“Nazan the Cleaning Lady”

Selahattin Demirtaş, trans. Amy Marie Spangler and Kate Ferguson

April 25, 2019 
The following is a story from Selahattin Demirtaş' collection Dawn. A young, poor cleaning lady obsessed with cars is caught up in a violent demonstration on her way to work and hospitalized, then jailed. Selahattin Demirtaş is a Zaza-Kurdish politician and former co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. He began his political career as a human rights lawyer, and helped transform the HDP into a more progressive party. Written from a maximum-security prison in Edirne, where he is still being held, Dawn is his first work of fiction.

That Renault station wagon you see over there, it’s from our neighborhood—and so are all the guys inside it. They’re Halime Teyze’s boys. The one at the steering wheel is Yusuf, he’s the oldest. Three of the others are his brothers, and next to them is cousin Muhittin, and that little squirt in the back is Muhittin’s son, Süleyman. They do fancy plastering on ceilings, that’s what all the stuff in the back is for. They make a fine team and work like demons—but the work’s never steady. It’s Yusuf who gets the gigs, as most of the subcontractors know him. He’s a reliable guy, with a good head on his shoulders. He dropped out of middle school and is now engaged to Süheyla, who’s also from our neighborhood. Süheyla is Orhan’s daughter; Orhan’s a retired janitor.

The light just turned green—we’re off! Süleyman catches sight of me in the bus at the very last moment and waves. I wave back.

My name is Nazan. I’m eighteen. I finished middle school but then had to drop out. I’ve got two little sisters, Nebile and Gülbahar. It was our mother who brought us up. My father worked for the city of Ankara, here in Mamak, but he died when I was five. They say he was a first-rate mechanic. He was underneath a bus at the city garage one day, working on the engine, when the jack tipped over. My mother was eight months pregnant at the time. He left us with a widow’s pension and a collection of car magazines. He had a real passion for cars, never missed an issue of those magazines, and even went through all the newspapers, cutting out pictures of cars he liked. His dream car was a black Mustang. He put up a poster of one on the kitchen wall. He always told my mother that he was going to buy a car of his own someday. She never did take down that Mustang poster; it’s still hanging there today. So you see, I grew up reading my father’s car magazines, and that’s where my passion for cars comes from.

Turns out a widow’s pension wasn’t enough to live on and so my mother took on a job as a housecleaner. After I dropped out of school, I’d sometimes tag along and help her out. When I did, we’d leave my sisters with our neighbor, Hasret. Once I’d learned to do it well enough myself, I told my mother that it was my turn, that she didn’t have to work anymore. And so I’ve been cleaning houses for a year now.

Our house is in Mamak’s gecekondu neighborhood, where everyone knows one another. We’re all poor, so no one sticks out as being worse off than the next. It’s really only when we go downtown that the truth slaps us in the face. I take the bus to work, and I always sit by the window. I just love watching all the passing cars and the people in them, especially when we’ve stopped at a red light or are stuck in traffic. For instance, that’s Haydar Amca in the ’86 Fargo next to us right now. He’ll haul anything in that truck—when he can find work, that is. You can usually find him parked at the top of the street, on the corner of the main road. He’s from Çorum and has two daughters, both university students. His wife, Besime Teyze, is bedridden; she was hit by a car three years ago. The guy who did it just drove off, left her there for dead. One of their girls was arrested last year at a student demo on the anniversary of Madımak.

The light just turned green.

You can always tell which people and which cars are from our neighborhood. They have so much in common. They’re all overworked, run-down, scruffy old things; they reek of poverty and grip the steering wheel with both hands like it’s their bread and butter. When you reach the main road, the cars start changing and so do the people inside them. All of a sudden you start seeing civil servants and businessmen, women drivers, and handsome young men, too. The cars here are all newer than the ones in our neighborhood. Just take that couple in the gray Passat next to us: I reckon they both have jobs. Maybe she works at a bank; he looks like he’s a manager somewhere. Perhaps he’s going to drop her off at the bank first, then head to work himself. I’d say they’ve been married a long time and they’re riding in the same car only because they have to. They exchange a few words every now and then, but without looking at each other. My guess is they’re still together out of a sense of duty. They took out a loan to buy the car and they’re both paying off the installments, but the man’s acting like it’s his and his alone—that’s the advantage of being at the steering wheel, I suppose.

We’re on the move again and now here’s a white Şahin next to us. Somebody did a crappy job remodeling it. The four guys inside aren’t from our neighborhood, but they’re definitely from our side of the tracks. Looks like they’re on their way to work. They’re the kind of guys who go cruising around on the weekends, just to show off. In the opposite lane there’s a maroon BMW 740—now that’s one fabulous car. The couple whose house I clean, they have the same one. They even have the same license plate. Hey, hold on a second. . . . Well, if that isn’t Murat Bey himself! But the woman next to him, she’s not Sevgi Hanım. Must be a friend from work or something. Good lord, he just kissed her on the lips.

The light’s green again.

That can’t be right, I didn’t see what I think I saw or, better yet, I didn’t see anything at all. Sevgi Hanım’s a doctor; she works at a hospital in the emergency department. And Murat Bey owns a construction company. They’ve been married for four years now and don’t have any children, but they’re super fond of each other, or at least they were. Kızılay Square’s been closed off to traffic. I’ve got to get off the bus now and I have no choice but to walk. I’ll need to catch another bus from the other side of the square. Sevgi Hanım and her husband live on the thirteenth floor of a fancy building in Çukurambar. I clean their place twice a week. They pay me well, God bless them.

There must be some kind of demonstration happening in Kızılay, I can smell the tear gas from here. My eyes are burning, and it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. Everyone around me is coughing and choking, running this way and that. Should I make a run for it, too? I’d better cross over and take the back streets.

Ow! Something hard has just hit me in the head, probably cracked my skull open. I’m on the ground and feel like I’m suffocating. Is this the end of the road for me? Perhaps it is, I tell myself, but why am I dying? Why now? And who’s killing me? I suppose I’ll have to leave those questions to the living. I’ve fallen at on my face, so my nose is probably broken, too. I’m sitting in the middle of the road, watching all that is going on around me, and it’s almost too real to be true. My nose is bleeding; I can taste the blood in my mouth. There are women being dragged by the hair, young protesters trying to yell out slogans as they’re beaten with batons, people throwing stones, others wielding signs to fend off the blows, tanks, water cannons, sirens, sirens . . .

I find myself in an ambulance, wearing an oxygen mask. There are other wounded people in here, too. They’re all standing up though; it’s only me who’s on a stretcher. There are three paramedics or maybe one of them’s a doctor. One of the paramedics is a young man with slicked-back hair, not what I’d call handsome. But I bet he squanders all his money on his looks. Probably doesn’t have a car, but he’s got plenty of hair gel. The female paramedic isn’t as ashy. All the time she’s taking care of us, she rants on about the bastards who did this. She’s obviously a union member; her face is angry, but her eyes are full of kindness. Every now and then she asks me if I’m all right. I nod to say that I am. She doesn’t own a car, but she’s married, so maybe her husband has one. The doctor is a woman, younger than either of the paramedics. They keep trying to get her attention. “Doctor, Doctor!” But she’s in such a panic that she’s forgotten she is even a doctor. I’d say she’s single, doesn’t have a car, either. That union member, though, now she’s got a cool head; she’s the real boss here.

We’ve arrived, I think. The ambulance door opens and they whisk me to the emergency department. The two guys wheeling me in on the stretcher seem calm and collected. They’re not from our neighborhood, but they’re definitely from our side of the tracks. They’re both bachelors; one of them might even own a secondhand motorcycle. They must have done this a thousand times already; they could probably do it with their eyes closed. From the way they call out, ordering everyone out of their way, you’d think they were hotshot surgeons or something. They’re probably the bosses around here. The emergency department is packed, full of people moaning in pain and screaming. The two “surgeons” lift me up just like that and place me on a bed, then they grab the empty stretcher and take off again.

I lie there for a while, waiting. I touch the back of my head, figure my brains must have oozed out of my skull. But when I look at my hand, expecting to see a glob of bloody brains on it, there’s nothing. I check again, feeling around carefully this time. Turns out my head wasn’t split open after all; there’s a good-sized bump on it, though, about as big as my fist.

A bunch of medics in white coats flock to my side. They dart around so quickly that I can’t tell one from the other. They’re all young, unmarried, medical-student types. Not one of them has a car.
“Ma’am, this patient’s taken a blow to the head and she may have a broken nose,” one of them says. The doctor they call “ma’am” leans over to get a closer look at me. Our eyes meet.

“Sevgi Hanım!” I cry.

She gives me a blank look. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?” My face must be a real mess, otherwise she would have recognized me.

“It’s me, Nazan,” I cry.

“My God, Nazan! What happened to you?”

I shrug my shoulders as if to say, “Don’t ask me.”

“Okay, I see,” she says. “Take her on over to radiology.”

They bring me back after I’ve had my X-rays done.

Sevgi Hanım stands next to me while she looks them over. “Well, at least there’s nothing serious—nothing broken, no fractures, no internal bleeding. You’re going to have to spend the night here, though, and we’ll take another X-ray tomorrow. They’re going to dress your wounds now and put you on an IV; it’ll help with the pain,” she says.

“But my mother,” I reply, “I need to call my mother.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll let her know,” she says. Just then a group of police officers show up, all holding walkie-talkies.

“Which ones were brought in from the demonstration?” they ask.

No one answers.

The police chief gets angry. “Who’s in charge here?” he shouts.

Sevgi Hanım steps forward. “I am.”

The chief asks again which of us were brought in from the demonstration.

“We have no way of knowing,” she answers, adding, “Our job is to treat people. It makes no difference to us who they are.”

The chief glares at her. “Collect all their IDs,” he orders the other officers.

Sevgi Hanım tries to stop them. “Would you please leave,” she says. “We need to finish treating these patients. Let us get on with our job, then you can come back and do yours.”

“Take down the doctor’s name, too,” the chief orders menacingly.

Sevgi Hanım comes and stands by my bed. When one of the officers asks to see my identity card, she tells him, “She’s my cleaning lady, she fell off a ladder while cleaning.” The officer seems convinced; he’s very young, with a look of poverty in his eyes, and almost certainly doesn’t have a car.

The chief yells out from the other side of the room, “Take her ID, too!” He obviously grew up poor,
but thanks to his car—probably a Ford Mondeo, secondhand—he’s managed to pull ahead, though only just. Sevgi Hanım starts to object. The chief cuts her off. “There’s nothing to worry about, ma’am. If what you say is true, there won’t be any problem now, will there?” But his tone implies otherwise.

Sevgi Hanım turns back to face me. “Everything’s going to be fine, give them your ID. I’ll call Murat; he has some lawyer friends and they’ll take care of you.” As she speaks, I remember what I saw Murat doing in the BMW. I forget all about myself and start feeling sorry for Sevgi Hanım. They gather up our identity cards and take o , leaving two officers behind to keep watch at the entrance. I’m in less pain now, thanks to the IV and the painkillers. They’ve bandaged my nose; I can feel swelling around my eyes. I scraped the skin off my knees when I fell and they sting like hell.

A few hours later the chief and his men come back and take nine patients into custody, including me. Sevgi Hanım tries to stop them, but it’s no use. I get a window seat in the police van, and off we go.

The guy driving the Audi Q7 next to us is clearly living off Daddy’s money. He has the music turned up full blast and is tapping along on the steering wheel. He’s probably studying at a private university. By next year he’ll grow tired of the SUV and ask for a Mercedes CLX, and Daddy will probably get it for him, too. But, hey, the guy deserves it; after all, he isn’t from our neighborhood.

The light just turned green.

I spend a hellish night alone in a cell at the station. Even though I’m dead tired, I hardly get a wink of sleep. In the morning they inform me that my lawyer has arrived. Murat Bey’s sent him. I tell him everything.

“All right,” he says. “Don’t worry, we’ll do whatever we can. I’ll try to keep you out of prison while we await trial.”

The lawyer is married and has never in his life set foot in our neighborhood. He obviously drives a Volvo S70.

“What do you mean, trial? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Of course you haven’t, but the thing is, your photo is on the front page of all the papers,” he says, taking a newspaper out of his leather briefcase. The headline reads vandals! and beneath it is a photo of me sitting in the middle of the road, my face covered in blood.

“But I didn’t do anything!” I say. By now I’m starting to get scared. The lawyer reminds me of my right to remain silent and advises me to keep quiet at the police station but to tell the public prosecutor everything. He says we’ll talk more if I’m detained, then shakes my hand and turns to leave. “Please let my mother know I’m okay!” I call out after him. He lifts his hand as if to say “All right.” A policewoman takes me by the arm and leads me back to my cell. She’s from our neighborhood; maybe her mother cleaned houses to put her through school, too. She’s not married yet and right now she can only dream of owning a car.

Two days later they take us out of our cells. They tell us, “You’re due in court.” There are four other women besides me. I sit by the window in the police van. It fills up and off we go. As we make our way from Ulus to Sıhhiye, I find myself staring at the woman behind the wheel of the white Ford Focus right next to us. Definitely a rep for some pharmaceutical company. Well dressed, with a miniskirt and sunglasses that scream “I come from a different part of town!” It’s a company car. This woman’s single, too. She looks happy, but if you ask me, it’s a mask to hide the drama going on underneath. She knows that happiness, like the car she’s driving, doesn’t belong to her; it’s all company property, on temporary loan.

The light just turned green.

The public prosecutor asks short questions and I give short answers. He’s young and still has a whiff of poverty about him. I figure he’s married, probably owns a secondhand Nissan Almera. He’s always hated being poor and now wants to speed away from it all, as fast as he can. He looks me in the face only once. My lawyer says, “There’s no cause for detention,” or something like that. The prosecutor tells us to wait outside. We wait in the hall for a good four or five hours. Once everyone has had their turn, they separate me and fifteen or twenty others and tell us the prosecutor has asked that we be kept in custody until our trial.

“Custody? What do you mean, custody?”
The lawyer tries to console me. A short while later, we’re standing before a judge; he asks me the same questions and I give the same answers. The judge is married; he’s forgotten how it feels to be poor and probably drives a new Škoda Superb, a black one with leather seats.

We speed through the darkness toward Sincan Prison. They won’t let me sit next to the window in the police van, so I spend the entire trip sulking. The only sound comes from the police walkie-talkies. The women guards at the prison entrance tell us to take o our clothes so that they can search us. They’re all from our side of the tracks, and they know they’ll always be down on their luck. They can’t even begin to imagine owning a car. We aren’t the reason they’re poor, but they still treat us like we are.

I’ve been in prison for six months now. I share a cell with seven others, all from our neighborhood—feisty women who know a thing or two, if you catch my drift. My trial’s in two months. My mother comes to see me every week during visiting hours. She’s started cleaning houses again and says Sevgi Hanım sends her best. My mother cried on her first few visits, but she’s holding up better now. It was my birthday last week. My friends made me a car-shaped cake out of cookies; we had a good laugh over that.

I am my father’s daughter. The daughter of a man whose Mustang dreams were crushed beneath a rusty old city bus. A working woman who wound up in prison. I’ve never taken part in a demonstration, not once in my whole life. Being in here, I’ve come to see our neighborhood in a completely different light. And while I may not be in prison much longer, these six months have been enough for me to get to know myself. And there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in here: If you walk with courage and determination, sometimes you can move faster than a car.

My name is Nazan the Cleaning Lady—look out, Ankara, here I come!

–Translated from the Turkish by Amy Marie Spangler and Kate Ferguson.


From Dawn by Selahattin Demirtaş. Used with permission of SJP for Hogarth. Translation copyright 2019 by Amy Marie Spangler and Kate Ferguson.

More Story
Lit Hub Daily: April 24, 2019 365 books to start your climate change library: fiction and poetry edition. | Lit Hub “Street View functioned...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.