In Aysel K. Basci’s translation of a classic Turkish short story, Rıfat and Sevim are released from prison and talk of the nature of power, oppression, and betrayal.
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As soon as he left the police station, he stopped, hesitating for a moment. The headlights of the cars traveling along the main street, just 40-50 feet away, lit up the drizzling rain and slid across the wet sidewalks before disappearing. The trolleys’ rails and wires made squeaking sounds while their tolls rang continuously, mixing with the noises of shops’ shutters coming down and closing up for the day. Rıfat stood still for several moments, waiting for his eyes and ears to adjust, apprehensively, to these experiences after 20 days without them. He might have stood even longer, but a sudden loud noise exploded nearby, startling him. He winced as a police officer revved his motorcycle’s engine in front of the station. Realizing he was still among the police cars and motorcycles, Rıfat shivered with terror, afraid he would be arrested again and taken back to that tiny cell with white walls and a wooden ceiling. He walked quickly to the main street.
He had almost forgotten how to walk. He turned up his coat collar, but the bottom hem became tangled among his legs, and his ankles twisted left and right as he walked. He headed to the corner to wait for the trolley. He couldn’t wait to get home, heat some water, shave, change the clothes he’d been wearing for almost three weeks and whose strong smell reached his nose even in the street, and then rush out into the street to wander around – the strength of his knees permitting – until the morning.
A trolley with two cars pulled to a stop in front of him. It didn’t go to his neighborhood so he didn’t board it. He studied the vague faces behind the foggy windows as rain drops dribbled down, line after line. He was still in a fog and did not notice the trolley leaving, its windows passing one after another before his eyes. When he came back to his senses, like a blind person regaining his sight, someone suddenly appeared in front of him, staring, and he screamed.
He took a step back, then opened his eyes widely and asked, “Did they release you too?”
With a voice that seemed to struggle to get out of her throat, the young woman seemed to shrink into her black coat, her head covered with a wool shawl. Yet she did not move at all as she answered, “Yes.” Her eyes immediately began watering, and she bowed her head.
Rıfat tried to smile. “I understand your excitement, but you should express it by smiling, not crying. Did they treat you very badly too? Which way are you going?”
“I am going that way too. If you like, we can walk together and talk. I wonder if they put someone on our tail. It doesn’t really matter. If they want, there is no harm. Didn’t they introduce us?”
Rıfat began to walk, but the young woman did not move. When he noticed that her head, still bowed, was shaking, he moved closer to her. Now he was really surprised.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Did a few days’ adventure upset you this much?”
The young woman did not take these openly condescending and to some extent belittling words kindly. She pulled her head back with some haste, and her shawl slid back, falling to her shoulders.
With a dry voice, she protested. “Far from it! The ill treatment I received inside belittles only those who treated me that way. That’s not why I am excited. I am only shocked because, after what I did to you inside, you suddenly appeared in front of me. Perhaps it is intentional. Did they release us back-to-back so we would run into each other? Can we be certain there is no one following us?”
Rıfat said, “Let’s walk. If anyone is following us, we will surely notice it. What is there to fear? Inside, they brought us together and they introduced us. They released us at the same time. The fact that our houses are in the same neighborhood is recorded in their documents. Given the circumstances, how can it be so unusual for us to walk together? If they want to know, perhaps they should call us back and keep us a few more days! Let’s go.”
The young woman moved closer to Rıfat and extended her arm to him. “Let’s go.” After a few steps, she said, “I will not forget that night as long as I live. How could I be so weak?”
Rıfat immediately became more serious. “It happens… sometimes it happens. Do we know everything going on inside this creature called ‘man?’ There are times when those we least expect do the most unexpected things. Your regret is a good thing. You are not looking for excuses for what you did, you just feel bad. Anyway, you didn’t do anything so terrible. They made you say you knew me, when you didn’t. So what happened? If at least one side stands firm, it is not that dangerous.
“They tried to get me to say I know you too. They tried for four days, but I resisted. You were not able to show the same resistance. Oh well! You learned something new about yourself. Like I said, there are many things in each of us that we know nothing about. Through these experiences, we learn about them. The fact that such unknowns exist is not an embarrassment, but failing to correct our weaknesses after we learn of their existence can be a big mistake, even a horrible mistake.”
Rıfat fell silent for a while. From the corner of his eye, he studied the young woman next to him. She had forgotten to cover her head with her shawl and her curly blonde hair, now wet, was sparkling. Rıfat turned the conversation in various directions, but he himself didn’t know where he wanted to go with it. Whenever unpleasant things crossed his mind, he changed the subject to forget them.
When they got to Beyazit, Rıfat stopped the young woman in front of a restaurant with bright windows. “Are you hungry, Sevim?”
“I should be… I haven’t eaten in three days.”
“I haven’t either. Let’s go in and get some soup.”
He opened the door with one hand and searched his pocket with the other. When they released him at the station, they had returned the few liras they’d confiscated at the time of his arrest.
They sat next to one another at a table. They had their soup without talking, and both realized they were too full to eat anything else. Rıfat took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to Sevim. She shook her head, then nodded toward the door, indicating she was ready to leave.
Rıfat turned his chair so he could see Sevim’s face more directly. He reflected for a while, then said, “Don’t rush. I too have things to tell you.”
There were no other customers in the restaurant. The owner was sitting near a tripe-soup cauldron behind a dirty counter, his chin propped against his arm, and looking like he had completely forgotten about the couple who ate only soup and now were lost in a deep conversation.
Rıfat spoke with a soft voice, similar to that of the rain outside, which the wind splattered against the windows every now and then. “That night when they took me from the room where I had been for four days, sleeping on bare slabs at night, into the room to face you, I’d already figured it out. If they hadn’t managed to soften you, that meeting wouldn’t have been necessary. The moment I saw you, my conviction became even stronger. At the end of a huge table, sitting on the edge of a chair, you seemed to shrink. The five or six committee members sitting around the table, their eyes tired and faces full of relentless and scornful expressions, had clearly intimidated you a great deal. When they brought me in, your back was to the door. I quietly walked right up next to you with my police escort. And then one of the committee members told you to look at me and asked, ‘Do you know this man?’
“I’ll never forget the expression on your face when you looked at me. Years ago I went hunting with some friends – my first and last hunting experience. Of course, I couldn’t shoot any rabbits or quails. On my way home later that afternoon, I saw a bunch of sparrows on top of a bare rock. I turned my rifle, which had been useless all day, and fired at them. All the birds scattered except one, whose wing had been wounded, that skipped on the ground trying to get away. I rushed to scoop it up. It was then that I learned how fast a bird’s heart can beat. That piece of muscle, just the size of a hazelnut, was pumping as if it were going to explode in my palm. The bird’s eyes were full of despair. As soon as I saw that expression, I put it back on the ground and ran away. That night in the room, your expression reminded me of the eyes of that bird, which I had long forgotten.
“I imagined that your heart was probably beating like that bird’s had. And suddenly I felt like laughing. Yes, after four nights there, without any food or sleep, in that awful room, among those people I considered the ‘enemy,’ when I saw your miserable state, your eyes wide in terror, I thought it was hilarious. Especially when you looked directly at me and lied, saying, ‘Yes, I know him!’ You looked more scared of me than the others in the room. I must confess, at that moment, your look did not make me feel compassion but contempt for you. You may remember that too. I turned away from you, looked at the committee members, and smiled as I said, ‘It is an honor to be known by such a lady, but regrettably, I do not know her.’ When they took me back to my cell, I felt triumphant. There is some pride in seeing that we are strong where someone else is weak. But now, when I think about what happened that night, I feel like laughing at myself, not at you.”
Puzzled, the young woman looked at Rıfat’s face. She was not going to say anything, but he held up his hand as if to stop her anyway before he continued speaking.
“If you could only know how strong I felt! I spent four days in a clerk’s office, sitting on a chair without moving expect at night, when I lay on the bare slab, unable to sleep because my nerves were totally exhausted. I didn’t feel hungry or sleepy. I ruthlessly pushed all thoughts from my head – the ideas they were trying to plant in my mind, the worries about what might happen to me, the memories connecting me to life outside, the faces trying to appear in my mind – and tried to remain totally rational and determined. The more I listened to the conversations of the officers filling that room during the day, the more confident I became of my own convictions. Observing the misery of those who controlled my freedom, and even my life, elevated my pride. The officers were given clothes, coats, hats, and shoes on those days. It was all they talked about. One would complain that his shoes did not match, another would curse the fit of his coat, yet another talked about selling his hat to get a little more money to buy a better hat. They were all unhappy with their government employer and the direction the country was moving in.
“These criticisms and complaints often repeated in coffeehouses, on trolleys, and at raki tables – which at first may sound casual, short-sighted, or even false, but if their roots are examined more closely, it becomes obvious they’re based on deep wounds – were the same topics discussed by these officers. Not only that, but these officers were not even aware they were being used by the very system they were against, to crush those fighting to raise these issues and find solutions for them. Sometimes, for example, when the whistle ending the workday sounded two hours late at the station chief’s order, or when someone about to go on vacation was assigned a new urgent task, they turned to me, their faces red from anger, and complained, ‘Sir, you don’t write enough about them! They don’t care about anything other than their own interests. We know them better than anyone else, but we can’t say anything. We are tied to our ‘bread money.’ However, a little later, if one of them saw me casually writing something on a scrap of paper left on one of the tables, he would jump on me, screaming, ‘Sir, you are not allowed to write!’
“As I listened to their complaints and saw their misery, I became more convinced of the truths I was fighting for and more confident that one day this stupidity, backwardness, corruption, and ignorance would end. To strengthen my self-control, I developed an almost dervish-like willpower and trained myself to endure any suffering. You must know this. One of the worst torments is waiting in such places, with the possibility of something happening at any moment, but nothing happening for hours and days. Waiting at a door or in a cell, without knowing why. Waiting, with your heart pumping as the possibilities of what might happen parade through your head. I trained myself even for this. When necessary, I could convert my brain into a blank piece of paper, turn myself into a pile of meat without a soul with an incredible absence of feelings, or move into a kind of stupid state. In this way, I could wait without even noticing the passage of time. After my arrest, to avoid succumbing to a weak feeling, I even avoided looking at my child’s photograph, which I always carried in my notebook.
“This is why the state you were in that night made me feel contempt for you. Wait – don’t feel sad. If the things that happened later did not cause me to feel contempt for myself, I would not have told you these things. Just like we don’t know how long our hearts can handle a 40-degree fever or whether our kidneys will develop stones or not, we can’t measure how much pressure it will take to force us to reveal a truth we must not share or to tell a lie!
“Some continue to resist until their death, others melt and turn into shapeless wax at the hands of their executioners the minute they taste fear. But something we do know is that these executioners can never be our friends! I am not saying they are all bad, heartless people. Far from it. They include loving fathers, loyal friends, and soft-hearted nature lovers. But from the moment they start their duty as our enemy, they become toys of a power outside their will. The personality they adopt as part of their position in society and their duty shadows their natural personality so much that, over the years, it takes them backwards, suffocates them so badly that, if they were to search their own true personalities, they would probably find only darkness and emptiness. When they interrogated me, even when they tortured me, I was busy searching for their humanity. Although they knew I was not a bad person, they kept searching to find something bad about me. Meanwhile, I looked at their inhumane actions, their deeds that were more scary and horrifying than animals’, and at their faces and words, to find a sign of nature that always strives to create harmony and beauty in everything. I was never angry with them, and I did not hate them. I just felt sorry for their helplessness and for the loss of their humanity and dignity. For this reason, no torture or mistreatment could belittle me in my own eyes. After all, what is torture? As long as our will and our head don’t do anything to compromise our dignity, it is only a matter of physiology.
“Our bodies and nerves bear as much as they can. After that, whatever nature commands happens. But not allowing our souls to be whipped is in our hands. Sadly, my soul was slapped, and it was my fault! This is why I kept you earlier. I must tell you about it. My wife and child are waiting for me at home, but they don’t even know that I have been released… First I must empty this poison from inside me. Otherwise, I cannot look at their or anyone else’s face. If you had not reminded me of that moment you showed weakness, I would not be able to share this with anyone, and I might’ve lived the rest of my life feeling ashamed of myself. Let me be frank. I was pleased to see you as almost an accomplice. Anyhow… Earlier I was saying that being beaten is not that important. Most of the time, you don’t feel anything after 30 or 40 strikes. Thirst, hunger, sleep deprivation – they all pass. Whether we want it or not, they pass. No matter how terrible, despite the suffering, we always know that these things are happening outside our will, so what can we do to prevent them?
“Beg? Never – what good would it do? Our languages are different, our worlds are different. It would be like a lamb begging a wolf! Those torturing me, with the exception of a few psychopaths, don’t do it to be cruel or to enjoy themselves. It begins as a duty. But then, just like others who sell their souls for ‘bread money,’ they slowly get used to it and turn into machines. What’s most repulsive is their becoming machines. Yes, as long as I remain myself and he remains himself and the distance between us is maintained, torture and beating are not that important. But anything that removes that distance – that’s a careless mistake that throws you in your murderer’s arms…
“This is why I continue to tremble like an aspen leaf, even though those 20 days of hell are now over. How did it happen? How could I do it? I am not sure if I can describe it. But it was like a prisoner’s smile to an executioner or a sheep’s smile to a butcher. Contemptible. It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it. This is how it happened. About ten days after they introduced us, I was thrown into a tiny cell for a week. Every now and then, they would pull me out for questioning. However, I was never one to be the most severely tortured. I just got a once-over every once in a while. Once, maybe twice a day, five to ten beatings… Next was that cell with the 1000-watt light-bulb hanging from the ceiling that could turn anyone’s brain into mush! But I was sure that 60-something-year-old unionist, who had been shrinking from the cold for more than two weeks on a dry bench out in the corridor, snow falling down on him from the broken window above, was suffering much more. Suffering from just waiting there…
“It was a week or so after I was in that cell. A short man in clerk clothes, a civil servant, came to get me. First, he had me shave my beard, which had grown a full centimeter. Then he asked me to straighten my clothes. We walked together. When we reached the corridor, the daylight hurt my eyes. We arrived at a leather-covered door, and he whispered something to another officer standing there, turning me over to him before going inside. A little later, he called me in as well. I was in a well-furnished office, where a man with a plump face, full lips, and glasses sat behind a large crystal table. He got up, stood next to me, extended his hand, and said, ‘God save you, sir.’
“He had a pleasant smile on his face. I had not seen him in any of the committees that had questioned me. From the behavior of the officer standing guard and especially the one who brought me there, I discerned that the man in the glasses was a high-level officer from Ankara, who came to follow up on my investigation. I looked at his extended hand with surprise. The white hand with thick fingers was still extended to me. I shook it and felt a lukewarm stickiness in my palm. He pointed to a Moroccan leather chair next to the desk and politely asked, ‘Won’t you sit here?’ He sat on another chair across from me and said, ‘I was very sad to hear that you were treated in a manner not worthy of you.’ He continued, ‘You’re an important young intellectual, well-educated and cultured. Our country expects much more from you. This totally insignificant incident – well, with our combined efforts, it can easily be resolved.’
“I didn’t know what to say or how to respond. Was I supposed to respond warmly, or maintain my usual cool and distant behavior? Were these gracious words an expression of sincere regret or a well-laid trap? Without allowing me to reflect further, he continued, ‘I suspect your opinion of our officers is not positive. You are right. But if you reason fairly, you will realize their actions are excusable. What is their education or how they were raised? For the salary the government pays them, there is no prospect of finding better ones either. I visited Vienna once to study their police organization. Not a single police officer didn’t have a high school degree. We are trying to do the same, but it will take years. I hope we will eventually have officers who know how to treat people properly based on their backgrounds.’
“While talking, he was closely observing the expression on my face and my hands, which rested on my knees. His eyes, continuously moving behind his glasses, were always smiling. Then he suddenly stood up and said, ‘I told them it was wrong to treat you like those common people, the laborer types and the hooligans. I don’t consider you someone under arrest, but rather a friend whose help we are seeking. We called you here because we needed information from you on certain matters, and we kept you for a few days. You must have gotten mixed up with those traitors because of curiosity. Surely you can give us useful information.’
“After that, he repeated the same stupid questions they’d been asking me since arrival, the ones I knew nothing about and had clearly been concocted by some officer’s sick imagination. I tried to respond using a polite tone, similar to his. ‘Sir, just like the less kind methods did not yield any results, this very polite method of questioning will also not succeed. Because I don’t have any answers to your questions that I haven’t already provided. I am not involved in any hidden, secret activity, and I don’t know the people you are suggesting I am communicating with.’
“Next, a struggle began between us, which was just a variation on what had been going on between the police officers there and myself for the past 15 days. He tried to trick me into contradicting myself by asking rapid questions, to get me to confess to certain things at all costs, and to convince me to accuse some people I didn’t even know of wrongdoings. I told him I was providing short answers because I really did not know and had nothing to say. He kept getting closer to me, a continuous smile on his face, bending over to convince me, and when he didn’t get results, he looked more bored than angry. He would go back and sit in his chair with an expression suggesting that he was sad. He would close his eyes for a little while, reflect, and then return to the same endless game, this time from a completely different angle.
“My distress was growing, and I was almost beginning to miss the beatings and insults I had suffered previously. At the same time, I kept thinking and repeating to myself that nothing would be achieved by angering a man who had been so courteous to me, that if I handled it correctly perhaps I would be able to convince him I was telling the truth, and that there was no point in shaking his somewhat positive opinion of me through a negative attitude. I tried to speak sincerely as I expressed regret for not being able to give him the answers he was seeking. To not cloud the cooperative spirit that had formed between us, I followed all his movements with friendly eyes and enthusiastically affirmed what he said outside the questions he was asking me. However, I did not give him any of the answers he was soliciting.
“At one point, he sank into an armchair as if tired. For the first time he looked me over from head to toe with inquisitive and serious eyes, but without smiling. He took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and asked, ‘Won’t you take one?’
“I hesitated for a moment. I am not really a smoker. Once in a while I will smoke one, but under those circumstances and on a half-empty stomach, even the sight of a cigarette made me queasy. I was going to refuse, but when I noticed his serious gaze, I reached out. With an expression that said ‘for the sake of not ruining this rapport between us, I will take one,’ while trying to smile for the first time during this entire conversation, I took a cigarette and placed it between my lips. He immediately jumped from his seat and pulled a box of matches from his vest pocket. Then, with a large grin on my face, I looked at him.”
Rıfat became very excited, as if reliving that moment. Hands trembling, he picked up his water and drank it all without stopping. He bowed his head, waiting for his excitement to subside as it was forming a lump in his throat that caused his voice to tremble. But when he realized this was not helping and was, instead, increasing his excitement, he stood up. He wanted to leave the well-lit restaurant and get away from the young woman’s careful gaze.
“Let’s leave,” he said, “I will continue telling you on the way.” He left several liras on the table.
They walked down the street for several minutes without talking. Then the young man took the arm of the young woman and spoke in sentences that sounded like they were chasing one another.
“Yes, I looked into his eyes with a smile covering my face like an oily, sticky thing. I will never forget that despicable smile splashed across my face for a cigarette and a match. No beating or insult has ever caused me as much indignity or crushed me as much as that smile, that grinning smile that I didn’t witness, yet I continue to see even now as if I were standing in front of a mirror. Think about it. Can there be anything funnier or more disgusting than a man smiling to his executioner, thinking that his own softness will soften him too?
“Behind his glasses, his eyes shone with pleasure. Even at that moment I could detect some ridicule in that pleasure, and I was surprised. Perhaps because of my surprise, instead of composing myself, I leaned forward – with a face that deserved to be spat on – toward the match, which by then he had lit.
“Before I knew it, the match had fallen from his hand, and a horrendous slap cracked against my face. The cigarette flew from my mouth, and my nose began to bleed.
“The one in front of me, who had been holding his grudge and fury for hours, was now rapidly breathing those sentiments out of his nose, like fire – slapping my face over and over, kicking me in my belly and knees, and screaming with a croaky voice in rage, ‘Animal… did you really think you could smoke a cigarette in front of me? Do you deserve to be treated like a human being? Was I going to light a cigarette for an animal like you? Traitor! We should crush you and your ilk like lice! You dumb-ass… He sat on the couch and expected me to light his cigarette! Impudent fool – get out!’ He turned to the door and yelled, ‘Come here!’ He pointed me toward the two officers who immediately came in. ‘Take this schmuck away and don’t let him breathe until he confesses everything!’
“Sure enough they did not let me breathe for two days. But later, I couldn’t understand what had happened. Perhaps they got tired, or maybe they finally believed that I didn’t know anything… Suddenly they’d lost interest in me. And when the bruises on my body healed, they released me.”
The young woman stopped. “We arrived at my house. You probably have more to go.”
Rıfat pointed toward a house. “Here?”
“No, on this street, but don’t trouble yourself!” Extending her hand, she added, “We both need to be alone.”