The Most Famous Turkish Writer You Don’t Know


When Sabahattin Ali’s body was found, head beaten in, near the Bulgarian border, he’d been dead for nearly two months.[1]

The year was 1948, a decade after the death of Ataturk and nearly a quarter of a century into the Republican People’s Party’s single party rule. For the past several years, Sabahattin Ali had been publishing the magazine Markopaşa along with Aziz Nesin. The two men were to the left of the government and the magazine’s contents had earned them repeated prosecutions. Ali had already spent time in jail in the early 1930s for a poem criticizing Ataturk:

News From the Country[2]

Hey, those who are sticking with the motherland
Have cloudy streams become clear?
Has that blood flowing through the gutters been heard?
Have great goals been arrived at?

Are monuments to God still worshipped?
Are the parliamentarians acting sycophantic?
Are there ploughs in the hands of the villagers?
Have the gaunt oxen been revived?

In a clear sentence, say “I am the Truth,” if you want
Aren’t they still worshiping old pimps?
İsmet didn’t go to jail yet?[3]
Has Bald Ali been decapitated?[4]

For this poem he spent almost a year in jail. Now, facing the renewed possibility of prison, Ali decided that the time had come to leave Turkey. The government, however, would not issue a passport. The man whom Ali hired to smuggle him across the border, Ali Ertekin, turned on him and left him for dead after the two had a falling out. [5] Whether the killer had been working directly for the ruling party remains unclear—though the party’s current leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, seems to think so.[6]

I began reading Sabahattin Ali, not for these political reasons, but rather because he is my students’ preferred author. Whereas they hardly register Yaşar Kemal, don’t care much for Elif Safak, and actively dislike Orhan Pamuk—the Turkish authors most famous internationally—multiple students claim Sabahattin Ali to be their favorite.

In addition to his explicitly political writing, he wrote a large amount of fiction—both novels and short stories. Though much of it was highly political in content, it tended to be embedded in well-drawn characters and situations. His most famous book, Kuyucaklı Yusuf, tells the story of a young peasant boy butting violently up against the social hierarchies of his small village.[7]

It also helps that Yapı Kredi Publishers has recently re-issued his complete works in a series of cheap paperback editions. The following translation is taken from Değirmen [The Mill], a collection of his stories first published in 1935. As always, any awkwardness in the translation is my fault[8]:


By Sabahattin Ali

Kâmil the Zither Player was still in the garden café an hour after receiving his daily wages from the owner. Muhsine the Singer was thoroughly plastered, ripe for hitting on.[9] Kamil was already unable to see the tip of his nose.

The waiters were slowly putting out the radium lights. Beneath the weeping willow at the edge of the garden, a guard and two policemen were trying to pick up and remove an apprentice shoemaker who was falling over drunk. When the owner ran over for the bill, the drunk apprentice seemed as though he’d collapse again. With his mouth drooping to one side, he muttered incomprehensible nonsense. But the owner wasn’t fooled by this trickery. Grabbing the kid by the collar and removing his cap seemed to sober him up. After quite some time searching his pockets, he paid, was released by the police, and left.

The owner returned to the café. Kâmil and Muhsine were sitting across from each other at table they’d pulled into the light emanating from the café. There was a small bottle of rakı in front of them. Kâmil looked straight ahead, while she murmured a little song to herself before unexpectedly smiling. This smile moreover brought out a strange stretching in her facial muscles.

Kâmil was thinking: Would the owner take Muhsine and escort her as far as the hotel without scramming; what should he do tonight so that they might leave together? Then, most important: What should the two of us do? . . .Running around the streets at midnight would alarm the police. How angry it made him . . .His wife’s scrawny, yellow face came to mind: She’s sitting at the hotel now, looking out the window at the street, waiting for me, he thought. He winced and, raising his hands to his face, and rubbed it in confusion.

Momentarily, the café owner came. “Come on now,” he said to Muhsine. She got up, Kâmil too . . .They walked through the garden. The path was sandy and rustled. Kâmil tried to carry his black zither case tightly under his arm as he periodically collided with trees and swayed as if he were about to fall over.

After five or ten steps along the road, a car passed. The café owner motioned with his hand and the car stopped: Muhsine got in first. The café owner pushed out Kâmil, who was trying to follow her in. The car continued on.

Kâmil stood swaying for a moment on the road, thinking. He wasn’t particularly angry—most nights were like this. It was customary for him to be alone every night; pushed out of a car as soon as his stepped in, on the street in a moment of deep thought. Swaying, he headed back to his hotel.

A white shadow hung from the four-floor hotel’s top window.

Kâmil shuddered. From above a hoarse voice shouted, “Gipsy! . . .Dirty gipsy! The café garden’s been empty for an hour. You’re still chasing after that “Muhsine” whore, aren’t you?”

Raising his head, Kâmil lost his balance and went sprawling on the ground. Using his zither as support, he got to his feet: “Why are you shouting at midnight, huh! You’re gonna pay for it . . .”

“Pay for it? You go around like a dog chasing a car. You think I don’t see it? You godless, faithless gipsy!”

From above, a crying child’s voice could be heard. Kâmil hurled curses and, failing to hold himself, went tumbling on the ground. While he picked up his black zither case and tried to stick it under a chair, shrieks rained down on the street. “Don’t come up here Filth! . . .Don’t stick yourself in here! . .Don’t come!”

He wanted that white head to go back inside, but as she pulled back, she struck the window, knocking out the support which kept the window open. The heavy frame came down on her with all its weight. All Kâmil heard was the sound of shattering glass.

Quickly he climbed the stairs. The hotel servant was used to all this and didn’t take it seriously. Getting out of bed in his underwear, he opened his window and hurried back to bed.

Snarling, Kâmil entered the room. He leaned his zither against a wall.

A hammock was strung between the foot of the bed and the window.

A child of about two was sitting in the hammock crying as if he were participating in the fight.

Kâmil had forgotten the sound of shattered glass. He came over to the child, “Shh my dear, shh my darling.”

Kneeling beside the hammock he started to rock the child; in a drawling voice meanwhile, he sang a lullaby and mumbled confused things.

“Ah that wife who will be your mother . . .Ah . . .Whoever wished that scrawny bitch on me . . .She’s your problem and mine . . .Eeee . . .I should sleep . . .Come on sleep . . .la la . . .lullaby . . .” Then he started to say in makam style[10]:

One day I may go to Istanbul, la la . . .
I will escape that wife, la la . . .
Then you will be free and I will be too, la la . . .

Suddenly he stopped, the room’s quiet surprised him. His wife wasn’t screaming, coming over pulling her hair . . .He rose with an odd fear . . .His eyes traveled the room. The child had also grown quiet . . .His wife was still looking out the window. On seeing this Kâmil gave a low laugh, “What are you looking at, huh? What’s outside?” Trying to open his half closed eyes, he gave another laugh. But he cut it halfway. His eyes opened fully. He took another step forward.

His wife was kneeling in front of the window, her head still outside. Kâmil hadn’t noticed the fallen, shattered glass. But he noticed the blood covering the ground. This blood started at the windowsill and twisted down the wall like a river. Kâmil didn’t make a sound; slowly he pulled back. Sitting on a basket full of dirty clothes he looked over there for a long time . . .Until morning he sat and looked . . .


[1] Levent Cantek. Markopaşa: Bir Mizah ve Muhalefet Efsanesi. Istanbul: İlestişim Yayınları, 2001, p. 166.
[2] Available HERE.
[3] Probably a reference to İsmet İnönü, Ataturk’s successor and the leader of Turkey from at least 1938-1950.
[4] Most likely this refers to “Bald” Ali Çetinkaya (1878-1949), an ally of Ataturk who organized an anti-Allied Power resistance organization during the post WWI occupation and fought the Greeks in İzmir and Ayvalık before becoming a member of parliament. The implied criticism here may relate to his time serving as a judge on the Turkish high court during which he helped shut down the only opposition party and punish those accused of attempting to assassinate Ataturk in Izmir.
[5] “Sabahattin Ali’nin katilinden itiraf,” Radikal, 6/13/12.
[6] “Kılıçdaroğlu: “Sabahattin Ali’yi CHP öldürdü,” Youtube. Accessed 12/30/12 and “Kılıçdaroğlu admits writer Sabahattin Ali was killed by CHP,” Today’s Zaman, 2/10/12.
[7] Good descriptions are contained in Asım Karaömerlioğlu, “Peasants in Early Turkish Literature,” East European Quarterly, 26 (2), June 2002, pp. 135-43 and Guzine Dino and Joan Grimbert, “The Turkish Peasant Novel, or the Anatolian Theme,” World Literature Today, 60 (2), Spring 1986, pp. 268-9
[8] Though I should thank Nurşen Karabulut for doubling-checking some portions that confused me.
[9] And thanks to Izel Sulam for help with this translation.
[10] Makam is a style of classical Turkish music. Read more HERE and HERE. Listen to some HERE