Skip to content
Join us on October 26 at 7PM EDT for the 2021 WWB Virtual Gala. Learn more and get your tickets today!

First Read: From “Istanbul Istanbul”

By Burhan Sönmez & Ümit Hussein

Image: From the cover of Istanbul Istanbul (OR Books)

Istanbul Istanbul, by Burhan Sönmez and translated by Ümit Hussein, is forthcoming from OR Books. Burhan Sönmez appeared in New York City on April 28 and April 29 as a part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

Four prisoners—Demirtay the student, the doctor, Kamo the barber, and Uncle Küheylan—held below the streets of Istanbul and subject to torture trade stories about their pasts and the city. In the following excerpt, seen through the eyes of Demirtay the student, Kamo the barber shares his narrative.

Still lying on the floor, Kamo the Barber started laughing. That was the first time we had seen him laugh. His body rocked gently, as though he were frolicking with weird and wonderful creatures in his dreams. I repeated my last sentence. “A woman with her skirt up can run faster than a man with his pants down.” When Kamo the Barber started to roar with laughter I leaned over to cover his mouth. Suddenly he opened his eyes and stared at me. If the guards heard us they would either beat us or punish us by making us stand up lined against the wall for several hours. That wasn’t how we wanted to spend the time remaining before our next torture session.

Kamo the Barber sat up and leaned against the wall. As he took deep breaths his face turned serious and reverted to its usual expression. He was like a drunk who had stumbled into a ditch the night before and woken up with no idea where he was.

“Today I dreamt I was burning,” he said. “I was in the lowest circle of hell, they were taking sticks from everyone else’s fire and using them to stoke mine. But damn it, I was still cold. The other sinners were screaming, my eardrums burst and healed a thousand times over. The fire kept getting bigger and bigger but I couldn’t burn hard enough. You weren’t there, I searched every face, but there was no sign of a doctor or a student. I craved more fire, crying out and begging, like an animal going to the slaughter. The wealthy, the preachers, the bad poets, and cold-hearted mothers burning in front of me stared at me through the flames. The wound in my heart wouldn’t burn and turn to ash, my memory refused to melt into oblivion. Despite the fire that was turning metal to liquid, I could still recall my cursed past. Repent, they said. But was that enough? Were your souls saved when you repented? All you inmates of hell! Bastards! I was just an ordinary barber, who brought food home and liked reading books, but didn’t have any children. Toward the end of the time when everything in our lives went awry, my wife didn’t reproach me. I wanted her to, but she begrudged me even her curses. When I was drunk I told her what I thought when I was sober; one night I stood in front of her and said I’m a poor wretch. I waited for her to humiliate me and shout at me. I searched for a scornful look, but as my wife turned away I saw that the only expression on her face was one of sadness. The worst thing about a woman is that she’s always better than you. My mother included. You think I’m weird for saying these things, but I don’t care.”

Kamo the Barber stroked his beard, turning his face toward the light coming from the grille. Independently of his not having been able to wash for three days, it was obvious from his filthy hair, his long nails, and the stench of rancid dough that accompanied him on the first day that he shied away from water even when he was outside. I had got used to the Doctor’s smell and grown quite protective of my own. Kamo’s smell kept imposing itself, like the foreboding of ill omen oppressing his soul. Now, after a three-day silence, there was no stopping him.

“I met my wife on the first day I opened my barbershop with a sign saying ‘Kamo the Barber’ on the window. Her brother was about to start school and she had brought him in for a haircut. I asked the boy his name and introduced myself: My name is Kamil, but everyone calls me Kamo. Okay, Kamo—Ağbi, said the boy. I asked him riddles and told him funny stories about school. When I asked her, my future wife, watching us from where she sat in a corner, told me she had just finished secondary school and now worked at home as a seamstress. She averted her eyes from me and looked at the photograph of the Maiden’s Tower on the wall, the basil under it, the mirror with the blue frame, the razor blades and scissors. When I held out some of the cologne that I rubbed on the boy’s hair to her, she opened her hand and closed her eyes as she raised her small palm to her nose and inhaled. At that moment I dreamed it was me she saw under her eyelids, I wanted no eyes but those to ever touch me again for as long as I lived. As my wife was leaving the shop, wearing lemon-scented cologne and her flower print dress, I stood in the doorway and watched her depart. I hadn’t asked her name. She was Mahizer, who had entered my life with her small hands, and whom I thought would never leave it.

“That night I returned to the old well. There was a well in the back garden of the house where I had grown up in the neighborhood of Menekşe. When I was alone I would lean over the top of the well and stare down into the darkness below. I never realized the day had ended, I never remembered there was another world that had no connection with the well. Darkness was serenity, it was sacred. I grew drunk on the smell of damp, I was dizzy with pleasure. Whenever anyone said I looked like my father, whom I had never met, or my mother called me by my father’s name, Kamil, instead of Kamo, I would run to the well, panting. As I filled my lungs with air in the darkness I would lean right down into the well and fantasize about plunging in. I wanted to break free from my mother, my father, and my childhood. Motherfuckers! My mother’s fiancé had made her pregnant then committed suicide, she had had me, even though it meant being disowned by her family, and named me after her fiancé. Even when I was old enough to start playing outside, I remember she would sometimes hold me to her breast, put her nipple in my mouth, and cry. I tasted my mother’s tears instead of milk. I would close my eyes and count on my fingers, repeating to myself again and again that it would soon be over. One night as it was growing dark my mother found me leaning into the well and yanked my arm to pull me out. Just then the stone she was standing on suddenly slipped. I can still hear her scream as she fell in. It was midnight when they took her body out of the well. After my mother’s death I went to live in Darüşşafaka orphanage, and fell asleep spinning daydreams in dormitories where everyone told their own interminable life story.”

Kamo scrutinized us to see whether we were listening to his tale.

“During my engagement to Mahizer I gave her novels and poetry books. Our literature teacher at school used to say that everyone had their own language, and that you could understand some with flowers and others with books. Mahizer would cut out patterns at home and sew dresses, sometimes she would write poems on small scraps of paper and give them to her brother to bring to me. I used to keep her poems in my barbershop, in a box in the bottom drawer, with the perfumed soaps. The business was doing well, with the number of regular customers growing constantly. One day one of my customers, a journalist who had come in for a haircut and left with a big smile, was shot as he went out of the door. The two assailants ran to the journalist lying on the ground and, after firing another shot into his head, shouted, you either love or you leave, pal! The next day a large crowd gathered on the still-bloodstained street to pay tribute to the journalist. I joined them, in honor of the haircut, and went to the funeral. I had no faith in politics, the only political person I had ever felt close to was Hayattin Hoca, my literature teacher at school. Although he never mentioned politics we used to find socialist journals poking out of his files. My skepticism was absolute, how could politics, made up of people, change the world? Anyone who claimed that kindness would save society and make it happy didn’t know anything about people. They acted as though selfishness didn’t exist, the motherfuckers! The basis of human nature was self-interest, greed, and rivalry. When I said these things my customers protested and argued hotly to try and make me change my mind. How can a poetry lover think such things, said one of my customers, as he waited his turn. He stood beside the mirror and read out loud several verses from Les Fleurs du Mal that I had put there. The violence showed no signs of abating, we heard people in neighboring streets getting shot. Once a young customer of mine rushed into my barbershop in a terrible state and asked me to hide his gun before the police caught him. I may have occasionally helped someone out, but that didn’t mean I gave a damn about politics. The only existence for me was saving up to buy a house, fathering children, and spending my nights with Mahizer. But somehow Mahizer couldn’t get pregnant. When we went to a doctor in the second year of our marriage we found out it was me who couldn’t have children.

“One night as I was closing up I saw three people attacking a man. It was Hayattin Hoca, my literature teacher from school. Grabbing my knife I rushed out to them and slashed their hands and faces. The attackers, caught unawares, retreated and disappeared into the darkness. Hayattin Hoca hugged me. We talked nonstop as we walked. We went into a tavern in Samatya. We told each other about ourselves. After Darüşşafaka Hayattin Hoca had changed schools twice, reduced his teaching hours, and now spent more time on his political activities. He was worried about our country’s future. He had heard that I had gone to university to study French language and literature. But he hadn’t heard that I had dropped out in the second year because I had to work, it saddened him when I told him. When he asked if I was still interested in poetry I mumbled several verses from Baudelaire that I had memorized in his classes. He beamed at me proudly and reminded me of the time I had won first prize in the poetry reading competition. We clinked our glasses of rakı. Hayattin Hoca was happy to hear of my marriage, but he was still single. Apparently he had fallen in love with one of his students a few years previously but hadn’t declared himself, and once he heard that the girl had married after leaving school he had resigned himself to complete solitude. We drank until dawn. I recited poems from heart and he read out poems he had written for the girl he loved. I don’t know how I got home, it wasn’t until I had sobered up the next day that I remembered hearing Mahizer’s name in Hayattin Hoca’s poems.

“I didn’t go to Hayattin Hoca’s funeral a month later. He was shot in the head with a single bullet as he was leaving school. In his file they found a poem dedicated to me, about brave horse riders in a storm. A friend of his brought it to me. That night I clung to Mahizer and begged her not to leave me. Why would I leave you, my foolish husband, she said. I had brought home the box that I had kept for years in the soap drawer at the barbershop. I opened it and took out the scraps of paper with the poems that Mahizer had written me when we were engaged and asked her to read them to me. The scraps of paper smelled of rose and lavender. As Mahizer was reading the poems, I undid her blouse and sucked her breast. I wanted to suckle milk but I could taste the tears flowing down onto her chest. Three months passed. One night Mahizer cried again as she fired questions at me, her voice trembling. She asked who had shot Hayattin Hoca. He never took any liberties with me, she said. For several nights I had been talking in my sleep, saying he had deserved to die. Who else have I talked about? I asked. You mean there are more? asked Mahizer. I swore on my mother’s life. I had nothing to do with it, I said, words spoken in dreams don’t mean anything. I put on my coat and went out into the cold. What a delusion! My weary soul. Foolish old man. My soul that used to have wings of fire. It would take flight at the slightest impetus. Oh, gasping sick man, worthless workhorse. Is there anything in the world that won’t end in ashes? My soul, miserable, senile, bleeding wretch. Neither the zest of life nor love’s torrent can reach you now. Time skips a beat. As I breathe, I feel myself—my self—dissolving, losing my bearings. How did I reach the top of the well, how did I lift the stones and raise its cover, I wasn’t in my right mind. I leant down into the well and shouted. Mother! When you forced your breast into my mouth why did you give me tears instead of milk? Mother! When you clung to my puny body why did you feverishly repeat my dead father’s name instead of mine? I knew you were thinking of my father when you called me Kamil instead of Kamo. On your last night too you cried out Kamil. I knew the stone you were standing on was loose. You were bound to fall, mother! You said I was born thanks to my father, that I owed this life to him. Damn it! The dead were dead and gone! You didn’t understand how cruel the light was. The light only showed things from the outside. It stopped us from looking inward.”

Kamo the Barber said the last words as though he were mumbling to himself. First he bent his head forward, then tossed it back and banged it against the wall. “An epileptic fit,” said the Doctor, quickly laying Kamo down on the floor. He placed the piece of bread that we had been saving for our new cellmate, who could arrive at any moment, between Kamo’s teeth, to stop him from biting his tongue. I held his feet. Kamo had lost all control and was convulsing, his mouth foaming.

The cell door opened. The guard towering above us yelled, “What’s going on?”

“Our friend is having an epileptic fit,” said the Doctor. “We need something with a strong smell to bring him around, like cologne or an onion.”

The guard stepped inside, saying, “Tell me if your ass of a friend dies, so I can clear out the body.” But to be on the safe side he leaned over Kamo and checked his face. The guard stank of blood, mold, and damp. The reek of alcohol on his breath made it clear that he had been drinking before going on duty. He waited a while, then straightened up and spat on the floor.

As the guard was closing the door, I saw the face of the girl they had brought in today in the grille of the opposite cell. Her left eye was closed, her lower lip was split. It was her first day here but it was clear from the color of her wounds that they had been torturing her for a long time. Once the door had closed I crouched down onto the floor. Clinging to Kamo’s legs, I pressed my face down on the concrete so I could observe the guard’s feet from the crack under the door. The guard had returned to the girl and was waiting, motionless. I could tell because his feet weren’t moving. Hadn’t the girl left the grille, wasn’t she sitting in the darkness of her cell? The guard wasn’t swearing, he wasn’t banging on the girl’s door and threatening her, or bursting into her cell and throwing her against the wall. Meanwhile Kamo’s body relaxed and tensed alternately, he struggled to free his legs from my grip. He had stretched out his arms and was thrashing them against the cell walls. After a final convulsion Kamo’s spasms ceased and he stopped wheezing. The guard surveying the opposite cell left the girl alone and departed, his footsteps growing distant in the corridor. I stood up and looked out. When I saw the girl at the grille I nodded to her, but she didn’t move. After a while she went back inside, disappearing into the dark.

The Doctor leaned against the wall and stretched his legs. He placed Kamo’s head on his lap. “He’ll be able to sleep for a while in this position,” he said.

“Can he hear us?” I asked.

“Some patients can hear when they’re in this state, others can’t.”

“It’s not a good idea for him to tell us so much about himself, let’s warn him.”

“You’re right, he should stop.”

The Doctor looked at Kamo the Barber as though he were putting his own son, and not a patient, to sleep. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smoothed his hair.

“How’s the girl in the opposite cell?” he asked.

“She has old scars all over her face, it’s obvious they’ve been torturing her for a long time,” I said.

I looked at Kamo the Barber’s tranquil visage. His customer was right to find him strange, how could a man like him love poetry? He was sleeping like a child exhausted from playing outside all day. Beneath his eyelids he was now leaning over his well, staring down into the darkness. He had held on to damp stones so many times he didn’t trust the stable ones, he descended with the aid of a rope he had lowered down into the well, and let himself go in the water. There Kamo is both north and south, he possesses the east and the west. His outside existence has been wiped clean, he has become a well in the well and water in the water.


Copyright 2016 OR Books.

Published Apr 27, 2016   Copyright 2016 Burhan Sönmez & Ümit Hussein

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.