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The mysterious woman who inspired a bestselling novel

Sabahattin Ali

A romantic novel written more than half a century ago is so popular in Turkey that it has topped the country's bestseller list for the past three years. Young people today seem to relate to the author, who was repeatedly censored, jailed and ultimately shot in mysterious circumstances. Now, for the first time, Madonna in a Fur Coat is being published in English.

The young receptionist at my hotel is laughing as I approach her desk to hand in my key. She's just finished a phone call with my next interviewee who has given her strict instructions about helping me to find her address in Istanbul.

"That was one impressive, feisty lady!" says the young woman, hitching up her ripped skinny jeans as we wait for the taxi. I ask her if she knows she was speaking to Sabahattin Ali's daughter Filiz and she chokes on her chewing gum and clutches at my shoulder.

"But he's my hero!" she exclaims, putting her hand over her heart. "His books are my life!" She pulls out her mobile phone and starts texting with trembling fingers. Her eyes are pooling with tears.

"I have to tell my friends!"

When I arrive at Filiz's apartment and recount this tale to her, Filiz becomes very emotional too. For years she had to deny she was Ali's daughter - it was too dangerous in the 1940s to be associated with his outspoken socialist views. If anyone asked who her father was, her mother told her she must politely change the subject.

Sabahattin Ali had started two newspapers, both of which were destroyed almost as soon as they appeared. And his very popular weekly satirical newspaper Marco Pasha, which he edited and owned, became a target of government censorship because of its political editorials. He was twice imprisoned for his writing.

But today everyone wants to talk about Sabahattin Ali, especially the young for whom he's become a resistance icon, a man who dared stand up to the heavy hand of the state.

"Nothing has changed in Turkey," Filiz says bitterly. "The heavy censorship of the press, the imprisonment of journalists… now it's maybe even worse."

We drink tea from china cups and leaf through the family black and white photo albums.


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"He was my dearest friend," smiles Filiz showing me a picture of her father climbing a tree in a rather eccentric bow tie. She laughs. Filiz is always laughing.

"He was a joker and wonderfully childish too," she says. "And he taught me everything I know - before I even started school I knew the flags of all the different countries because we used to take long walks together in Ankara in the streets where the embassies are and he'd test me. He taught me history, how to swim, to fish…" She brightens as another memory floats to the surface.

"He was also taking my temperature and making sure I ate properly," she smiles. "He was terrified in case I should get tuberculosis."

She trails off. "I had a wonderful childhood," she says, "until it was brutally interrupted."

In 1948, when Filiz was 11, her father - who was desperately trying to escape the oppressive government in Turkey - was shot and killed on the Bulgarian border, allegedly by the Turkish secret services.

His writing survived him however, most notably his little novel Madonna in a Fur Coat which was translated into the languages of several countries that were then behind the Iron Curtain - it remains a set text in Bulgarian high schools to this day. Maureen Freely, who has just translated the novel into English, believes that one of the main reasons this author is enjoying such a comeback in Turkey is because he reminds readers that there has always been dissent, that there have always been writers and satirists who challenge the authorities with great courage.

"His spirit is alive with the young," she explains. "We see it in the students of the Gezi Park protests in 2013. It was Sabahattin Ali who gave them courage and he reminds them to protest without losing their sense of the surreal or forgetting how to love."

On the face of it, Madonna In A Fur Coat is just a largely unrequited love story set in the crowded streets and seedy cabarets of 1920's Berlin. Protagonist Raif, who is no Heathcliff - he's often described as being more of a girl than a man - has been bewitched by the feisty feminist artist Maria, alias the Madonna in a Fur Coat, and they embark upon an intense, platonic love affair.

It doesn't sound very 21st Century - yet for the past three years the book has topped the bestseller lists. And its readers are Turkey's youth. When Filiz goes into schools and talks about the book to teenagers she sees the boys, as well as the girls, cry.

"They realise there's something missing in their own lives, something they search for but cannot find in this now, now, now generation."

She shakes her head and hands me a small photograph of a coquettish, stylish woman standing in a tree-lined avenue a chaste distance apart from a man who is watching her admiringly, his hands in his pockets.

"We discovered some time ago that Maria, the Madonna, was a real woman," she tells me. "My father wrote to a female friend when he was in prison and recounted the whole tale of his passion for this German lady to her."

I tell her I wish I had a magnifying glass to study the image of Maria more closely. I see a bigger photograph of an exquisite woman and hold it out to Filiz questioningly.

"No, no!" she giggles "That's my mother! My father was always surrounded by dazzling women! He met Maria the German Madonna when he lived in Berlin for a year as a young bachelor in the 1920s."

She picks up a book of the letters he wrote about Maria and begins to translate one.

"We had wonderful long walks together and occasionally she would let me hold her hand… Sometimes she would turn her head with a meaningful smile that said she understood I was stupid!"

And Filiz is laughing again.

"Maria is the kind of woman we all want to be," she says. "With the feminist movement, we have all become a little bit Maria, fighting our battles."

I watch this white-haired, still beautiful lady sorting through her piles of old photographs. Maybe it's Maria's spirit, maybe it's her father's but something in Filiz has been driving her forward with her 60-year battle to get Sabahattin Ali's book translated into English. And now that she's won, I ask her if it is a political or historical message that she hopes the book will convey to Anglophone readers.

She looks up quickly.

"The message of my father's book is about sincerity in love," she corrects me. "Loving without expecting anything back. Love for love's sake."

We study a picture of her standing close to her father, his arm protectively around her shoulder.

"Love for love's sake," she repeats. "This is what keeps you going on living."

Family pictures all provided and owned by Filiz Ali

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