Turkey is hosting an estimated 2.5 million Syrian people who have fled the conflict areas of Syria. Can you imagine 2.5 million refugees coming to your country? Truly, watching the response of Turkish people in Istanbul to their visiting neighbors from Syria is awe-inspiring.
Turks are famous for their hospitality, and the same hospitality that greets a tourist or a dinner party guest, has a far more spiritual expression when it is extended toward those in crisis. If you can’t imagine 2.5 million people coming to your own country, and the citizens of your nation good-naturedly making room for them, then you probably can start to imagine what an immense commitment Turkey has made to host their neighbors.
Of course, not every citizen has a kind-hearted response. There are employers who exploit Syrian labor and underpay refugees as they know it’s hard for the Syrians to make much of a complaint.
Young women too are often the most vulnerable in conflict zones and refugee camps. Journalist and Author Meltem Yılmaz has interviewed many of them and written a book ‘Soraya’ that describes a situation happening frequently along the border these days: the ‘imam marriage.’
In the excerpt of Ms. Yılmaz’s novel below, let’s join a young Syrian woman, Soraya, at her refugee camp.
-Introduction to the excerpt by Karen Van Drie
(Pages between 54- 58)
The two guards manning the refugee camp’s gate didn’t ask where Soraya was going as passed through. Clearly, a young girl leaving the camp on her own was an everyday occurrence for them. Outside, a dark man with a thick moustache, a square face and a squat build was waiting for Soraya. He walked briskly toward her. He grabbed her sack and headed for the car that he said was nearby. Soraya followed, realizing she was outside for the first time in months. She was free, but at the same time being led to a different type of imprisonment. They got in the car. The man said his name was Halil and offered Soraya his hand. Soraya timidly grasped his sticky, sweaty palm.
The car trip lasted two and a half hours. Soraya was tormented over whether or not to ask the multitude of questions in her head. Halfway through, she felt she was about to burst. If it were up to Halil, however, they wouldn’t have said anything.
“What’s his name? The man I’m marrying, I mean.”
“Murat. He’s the best a girl in your situation will come by.”
“What does he do?”
“Well, he was active in politics in Nusaybin for a long time. Now he has his own business. Commerce, that is. He does well for himself. Don’t be afraid. What are you so worried about? You’re going someplace a lot more comfortable than the camp. I gave the money to Merdan. He’ll give it to your folks.”
This tidbit of information only whetted Soraya’s curiosity. She sketched a mental picture of the man who would be her husband. Each new detail erased the previous one, reshaping the image. Still, she remained quiet. This was enough to know for now.
“Oh yeah, of course you need to know he’s got a wife,” said Halil, seeming to feel this was the right time to say it. “His first wife. It’s really common in these parts. You’ll get used to it.”
Soraya swung around, stunned. She kicked the floorboard hard like she wanted hit the break.
“What do you mean ‘He has a wife’?!”
“He’s married. And you’re going to be his wife, too. Haven’t you ever heard of it? Don’t act like they don’t do it where you come from. Here, everyone takes a second, third, sometimes even a fourth wife. If this is what you want, you’ll have to accept it. You’ll get the hang of it.”
“How old is this guy, my husband, I mean.”
Soraya went into shock, repeating it over and over. “Fifty, fifty, fifty…” A fifty-year-old man! And Soraya was only twenty! There was a whole thirty years between them. A fifty-year-old man! How would she touch a man like that? How would they relate to one another? Everyone on the planet must be totally mad. Soraya was going to go mad herself.
“Fifty? Really? Are you sure? What am I going to do with a married, fifty-year-old man? I’d rather die.”
“No need to die. You can get out if it suits you. Go back where you came from. But don’t forget to send back the money. The guy will find someone else to marry tomorrow. There are lots of girls in your position. Take it or leave it.”
“Not ‘but’s! From what I’ve seen, all the guys taking Syrian wives are the same. They’re doing you all a favor, but you don’t get it. You’re a bunch of ingrates, a bunch of marauding troublemakers. What’s anyone supposed to do with you? Am I wrong?”
Soraya gulped down the truth like a stone caught in her throat. Throughout the journey she simmered in a cold sweat. She felt she would go insane. Her mind raced. A fifty-year-old man! She’d never felt more helpless in her life. She couldn’t go through with it, but where could she go? What would she do back at the camp? She looked into this Halil’s face, her mouth agape. Could he be joking? No. Halil’s eyes were fixed on the road. The things he’d just said clearly meant nothing to him. He was probably thinking of the money he was about to get. Why did the scumbag wait until now to say something?
“Halil why are you telling me this now?”
“Good God, sweetheart! Why are you going on about it? I told you, if you want, we’ll turn back. Why should I have said anything? Don’t tell me you didn’t know. You mean you couldn’t figure it out? Didn’t anybody tell you?”
Was this scolding meant to make her feel guilty? Was she supposed to think it was her fault she was going to be a second wife to a fifty-year-old man? No, there was no point talking to this Halil. She imagined how distraught her father would be if he heard about it. She sank into self-pity. Ah, Merdan! She was upset with him most of all.
She racked her brain throughout the trip. Eventually it dawned on her: running away. After settling in and getting her family out of the camp, she’d do whatever she had to in order to escape from that house. She’d put up with the guy for awhile, but she’d build a life for herself somehow. She had to make all of her plans according to this goal. Now she felt relieved if only a little. She knew all too well the difference between a woman surrendering to the reality imposed on her and a woman keeping up the appearance of surrender. Her silence made Halil suspicious.
“So, what do you say? Want me to turn around?”
“No,” Soraya shot back with confidence. “Are you kidding? I’m getting married.”
The car drove past unclaimed fields. Soraya tasted blood on her lip, which she’s been biting throughout the trip. She finally felt relaxed enough to release it…
“Here we aaaaaaaare….”
Soraya was roused from plotting her escape by Halil’s overdone announcement. They’d arrived in Mardin, an ancient city awash in crimson and coffee tones. It was a place of contrasts. Around one corner stood old, romantic structures and decrepit slums around the next. Even though it was her new home, Soraya was hardly in the mood to admire the city.
“It’s still early, so Murat’s probably not home yet. Let’s get something to eat. We’ll give him a call around sundown.”
This stranger husband of hers hadn’t even come to pick her up. It occurred to her that she was being delivered to his house less like a wife and more like some kind of orphan. Halil parked in front of what looked like a greasy spoon diner with a ramshackle sign reading ACCOMODATION.
They sat next to the window at a filthy table covered with breadcrumbs and bits of parsley. Soraya wasn’t hungry, but Halil’s mouth watered so much he was practically drooling on the table. The place was filled with all types of men—tall, short, dark, fair, bearded, and clean-shaven. Halil noticed how out of place Soraya felt.
“This is a truck stop,” he said, sniggering. “Don’t they have them where you come from?”
Soraya began to see Halil like some image from behind a TV screen. His words, laughter, and twitching moustache receded further and further from reality until he was just a blur behind glass. They sat in silence. The fried lamb that Halil ordered arrived, covered with a coagulated fat that made her gag. Halil wasted no time. He broke off pieces of bread and soaked them in the sauce, devouring the food like a hungry wolf.
Halil finished his food and lit a cigarette. Just when Soraya felt she would asphyxiate from his hours of chain smoking, he checked out-of-date mobile for the umpteenth time and told Soraya the “good news.” It was time to go. They got up quickly. Halil checked his pockets to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. Soraya, meanwhile, felt the men at the other tables leering at her.
Outside, the sun had set and the weather was getting chilly. Soraya shivered as she stepped outside. The melancholic dusk, the moment Soraya most dreaded, had arrived. Her feet balked, and she stood there, frozen on the spot. The light from the diner illuminated her face, and for the first time—although he didn’t tell her so—Halil saw how beautiful she was.
“Come on Soraya,” he called, “what are you waiting for?”
She wasn’t waiting for anything. She’d just stopped to feel the flowers in the carved, stone vase next to the car. They were stiff and dead. She grasped the dry blossoms and crushed them in her palm. She strew them into the air. All she wanted wanting was to flee, to run, run away from that darkness, that damp wind, away from herself and everything that remained.
Along the way Soraya felt as if she were passing through a tunnel of fire. Soon she would be standing before a man thirty years her senior. The more she told herself this, the more she refused to accept it. She rested her head against the window and closed her eyes, listening to the Turkish song coming from the cassette player. She dreamed of being a Turkish girl, imagined what it would feel like to have a home, a family, an ID. To go to school like everyone else. To have a normal life. Just dreaming of it, feeling like she was in that girl’s place was comforting. The car lurched to a stop, sending Soraya’s heart racing.
“Here we are,” said Halil. “You wait here for a minute. I’m going to have a word with him and come back.”
He got out without waiting for an answer. In a panic, Soraya looked left and right, out the front and rear windows, trying to figure out where she was. It was dark, but to the left she could make out a single-story home with a garden in the front. Halil hurried to the door of the house, which opened before he reached it. The tall silhouette of a man stood at the center of the yellow light filtering from within. Eyes alert, Soraya filled with dread like a deer realizing it’s being stalked. Halil stood before the man like an awkward little boy. They shook hands and talked for about a minute. Then Halil hurried back to the car and opened the passenger-side door.
“Come on, Murat’s waiting for you in the house.”
Soraya wished for the world to end, for everything to be obliterated right then and there. Her hand trembled as it reached for her sack in the backseat. She grabbed it and got out of the car. From the moment she set foot on the ground, she felt a sinking sensation, like the Earth was trying to swallow her.
“Best of luck to you, Soraya,” said Halil. “Murat’s a good guy, don’t take it for granted. If you screw up, there’ll be no one to run to—me included. Keep that in mind.”
Halil’s face was the most serious she’d seen it yet as he gave this last piece of advice.
But Soraya no longer heard anything he said. The wind had made her ears deaf, and the dark had drawn a curtain over her eyes. She lumbered forward like a drugged woman. The blood flowing through her veins carried the shaking in her hands to the rest of her body. Just in front of her, the silhouette of the hulking man awaited at the open door. Soraya stood there, helpless, like a puppy taking refuge in a mosque courtyard. She felt the first droplets of oncoming rain on her face and cursed them for forcing her to walk faster. Halil started the car behind her. The figure in the doorway approached as she walked toward the house. As he got closer, she saw he was old. He got even closer, and she saw that he was tall. When he was even closer, she saw his pot-belly. When only a meter of space was left between them, they stood, staring at one another. He examined her as if she was a prospective furniture purchase.
“Welcome, Soraya,” he said, finally. His wore a satisfied expression and his voice was gentle and soothing.
He went to embrace her, but she pulled away, panicked like a baby bird dropped from its nest. Unfazed, Murat pretended he’d only wanted to take her sack. He glanced at Soraya’s hand with his sharp but vaguely smiling eyes.
“Come on inside. It’s getting cold out.”
Soraya could barely make out his face in the darkness as she walked with him. All she could think , Him? My husband? No! Never! …
The English-language rights to this book have not yet been sold, but it has been pitched at the Berlin Film Festival. If you’d like to find out what happens to Soraya, please feel free to tell English-language publishers that you’d like to read the rest of the book in the comments below.
Meltem Yılmaz received her bachelor’s degree from the department of English Language and Literature at Çankaya University and her master’s degree from the department of English Language and Literature at Yeditepe University. In 2008 she started working as a journalist at Cumhuriyet Daily. In the exclusive news she authored, she strove to make heard the voices of the underprivileged, such as drug addicts, derelicts, the homeless, juvenile delinquents, immigrants and refugees, abused women, LGBT individuals, sex workers and handicapped citizens.
She was awarded the “Health in the Press Award” by the Turkish Medical Association and “Interview of the Year Award” by the Progressive Journalists Association. In her first book ‘Lifeless Bodies in Empty Fields,’ published in January 2015, she examined through investigative research and interviews what has come to be a major problem in Turkey, the synthetic drug Bonzai. Her second book, ‘Soraya,’ was published in Turkey in June 2015.
Karen Van Drie is an American expat librarian working in Istanbul, Turkey. She is on Twitter at @worldlibraries. She also hosts a bilingual celebration of reading culture at @EnSonNeOkudun. In her free time, Karen writes her own blog called ‘Empty Nest Expat.’