The People in the Striped Pyjamas

PEN 50th International Writers’ Meeting, Slovenia / “Wall, Fence, Border” / Çiler İlhan


My mother looked at my eyes with a clear sense of fear, and approached towards my ear to whisper; “She is Kurdish”. I must have asked her why this beautiful lady with the most beautiful green eyes I had ever seen did not answer my question, and just smiled at me shyly instead. I was in those days when my mind was blessed without any dirt of knowledge or information. I was yet an angel, a shaman, a prophet.

Remembering back now, I figure I must have been around age of six; the days that were leading Turkey to the evil coup d’état of 1980 which would cost many lives to be lost, many bodies and souls to be tortured, many families to be haunted by their lost ones forever, and a young generation who would be scared in the smallest sight of the military. In a land where they almost never legally existed, one of the worst times was yet about to come for the Kurdish.

“She can not speak Turkish but…”, added my mum, “She is a really nice person”. I was even more confused. Why then wouldn’t she be a nice person after all? She seemed wonderful to me! She kept giving me biscuits, milk, chocolate during the few hours we were there to visit my grandmother’s sister who lived in Uşak, an Anatolian-spirited city in the Aegean region. I had come much later to appreciate my grandmother’s sister for letting her son to get married to a Kurdish woman in such a conservative environment and in those years of terror. His son must have been really in love, and my big-aunt must have been “a really nice person”.

My father gave up politics for our safety, and for trade (perhaps in the other order). I remember him sending my older cousins abroad after the coup to save them being most probably shot or ending up in jail. There was this constant whispering in our house when I was eight years old. I understood nothing. I just felt the tension, and the fear, the constant fear in my mum’s eyes. In those years as well we were far from being a functional family but one thing (among the few) if I have to credit my parents with would be the unconditional love for reading, and people -which might not be the case for every raised-in-a-functional-or-even-a-loving-family person.


The tall gentleman who represents our landlord, to cite an example, who seems to be much more light-hearted than me at all times, sees no wrong in checking with our neighbour behind our back if we are three people in the flat as we have declared in the contract, or if we are a family of five (even with our cat Minnoş the number does not add to the imaginary total). And my “really nice” buurvrouw3 living on the other side of our flat, upon my question of what can be done against the invasion of these very little flies (that apparently are seen in the summer, and early fall in such marshy lands) sees no harm in telling me “you should not leave any food on the counter”.

One thing many “mainstream” readers might not perhaps compherend reading harsh texts, heavy-spirited books: Understanding a crime doesn’t mean approving it.

My Dutch friend who works at IND, The Immigration and Naturalization Service that decides on the admission of asylum seekers gave me this little book titled One in a Million, Eleven Stories About the People Behind the Asylum Application. When I picked it up to read, I thought I would read (unfortunately, and yet again, as there seems to be no end to it) heart breaking stories of those that were in the search of a safer land. To my surprise, I saw that the book was written by the employees of IND, COA (The Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers), and DT&V (The Repatriation and Departure Service). One of them was about Tisa; a mother of four who spent her entire life in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Her parents had settled in the camp as refugees from Rwanda in 90’s. Tisa was born in the camp, just like her own four kids. So for them all, the camp was the world, and the world was the camp.

And hence, it was really hard to adjust. Something they had to learn the first day, for example, was the fact that there was a room called “toilet” in this modern country, and that was the place to be used to get rid of the human body waste, instead of the yard. Then other problems arouse cause Tisa was not washing her kids often, she was not putting lunch in their bags to be consumed at school, she was not picking them up from school (because in the refugee camp kids were totally fine and safe to be “out” all day and then return “home” towards the evening). When Tisa gave birth to a new baby, her two school-age kids were placed in foster homes right away. But her supervisor did not give up; she herself was an asylum seeker from Eritrea. She had made it; blended in protecting her own identity, and now she was working for the Dutch government. So it was possible after all. Another surprise I came across with, reading the book: The amount of time, effort and care the employees of these three instutions spend on each one of the asylum seekers. They would listen to them again and again, find them doctors, lawyers, teachers if and when necessary, watch them, support them… Not just dump them in a refugee camp where they perhaps would live in poor conditions for years without any legal identity, just waiting.

Thanks to her supervisor’s patient, constant support, and no doubt Tisa’s own strong will, Tisa made it too. She managed to adjust to her new homeland while being able to keep all her children by her side. She rewrote her life in a totally strange land. At times, I keep wondering what my buurvrouw would say to Tisa if she saw her kids doing their needs in the garden. Understanding does make samenleven4 easier.


My life as a writer is pretty much about riding (or sliding on) a seesaw with two sharp edges; the Stefan Zweig side (where I feel increasingly depressed about the future of humanity), and the Colette side (oh well, you know what I mean). One of the best teachings I might have gained after many years of regular yoga (apart from flexible bones which are just as good) might be living in the moment, and doing your best in what ever you’re doing even if the world around you seems to be falling apart. I think the world that is within our perception will keep revolving most probably around power and profit on many levels in the years to come as it is now. I imagine if some dictator dies in a specific time and place, some other will be nourished in another time and place. I know my buurvrouw, hand in hand with her mission of “educating” me, will keep bringing us a (formal but nice) celebration card every Christmas. And no doubt from time to time, I will keep taking her a small bowl of some Turkish dish I make.

The Nazis might have built kilometres of barbed wire, and might have used kilometres of cloth to manufacture striped pyjamas; and because we simply do not learn anything from the history, there will always sadly be captured souls meticulously stripped off their identity, and humanity in various corners of the world… but I also know we just need to do what ever we’re doing. Writing. Maybe, through the healing light of words, we can inspire a few more to love others only because they are human. There were many people who hid their neighbours at the risk of losing their own lives at wars, at times of conflict. There are still plenty of “really nice people” out there. Maybe not enough to save the whole world, but at least to save one neighbour.

1 “Kid” in Turkish.
2 “Woman” in Dutch.
3 “Female neighbour” in Dutch.
4 “Living together” in Dutch.
5 “Author” in Slovenian.