Logo Wide

My Cell in Istanbul — The City We Don’t See

"In Syria, I am envied. They say I live in Turkey and that I had luck others did not. I envied myself when I was stuck there. Istanbul was not so ugly yet."
My Cell in Istanbul — The City We Don’t See

I found myself living in a cell, sharing a few meters with half-strangers, who were not close to me because they were Syrians in a country I don’t know, but nor were they sufficiently strangers. Language, politics, and a shared flight toward any escape was all that brought us together.

What is important is that I reached Istanbul. I like to call the rooms of the hostel by the same name as the detention rooms I tried twice in Syria — these cells were filthy, just as they were, with little ventilation making it hard to breathe. Its inhabitants had various stories and nothing brings them together. They share the tiles, with many dialects, from many circumstances, with eyes that are difficult to read, all of us afraid of one another.

The fourth day

There was nowhere cheaper to stay in Istanbul. Aksaray is the shelter for half the migrants, fugitives, poor and laborers of the world’s most crowded cities.

The landlord was an expert in blackmailing everyone. He resembled a warlord in the south, north or east.

Between him and his customers, I spent most of my day in silence. Would I return to Syria? How? Am I the one who came to Turkey to join a training session led by activists? No. I am not an activist. Today I am idle to the extreme!

The 10th week

I was going to return to Syria but I learned that a detainee I knew had mentioned my name to some investigator in some intelligence branch — they certainly beat him, or maybe tortured him a little and he was soft, and so he mentioned me. Or maybe he was hard and so they had to torture him a lot. It’s not important. What is important is that after his confession going back to Damascus this time would reserve a ticket to heaven for me. Or maybe to hell. I don’t know.

The 23rd week

This small country, all of us all here — from Homs, Aleppo, Raqqa, Rastan, Damascus, Daraa.

One who is opposition to his bones, and a loyalist with his secret, with his grey face and position. There could be an Alawite among us, denying it out of fear of us, and an ISIS (Islamic State) member preaching and fraying our nerves, an anxious Kurd, a conceited Damascene, one from Deir-ez-Zor always making jokes.

By night one dreams of Europe, with its women and its living wages, while to his right one sleeps dreaming of more Turkish lira, which now trade for 200 Syrian pounds, and to his left a third has a nightmare and cries his mother’s name. I’m under the window, dreaming of my neighborhood, and of work that is not degrading. I do not sleep under the collective snoring that begins in my beloved cell.

The second year

In other cells there are other stories. A young man of 18 finds himself in Turkey fleeing from army conscription. You see him working by day and studying by night. I hear him telling his father over the phone how comfortable and happy he is and how “things are perfect.” How brilliantly he lies!

Another works in a factory in a district very far away. Every day he goes form Asia to Europe and back, gathering Turkish kurus in a money box beside the place where he sleeps.

He told me once — no doubt he regretted it — how humiliated and shamed he felt. Today he works like a mule, earning less than Turkish laborers, for longer hours, and then sends what he can to his family in Syria and lives on the rest.

Many of us don’t see Istanbul. We know nothing of it but its transportation and its vile population, and the many images of products in its streets.


And now what? It is as if I am in an airport and got off a plane to take another. There is no path to Europe. I have no money to pay to the smuggler who sells me the delusion of crossing to Greece. There is no path to Damascus, which I enter and forget, as if I’m invisible.

Should I be smuggled back in? Did they leave any opening to it, or have they blocked it?

In Syria, I am envied. They say I live in Turkey and that I had luck others did not. I envied myself when I was stuck there. Istanbul was not so ugly yet. The metro and the tram were still glittering.

Dozens of shops and stores, thousands of brands. Electricity everywhere, water that was not cut off, and streets without checkpoints or searches. Great space in a city developing with every minute. Today I am in a cell I cannot believe is in the same city which so fascinated me two years ago.

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

Helpful keywords