Istanbul Istanbul



Translated from the Turkish by ÜMIT HUSSEIN

Istanbul, Istanbul turns on the tension between the confines of a prison cell and the vastness of the imagination; between the vulnerable borders of the body and the unassailable depths of the mind. This is a harrowing, riveting novel, as unforgettable as it is inescapable.”
—Dale Peck, author of Visions and Revisions


“A wrenching love poem to Istanbul told between torture sessions by four prisoners in their cell beneath the city. An ode to pain in which Dostoevsky meets The Decameron.”
—John Ralston Saul, author of On Equilibrium; former president, PEN International


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About the Book

“Istanbul is a city of a million cells, and every cell is an Istanbul unto itself.”

Below the ancient streets of Istanbul, four prisoners—Demirtay the student, the doctor, Kamo the barber, and Uncle Küheylan—sit, awaiting their turn at the hands of their wardens. When they are not subject to unimaginable violence, the condemned tell one another stories about the city, shaded with love and humor, to pass the time. Quiet laughter is the prisoners’ balm, delivered through parables and riddles. Gradually, the underground narrative turns into a narrative of the above-ground. Initially centered around people, the book comes to focus on the city itself. And we discover there is as much suffering and hope in the Istanbul above ground as there is in the cells underground.

Despite its apparently bleak setting, this novel—translated into seventeen languages—is about creation, compassion, and the ultimate triumph of the imagination.

Publication May 5, 2016 • 256 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-38-8 • E-book 978-1-682190-39-5

About the Author

burhan sönmez author photo

Born in Central Anatolia in 1965, Burhan Sönmez grew up speaking Kurdish and Turkish, and later moved to Istanbul where he studied law. The recipient of a number of literary prizes, he was seriously injured following an assault by Turkish police. With the assistance of the Freedom from Torture foundation, he spent five years in the U.K. undergoing rehabilitation. He now divides his time between Istanbul and Cambridge, U.K. His website is

Ümit Hussein is a translator and interpreter of Turkish Cypriot origin who was born and raised in London. She has translated authors such as Nevin Halɪcɪ, Mehmet Yashin and Ahmet Altan into English.

Read an Excerpt

“It’s actually a long story but I’ll be brief,” I said. “No one had ever seen so much snow in Istanbul. When the two nuns left Saint George’s Hospital in Karaköy in the dead of night to go to the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua to break the bad news, there were scores of dead birds under the eaves. That April, ice cracked the Judas tree flowers, while the razor-sharp wind bit the stray dogs. Have you ever known it to snow in April, Doctor? It’s actually a long story but I’ll be brief. One of the nuns sliding and stumbling in the blizzard 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 storm in the pitch darkness.”

When I heard the sound of the iron gate in the distance, I stopped telling my story and looked at the Doctor.

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 hear stories of snow and blizzards as well?”

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