It was cold in our cell. While I was telling the Doctor my story, Kamo the Barber lay curled on the bare concrete floor. We had no covers, we warmed ourselves by huddling together, like puppies. Because time had stood still for several days we had no idea if it was day or night. We knew what pain was, every day we relived the horror that clamped our hearts as we were led away to be tortured. In that short interval where we braced ourselves for pain, humans and animals, the sane and the mad, angels and demons were all the same. As the grating of the iron gate echoed through the corridor, Kamo the Barber sat up. “They’re coming for me,” he said.
I got up, went to the cell door and peered through the small grille. As I tried to make out who was coming from the direction of the iron gate, my face was illuminated by the light in the corridor. I couldn’t see anyone, they were probably waiting at the entrance. The light dazzled me and I blinked. I glanced at the cell opposite, wondering whether the young girl they had shoved in there today like a wounded animal was dead or alive.
When the sounds in the corridor grew faint I sat down again and placed my feet on top of the Doctor’s and Kamo the Barber’s. We pressed our bare feet closer together for warmth, and kept our hot breath near one another’s faces. Waiting too was an art. We listened wordlessly to the muffled clinking and rattling from the other side of the wall.
The Doctor had been in the cell for two weeks when they threw me in with him.
I was a mess of blood. When I came to the next day, I saw he hadn’t stopped at cleaning my wounds, he had covered me with his jacket as well. Every day, different interrogation teams marched us away blindfolded and brought us back hours later, semiconscious. But Kamo the Barber had been waiting for three days. Since he had been inside they had neither taken him away for interrogation nor mentioned his name.
At first the cell, measuring one by two meters, had seemed small, but we had grown used to it. The floor and the walls were concrete, the door was of gray iron. It was bare inside. We sat on the floor. When our legs grew numb we stood up and paced around the cell. Sometimes when we raised our heads at the sound of a scream in the distance we examined one another’s faces in the dim light that filtered in from the corridor. We passed the time sleeping or talking. We were permanently cold and growing thinner by the day.
Again we heard the rusty grating of the iron gate. The interrogators were leaving without taking anyone. We listened, waiting, to be certain. The sounds died out when the door closed, leaving the corridor deserted. “The motherfuckers didn’t take me, they left without taking anyone,” said Kamo the Barber between deep breaths. Raising his head, he gazed at the dark ceiling, then curled up and lay down on the floor.
The Doctor told me to go on with my story.
Just as I was launching into my tale with, “The two nuns, in the thick of the snow…” Kamo the Barber suddenly gripped my arm. “Listen kid, can’t you change that story and tell us something decent? It’s fucking frigid in here as it is, isn’t it bad enough freezing on this concrete, without having to tell stories of snow and blizzards as well?”
Did Kamo see us as his friends or his enemies? Was he angry because we told him he had been ranting in his sleep for the past three days? Is that why he glared at us with such contempt? If they took him away blindfolded and ripped his flesh to ribbons, if they hanged him for hours with his arms outstretched, he might learn to trust us. For now he had to make do with tolerating our words and our beaten bodies. The Doctor held his shoulder gently. “Sleep well, Kamo,” he said, coaxing him to lie down again.
“No one had ever seen such heat in Istanbul,” I started again.
“It’s actually a long story but I’ll be brief. When the two nuns came out of Saint George’s Hospital in Karaköy in the dead of night to go to the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua to break the good news, there were scores of birds chirping happily under the eaves. The buds on the Judas trees were about to burst into bloom in the middle of winter, the stray dogs to melt and evaporate in the heat. Have you ever known it to be as scorching as the desert in the dead of winter, Doctor? It’s actually a long story but I’ll be brief. One of the nuns staggering in the intense heat was young, the other old. When they had almost reached the Galata Tower the young nun said to her companion, a man has been following us all the way up the hill. The older nun said there could only be one reason why a man would follow them in a deserted street in the dark: rape. They ascended the hill with their hearts in their mouths. Not a soul was in sight. The sudden heat wave had made everyone rush to Galata Bridge and bask on the shores of the Golden Horn, and now that it was late at night the streets were deserted. The young nun said, the man is getting closer, he’ll have caught up with us before we get to the top. Then let’s run, said the older nun. Their long skirts and cumbersome habits notwithstanding, they sprinted past sign painters, music sellers, and bookshops. All the shops were closed. Looking behind her, the young nun said, the man is running too. They were already out of breath, sweat streaming down their backs. The older nun said, let’s separate before he catches up with us, that way at least one of us will get away. Each of them ran into a different street, with no idea of what would befall them. As the young nun dashed to and fro through the streets she thought she had better stop looking behind her. Remembering the Bible story, she fixed her gaze on the narrow streets to avoid sharing the fate of those who stopped for one last glimpse of the city from the distance. She ran in the darkness, constantly changing direction. Those who had said today was cursed were right. The mediums who took the heat wave in the middle of winter to be a portent of disaster had spoken on television, the neighborhood idiots had spent the entire day beating tins. Realizing after a while that she could only hear the echo of her own footsteps, the young nun slowed down at a corner. As she leaned against a wall in an unfamiliar street, it dawned on her that she was lost. The streets were deserted. Accompanied by a dog gamboling under her feet, she crept along very slowly, following the line of the walls. It’s actually a long story but I’ll be brief. When the young nun eventually reached the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua she found out that the other nun had not returned. She lost no time in relating her misfortunes, throwing the church into an uproar. Just as a search party was about to go out to look for the older nun, the gate opened and in she rushed, out of breath, her hair disheveled. She sank onto a stool, took several deep breaths, and drank two cups of water. Unable to contain her curiosity, the young nun demanded to know what had happened. The older nun said, I ran from one street to another, but I couldn’t shake the man off. Eventually I realized there was no escape. The young nun asked, so what did you do? I stopped at a corner, when I stopped the man stopped too. And then what happened? I lifted my skirt up. And then what? The man pulled his pants down. And then? I started running again. And then what happened? It’s obvious. A woman with her skirt up can run faster than a man with his pants down.”
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.
Excerpted with permission from Istanbul Istanbul, Burhan Sönmez, translated by Ümit Hussein, Speaking Tiger.