Updated: Sep 13
Written by Sabahattin Ali (1937), translated into English by Aysel K. Basci
Published first in the Columbia Journal (March 2022)
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Sabahattin Ali’s short story, “The Voice,” is representative of the author’s thematic concerns. It describes an encounter between two educated urbanites and a village troubadour (ashik, in Turkish), through which the author highlights the incompatibility of the aesthetic ideals of the educated and more sophisticated elite living in Turkish cities and those of Turkish villagers in rural Anatolia. The author’s concern is clearly not unique to Turkey and, indeed, applies to other geographies as well. “The Voice” was written eighty-five years ago and, although the incompatibility it describes has since narrowed, it still exists, emphasizing the story’s relevance and how illuminating it is even today.
In many of his stories, Ali deals with the relationship between the place and the individual. He sees place as the protective shelter and foundation of individual existence or fate. Yet none of his other stories deal with this topic as comprehensively as “The Voice.” In Ali’s view, the more compatible an individual is with their surroundings (i.e., place), the more secure and adjusted their existence is. Ali from Sivas, the story’s main protagonist, is homeless and has no roots tying him to any one place. He continually migrates, living a life in endless exile. His perpetual homelessness leads to an underlying sadness that finds expression and voice throughout the story, especially in the verses of a ballad he sings.
In the story, voice has a double meaning representing both the protagonist’s real voice and the expression of his sadness. Similarly, his name, Ali from Sivas, is not an arbitrary choice. Homeless Ali from Sivas who frequently expresses himself and his sadness through singing represents Sabahattin Ali, the author, who also lived in endless exile, striving to express himself and his own sadness through writing.
With regard to place, Ali from Sivas first appears near a mountain pass in Barsakdere (a rural area in Anatolia) under the moonlight, perfectly integrated within that environment. Despite facing many challenges in life, he is at peace and feels safe because in that place his existence, identity, and values are protected. In contrast, when he goes to Ankara (the capital city of Turkey), the strength he used to draw from his natural surroundings and all his past experiences is lost, along with his own mystery. He is no longer safe; his existence, identity, and values are all under threat. Moreover, his language is no longer effective. To express himself, he must learn a new language, which will inevitably change his identity because a new language entails not only new vocabulary, but also a change in culture, tradition, history, and the entire individual core. This is the same challenge faced by all immigrants, no matter from where they are immigrating.
To summarize, “The Voice” is more of a story of places than individuals. It skillfully describes and contrasts—physically, socially, and ideologically—the rural and urban settings along with their implications on individuals’ values, ideals, and fates.
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The bus taking us from Beyşehir to Konya broke down near a mountain pass called Barsakdere. Our driver and his assistant got out of the bus and opened the hood. They returned inside to lift their seat cushions and remove various mechanical tools from underneath, tossing them outside. Then the repair work began. It took hours. At times, they both crawled under the bus on their backs to fiddle with the engine. Every so often, one of them would climb into the driver’s seat, start the engine, and push the gas pedal while the other tinkered with the porcelain caps on certain nozzles in the engine.
In the afternoon sun, the linoleum-covered interior of the bus became unbearable. The passengers got out and dispersed. Some of them watched the driver with curiosity. Whenever he lifted his head to listen to the engine, they anxiously asked, “Is it done?”
I stayed with a few passengers who were less curious along with a good friend of mine, and together we walked up to the western side of the pass to a shady area. We each sat on a rock on the side of the road and looked around as we waited.
A little further down the road, two tents were set up along the side of the road. Strewn around them on the ground were several digging tools and a handcart. Further yet were a group of workmen, some breaking stone while others hauled sand in handcarts.
As the sun sank behind the shoulder of the mountain, it sent rays of increasingly crimson light to the pine trees scattered on the mound ahead while it abandoned the valley to the rapidly increasing darkness. It was a cool spring day, and a small creek flowing nearby started to make its murmuring sounds heard.
A few cars and carts passed along the road. Some of them pulled up near our driver to ask if he needed anything. A truck passing by with a few empty seats picked up two female passengers who were getting a little fussy and continuously complaining to our driver. They headed to Konya.
The remaining passengers congregated in several groups, talking among themselves. An old man with a wooden leg who said he was a grocer in one of the nearby villages walked back to the bus. He grabbed a sack from the bus, which must have been his, and hurled a few curses at the driver as he walked away.
Soon afterwards, night fell. The road workers returned to their tents and lit fires. Our bus stood on the side of the road, still unmoving, like a bloated animal corpse. The driver and his assistant were sitting a little further from us, on a long break, their clothes covered with soil and motor oil, dark drops of sweat dribbling down their faces.
Most of the passengers were accustomed to these types of incidents, so they just shook their heads as they opened their baskets and backpacks to eat some food.
Soon it was completely dark. Our driver borrowed a lantern from the road workers and, once again, returned to working on the bus. As our surroundings lapsed into a sudden quietness, we passengers lay on the ground wherever we were, without any movement, and just waited.
The trees on the peak behind us, where the sun had just disappeared, were enveloped in a pale bluish light. I looked at my friend’s face. His eyes were fixed ahead. The dark pines scattered over the shoulder of the mountain reflected shaky silhouettes under the fast lightning sky.
After watching for a while, my friend said, “The moon has almost appeared.”
Just then, the faint sound of a saz (1) trilled in the air, which was full of thyme fragrance and light chirping sounds. My friend, a music expert and a teacher at a music conservatory, rose. Frowning, he strained to listen.
The music was coming from the road workers’ tents. After an exceptionally well-played introduction, the saz’s sound tapered off, and a man’s voice sang a ballad we had not heard before, though it sounded familiar:
“I turned into a dry leaf fallen from a branch.
Morning wind, shatter me, scatter me around.
Carry me away from here,
Place me at my beloved’s bare feet!”
I also rose. Although the saz had moved on and was now playing a lively transitional tune, the earlier voice still echoed in my ears.
My friend looked at my face as if asking, “What’s this?”
I whispered, “Magnificent!”
The voice began to sing again, and the entire valley seemed to tingle:
“I left to see the world with my saz.
I returned to you, beloved, to pay my respects.
What’s the point of asking strangers?
Without you, look what has become of me!”
I had never heard such a sweet, sonorous voice from a man before. I was astonished about how such a moving and meaningful voice could come from a man’s throat. My friend and I walked toward the workmen’s tents.
In front of a tent, sitting on the ground, were four or five men, their pickaxes and trowels strewn around them. The lantern hanging on the tent door swung, stretching their shadows toward the valley until their heads disappeared in the dark.
A young man who looked no older than twenty years old was sitting in front of the tent on a handcart lying on its side and playing a saz. It was not possible to see his entire face as his head was bent toward his chest and his eyes fixed on the ground. His forehead, lit by the lantern, was covered with drops of sweat. The long neck of his saz trembled like a live creature under his surprisingly fast moving fingers, gliding up and down. His right hand striking the strings was making small and confident moves. Each time that hand got near the saz’s body, it was as if a secret but very meaningful and important conversation was taking place between them.
A light appeared, licking the tent and its surroundings and stretching all the way to the end of the valley. We looked up and saw the moon had risen above the peak ahead and was arching upwards. His eyes half-closed, the young man playing the saz looked up as well, and gazed at this illuminated face that just appeared directly across from him as if it was a new spectator. His hand striking the saz slowed down, his eyes closed, his throat tightened, and his face turned red. While we watched him full of amazement, his white teeth appeared between his thin lips, and this time, the young man continued his ballad as if appealing to our hearts:
“The moonlight falls on my saz.
I am the master of my songs.
Come to me, beloved, with delicately arched brows;
Embrace me, you on one side, the moon on the other!”
The other bus passengers joined us, encircling the singer. Everyone watched the red-faced young man with astonishment. He was moving his hand on the saz, as if talking in a mysterious language, his eyes fixed on either the ground or his saz, which was hopping as if it wanted to leap from his lap. After a short pause, he sang once more without looking up. He sang at a slower pace, but with a voice just as moving and enthralling as before:
“I haven’t been home in eight years;
I didn’t search for a friendly ear for my troubles.
One day, should you decide to follow me,
Ask your heart for guidance, not others!”
Finally, after two strong strikes, he put his saz to the side and looked up. Several listeners yelled, “Bravo!” Without making eye contact with any of the listeners, he moved his gaze out into the emptiness. He also tried to smile a little.
My friend went near him and asked, “What is your name, son?”
“Where are you from?”
“I am from Sivas.”
“Where did you learn to play the saz?”
“I don’t know. I have been playing since I was little.”
“What about singing?”
“The same. . . later, I spent a little time with a few master ashiks (2).”
My friend glanced at me. “An extraordinary voice, my friend! If we searched for years, we could not find it. I am not going to forget this young man!”
Then, he turned to the young man and asked his age. He was twenty-two years old. My friend pulled a notebook from his pocket to write a few things down. He asked for the young man’s address, but was surprised because he did not have an address he could give. He worked as a laborer—one day here, another day somewhere else.
He asked, “Can’t you just say Ali from Sivas on the Beyşehir road?”
Finally, he gave the name of an inn where he stopped every now and then. My friend recorded it. Then, our driver, who had been with us for a while now, listening to the young man play the saz and sing, announced, “Gentlemen, the bus is ready!”
My friend had been planning to ask Ali to sing a few more songs. Instead, he sighed when he saw that the other passengers immediately grabbed their belongings and rushed to the bus. He turned to Ali, who was by now also standing, and pleaded, “When I send you word, come immediately. I can find you a paying job, and you can apprentice with well-respected ashiks to improve your skills playing the saz. Do we have an agreement?”
Not understanding much, Ali agreed, “Yes, sir.”
We bade farewell to him, saying, “Goodbye!” All of the workers responded,
“Godspeed!” As we left, they surrounded Ali and began to talk to him and laugh. They were trying to interpret my friend’s words and the agreement he made with Ali, all imagining a bright future for Ali.
* * *
True to his word, after arriving in Ankara, my friend worked tirelessly to make the promised arrangement for Ali. He was determined to get him properly trained in a conservatory. Whenever we discussed his effort, which was very important to him, he would say, “You don’t know, my friend. That young man’s voice is ringing in my ears nonstop. I am no novice in this field. In fact, I consider myself an expert in human voice, and I have very rarely heard such an exceptional voice.”
Although I was in full agreement with him, in order to sound smart, I responded, “You are right. But is it not possible that the reason that voice made such an unforgettable impact on us that night had something to do with the setting and the circumstances of the evening? The moonlight! The small creek with its gurgling sounds that we could hear intermittently! The narrow, winding valley that stretched between two peaks! And finally, a totally unexpected voice that permeated across the surrounding nature from a workmen’s tent… Isn’t it possible that all these factors threw us into a weird romantic state-of-mind in that night’s timid silence, and we perceived a normal, or slightly above normal, voice as being extraordinary?”
Despite all this, the thought of searching for Ali to bring him to Ankara, listen to him again, and cultivate his voice through proper training could not be rejected. We could not deny the fact that, even if we were wrong in our original assessment, we were still dealing with a first-class talent and a respectable voice.
My friend was already dreaming. He envisioned Ali as a world-famous opera singer, a tenor giving concerts in European cities. “It will be incredible to see him in a frock, his red face springing out of his white collar.”
Eventually, my friend fulfilled his promise. He applied to many places and managed to arrange an audition for Ali in Ankara. People in those positions were always looking for new talent. Auditions were held regularly to identify talents and enroll them in training to become opera singers.
He wrote to Konya and, after a search that did not take very long, Ali, our young tenor, was located. The Konya municipality paid for his travel expenses, and he was sent to Ankara.
As soon as I entered the headmaster’s office where the audition would take place, I recognized Ali in the corner, his saz in his hand.
His face was even redder than before, and he looked quite nervous.
From his flattened shoe heels, Ali’s socks, riddled with holes, were showing, and he constantly shifted his legs as if the rug under his feet was burning the soles of his feet. Like a weapon, he had propped his saz against his right leg, and he was grabbing its neck tightly with two fingers. He was not looking at the faces of people talking and laughing in the room; instead, he was gazing at the wall ahead or the floor.
After greeting the others in the room, I spoke with Ali. I asked him how his trip was. He responded, “Not bad.” His saz was new and, when I looked at his face, smiling, he immediately understood. He said, “I saw it at the inn where we arrived and bought it for eight liras. It would not be appropriate to play for these gentlemen using my old, broken one.”
Although we were in a well-lit room, his dark, beautiful eyes gave me the impression they were half-closed like that evening when we met him. When I paid attention, I realized that these large and reflective eyes were in a constant state of dreaming. For a moment, I tried to put myself in his place.
What thoughts had passed through his head when he was traveling here? He was definitely not familiar with my friend’s dream of seeing Ali as an opera singer, giving concerts in Europe in frocks. Most likely he had imagined that, in Ankara, a few respectable music teachers would listen to him sing and perhaps pay him a little money. He might have even imagined a better future for himself. If his singing was well-received, he could get a job as a doorman or janitor, and once in a while play his saz and sing in respectable circles to earn some additional money. He had heard that, sometimes, even the governors supported ashiks like him and arranged for them to perform in their company.
As the academy’s musicians continued their conversations in Turkish, German, and French, two knocks sounded on the door, and two officials entered. One of them was a board of education intendant. He brought with him a young man who had just applied to the board for the audition. This overweight, young man with blond, wavy hair and a brave gaze indicated he was a middle school graduate and his teachers liked his voice a great deal. The officials in the room agreed. They were planning to listen to one tenor, so listening to two would not be a problem.
We all came out. My friend, quite pleased and full of confidence, opened the exam room, which was a large saloon with a parquet floor and a newly constructed stage on one side.
In one corner close to the stage was a grand piano. The room was quickly filled. Groups of people talked in Turkish and French. At times, the discussions became so noisy that they gave me a headache. A young German woman went to the piano and touched the keys. Ali had never seen a piano before and looked at it, puzzled at first, but then—so as not to appear awkward—tried to look casual.
In the meantime, one of the young musicians in the room put an iron chair painted white in the middle of the stage and told Ali, “Sit here.”
Another musician disagreed. “Who sings sitting in a chair? He should stand.”
“Have you ever seen a folk singer who plays the saz and sings standing up?”
During this argument, Ali was gazing at the white, empty walls reminiscent of a hospital’s operating room and the large windows without draperies; he occasionally threw nervous glances at the people around him, much like a patient on an operating table looking at the surgeons preparing to operate.
I pleaded with one of the musicians standing next to me. “Don’t make him sit on a chair. He is accustomed to singing while sitting on the ground cross-legged. He might get bored.”
He looked at me for a moment as if he agreed, but then said, “No, far from it! Are we going to have him sit cross-legged in front of these Europeans? They will laugh at us!”
Ali approached the white iron chair and sat on it as if sitting on a fire. His hand holding the saz was trembling and, from his wrinkled forehead, drops of sweat were running down to his eyelashes and quince-haired cheeks.
Slowly, everyone fell silent, either sitting or leaning against a wall, to watch Ali, who was now alone on the stage. He pulled his knees tightly together and ground his teeth. He took the saz onto his lap, but, for a while, he could not position it right. He looked around with puzzled eyes. When he noticed everyone gazing at him, he became even more nervous. Drops of sweat rolled onto his yellow clothes as well. He grabbed the cherrywood pick of his saz with his right hand and touched the strings several times.
For a moment these sounds made him feel more relaxed. A calmer expression covered his face. After playing a little more, he stretched his neck, getting ready to sing. He looked like he wanted to cough but was embarrassed. Finally, he moved his gaze from us, fixing it on the corner of the ceiling above us, and began to sing a ballad.
His voice was still beautiful, but it was mixed with some swishy sounds. When singing louder, these foreign noises were not heard, but when he lowered his voice, they immediately became prominent. Ali was aware of this, too. He tried to compose himself, but his throat muscles got even tighter and his face redder.
He was making a huge effort. Stretching down from two sides of his chin, and not moving like steel poles, two circular veins were clearly visible on his neck. Ali was trying very hard to get the forceful voice coming from his chest through these tight veins. Finally he finished the song and rose, his saz in his hand.
One of the German musicians immediately commented, “Not bad, not bad! Let’s hear the other candidate, too.” He nodded toward the young blond man.
The blond boy, with a smile full of confidence, quickly climbed the four steps to get to the stage and without even waiting for those in the room to go silent, he began to sing a ballad he had learned by listening to a record. His voice began low and sweet before slowly growing and, wave by wave, filling the entire room. He was singing really well. Despite aspiring to mimic some well-established songsters’ tricky techniques, it was clear that he had an excellent voice. As soon as he finished singing, the same German musician said, “Bravo! We can certainly train this young man.”
At one point, I looked at Ali. He was moving his gaze around as if what was happening in that room had nothing to do with him, and he looked a little bored. A young woman at the piano made a sign with her hand, asking Ali to go there. She was responsible for examining the ears of the candidates.
She played a simple tune on the piano with her right hand and, in German, said, “Repeat this for me.”
One of the Turkish musicians explained, “Sing along with the piano!”
Ali looked at me and then, after searching for him with his eyes, he looked at my friend. I said to myself, “Oh no!” Poor Ali was standing in front of an instrument whose name he did not know, and he had never seen or heard before. He did not even understand the instructions given to him. I tried to explain, “Son, make sounds based on what this lady plays on the piano.”
The woman at the piano repeated the tune. Ali, extending his neck and with a great deal of effort, began to sing: “I sent news to my beloved’s place…”
A few people in the room laughed, and Ali immediately stopped.
I said, “No, don’t sing a song. Try to make those noises.”
With difficulty, a few noises came out of his throat. One of the Germans looked bored and made a sign to the blond boy to come forward. “Let’s hear him.”
The tunes played one after another on the piano were coming out of his mouth like a flood of voice and very clearly. Those who wanted to end the audition quickly, out of politeness, asked Ali to sing one more song. This time, knowing that everything depended on it, Ali tried even harder and sang his best song. It was not bad at all. In fact, some people there nodded, as if saying, “Great.”
However, as soon as the song ended and Ali moved to a corner with his saz, everyone forgot about him. The blond tenor sang a tango, which he had also learned from a record. Clearly he had a good voice. It was decided that the audition was over, and they began to discuss how to go about training the blond tenor. There were budgetary constraints. Whether he could enroll at the conservatory before or after June was also discussed.
No one even remembered that, in one corner of the room, there was another candidate from Sivas named Ali. My friend who had gone through such a great deal of trouble to bring Ali to this audition was standing next to him in total silence.
None of us dared to go near Ali or even look him in the eye.
When I finally lifted my eyes, I was surprised. Ali did not have the expression of someone who was disappointed. He was looking at the walls with the same empty look as before. He looked as if those in the room were absolutely of no concern to him. He had not the slightest sadness or anger in his eyes. On the contrary, he looked relieved and rested after a difficult experience. Whenever his eyes came upon the blond tenor, he stopped for a little while and gave him a once-over with amazement and curiosity.
I searched for the slightest bit of envy or jealousy in his gaze, but found none.
Ali’s saz was again propped next to his right leg, like a weapon. Every now and then, his leg moved up just a little bit before touching the parquet floor again. Just then, I had a wrenching feeling as I realized that this young man’s entire dismay, disappointment—the entirety of his broken hopes—were showing only in that small movement of his leg!
This young man who was in complete control of every part of his body, whose face did not reveal the slightest bit of his feelings, not even the smallest of shivers, and whose eyes possessed an endless serenity and depth while shining with a soft light, was unburdening himself, without even being aware, with this minimal agitated movement of his leg. Until then, no human face or human cry ever seemed so sad and so meaningful to me.
I composed myself and walked up to Ali. It was absolutely necessary to talk to him; we had to say something: “Go back to Konya. As soon as there is a development, we will search for you and let you know.” He listened intently, as if what we were saying was so important that he had to memorize it.
But when our glances met, I winced. Somehow his large black eyes revealed that their owner did not believe a single word we were saying. For the sake of just doing something, I said, “Let’s go to a restaurant and eat something.” The others in the room were still arguing. They did not even notice when we left.
We ate at a kebab house in complete silence. It was impossible to fool Ali, just as we couldn’t say, “We brought you here for nothing and troubled you.” As I was busy thinking about this, we left the restaurant.
Ali swallowed a few times like he wanted to say something and, with deep humility, said, “I embarrassed you, sir. Please forgive me.” As if talking about something very puzzling he added, “In that room, I just could not find my voice.” Then, he left us.
The next day when my friend went to the Haymana Inn to give Ali a few liras and put him on the Konya bus, the innkeeper told him that Ali sold his saz for 2 liras to pay his way back and had left on a truck heading to Konya at dawn.
1. Saz is a stringed musical instrument played by folk singers in Turkey and in the wider Middle East region.
2. Ashik (aşık in Turkish, troubadour in Europe) is a poet-singer who composes and sings love ballads while playing a saz, moving constantly from place to place.
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Author: Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948) was a prominent Turkish novelist, short-story writer, poet, journalist, and teacher. He was probably the most powerful and effective of the twentieth century short story writers in Turkey who addressed social themes. Although he died in 1948 at the age of forty-one, his writing and poetry remain very popular. Ali’s short novel, “Madonna in A Fur Coat” (1943), is considered one of the best novellas in Turkish literature. This novel’s translations have recently hit the best seller lists and sold a record number of copies. With this novel, Sabahattin Ali became one of the two Turkish novelists whose works are published by Penguin Classics.
Translator: Aysel K. Basci is a nonfiction writer and literary translator of both prose and poetry. She was born and raised in Cyprus and moved to the United States in 1975. Aysel is retired and resides in the Washington DC area. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Columbia Journal, Los Angeles Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Critical Read, Bosphorus Review of Books, Aster(ix) Journal, and elsewhere.