In this story by Behçet Çelik, a man risks his life to cross a city under siege and help his friend.
Author's Note: I have some doubts about sharing information about the social background of my stories with readers. It seems that this approach conditions or restricts the reader. This story was published in a literary magazine in Turkey this past year, and one young reader told me that when they read the story, they thought it took place in the 1970s (in Turkey). It’s true that when I wrote this story, I was thinking of what was happening in 2015 and the aftermath. But I really liked this young reader’s interpretation. (Maybe yet another reader might think of Israel’s siege of a city in Palestine upon reading.)
The important part for me is the issue of any state’s police forces besieging parts of a city, forbidding entrance and exit, and implementing curfews for the people who live there. It doesn’t really matter if this happens in Diyarbakir in 2015 or a city in another country. This is why I didn’t give any place names in this story. When there’s no information about the setting, the universality of the problem of the siege emerges more clearly.
Firat’s mother called, asking if I would stop by. At first my mother hesitated to tell me, afraid I would do the crazy, and get up and go. When she told me, she grabbed my arm with concern: “Look, son, I’m not telling you so you’ll go over there, but at some point just see what’s going on with the woman, find out what’s the problem.”
I called right away, said hello, and asked, “What happened, Fatma Ana? You called me?”
“No, no,” she said. “It wasn’t anything important, but if you could just come by at some point, son . . .”
“OK, ana,” I said. “You’re saying I should come by, but they don’t let anyone come out your way, they’ll take people down just like that, didn’t you know?”
“Sure, sure, but you can find an open road, can’t you, son?”
“Is Firat OK?”
“He’s not good, not at all, that’s why I’m saying, you know, if you could just come by.”
“I’m not sure anacığım, let me think about it,” and I hung up.
Why doesn’t she call Kadir, I thought. That asshole doesn’t lift a finger for his brother, or his mother or father. But of course his mother knows that he’s worthless, and that’s why she called me.
If it weren’t important she wouldn’t have called, so I’d better go. But how? I couldn’t think of any possible way. I called again.
“OK so tell me, Fatma Ana, why do you want me to come over?”
“Firat’s really losing it, dear, not being able to go outside; his father and I are barely managing to keep him indoors. He keeps saying he’s going to go out; the boy kicks the walls, we lock the doors and have to pull him from the windows."
“Ah, ah,” I said. “If he so much as sticks his head outside they’ll take him down.”
“And nights, oh, at night once the bullets start buzzing by it gets even worse.”
“Call him to the phone, anacığım,” I said, dreading what I might encounter on the other end.
In a weak voice Firat said, “Hello, Kemal, is that you?”
“Yeah, yeah it’s me.” I said. “How are you? It’s been a while since I’ve been able to come out to your neighborhood, I thought I’d call and check in.”
“Come over and take me out, Kemal,” he said. “I can’t stay home anymore. I can’t breathe, my hands, my feet, they have a mind of their own.”
“Sit tight, man, the ban should be lifted in two or three days, then I’ll come and we’ll go out together, to the café and stuff.”
“I can’t sit tight, Kemal, I’m not sure if I’m sitting or standing, it’s like none of me is my own. I talk nonstop or can’t talk at all. My head is ringing.”
Oh, my crazy friend. He was always a bit scattered and odd, but in recent years he’s really gotten much worse, the kid.
“OK,” I said, “But promise not to leave before I get there, I’ll come and take you out.”
“Promise,” he said, and his voice came out like a child. “And promise, too, that you’ll come tonight.”
“OK,” I said.
“Not OK, say ‘promise.’”
“OK, OK. Promise,” I said.
Getting there was going to be trouble, and then once I got there, taking a crazy guy out for air was going to be even more trouble.
I jumped up to leave. My mother met me at the door.
“You’re not going to go over there, right, my Kemal?”
“There—they shoot anyone on the road, son.”
“No, Mom, I’m not going.”
“Don’t be crazy, my boy. Don’t go.”
“OK, Mom. I’m not going, don’t worry, I talked to them and it’s taken care of.”
“What’s that crazy boy’s problem?”
“Nothing, Mom. He misses me. As soon as the curfew’s lifted, I’ll go over and see him, we made a deal.”
At least she didn’t ask me to promise. I quickly put on my shoes and hurtled out the door.
I had to find the kids—if there was an open road, they would know. And if they didn’t, that meant I’d have to break my promise. Oh, Firat, why?
I found them just as I left them. Vedat and Cihan were sitting there stroking their mustaches. When they saw me they started to stand up, and I put my hands on their shoulders and pushed them back down. Who knows how many hours they had been perched there.
“It’s hard, teach,” they said, when I alluded to my problem. “They’ve blockaded all the roads. They’re waiting with heavy machinery.”
“So there’s no way?”
“Maybe at night,” said Cihan.
“But it’s so dangerous, hocam, you have no idea. There’s no soul left in those guys. You know what happened yesterday . . . ”
“I know,” I said and got quiet. We all sat stroking our mustaches for a while. I took the cigarette case that Vedat hid under a newspaper when he saw me and brought it to my nose and sniffed it.
“Smoke,” I said. “Relax.”
Cihan—ever the jokester—said, “What is this, hocam, a bribe? Letting us smoke?”
“If you say so,” I said. “You’ve been smoking since you were up to my knees, anyway, might as well smoke in front of me for once.”
Vedat offered me the cigarette he rolled, and I swatted it away.
“But hocam, if you smoked you’d be like a king.”
“You jackass, aren’t we against monarchy, the sultanate, and all that?”
When Vedat finished his tea, they got up.
“Hocam if you don’t mind, we’ll go and take a look, ask around,” said Cihan. “You just wait. Here’s today’s newspaper—we’ll be back before you get to the sports page.”
“The more these guys write, the more it keeps on going, son,” I said. “It’ll take till evening for me to read all of this.”
“No, no,” he said. “We’ll be back before then.”
I’m not sure how many teas I’d had when they returned with a man around my age. His face was familiar, but we had never met. We weren’t introduced this time either.
“What is it that’s so important, hocam?” he said when he sat down next to me.
“I have a friend,” I said. “Firat . . . he’s a bit of a loose cannon, and he’s gotten much worse shut up inside with the curfew, after a week without going outdoors he’s really losing it.”
“It’s been more than a week,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said. “Of course, you know, just a manner of speaking.”
So that something wouldn’t come of it later on, I told him Firat’s older brother’s name. He knit his brows and shook his head. “Well, his brother should come and take him out. He certainly knows how to show off—director of this, president of that.”
“You’re right about that,” I said. “But you think that asshole gives a shit about his brother? I’ve heard their mom and dad are mad at him and they don’t want to ask any favors.”
“The guy sold out his people,” said Vedat. “And you think he’d think of his family?”
None of us said anything about this. The man I wasn’t introduced to asked where Firat lived. I told him. “That’s good,” he said.
“I’m not sure if it’s good or bad,” I said. “And I told the crazy brother I’d take him outside.”
“I understand,” he said. “That’s the easy part. Let’s just get you there first, the rest is in God’s hands.”
“He just needs to get a bit of fresh air, it won’t take long.”
“Come back once it gets dark, hocam. If there’s a way there, we’ll go together.”
So I was also going to put this man at risk to do the crazy? “You’re coming, too?” I asked, “I don’t want anything to go wrong . . .”
“Hocam, there’s no way you could go alone, I . . . ” he got quiet, downed the rest of his tea, and said, “Anyway, I’m going to bring some people who will be able to get you there.”
“I don’t want to make trouble . . . ”
“If you’re sure, if you’ve decided,” he said, “it’s our job to help you out. We know you, you’re a friend . . . doesn’t matter whose brother it is, he’s our friend, our brother.”
“Thank you,” I said, and felt a pang of fear. There’s no joking with these guys . . . there was a chance we’d die en route for the sake of Firat. Oh, my crazy kirve, if I don’t make it to you tonight, you’ll never look on my face again, and I know it like I know my own name. I’m not sure how much more you can wither, before you wither away. His voice on the phone that morning had been heartrending.
“Come on, Kemal,” he had said. “I beg of you, come, take me outside, they’ve thrown me somewhere and I can’t find myself. Come save me.”
When I went back to the teahouse, Cihan and the man I wasn’t introduced to were waiting for me.
“So you’re decided, hocam,” said Cihan.
“A friend’s request is the most important of commands, haven’t I taught you this?”
“I’m sure you taught us, teacher, but, it’s also likely that we weren’t listening.”
“Oh, you better watch out . . . ”
Our joking around did nothing to cause the man to stir. And why should it? We both knew very well what could happen to me. He was probably wondering whether it was me or Firat who was crazier.
“Ah, so you wore dark colors, good,” said the man. I resisted the urge to say, “Eh, I’ve understood at least that much.” I nodded my head and slightly opened up my hands at my sides.
Cihan stayed behind and we entered the street. A little later a car stopped in front of us and we got in. The man in the front, me in the back. The driver and I nodded a greeting to each other through the rearview mirror, without saying a word. We dove into the side streets—I thought I knew this city like the palm of my hand, but in the dark we wound around so much that I lost my bearings. I couldn’t tell if we were going somewhere or just passing the same streets. Single lights glowed in houses, no one outside. It seemed the curfew was in effect here, too. When we came to a place I didn’t recognize and the car stopped, we got out.
“We’ll wait a bit,” said the man, and looked at his watch. He rolled a cigarette and offered it to me. I didn’t take it, and he smoked it tucked inside of his palm. I wondered what was going through his head. Not a line on his face gave any hint. From afar, two boys seemed to appear. But in the dark I couldn’t be sure if they were there or if they weren’t until they were a few steps in front of us. The kids and the man talked about something on the other side of the car—three, perhaps four sentences. As the man got in the car, he gently raised up his right hand to say good-bye and I responded in kind.
After waiting for a while without saying a word, the shorter of the boys said, “Come on, hocam,” and we started to walk. What we were waiting for, I didn’t understand. I started feeling cold—“from fear,” I said to myself, it’s not as though the temperature had dropped all of a sudden. Beyond the soft sound of our footsteps and my own breathing in and out, all was silence. And just when I started thinking that I could even hear the sweat dripping down my back, first in droplets, and then in a crackling ripping sound, a flood of gunshots broke out. I had thought I was inured to the sound of guns, but I was scared to death. I looked into the face of the taller one with fear. He smiled. “Right on time,” he said. With his smile I realized it was our soldiers making these sounds to distract the police and divert them; I smiled too. Our pace quickened. As we passed into a narrow street between two houses, the door to one of the houses opened, and we fell inside. A man with a skullcap, who I assumed was the owner of the house, showed us toward a wooden staircase. One after another we climbed it and emerged on the roof. “From here on out it’s rooftop to rooftop, hocam,” whispered the boy next to me. As we walked hunched down across the rooftops, I wondered who was doing what below. I thought I would be able to tell from the smells, but other than the smell of fear overflowing inside me, there was nothing. After a while we jumped down and landed in the garden of a dilapidated house, and we waited for a while. “Aren’t roofs dangerous?” I whispered. “Snipers?”
“Not all of them are, but from this point forward, you’re right.”
We jumped over another garden wall, and then another. The story came to my mind of the man who returned home by swimming through all of the pools in his neighborhood. As I was trying to remember the author of the story, we dove inside the darkness of a door that I hadn’t noticed at first, since it was the same color as the walls of the row of houses nestled cheek by jowl. With quick steps, we passed by children crouched in a corner. We entered a few more houses like this—they were either full of people or completely empty, no one there. We jumped through the holes in the walls of some, the back windows of others. Ha, there you go—exercise, I said, And you feel bad because you haven’t done it for years. Tomorrow my whole body will be sore, I thought. Well, let me just live first, I said to myself, and was surprised at the thought. It wasn’t cold-bloodedness, exactly, it was something else—having gotten this far, it was the impossibility of return. The gunshots were closer now. As we passed through one of the gardens we came upon, I tripped on a pan and it rolled around with a clatter. The kid in front of me said, “Don’t worry, hocam. Keep going, but be more careful.” I don’t know if that family’s daily rations for the day ahead were in it or if it was empty; I didn’t turn to look. I had turned bright red from fear, from shame, from excitement. As we climbed that garden’s wall, I realized that my left leg was trembling from top to bottom. My breathing had also quickened—it would have been good to cough, but I didn’t want to. I somehow cleared my throat silently by starting to swallow. When the kids in front stopped, I did too. I took deep breaths. Who knows what my pulse would have registered.
“Have we crossed to safety?” I asked.
“A while ago,” said the short one. A bird chirped. I had recently read in the newspaper that even cats and dogs had deserted this neighborhood; I guess they hadn’t released the birds. While waiting for it to chirp again so I could figure out what kind of bird it was, the boy at my side chirped and I understood: the birds, too, had gone.
The tall one whispered, “It’s the fourth house on the street with the mosque, right?” I nodded. The moment I remembered the street we entered—we’d made it goddammit!—we started to walk with our backs to the walls. And, just as we arrived at Firat’s, the door opened and we dove inside.
“I knew it!” said Firat, and he threw his arms around my neck in joy. I found his mother Fatma’s eyes framed by her white scarf, shining at the edges.
“Did you travel comfortably, my dear?” she said as I kissed her hand.
“Eh, you know. Thanks to friends.” There was another kid waiting at their house too. Apparently we had taken a dozen or so people away from their normal lives for this. I felt both bad about this, and also—I can’t lie—a bit proud. Then, of course, I felt ashamed for feeling proud. Human beings are strange, very strange—they can’t control their feelings, and they can only barely hide them from themselves, along with shame, all jumbled up somewhere inside. This is the best we can do.
Fatma Ana asked if we were hungry, as if she were certain of it.
“We’re not, ana, thank you,” said the short one. “We’ll just take them and be off in a moment.”
“Are you sure?” she said. “You’re going to go out?” She turned to her son, and said, “Look son, Kemal has just arrived, just take a seat and I’ll fix you a nice meal, and you’ll sit here and chat, just let it all out, huh? How’s that?”
“We’re going out, Mom,” said Firat. He had livened up, couldn’t stand still. The last time I visited he hadn’t even had the energy to reach for a glass of water right next to him.
“I guess that’s how it is, ana,” I said. Upon arriving safely, the smell of fear on my skin had diminished. I looked at the boys with gratitude. They had put their lives in danger for two crazies. One of them the brother of a rat, the other a coward like no other.
We filtered out onto the street again.
“Kemal, we’re outside,” said Firat. I put my index finger to my lips to quiet him. Like an obedient child he squeezed his lips shut tight.
“Hocam,” said the tall boy. “The roof of the house just up there is a shelter, chat with your friend there, but don’t make much noise. Oh, and if you hear gunshots, go inside right away, OK? Don’t mess around. We’ll come and get you in a half an hour.”
Outside was outside—what more could we ask for? Firat wasn’t in a position to object, and he was looking at me with a smile he couldn’t suppress. He nodded a few times. Even if we turned back home at that moment, I could tell that even this would have been enough; yet I felt bold enough to stay.
“OK,” I said, without taking the least offense at receiving orders from a kid half my age.
On the roof we sat with our backs against a low wall, crouched down like two birds with broken wings. I thought of an old film—two friends, one of them a little crazy, sit on a roof dressed like pigeons. As I tried to remember the rest of the film, Firat patted my knee, smiling and saying how happy he was that I had come; how nice, how magnificent, it was to be outside. I patted his knee, too. It was the deepest conversation I’ve ever had with my friend of thirty years. I realized I hadn’t looked at the sky once on the way here—there was no telling what might descend from there—but now it was full of stars. One of them skipped and shot across the sky. It wasn’t a flare, I was sure of that; we had memorized a city’s worth of these things. I made a wish just like children do. And to make sure it came true I added a vow—just let it come true, and I won’t go inside for days, we won’t. We’ll wander all of the streets of the city one by one, me and Firat.
"Şehrin Bütün Sokaklarını" © Behçet Çelik. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Abby Comstock-Gay. All rights reserved.