I believe my father was murdered by Turkish secret police
The daughter of Sabahattin Ali, author of surprise bestseller Madonna in a Fur Coat, recalls the day he died
Sabahattin Ali: overlooked novel resonated with new generation in Turkey. Photograph Filiz Ali
It all happened a long time ago, in 1948, yet Filiz Ali has never forgotten the day two journalists appeared at her school to tell her that her father had been murdered. He was well known in Turkish literary circles as a writer whose opinionated, political journalism had got him imprisoned twice and his life was at risk.
“These reporters came and told me he had been killed. Then they took my picture and left, there was no sympathy, no kindness.
“I didn’t believe them.” So much so that she did not tell her mother, who was already anxious about his decision to flee Turkey.
Later that evening the same two reporters arrived at the family apartment in Ankara and told her mother about the murder.
Sabahattin Ali was beaten to death while attempting to cross the border into Bulgaria. His body was never found and Filiz Ali is convinced he was murdered by the Turkish secret police.
“We were told he was beaten to death by a truck driver who killed him when he discovered who he was, but... more likely it was the secret police. We never did find out what happened.”
Sabahattin Ali was the author of Madonna in a Fur Coat, which was published to a muted reception in 1943. It unexpectedly became a belated bestseller in Turkey about eight years ago, which lead to its publication in English last year.
Ali’s outspoken views found expression in political satire, through Marco Pasha, the literary journal which he co-founded and which underwent several name changes. It was to change its name a few times.
The Turkish authorities singled him out and twice imprisoned him, in 1933 and again in 1941, before Ali heeded warnings and decided to leave, intending to get to the West.
The truck driver received a brief sentence, only four years, which was further shortened to a year.
“We never found the body; there is no grave. We were told about human remains which were found some months later. Another woman then came forward claiming that it might be her husband who had gone missing, but it wasn’t him.
“You continue to grieve. In those days, there was no counselling for anyone, never mind children, and my mother was too distraught herself to help me. We were never close.
“She died in 1999; she was 85 and had never re-married. She had always been very beautiful, right until the end.
“There is only me; I was the only child. For nine years… I don’t count from birth to two... I had the best father in the world. So yes I knew him very well and I remember him.”
Speaking on a phone line from Istanbul about the brutal murder of your father is not ideal, but she has become accustomed to talking about him. “I have spoken about this many times and I suppose it has become easier.” She has also written two memoirs, yet to be translated. The first was published in Turkey in 1995.
The violent “and mysterious” circumstances of Sabahattin Ali’s death has shaped her life. For his daughter, who was 11 at the time, it was the end of the wonderful childhood she had known.
“He was a great man. More important than that, he was a good man, a great father, very unusual. He knew we humans are all different, he understood individuals and for this he paid.
“He hated prison and after two stays, when it seemed he was about to be arrested again, he set off, telling us we would next hear from him in London or Paris.” But they never did.
Sabahattin Ali’s work has been widely translated across Europe and many of his poems have provided the lyrics for pop songs sung daily in Turkey – “and by people who don’t realise they are singing one of his poems”.
His work was little known to English-speaking readers until the publication last year of Madonna in a Fur Coat, the third of his three novels, in a translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.
The beguiling narrative, a novel within a novel, a tender, melancholic romance with several twists as well as hints of Turgenev, and a strongly feminist subtext, had received little attention when it first appeared in Turkey in 1943. Why?
“No one wanted a story about a strong woman and a weak man. This was not the way people were supposed to be… certainly not the way Turkish men were to conduct themselves,” says Filiz Ali.
The belated success of the novel seemed to come out of nowhere, its message resonating with a new generation in Turkey. It topped the bestseller lits, where it has remained, outselling Orhan Pamuk, the Noble prize-winning author.
“Suddenly people – mainly young people – were all reading and talking about this book. It has a modern way of looking at relationships between men and women. This book speaks to people; young women in particular really love it.”
“Yes he [her father] was romantic and the book is a romance but he was also very practical, a realist and I think this is evident from the novel.”
There are also the parallels between Sabahattin Ali’s life and the current political climate in the country. Since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, President Recep Erdogan has shut down more than 170 media outlets, including a newspaper, magazines, TV stations and news agencies. According Turkey’s journalists’ association, 150 journalists have been jailed and press accreditation of more than 700 journalists revoked.
By listening to Filiz Ali describe her father’s life, his humour and sensitivity, and by reading the book, Sabahattin Ali becomes real to a reader in a way few writers do.
“My father taught me everything without ever teaching; about nature, about trees, the birds. He taught me to fish, about flags, which country they represented, he was always very funny; always the heart of any gathering with his anecdotes and jokes, his enjoyment in living.”
Born in 1907 in what is now modern Bulgaria, Ali was a man of the Ottoman Empire and like many young men and women of his time was sent from Turkey into Europe to learn a European language.
“It was amazing when you think of it, here was this young republic, in the backward east, a poor country, yet there was such an emphasis on education.”
In common with Raif Efendi, the central character in his novel, Ali on graduating from teacher-training college had been sent to Berlin, where he stayed for about 18 months between 1926 until 1928. It was a very dramatic period in the closing years of the Weimar Republic and there he was – learning German and exchanging ideas.
On his return to Turkey still only 21, Ali began teaching German - and continued writing, which he had been doing since he was a teenager.
“My father always wrote poetry, but, you know, he never took himself seriously.”
Ali’s first published book was a poetry collection. His first novel, Yusuf of Kuyucak, came out in 1937; a second, Devil Inside (or The Devil Within), followed in 1940. Madonna in a Fur Coat, his finest work, which he wrote in three months between November 1940 and February 1941 when he was in his early 30s, was passed over largely because it challenged accepted attitudes about men and women.
The character in the novel Raif is a tentative young man whose shyness exasperates his father, a traditional man. While in Berlin Raif instead of acquiring business skills, discovers literature and visits art galleries. He is struck by a self portrait of a young woman and eventually meets the artist. Maria is opinionated, independent and philosophical. Her views about male and female relationships are forthright.
Was she a role model for the young Filiz?
“Not at all; when I was growing up, I knew women who were doctors, and lawyers; others who were engineers. My role model was an archaeologist friend of my parents. She had fenced in the 1936 Olympics, I knew women like that. We have regressed I feel. Young women now want to be famous and become models.”
No grave to morn
Filiz Ali will be 80 in September. A former concert pianist and prominent musicologist, she has given recitals, was an accompanist and also played in the opera orchestra in Istanbul. Her life has been dedicated to music, a passion she inherited from her father.
“The war had caused many musicians and artists, actors, theatre directors, to leave Germany and they came to Ankara and Istanbul. My father knew them, they became friends. It was an exciting time.”
Her father lives on through the success of Madonna in a Fur Coat. “But it’s not about bestsellers; it is far more about having his words read.”
There is no grave to morn at, yet Filiz Ali takes comfort not only from the memory of the man she knew, and of the words he wrote, “his stories,” but that among the few belongings released by the police after his death was a volume of Balzac and a copy of Pushkin’s enduring classic, Eugene Onegin.
“My father understood love and the depth of real feelings people experience. He looked to the heart, real emotion.”
Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is published in paperback by Penguin