Orhan Kemal: Courting Controversy


“Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’ . . . . I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’ . . . .”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath[1]

Were a non-native English speaker to attempt this passage—or almost any Steinbeck passage—it would be something of a slog. Similarly, during the 1950s and 60s, Turkey had its own spate of “Peasant” or “Village” novels.[2] These too were filled with often-impenetrable passages of dialogue meant to evoke local color. I find some of these nearly impossible to make heads or tails of, and many Turkish speakers I’ve talked with express similar difficulties in understanding.

Orhan Kemal, though very much a product of this era, is a bit different. Whereas many of his left-wing peers tried to capture the vicissitudes (and argot) of “feudal” peasant existence—some, like Kemal Tahir, ultimately ditching modern peasant stories in order to write about historical peasants—Orhan Kemal sought to depict the next step in Marxist evolution: the industrial proletariat.

He was well prepared to do so: though he had grown up in an elite Adana family—his father, Abdülkadir Kemali Bey, had been a parliamentarian—he came to know hard times. In the early 1930s, during a brief moment of political opening, his father had joined a local party opposed to Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and published its local gazette. When the CHP reversed course and shut all the country’s opposition organizations, Orhan Kemal and his family were forced to flee to Syria. Orhan was already seventeen years old at this point and so, a year later, he returned to Turkey on his own and found a job at a cotton factory, first as a weaver, later as a clerk. After working at the factory for five years, he married a fellow factory worker. A year later he had to do his military service.

In 1938, while still in the army, he was discovered with copies of poetry by the Stalinist Russian poet Maxim Gorky and the Turkish Communist poet Nazim Hikmet. He was sentenced to five years in prison. As it happens, he was sentenced to the same Bursa prison where Hikmet had been sent. The two men grew close and the poet advised Orhan to pursue novel and short story writing.[3]

These stories that followed often focused on very familiar topics, namely the cotton industry in Turkey. The following story, “Strike,” is a good example of Orhan Kemal’s early style.

“Strike” was published in 1947—the first year that unions were permitted in Turkey.[4] Up until then the CHP had been hostile. Ever since the early thirties, the government had sought to dictate the pace of economic development through a series of five-year plans and state owned enterprises. An organized labor movement would have been a source of opposition to the government’s rapid industrialization goals. Further, the existence of unions suggested the presence of class divisions in the society—something the CHP argued did not exist—and allowed for forms of organization separate from those controlled by the state. Laws passed in the mid-1930s punished strikes and banned any groups formed on the basis of “class interest.”[5]

In the years directly following World War II, Turkey became highly dependent on the United States and forced to conform to American preferences—this included multiparty politics and a role for labor unions in the political process. In 1946, under pressure from the International Labor Organization and UN, the ban on “class-based” organizations was lifted. Another year passed before unions were actually permitted, and, even then, striking remained banned.[6] The issue of striking persisted over the coming years as the main opposition party first backed legalization to gain electoral support and then changed its tune once in office.

Such are the broad outlines of the moment at which this piece was published. As always, all the errors are mine:

by Orhan Kemal

The factory owner’s son with his large, sloppy-haired head and round tummy reminded one of a plump potato. He seemed as though he’d come into the world for the sole purpose of sleeping well, filling his surroundings with easy laughter, and throwing large banquets.

He entered the factory officials’ commissary. The maître d’ and a few waiters raced about as always. Seats were offered, tables pushed and pulled, an oilcloth curtain was pulled across the sun-beaten windows . . .of the four or five seats that had been offered, he only approached one. Placing his elbows on the table, he inserted his fat face between his meaty palms . . .

“Hmm,” he said, “What can I do? Something . . .but what?” He gave a large yawn. Across from him, standing at attention. the maître d’ watched him tiredly from below heavy eyelids. “What I desire . . .let’s figure it out.”

The maître d’ after giving a formal smile become serious again.

“Tell me,” he repeated, “Tell me what I want and I’ll give you 10,000TL!” He straightened in his seat, then leaned over the table so that his back resembled a turtle’s. “Come on! Tell me!”

The maître d’ swung his head, blinked his eyes, and scratched his dry face. He didn’t like it—these jokes that belittled him in front of the staff and others . . .

Meanwhile, the factory owner’s fat son pulled a notepad from his pocket and, with a gold pen, scrawled: I vow to pay the maître d’ 10,000 TL if he tells me what my heart desires. The maître d’—a grandfatherly, earnest man—helplessly took the paper and withdrew.

The factory owner’s son again leaned back in his chair. In time his heavy eyelids would have begun to shut fully, but suddenly, standing beside one of the sun-beaten pillars across from him, he saw a waiter polishing forks and spoons. He called to the waiter by pounding on the table. The waiter, who wore a ragged short-sleeved shirt, came running.

“What are you doing over there?” asked the factory owner’s son.

“Forks . . .I’m shining forks, sir,” said the waiter, reddening to his ears.

“Why are you shining them.”

“That’s what the boss commanded sir.”

“What’s the ‘boss commanded’ mean? Are you the slave of commands?”

The waiter tried to smile, “At your disposal sir.”[8]

“At our my disposal? Am I a trashcan buddy?” said the factory owner’s son punningly.

“Not at all, sir . . .”

“Disposal means garbage. Trash cans have garbage. If one is at my disposal . . .then I’m a trashcan. . .and, according to you, you are in my garbage . . .Ha?”

“Not at all sir . . .far from it.”

“Do you have a lot of education?”

“No, sir.”


“Some, but little.”

“How much?”

“I stopped in my fifth year, that was it.”

“Why didn’t you go back?”

“Fate, sir.”

“What sort of fate? What’s ‘fate’ mean?”

“I’m originally from the Black Sea. My father worked as a cleaner at the post office. I had five brothers, the money he earned wasn’t enough, we were drowning in debt—

“Well then, if you had 10,000TL . . .for example, if you won the lottery and got 10,000TL, what you do?” The waiter, trying to smile, hung his head. “Tell me, what could you do with 10,000TL.”

“ . . .”

“Give me an answer buddy! You’ve never thought about it? For example, if I were to give you 10,000TL right now . . .what would you do?”

“. . .”

“Never had a thought buddy? Never thought about it until now?”

“I hadn’t thought sir.”

“10,000TL is a lot, right?”

“Yes, a lot . . .”

“It means a lot! It means, ‘If I had 10,000TL would I do’—and you’ve never thought about it?”

“ . . .?”

“You don’t have work to do? Get to work!” The waiter with his dirty rags retreated. The factory owner’s son, after another wide yawn, rubbed his moist eyes with the hairy backs of his fat little hands. The weather was quite hot and he was sweating. He removed his crisply ironed, salmon-colored jacket and hung it on the chair beside him. Then, crossing his hands on the table in front of him, rested his head. He would have drifted to sleep, but the restaurant door quickly opened and the chief weaver—a dark, gaunt man form Arabuşağı—entered.

“Ahmet Bey,” he said, “run! The weavers have gone on strike and the boss is waiting for you.” The factory owner’s son jumped up and snatched his salmon-colored jacket with an unexpected agility. He and the chief weaver left the restaurant.

The factory owner, who suffered from some unresolved stomach problems, approached them angrily from across the room as they entered the office. A heavy net curtain kept the room cool and moist. To his just arriving son, he commanded, “Call the business council, the law enforcement, the gendarme, quickly!”

“What is it? What’s happening?” asked his son.

“‘What is it? What’s happening?’ Are you asking me questions or am I asking you.”

“To my knowledge, they want us to lower their shifts to eight hours while keeping the same salary they were getting for twelve.”

“Whatever . . .First make the phone calls, then go and look. If necessary secure the work floor and kick them out. Labor-shmabor . . .We’ll deal with these hungry dogs . . .With or without the government we’ll hang a few of them . . .”

The factory owner’s son dashed out of the room. He stormed through the yarn warehouse and ran onto the weaving-room floor. The building rattled with the terrific sound of three hundred looms working. The work floor’s air was full of flying cotton dust.

He stopped at the door. His eyes passed rapidly over the interior. To one master weaver standing beside his loom, he asked, “Well? You’re calling this a strike? Everyone is at his loom!”

“They’re at their looms, but they’re not operating them. The bobbins are running out and their not replacing them. When the thread builds up, they’re not cutting it. If the thread breaks, they’re not retying it.”

“So a sort of strike, huh? Who’s the leader?”

“Blonde Mehmet. He’s not around . . .”

“Bring him to me!” The weaving room chief gave his whistle a powerful blow. All the heads turned to the door. Two assistants came running. “Bring Blonde Mehmet to me!”

A bit later, a small, hard, beak-nosed, thinning-haired, clear-faced weaver, muddy up to his elbows, sidled up to the master weaver. The top of his head and his eyebrows were caked with dust. “Here,” he said.

Indicating at the factory owner’s son, the chief said, “The little boss wants to talk with you.”

Blonde Mehmet looked at the little boss, they studied each other.

“You’re Blonde Mehmet?”

“That’s me!”

“You’re leading these workers?”


“They’re standing at their looms, they’re not doing anything. Did you advise them to act like this?”

“Of course not—and saying so to you would be stupid.”

“What way of talking is this? Does one talk like this in front of his superior, his better?”

“One shouldn’t talk like this in front of his better, I know that.”

“Yet you’re talking like this!”

“No I’m not, I know my manners, I do!”

“And yet you are talking like this.”

“I’m talking in front of you.”

“I’m your better, aren’t I? I give you bread.”

“You? You give me bread, ha! Who are you to give me bread? I work. I earn it with the sweat of my brow . . .Bread’s given to me? If I didn’t work, would you give me bread? It’s not you buddy, you wouldn’t even give us your sins for free.

“Enough impertinence, it’ll be worse for you later.”

“How so? What are you going to do? Hang me from the ceiling?”

The weaving master moved between them. He pulled Blonde Mehmet aside. By now weavers—his friends—had gathered around. “Think about what you’re saying dummy. I’d slap you, but it’d be a waste of effort.”

Running back from their prayer-break where they had puffed cigarettes and enjoyed the “view,” weavers Bilal, Gaffar, and Kurdish Resul joined the crowd. Gaffar asked, “What’s up Mehmet, man? Who’s doing what to who?”

“Nothing, they’re just giving us bread,” said Mehmet. “Man, who are you to give us bread? Godless kid. You think we’re mud. Well, look in the mud and you’ll find a boot.”

“Who cares,” said Gaffar, “are we getting off after eight hours or not?”

“Will they lower the hours . . .The advantage is with the workers. The worst thing is them saying that we’re without manners . . .Buddy it you whose manners are—”

“Who said that? Big stomach over there?”

Resul agreed in Kurdish.

“His whole lineage is without manners, all his ancestry,” continued Mehmet.

The factory owner’s son approached them. Gaffar made the sort of noises usually reserved for shooing a camel and said, “He’s coming, he’s coming over here.”

Look at his stomach, man.”

“His waist looks nine months pregnant.”

“Not pregnant though,” said Kurdish Resul.

“Alright, get back to work,” the factory owner’s son commanded.

For a moment they just looked at each other, no one said a word. Then Blonde Mehmet said, “ The war’s been over for five years. We want the provisions of the Work Law to be honored!”

“That’s not something you’d know anything about,” the little boss replied hatefully, “About what is required to benefit the factory . . .”

“We know what benefit ourselves. The benefits of the factory don’t touch us.”

“And you don’t care about the factory!”

“Friends, did you hear? We’re apparently not interested in the factory. Since we’re not interested, you should go an find workers who are and hire them!”

The little boss was flustered. The head weaver, his assistants, the factory’s head machinist, and two clerks—all suck-ups—put their heads together and exchanged whispers. Then, from among them, the two clerks ran off to make a phone call.

The factory owner’s son, whose face was ghastly pale, shouted, “Be warned! You’re striking and strikes are prohibited by law; I won’t get mixed up with what follows!”

Blonde Mehmet collected himself, “No, not at all. We’re going back to our places . . . Friends, everyone back to your places!” Everyone filed back to his loom. However at their looms nothing was done; at three-hundred looms, kilowats were wasted like water, not a second of work could be observed.

“No dice . . .” said the head weaver, “They’re not going to do any work.”

The factory owner’s son was boiling with rage. He spat on the floor and turned around. Overcome with fury, he went to the door of the weaving-room and flipped off the switch. Stopping at the workshop, he shouted, “Fine. Call it a day! Get out of my factory!”

There were grunts and murmurs here and there. “You’re going on strike!” Blonde Mehmet shouted. “You’re going against the law. You’re witnesses friends, the boss is going on strike.”

“Yes, I’m going on a strike, a lock out . . .After this you won’t get so much as a crumb of bread; I’m locking the door . . .Get going!”

Blonde Mehmet and his friends put their heads together. After a moment speaking quietly together, Blonde Mehmet said, “We shouldn’t budge. Anyway, if they’ve already called the police, the police will come and see us at work. How’s that?”

“Fine. Let’s go,” someone said.

“Friends, let’s go back to our stations . . .Let them try and throw us out by force!”

“Don’t forget how they evaded the winter taxes!” Gaffar shouted, “Remove the looms’ yarn and burn it.”

“Burn it? It doesn’t catch fire, stupid!”


A group of the weavers returned to their looms while another, still frightened by the loud sound of the little boss’s shouts, walked slowly toward the door.

Shortly, the chief inspector along with almost twenty guards and police hurried into the factory, batons swinging, eyebrows knitted, faces frowning. They surrounded the weaving building. Blonde Mehmet and his friends approached them and said, “Inspector Sir, the factory owner has staged a lockout. Take our testimony.”

Voices came from every head. The chief inspector was surprised. “What’s a lockout?” he asked.

“A boss’ strike. Bosses dismiss their employees; throw them out of their jobs!”

“Lies!” the factory owner’s son piped in, “They’re saying lies. This honorless bunch is saying lies!”

“The one without honor is you, you’re honorless . . .”

“Honorless, honorless, honorless!!!”

scene was confused. The workers at the door were being prevented from coming in. The chief inspector, guards, and police were left uncertain of what to do or how to act . . .

The factory owner’s attendant came running in, “The lieutenant governor has come, he wants the chief inspector, sir!” The chief inspector, holding his gun at his side, ran off.

The lieutenant governor was a beautiful fellow with a thin, black mustache. He liked divan poetry—he was especially a fan of Nedim.[9] Setting himself at the factory owner’s table, he tapped the pencil in his hand lightly on the wood.

The big boss said, “They’ve gotten spoiled, sir. Where’d this democracy thing come from? We’re to be responsible to a bunch of serfs and peasants? They’re going to mess things up with our money!”

The lieutenant governor smiled, “Perhaps sir. These are trivial things. What if, God forbid, things were as they are in Europe?”

“Not here, sir; this is Turkey! It’s in your hands. Thankfully, your soldiers and your police are here. What are you afraid of? Ah, I should be the government.”

“What would you do?” asked the lieutenant governor.

“Hang a few of ‘em . . .”

“Oooh . . .in order for our government to play referee between employers and employees . . .well, I mean to say . . .”

The factory owner wasn’t pleased by these words. It seemed just his luck that he’d obtained the most lenient of government officials. He didn’t understand a bit of this “referee” and “legal state” talk and was starting to resent it.

At this point the chief inspector entered the room and stood at attention across from the lieutenant governor. “What happening?” asked the lieutenant governor. The other, still at attention, perhaps under the influence of the factory owner, explained in a clipped fashion:

“The laborers have stopped, sir, as you know. They’re striking . . .We were told by phone and came here immediately.”

“We need their leaders . . .did you place them in custody?”

Such a thing had yet to be done, but it was necessary, so the inspector, lying through his teeth said, “We’ve put them under guard, sir.”

“Good. Bring them, let’s see them.”

The inspector left and headed to the weaving room. Hurriedly he said, “Look at me, Hasan Efendi, Süleyman Efendi, Ramazan Efendi[10] . . .I’m coming from the Lieutenant Governor’s side: we need the ringleaders. He asked us to put them under guard: I said we had . . .There’s a blonde guy in this building, a smartass . . .get this guy and put him under guard.”

A sergeant, along with three police and a few guards, put Blond Mehmet and two of his friends under guard. The others exclaimed, “Why? Hey why? The guy doing the lockout, the guy committing the crime is over there, swinging his arms around, and you arrest us.”

“Who are you talking about? Who committed crimes? The factory owner’s son?”

“Yeah . . .he turned off the switch and dismissed us from work. It’s not us. You need to arrest him!”

“Him? Heaven forefend! He’s a big property owner. Does such ingratitude exist in the world? Thanks to him you’re getting a share of the wealth, you’re filling your bellies.”

The three friends shouted and called. Their tongues spun with the mention of rights, justice, and host of other topics. The other officers understood that they had gone down the wrong path, but the lieutenant governor had told them to “put the ringleaders under guard.” On account of this, it was required of them. “We’re not arresting you,” they said, “we’re only putting you under guard . . .We don’t have the authority to arrest . . . So the situation is like this . . .”

The factory owner’s son entered his father’s office angrily, “You’re annoyed sir. Are you still being harassed by these rebellious buggers?” He shook hands with the lieutenant governor.

“Well sir, do you know, we’re having a rough time here![11] They don’t respect the machines. They don’t respect the thread. They don’t work . . .And now with this eight-hour business they’re insisting on . . .In the past we’ve made offers—raises and shorter shifts to our workers. These are things we want too . . .Of course we also care for the welfare of workers. But there’s another reality . . .There’s unemployed people out there dying to work more hours for less pay. News piles on news. There’s this cost issue . . .we competing with European and American products. Competition, sure. . .we’ve entered a free market revolution. How will we compete after? It will require that we close our factories, perhaps. Nevertheless, we’re generally happy with our workers. Among them a few are out of place . . .We know the majority of them are good . . .however, there’s a few rotten apples. Do you know what they’ve just done? There’s this Blonde Mehmet. He got on top of the machine and shouted, ‘Friends, let’s stop. Until they do what we say, we will stop working!’ In a mob, the workers left the shop . . .Because of this we’re calling on you, your honor. We’re facing destitution.”

The lieutenant governor, after listening calmly, explained, “Dealing with this type of problem is the responsibility of our state. They’re also citizens . . .we should also listen to them . . .isn’t that true, sir?”

“Your right, doubtlessly, but . . .don’t you know that . . .”

“Think . . .what if, God forbid, things were as they are in Europe?”

“This isn’t Europe, sir.”

“It could be. Between lies a hundred, a hundred and fifty year difference. Thankfully though, our century is the century of the plane, the century of the atom bomb . . .this distance can be closed quickly . . .it’s hard to imagine, but . . .Think of Ataturk’s revolution! What a dizzying breakthrough that was! Because of that, our noble nation can overcome this distance. Consequently, in disagreements like this, it is necessary to accustom oneself to the state’s role as a referee . . .”

The factory owner and his son looked at each other. Seeing this look, the lieutenant governor said, “This isn’t to say that their unpleasant actions will be looked on happily, with eyes shut tight . . .Certainly never! Our country is a legal and just country. The rights of those people entitled to a right, should never be violated by those with no right. Thus sir, because our state has the honor of being a just and righteous state, it has the role of establishing a balance between its citizens . . .”

There was a knock at the door and, a moment later, the chief inspector entered, “I have brought the suspects sir!”

“Where are they?”

“Here, outside the door. We have them under guard.”

“Splendid. I’ll call the prosecutor’s office. Will you take them to the courthouse . . .Order has been restored inside?”

“Yes, sir.”

Are the others returning to work?”

“Re . . .re . . .returning, sir, yes, they’re returning . . . If you want—”

“No. Go keep an eye on them now.” He took the receiver in his hand.

The prosecutor with his shiny, brilliantine-haired was a small, but hard-looking man. A little earlier he’d bought an automatic lighter and was smiling softly. When the phone rang, he picked up his receiver, “Helloo . . .yes, assistant prosecutor . . .here, sir. Ha, yes, sir. They were informed . . .They’re being sent? A strike? Wow! With pleasure, sir . . .”

He hung up the phone. Beside him, at a table covered with papers, was his perpetually working friend to whom he said, “These sons-of-bitches think this is Italy or France.”

“What’s that?” said the friend raising his head—he was heavy, but with a soft aspect.

“Factory laborers . . .went on strike.”

“How’d it go?”

“As usual . . .they went on strike . . .left their stations . . .the boss informed the police. They took the ringleaders into custody, anyway they’ll be coming here.”

“Will you arrest them?”

“I suppose because . . . .it’s a strike . . .the lieutenant governor called. They can’t be allowed to get any big ideas. They need to be crushed immediately. We know how France is being brought down from within nowadays!”

The other prosecutor again turned his head to his papers. Much could be inferred from his silence and the fear with which he said, “Doubtlessly. Only, there’s one point that surprises me: They haven’t realized yet where all this bravery will get them?”

“It’ll become clear . . .anyway, we’ll certainly explain . . .”

On the wall, the large clock started to loudly strike four in the afternoon.



[1] There’s been controversy in Turkey recently surrounding Steinbeck, as the Izmir Education Directorate’s Investigation and Evaluation Commision has been considering whether or not to ban censor certain portions of Of Mice and Men that it deems to be immoral. (“’Fareler ve İnsanlar’a sansür talebi!,” Radikal, 1/2/13) This has prompted the Turkish Ministers of Culture and Education to criticize the commission—something of a rarity these days, when government officials have been calling for bans on everything from Brad Pitt movies to popular Turkish television shows. (“Books are to read, says the education minister,” Hurriyet Daily News, 1/11/13)
[2] See Asım Karaömerlioğlu, “Peasants in Early Turkish Literature,” East European Quarterly, 26 (2), June 2002 and Guzine Dino and Joan Grimbert, “The Turkish Peasant Novel, or the Anatolian Theme,” World Literature Today, 60 (2), Spring 1986.
[3] Much of this is from Orhan Kemal’s Official Website.
[4] Orhan Kemal, “Grev,” Grev, Istanbul: Everest Yayınları, 2007 [1954], pp. 1-13.
[5] Brian Mello, “Political Process and the Development of Labor Insurgency in Turkey, 1945–80,” Social Movement Studies, 6 (3), December 2007, p. 212.
[6] Ibid. p. 214.
[7] An incredible amount of thanks is due to Ilkem Kayican, who helped me with the first half, and Izel Sulam for all his help with the difficult idioms and Ottoman phrases that fill the second half of this story.
[8] The joke is actually playing on the similarity in Turkish between “service” and “shadow” (saye).
[9] Divan poetry is the general term for the poetry of the Ottoman Empire. Nedim (1681-1730) is considered one of its great practitioners. Read a bit about it HERE. (Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kapakli, The Age of the Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)
[10] “Effendi” basically means “sir.” But, since its paired with the first name, translating it as such sounds awkward.
[11] This literally should be translated as: “the milk we nurse from our mothers is coming out our noses!”