The Wall by Sabahattin Ali, translated by Daniel Koehler


I served quite some time as an inmate in a coastal prison surrounded by ramparts. The sound of the waves breaking against the thick walls would echo through the cells and evoke distant voyages. Seabirds, their feathers dripping with water, would rise from behind the walls, blink in puzzlement at the grating, and fly away as quickly as they had come.

 

For a prisoner, the greatest kindness is to lock him away in a dungeon cut off from the world. What truly crushes a man is to be close enough to freedom to touch it, and yet to know how far it is. To listen to the sea that could carry you to complete and utter freedom, but then to fix your eyes on the massive walls that separate you from that sea and force you to see it only in your dreams; is that not true torment? One man sees a bird swoop down to eat the breadcrumbs at his feet, take a few steps within the confines that they share, and then, with one flap of its wings, fly over the walls to embrace its liberty. Another is reminded of the freedom to draw breath, but no more. Is the second not more content?

 

Yet in my prison, every object and every sound seemed to have been created to offer a fleeting glimpse of freedom, and then to snatch it away. The small trees that grew on the walls, coupled with the yellow flowers that drooped from the moss-covered rocks, served as a painful reminder that I was trapped in captivity just as spring bloomed. The clouds that floated like swans across the vast sky deprived me of my one consolation: my ability to forget.

 

And everything that was discussed here related to the past, to the world outside. It was as if life ceased when a man entered this place, or his memory failed to capture it. Whenever someone did discuss our existence here, he would do this so halfheartedly that his listeners simply wanted to silence him to end his misery.

 

However, one gray-haired prisoner did tell me about an incident that had taken place during his first years in the prison. Perhaps he was able to speak so comfortably because it related more to the world outside than the world inside. It was the story of an incomplete escape.

 

But first, let us turn to the walls of the prison.

 

The walls surrounded all four sides of the courtyard. On the side that was away from the shore, they were thick, and there were several of them, one behind the other. Once, this place had been the palace of the city. Today, these pallid, unshaven, vacant wretches wandered around this garden; centuries before, the young courtesans of the harem would have done the same, their eyes cast to the skies, the sound of the sea in their ears and, perhaps, the same hunger for freedom in their hearts. These thick walls had been made not only to shield them from prying eyes, but also to protect them from enemies.

 

These walls had now begun to collapse here and there, and the stones had been hidden from view by the thousand types of plant now growing on them. On the Western corner, work had begun on their demolition. Apparently, new single-person cells were to be built there.

 

 

One day, I was watching the demolition with the same gray-haired prisoner I mentioned before. With each blow of the pickaxe, chunks of mortar would come tumbling down. This wall was eight metres thick, and destroying it took an extraordinarily long time. This sort of entertainment, if you can call it that, had not been seen for years, so those prisoners trustworthy or long-serving enough to be allowed to come to this side of the exterior courtyard sat and watched the events unfold from morning until evening.

 

The wall had already been half demolished when the gray-haired prisoner next to me quietly leaned in towards my ear.

 

“There was a time when I planned to escape through this wall!” he said.

 

I looked at him in curiosity. He turned and walked towards the gnarled quince tree at the edge of the garden. We squatted side by side, and then, his eyes fixed on the wall that was crumbling before us, he recounted his story.

 

“Nine years ago, in my first year inside, there were wooden workshops at the bottom of this wall. Some of the prisoners worked on carpentry, wood carving, or making jewellery, and they had brokers sell their goods on the ships that came to the harbour. I’d been locked up together with a friend, and together, we had a few kurus sent from home and started to work in a workshop in front of that wall they’re demolishing. We’re quiet types, so the warden made sure we weren’t bothered. We kept a few kurus from the money we made to give to him. But the work we did and the money we made still weren’t enough for us to forget the world outside. Imagine! We were both twenty-two. We were up to all sorts of things when we were out there. When we were locked up for making trouble because of some whore, we were sure we wouldn’t spend more than a few days inside. But when they confirmed our sentence and we got fifteen years, we came to our senses. Well, actually, we lost our senses. But what are you going to do? Four walls on all four sides. We tried to cheer ourselves up. Maybe there’ll be a pardon, we thought. How many people end up serving the full sentence?

 

One day, we were boiling glue in a corner of the workshop. I slid a piece of firewood under the clay pot, and it knocked against one of the stones in the wall. It seemed as though the stone was loose. I moved the fire and the pot, and without waiting for the stone to cool, I gripped it. Some of the lime crumbled away, and then a piece of stone the size of a large loaf of bread fell to the ground. When I leaned over and looked into the hole, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Ahead in the distance, you could see a thin shaft of light. Straight away, I called my friend. He lay on the ground and took a look. Then, he turned to me.

 

‘It can’t be that difficult to get out through this hole. Let’s escape now!’ he said.

 

‘We’ll think about it,’ I said. We couldn’t go making careless mistakes. We didn’t manage to do any work for the rest of the day, and we spent it wandering around the workshop and the courtyard.

 

On some nights, if there was a lot to do, we could give the guard a few kurus and stay in the workshop. When the guard did his rounds of the ward, he would mark us as present. That evening, when the whistle blew and everyone went back to their wards, we pressed a twenty-five kurus coin and a bit of hashish into the guard’s hand. ‘So you two are going to get rich and make it out, eh?’ he joked, and then he turned and walked away. Until nightfall, we whiled away our time by chipping away at blocks of walnut wood to make clogs that, supposedly, were inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

 

After the nighttime prayer, I dragged the lamp over to the corner and removed the stone while my friend waited by the window to watch the guard on duty. Every night, that good-for-nothing Arab would smoke his stash and then fall asleep in the corner, but this time, he’d taken it into his head to have a good wander. I inched my way in through the hole. My gaze was fixed on the opening at the other end. There was no moonlight, so it was now glowing like a dark green beacon. I crawled a little bit further ahead. My back scraped against the rocks, and pieces of lime crumbled onto the back of my neck. After continuing for the length of two men, I reached a point where I felt less constricted. When I groped around and above, I realised I was in a spacious area, and, still feeling my way, I stood up.

 

This area was three paces wide and three paces long. Leaning against a wall, I breathed heavily. I’d worn myself out while crawling. I waited for a while, then there was a commotion and the hole darkened. At first, I got a fright, but when I looked, I saw my man was coming. I spoke softly, as if someone would hear us in this forgotten hollow.

 

‘Has the Arab guard even fallen asleep?’ I asked. He was still trying to make his way forward along the ground. ‘He must have,’ he said. ‘It’s been half an hour since he last did the rounds!’ He had more trouble crawling than I did. Eventually, he made it to where I was.

‘What sort of place is this?’ he immediately asked. He then ran his hands over the wall. ‘It’s all damp!’ he grumbled.

 

I reached out for him with one hand, and my fingers struck a leather bag. I then understood why he’d had so much trouble dragging himself along.

 

During the day, we’d hurried to find this bag, and to remain discreet, we’d only taken our own rations and put them inside. We might not see anyone for one or two days…

 

I’d already forgotten about this, but my friend hadn’t, and he’d brought the bag with him. ‘Come on,’ I said to him after he’d rested for a while. ‘You’ll manage!’ This time, he led the way and went ahead towards the opening, which was now coming closer. I lay down so I could go on behind him, but he suddenly stopped. ‘There’s no way through here!’ he said. As his head was near the opening, we feared that the gendarme patrolling the upper part of the fortress would hear us, and we were already speaking softly. On top of that, his voice was being muffled by the rocks and his clothes. I got up; he crawled his way back.

 

‘The opening suddenly got narrower. There’s a rock, and we have to loosen it. After that it widens up again!’ he said.

 

I passed through that tight space once again and returned to the workshop. I listened carefully for any noise from the garden; there was no sound of footsteps or the Arab’s cough. I turned up the lamp a little bit. After taking a hammer and chisel from the box, I returned.

After that, we took turns to enter the opening and do our work. We didn’t want to make noise, so we didn’t use the hammer at all, and we tried only using the chisel to chip away the mortar around the rock and budge it. There was barely half a metre between us and the opening that would lead us outside. ‘If that rock would just fall away!’ I thought.

 

My eyes were used to the darkness, so I could make out what was outside. The stones of the other wall were in front of me. But because those walls were completely ruined, it was easy to get through them. The boys from the town would even take their lambs and set them to roam there.                         After this happened, they had all of them repaired.

 

Both of us entered and exited like this three or four times. I made the final entry. After struggling for perhaps half an hour, the rock rolled down in front of me, together with a pile of plaster. I went mad with joy. Behind me, my friend heard the sounds and got impatient. I brought the rock back, clasping it tightly. As soon as I had placed it to one side, I jumped towards the opening.

 

But while I had been struggling with my work, I hadn’t even cast a glance outside. As I approached the opening, what did I see? The daybreak!

I slowly stuck out my head, and on the tower that was perhaps fifty paces ahead, I saw the shadow of the gendarme on duty.

 

Suddenly, I was drenched in sweat. I inched my way back.

 

‘We’re out of luck. We can’t run away!’ I said.

 

First, my friend laughed, then he dived into the opening himself. But after a short while, he returned as well. We stood face to face, and we could finally distinguish each other’s features.

‘Tonight is done. God willing, we’ll make it on another night!’ I said.

 

But after you’ve come so close, after you’ve even poked your head out and looked freedom in the face, going back is no easy task. My friend shook his head.

 

‘None of this nonsense about another night. We’ll go tonight!’ he said.

 

‘It’s not tonight any more. You should say today!’

 

‘Well then, we’ll go today!’

 

At first, I hadn’t been interested in going back either, but with my explanations, I’d persuaded myself instead of him. In the end, I burst out; it was partly from fear and partly because I’d really begun to believed what I was saying. ‘If you want, you can go. I’ll stay. I’m not about to be killed by a gendarme’s bullet!’ I quickly turned and began crawling back to the shop. He shouted from behind me.

 

‘Come on, don’t go! We’ll stay out of the gendarme’s sight. Before it really lights up we’ll keep low and escape through the grass!’

 

But my heart was now beating wildly with this damned fear, this fear for my life. I scrambled my way out into the workshop, put the stone back, and waited for the wards to open in the morning.

 

That day, in mid-morning, the attempt was discovered. The guards and the gendarmes piled into the workshop. I was dumbstruck, partly from the fear and partly from the surprise. They pulled away the rock and the opening was revealed. When they leaned over to look in, the opening at the other end now appeared enormous. The passage was completely empty... a gendarme pointed his Mauser and fired two shots. The bullets could be heard striking against the wall on the other side. They immediately cleared out all of the workshops. The walls were inspected, the two ends of the opening that my friend had used to escape were blocked up, and it was forbidden to set up any more of those workshops.

 

I wasn’t beaten too badly. Since I hadn’t escaped, the warden, the head of the police station, and even the prosecutor took pity on me. But if only they had killed me with that beating!”

 

The gray-haired prisoner remained silent for some time. His eyes, half-closed, appeared to be pursuing some sort of mirage. He then spoke; his gaze remained fixed ahead, and his tone was biting and spiteful.

 

“What a fool I was! What a fool I was! Would a gendarme’s bullet have been worse than fifteen years? I threw away my youth because of that fear.

 

And then that friend... who knows where he is now? No-one saw him here again. He probably went to a faraway land, settled among strangers, and grew into a wise old man. Maybe he started a family... If I’d wanted to, I could have been there with him. But that one minute of fear... that damned fear…”

 

The muscles in his jaw had tensed. Never had I seen a man show such contempt, such anger at himself; his hatred, swelling day after day, had taken on the form of an unbridled rancour, and his lips now spewed it forth into the face of his own cowardice.

In front of us, the workers had knocked down a good part of the wall, and we both rose to our feet and walked towards the worksite. At exactly that point, the noise of two rocks tumbling down could be heard.

 

The workers jumped back. The man next to me tried to smile. “Looks like they’ve reached the space I was talking about,” he said, “the space right in the middle of the wall... Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking, but I haven’t been able to work out why it was made. Who knows, maybe in the olden days there were roads and doors inside the walls?”

 

By now, the workers had approached the opening from which the stones had fallen, and they were peering inside. After picking up a few more stones and putting them to one side, they suddenly stood upright, the horror apparent on their faces.

 

The bystanders, including me and the gray-haired prisoner, walked towards the workers. We climbed over the wall, now no more than a metre high, and approached the opening. Everyone had formed a circle, and was looking down in silence. After we had made our way into the circle, we also focused our gaze on the same place.

 

I felt someone, shaking with anxiety, cling to my hand and hold it tightly.

 

Below us, a chalk-white human skeleton was stretched out on those damp rocks that had not seen the sun for thousands of years.

 

Most of the bones had fallen apart from each other. On the ends of the feet was a pair of old shoes, and just next to the skeleton was a leather bag.

 

Lifting my head, I looked at the man next to me. His nervous grip of my hand did not yield.

 

His face, ashen, revealed his astonishment and relief. This was the countenance of one who has narrowly escaped death.

 

 

 
Daniel Koehler is a British-American lawyer who lived in Istanbul for several years. A fluent speaker of Turkish and a lover of the written word, he dedicates what free time he has to translating Turkish literature into English.