to say they were terrorists. They asked me the same question. I didn’t laugh, I gave them an icy glare: “I am a Turkish Nationalist,” I said. “I have nothing to hide. Take pride if you’re a Turk, take orders if you aren’t!” The time had come for them to feel my breath on their necks. I could’ve taken on both of them, too. But I’d gotten too lightheaded from the damn beer. Maybe this wasn’t the right time after all.

“Well, I should get going,” I said.

Semih said, “Come over again sometime, Nurettin.”

“Oh, I’ll come,” I said. “Without warning, in the middle of the night.”

They laughed again.

I started going upstairs every day. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get up the courage to do it. Our Semih had tons of friends. They would sit around all day. Their conversations were good. Of course, because I was with them, they couldn’t talk about the operations they would carry out. Sometimes a couple of them would withdraw to the kitchen and speak in whispers. Right away I’d go join them and they’d hush up. Two of them were total terrorists, certified Kurds. What’s more, they were proud of this. A person should at least try to hide it, I know if I were a Kurd I wouldn’t tell anyone, I’d try to sort out that problem by myself. But these guys didn’t have an ounce of shame, they would speak Kurdish and plot separatism at such a decibel that everyone in the house could hear them. I kept up a respectful attitude in spite of these provocations, I repeated my line many times: “Come! Let us be one flag, one nation, one heart.” They didn’t listen. At last I couldn’t stand it, I hauled those two in front of me, “Who do you think you are, claiming you’re a different nation when even the American Indians have accepted being Turkish these days, it’s uncalled for,” I said. They laughed. “You can’t destroy the foundation of the one great state,” I shouted. “If it’s failing, then go carve it up! Not such an easy job, is it!”

“This kid’s a total fascist,” said one of the Kurds. “Lil Fasho,” said another. From that day onward the name stuck. Lil Fasho wherever I went. They’d given me a code name just like the ones they gave themselves.

It was yet another day of Kurds planning separatism in their mother tongue. I was completely fed up with it. After they left, I started searching inside the house for a blunt object. This time I was going to kill Semih for sure, his old girlfriend wasn’t there either, we’d been left alone, the opportunity I’d awaited for months had fallen at my feet. I found an iron in the back room. Semih was busy reading photocopied notes for some ridiculous class called Financial Statement Analysis, it was midterm week apparently. I approached silently from behind, I would bring it down over his head with a thud, show him the one true statement, the glorious Turk’s analysis. I was about to strike when he turned around. The jackal! It was like he had eyes in the back of his head. Of course he’d had some guerilla training, he wasn’t a sitting duck.

“What are you doing with that iron?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said, and put the iron down. Suddenly, “Tell me the truth,” I said. “Are you a terrorist?”

He laughed again.

“Stop laughing, answer like a man for once, grow a pair for two minutes and show your true colors. If you’re a terrorist, brother, then say you’re a terrorist.”

“I’m not.”

“But you have Kurdish friends.”

“Yeah, I do, what of it?”

“Bastard,” I said.

He rose to his feet, “What the hell are you trying to say?”

I cornered him.

“My brother died because of you,” I said. “You all killed him!”

“I didn’t kill anyone.”

“My brother was your age when he died. There was one month left until his discharge. They didn’t even show us his corpse, he’d been blown to bits.”

“I didn’t know, Nurettin. I’m so sorry.”

We were silent for ten minutes.

“Whose side are you on?” I said.

“I’m on the side of peace.”

My blood was boiling, rushing down from my brain. “Fuck whatever peace that is, man,” I yelled. “Like I’m going to make peace with my brother’s killers! I’d rather blow my brains out!”

“But there’s no end to this war.”

“That’s fine! What’s it to you? You couldn’t be happier. People are off fighting in the mountains while you just sit here! Lazy son of a bitch! You didn’t even study for class until it got to midterm week. You have a girlfriend, you cuddle and lie around, you make out forty times a day, you even have her answer the door. At night she sneaks out of the dorm and stays with you, her friends sign in for her. I called the head of the dorm and complained already.”

He took hold of me by the collar.

“That was you, the one who reported her? You little bastard! Screw you!”

I grabbed the handle of the mop.

“I’m gonna kill you, punk!” I screamed. “I’ll haul you in as a corpse!”

He pulled the handle out of my hand and landed a punch on my jaw. I hadn’t brought the knife with me that day, I cursed, got up and left. I stormed downstairs to the house, shaking with rage. I said to my mother, “Quick, give me the gun.” She wouldn’t. I flung a glass over her head, it shattered on the wall. She covered her mouth with the corner of her headscarf and started to cry. I let her have it.

“You were the one who told me! Some suspicious man moved in upstairs, he’s definitely a terrorist, you said.”

“How should I know, honey, that’s what I thought when I saw him all hairy and bearded. And the neighbors had told me already. What do I know, he’s just a student.”

“Student schmudent, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to take him out. Quick, give me the gun.”

“I’m not giving it to you.”

“What kind of martyr’s mother are you! You went and fainted at my brother’s funeral, the terrorists had a field day because of you. Shame on you!”

I wrote my mother off as well. I went and sat by the sea until dawn, watching the waves. I sang that song that goes, "The Black Sea would have trembled when it saw the Turkish flag." Even though the sea was the Marmara, it could still evoke grand emotions. My eyes filled up, I was nearly about to cry for the first time in five years. I took a quick look around, no one was there. But I bit my fist, I held myself back. Allah forbid the terrorists take my picture with their satellite cameras, then immediately start a propaganda campaign: "So this was the boy who never cried, you said?" You’re the best of them all Nurettin, I said, don’t cry son, hang in there.

After quarreling with Semih, my life lost its meaning. The days started to stretch out like chewing gum. No murder plans, no shouting matches, no cold war atmosphere. Loneliness is a terrible thing, I almost even missed the Kurds. I couldn’t stand it, I went and rang his door. I looked at him blank-faced. He embraced me.

“I missed you, smartass,” he said. “Come in, Lil Fasho.”

So that’s how we made up, I couldn’t say anything, I just went inside, the bastard had the luck of the devil. He’d roped me in with beer, with European cinema, with his wide circle of friends, with his foxy girlfriend. What kind of country was this, I only had one friend to talk to and he was one of the damn terrorists.

One day I was making pasta in the kitchen. The entire world was in the house. An unusual seriousness had descended upon the group. There was a two-hour debate, “Should we do it or shouldn’t we?”

“What could we do in this tiny place?” Semih said. “No one would come.”

“We’ll do it,” I called out from within as I stirred the pasta. “Don’t worry.”

The Kurds said to Semih, “That little Fasho is more of a man than you are.” Semih got pissed off, “All right, man, let’s do it,” he said. “But don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”

I’d blurted out that we’ll do it but I didn’t know what it was. I went into the living room and asked, “What are we doing?”

“November 6.”

“What’s November 6?”

They laughed again. I’d gotten used to them laughing at me by now, I laughed too. On the 6th of November I went over to Semih’s.

“What are we doing, Semih?” I said.

“Protest. You stay at home.”

“No, I’m coming too.”

“Stay.”

“What protest?”

“A terrorist protest.”

“What do you take me for, a child? They’re students. There’s a difference between the two.”

“You weren’t saying that in the beginning.”

“Maybe so.”

“You’re a nationalist, aren’t you?”

"Don’t doubt it,” I said. “I’m a full-blooded Turk and a nationalist of our glorious nation.”

“Don’t come, then.”

“Why?”

"Your Turkish pride and principles demand this, Nurettin.”

“I’m going to come.”

“Why?”

“I’m coming, brother, Allah Allah. At the end of the day, it’s my circle of friends too, I know your whole crew. Besides, you guys just love using children on the front lines.”

We went. The first protest in our city against the Council of Higher Education. It took place with the participation of twenty-six students, two Kurds, one Turkish nationalist, sixty riot police, twenty private security guards, and backup forces of shopkeepers ready to step in at any moment. When the police encircled the group and started to fire their canisters of tear gas, everyone’s eyes filled with tears.

I went to the front. “You don’t need to fire tear gas at us,” I said. “My friends are already sufficiently emotional.”

One of the policemen raised his club. At me, no less! I flew into a deadly rage, yelling, “I’ll take that club and shove it where the sun don’t shine, just watch me. I’m the brother of a martyr! Who the hell are you, raising a club at me!” The policeman was taken aback for a moment, he stopped dead in his tracks with the club. Two or three more policemen came from behind, started beating me without giving me the chance to speak. Not one of them would let me explain myself. Semih grabbed me by the arm and covered me with his body, he was the one who took most of the blows. After the beating I complained to my uncle’s son about the guys who had worked us over. My uncle’s son, a Riot Police Squad official, looked at me as if trying to recognize me, and when he did, asked, “What are you doing here, Nurettin?”

“Nothing. I came to look after my friends. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell my father.”

They rounded up all the students, left me behind.

My father slapped me twice as soon as he walked in the door that evening. This was the first time he had raised his hand against me in five years, apparently my uncle’s son had told him what happened. My father looked at my brother’s picture on the wall and started to cry, “I won’t give you my blessing if you go upstairs again after this,” he said. “If you won’t think of us, think of him.”

Once again I was all alone. For fifteen days I was able to stand it, then while my father was at the shop I went back upstairs. Semih was packing up his things, there were boxes everywhere. “What’s going on?” I said. They’d suspended him from school for six months. He was going back to his hometown so he wouldn’t have to pay rent for nothing. He would come again next year.

“Why are these things lying around, you aren’t going to take them?”

“I can’t take them with me. I’m going to give this stuff away to friends. You should have a look, too, take what you like. I can leave you the films if you want.”

“Nah,” I said. “I’ve seen them all already.” I saw the iron in one of the boxes. “Why don’t you give me that iron,” I said.

I picked up the iron. I approached him from behind. He turned.

“What are you going to do with that iron?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

My eyes had filled with tears, I couldn’t hold myself back any more.

"Call when you get back,” I said. “We know some real estate agents, we’ll help you out every way we can.”

He looked at me for a long, long time. He took me by the shoulders and gave me a shake.

“What’s up, Nurettin? You didn’t used to be the emotional type.”

“I wasn’t, but this just really upsets me. I’m going to be so bored when you go. I’ll be left all by myself again like a lone wolf. The days will spit in my face.”

I just couldn’t seem to control myself. He hugged me tightly. “Cry then,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”

“Yeah, but if I cry, Semih,” I said, “won’t that just please the people who did this to you?”

“To hell with them, brother,” he said. “Who gives a damn . . . ”


© 2009 Emrah Serbes. Translation © 2017 by Abigail Bowman. All rights reserved. 

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