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Sevgi Soysal: Şafak (Dawn)

In March 1971 the military seized control in Turkey and imposed martial law. People who were opposed to the regime, such as workers and students were rounded up and were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and/or executed. Sevgi Soysal was one of many imprisoned.

This novel describes a period of around twelve hours when a family and friends were arrested and what happened. Oya Ertem is the heroine. She had been in prison and is now in internal exile in Adana. She has to live in a hotel (at her own expense) and report daily to the police. She also has to be very careful as she is continuously watched by the police. She tries to stay in her hotel room but obviously has to go out now and then. On one occasion she meets Hüseyin,a lawyer and when she meets him again he invites her to a family meal that evening which she accepts.

The book opens when Oya, Hüseyin, Ali, the host, and his family are about to eat when the police burst in. Quite a lot happens between the police first entering and their subsequent actions as we are gradually introduced to the key players. Oya is clearly based on the author, She is in an unhappy marriage and has a child (in Ankara). Hüseyin, the lawyer, and his brother, Mustafa, a teacher essentially had their education paid for by Ali, their uncle. Obviously the family’s faith and money were placed on the boys, as the girls would only be wives and mothers. Mustafa has also been in prison and is on his way back home and has only stopped off in Adana to pay his respects to Ali and his wife. Hüseyin spends much of his time helping the extended family with their legal problems, giving him little time for remunerative work. The various in-laws squabble and, apart from Oya, the women play a very minor role, generally carrying their traditional roles of wives and mothers.

Mustafa is worried about his wife Güler. He had not heard from her. Their marriage had not being going well and his relatives, who did not take to her, do not mention her. They expected her to play the traditional role of wife and mother but she did not. He had just arrived by bus and is planning on continuing to his home.

Oya tells us of her experience in women’s prisons, where she was placed with common criminals, including prostitutes but also murderesses. The women are treated badly, including being tortured (we are not spared the details) but generally seem to accept their fate.

There is one late-comer, Ekrem, who had been in Germany and thought all women fell for him. There is a suspicion about whether he is a spy. They also suspect the neighbours, who are Arab and whom the family generally dislike, though the respective young sons get on. Racism is quite important in this novel not just between Turks and Arabs and Turks and Kurds, but also between people from different regions of Turkey.

It all changes when the police break in. They had been tipped off about an illegal gathering and initially arrest Hüseyin, Mustafa and Oya but then take in all the men plus Oya, when Ali objects.

Zekai Bey had been playing cards, his favourite pastime, when he is dragged back to the police station to deal with the case. He is not happy with abandoning his game. We follow Oya who spars with Zekai Bey. We’re cleaning things up. Getting rid of all you perverts. This nation will never fall at the feet of whores like you. You know why? Because we’re here, that’s why. God is with us. And the Turkish race! Oya is condemned as a single woman dining with men, even though other, albeit married, women, were present. Of course, they try the good cop bad cop routine and use physical violence. However, it is clear that they actually heard nothing before entering .

However, we follow the story not just from the prisoners’ point of view but also the police officers’ point of view. They are insecure, worried about what their superiors might think, worried that they might not be not tough enough or too tough. Of course, as is pointed out, they break the law with impunity. As well as our protagonists, we see other prisoners, specifically some Kurds. As we know the Kurds had and still have harsh treatment at the hands of the Turks. Our group are naturally all concerned about their fate.

The book ends, as the title tells us, at dawn. Soysal gives us a vary colourful account of the city at dawn. The workers have to work while the rich stay in bed. We learn of various illegal activities and how the police suppress them or are bribed not to do so.

It is the ordinary people who are suffering as we see at the local factory. What law exists for workers? What right do they have to strike, or expect pensions? Put some fear in their hearts, that’s the only way forward. Let them fear for their daily bread. Strike their hearts with terror, and they’ll soon forget about these rights and laws.

Soysal does not disguise which side she is on – that of the downtrodden the workers, the women, those opposed to the military government and its martial law. We see her own story through Oya but also the stories of the others, some enthusiastic opponents of the government and others just trying to make a living, honest or otherwise. Military rule did end in Turkey but, as in many other countries, there is still a long way to go.

Publishing history

First published in 1975 by Bilgi Yayınevi
First published in English in 2022 by Archipelago
Translated by Maureen Freely