Renown Turkish Writer and PEN International Board Member Burhan Sönmez’s autobiographical essay first published in the anthology Tell Me Your Name (Bana Adını Söyle)
Birth. They called him “Tahir.” That was the name of his parents’ relative Uncle Tahir. To tell the truth, everyone in the village was related. After that day Uncle Tahir lived for another twenty years, until he collapsed to the ground during the harvest.
At the age of 3 days. They called him “Burhan.” At his mother’s request they changed his name of three days. Uncle Tahir had a small son by the name of Burhan. They gave him his name, “so the two children can grow up together,” they said. The two Burhans’ name multiplied, in the years that followed their number in the village totaled a dozen. On the day that Uncle Tahir died the two Burhans crouched down before an adobe wall and wept together. The sun was scorching.
At the age of 5. They called him “Birko.” Uncle Hasan was a mischievous man who enjoyed teasing children. He was like Aesop. He had the same intelligence and humor, and a similar appearance. He would gather all the children in the village and search inside each of their heads in turn. As though trying to work out whether a watermelon was ripe or not, he would take the children’s heads between his two palms, tap them with his middle finger and listen to the sound that came from inside. He would pronounce verdicts such as “it’s not ripe yet,” “it’s still a bit raw,” or “it’s empty inside.” His own son’s head was the only one that had anything inside it. And one of the things he loved was changing the pronunciation of the name of the child whose head he was examining. As he tapped the head of Burhan with his finger, trying to ascertain whether it was full or empty inside, he would call him “Birko! Birko!” The name caught on in the children’s language.
The village fountain had been newly built. It wasn’t just children and brides that gathered around it, but old people too, all savoring the cool gushing water. One benign summer evening, Uncle Hasan, who was sitting on the white stones beside the fountain, summoned the children and spoke to them seriously, warning them against their elder brothers with left-wing tendencies. “Don’t listen to your elder brothers. They shun religion, they doubt the existence of God. Young people today are odd.” Raising his hand in the air, he tried to touch the fine breeze. “Look” he said, “can you see the wind? God is the same. He’s there even though we can’t see Him.” Twenty years later, when Uncle Hasan grew old and placed himself entirely in the hands of God in his sickbed, Birko said he believed in his voice, in the wind that he touched, and in the name he had given him. He said nothing more.
At the age of 7. “Say a name,” they said. Instead of a name, he said “Negirdan.”
It was a hot summer’s day in Haymana Plain. His father was driving a tractor in the field beside the stream, he had opened the bundle his mother had prepared and was sitting in a corner, eating. The bundle contained fried filo pastry, tomatoes, and cheese. Once he had eaten his fill he went and stood in front of the tractor; smiling, he raised his hand. His father stopped the tractor and sat him on the tractor beside him. Thrushes flew around them. The dust raised by the plough had flown into the air and was floating towards the stream. The tractor, leaving grooves in the soil as it advanced, jolted as it turned the far corner of the field a few moments later, and Burhan, who couldn’t hold on tightly enough, lost his balance and fell to the ground. The moment he fell, both his legs broke. His left shoulder fractured. His father didn’t know what to do, he panicked. He stood up to help his son. Unaware that he had to step on the brake, he thought he had stopped the tractor that was skidding in the deep ditch in the corner of the field. The tractor suddenly accelerated. The large rear wheel drove over Burhan’s stomach. For a moment he couldn’t breathe, his eyes stared into the void. His eldest uncle, Osman, who was chatting beside the stream with the shepherd from the neighboring village, came running. They took Burhan in their arms. They boarded the tractor and drove to the nearby village, Palancɪ. It being Sunday was a stroke of luck. The village bus was there. The bus that did the rounds of the villages in Haymana Plain every morning at daybreak, picking up passengers and transporting them to the city, did not work on Sundays but was there waiting for them. They boarded the bus and went to the town of Polatlɪ. They took him to a doctor they knew. The doctor said it was a life and death situation and that they had to take the child to Ankara immediately. As Burhan writhed in pain and cried, he trained one ear on what the doctor was saying to his father. “When you go to the hospital in Ankara don’t say it was an accident with a tractor. They’ll put you in prison. You haven’t even got a license. Say he fell down the stairs.”
On the way to his operation in Ankara, after which he would spend thirty-three days in hospital and have seventeen stitches in his stomach, he was surrounded by doctors and nurses. They smiled and cracked jokes to try and make him feel better. One of the doctors asked casually how the accident had happened and who had done that to him. He asked him for a name. Burhan said “Negirdan.” Whilst saying the first word that came into his head he thought it was a name. The doctor didn’t understand. “What did you say?” Burhan paused, hesitated, thought again. He remembered what the doctor in Polatlɪ had said to his father. With great effort he completed his sentence, “I fell down the negirdan.” A nurse intervened, laughing. “He’s talking in Kurdish. He fell down the stairs.”
Burhan remembered that moment years later. At the age when he had started to become fluent in Turkish, when he was talking, why hadn’t he remembered the word “stairs” that the doctor who had warned his father had said in Turkish, and that he had understood and retained? Given that it wasn’t a word in his memory but an image with steps, had he uttered the word that best corresponded to that image, or his favorite word? “Negirdan.” A flight of stairs connecting languages and worlds.
Those who believe in destiny think there is something auspicious in every accident. If Burhan had not been crushed under the tractor that day, and if he had returned from the field at sundown with his father and uncle, they would have been ambushed in the stream at the entrance to the village and killed.
The previous year the village had been split into two and there had been an almighty feud. The feud had gone on for months, in the village and in the town, people had been stabbed, bullets had rained down on houses. The men from the opposing side had been awaiting the moment for vengeance and had eventually laid their trap that day. They had hidden in the stream bed at the entrance to the village and waited with their rifles and pistols. The sun had sunk behind the hills, the stars had come out, the air had cooled. But there was no one about. News of the accident in the field reached the village the following day. Those were times when feudal justice prevailed. Even after they discovered what had happened, their enemies did not tell the authorities that Burhan had been mangled by a tractor driven by his father. In the steppe, death and revenge trod their own path, advancing in accordance with their own decorum.
Was there really something auspicious in every accident? Burhan had been the one who had wanted to go to the field that day. Even though he slept soundly in the summer and woke up late, for some reason that morning he had got up early and insisted that his father take him with him. There was a Kurdish tale his mother told him: “Xal û Xarzê.” Uncle and Nephew. The small boy in the tale could foresee all the dangers awaiting his uncle and saved him each time by endangering his own life. Burhan thought he was like the boy in the tale and that by getting mangled by the tractor in the field that day he had saved his father and uncle from the ambush.
At the age of 15. They called him “Çiko.” Everyone thought the name came from Chico, Zagor the comic book hero’s best friend. The comic book Chico was fat, while Burhan was very puny. He reminded everyone of the custom of giving people opposite nicknames, like calling a hulking big man Flea. But that wasn’t how the story went. Because at secondary school he was skinny and looked younger than his age, one of his friends called him by the name of a brand of babies’ dolls, Chicco, and the name had stuck.
He was in love with a girl. They were in the same class. Burhan gave the girl the pens he was awarded at school, first in the short story, then in the poetry competitions, and only managed to declare himself when he got into university and was set to leave for Istanbul. They kissed in the hall of an apartment. “Çiko,” said the girl, “kiss me again.” He remembered the fountain in the village. The children played around it all day, staying there, sweating, until the sun set. When they grew tired and thirsty, they placed their mouths on the spout of the fountain and drank eagerly. The sun grew, the world grew, life became infinite. When he kissed his first lover, he remembered the taste that gushed out of the spout of the fountain.
Time flowed rapidly, like the water from the fountain. Two years later he was arrested in Istanbul. During the time of the military coup and martial law torture and fear were rife. After he was released, he went to his town, on a day when the streets were covered in snow, and met his lover. “Darker days are on the way. I may go underground, or I may go into hiding in the mountains. I may return one day, or I may die and never return.” Big cities, small towns, and ideals bound by desire made love grow in the mist, but eroded it too. Years later, each time he recalled that naïve but serious declaration that many a young man made in those days, he felt as if an open knife blade was plunging into his heart. His lover’s voice saying “Ah Çiko” and her tears as they kissed for the last time constantly replayed in his mind, the village fountain murmuring as it flowed, the sun shimmering in its water, young brides chatting happily at the waterside. A black-haired boy would come and place his mouth on the spout of the fountain and drink the cool water eagerly.
At the age of 19. “Do you know what your name means?” they said. He was at a branch of the Istanbul Security, the Gayrettepe Center, notorious for its brutal torture. He didn’t remember how many days it had been. They were removed from the cells on the ground floor and taken upstairs. Their blindfolds were removed two by two and they were shoved into a room. This time they were not in a torture chamber but in a large room. It reminded him of an ordinary government office. There were a lot of tables. Clerks were working at their typewriters, like a scene from a Kafka novel they were leafing through files and writing things down. Burhan looked at his friend, who, like him, was standing against the wall. Dogan. He too was from the Law Faculty. The oppression of torture was written on his face. A fairly old man sat at the table on one side of the room, behind a typewriter. Burhan thought he looked like one of the village notables from his father’s mosque. He had an honest face. “Burhan” said the man, “Do you know what your name means?” This bore no relation to the questions they had been asking him for days while he was being tortured. Everyone knew what his name meant. Moses parted the seas, Christ resurrected a man from the dead, Mohammed divided the moon into two. Miraculous signs that were regarded as proof of prophethood were known as Burhan. The elderly man counselled them. He told them to love their religion and their state and not to oppose either. His voice was so gentle; after he finished work in the evening, he would buy two loaves of still warm bread from the bakery and a bit of akide candy from the grocers, greet his acquaintances in the neighborhood with a smile, and then joyfully hug his granddaughter, who would be there to meet him at his front door. But what sort of a place was this world? What sort of a creature was a human? The screams coming from outside the room did not stop for a moment. The sounds ringing out from a distant torture chamber blended into the typewriter sounds here. The wall Burhan and Dogan were standing in front of was drenched with blood. The concrete under their feet was stained red with blood. Couldn’t the elderly man hear the screams? Couldn’t he see the horror that was all around? What kind of a place was this world and what kind of a creature was a human?
At the age of 33. They called him “Mister Sönmez!” He was sitting in the waiting room of a treatment center for torture victims in London called Medical Foundation, later changed to Freedom from Torture. It was crowded. Silence reigned. People from all four corners of the globe were present. From the Philippines, from Chile, from Kenya, from Iran. They were white, black, red, yellow. Some had a missing eye, others had only one arm. They were waiting with the memory of an old wound etched in their mind. They did not speak, they would occasionally let their gaze wander and stare into strange faces and, for a moment, get carried away by the feeling that the world consisted only of suffering. Although they did not understand one another’s language, they understood one another’s sorrow.
When his turn came, they called out his name. “Mister Sönmez!” Whose name was that? How many names had he had, how many places and times had he traversed? He raised his weary eyelids and his head that ached with lack of sleep and entered Doctor John Rundle’s consulting room with heavy steps. They had an interpreter. He told the doctor what had happened to him the previous year. About how the police had thrown him to the ground and beaten and beaten and beaten, then left him there and went away. About how, when one of the police officers saw his hand that was lying in a pool of blood twitch, he had cried “he’s not dead yet!” and the policemen had returned and beaten him and beaten him and beaten him again, and then left him for dead. He told him about a July day in the center of Ankara. About how the people in the street had screamed in terror, about how a policeman had shouted out to the crowd, “You either love it or leave it!” He told him how his face was smashed, and how his nose, forehead, and skull were broken. He told him how he had regained consciousness, although they had left a corpse behind them, how he had had fifteen stitches in his head and been bedridden for months. Headaches and insomnia were a greater burden than any pain, and much crueler. He told him about not being able to sleep at night, being unable to grasp what he read, becoming withdrawn, losing interest in life, how the world had become meaningless. He went to the doctor every week and, after a while, was able to express himself in his own English, without any need for an interpreter. Doctor John was an elderly man. He was a friend to the poor and the oppressed. He was interested in flying planes. Any time they had left over from pain and illness Doctor John and Burhan spent talking about planes. They dreamed of flying together one day. Their dreams made it possible for them to laugh. Time flowed slowly for the sick Burhan and rapidly for the elderly doctor. They didn’t get what they wanted, Doctor John did not live long enough for them to make their dream of flying together come true.
At the age of 44. They called him “writer.” He wrote a novel called North which contained the following couplets from Zarathustra:
What is the strongest Holy Word?
What is the most victorious?
The most glorious?
Is the strongest Holy Word;
The most victorious;
The most glorious. . .
At first all he dreamed of was being a poet. Time led him down a different path. When he migrated overseas, grappled with his mind day and night, talked to the walls when he wasn’t even able to breathe anymore, he constructed dreams during sleepless nights and wrote down the stories he collected in his head. A.H. Tanpɪnar was right when he said that writing brought health to the mind. When a door closed on you, instead of forcing it, the best thing to do was open another door.
At the age of 3 days. They called him “Bran.” Life meant always going back to the beginning, starting anew each time, in a different way, with a different name. When he was three days old, they didn’t actually call him Burhan, but Bran, with a Kurdish lilt.
In Central Anatolia, which was the destiny of the Kurds who lived side by side with the Turks in the steppe, they were themselves but also resembled the other. Every language had another language hidden inside it; every name bore other names within. The only thing of which people could be certain in this world was that, and death. All that would follow after he was named Bran on the third day was death.
Because there was more than one Bran in the village, the women added his mother’s name and called him “Brani Têlê.” The men referred to him by his father’s name, “Brani Tawo.” The difference between the worlds of men and women was actually nothing more than clinging to different branches of the tree of life. The rest was the water flowing endlessly from the fountain, which came from infinity and went to infinity. Like time, the cool water twisted and curved as it wended its way, gushing into the soul of night and day. A child who never grew up played beside the fountain, fluttering like a bird in the sunshine, and when he was drenched in sweat and thirsty, he placed his mouth on the spout of the fountain. The shimmering water trickled down from his lips to his neck. That black-haired child did not know that he would yearn for the taste of that fountain for the rest of his life.
Death. When they said “He’s dead,” what could they write on his gravestone? Which name was vast enough for death and which words could endure time?
Translated from the Turkish by Ümit Hussein
* Included in the anthology Tell Me Your Name (Bana Adını Söyle) in which writers tell the story of their names. (Istanbul, 2014, Yapi Kredi Yayinlari)