Dr. Lifesaver by Sabahattin Ali, translated by Aysel K. Basci

When farmer İbrahim's young wife struggles in childbirth, he appeals to the maligned and bitter local doctor for help, in this new translation of a classic Turkish short story.

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Asiye went into labor in the middle of the afternoon. She stopped threshing immediately, and went home. İbrahim returned home from harvesting after nightfall. As he was moving his two oxen to shelter near his house for the evening, he saw many children congregating in front of the house. Without even closing the gate to the shelter, he ran to the house, but the women did not let him in. His single-room home with a low ceiling was full of women from the village. Aunt Makbule blocked him at the door with her chest and said, "Go away! This is not a man's business."

İbrahim turned around, and just as he was beginning to wonder what to do, Aunt Makbule addressed the women in the room:

"Saving her will not be easy people, but we have sent word to the midwife in Köprüköy."

İbrahim turned to the old woman and looked questioningly into her eyes without saying anything. Then the woman blurted out:

"It was bad enough that you got a 15-year old, tiny girl to elope with you. 'God's order' you say... My foot! But why the heck did you get her pregnant within a year? Go to Köprüköy immediately and fetch their midwife. I have sent my son already, but the midwife may not come at his request."

İbrahim was glad that at this difficult time there was something he too could do for Asiye. He left the village quickly, alternately walking and running. Before he reached Köprüköy's threshing floors, he saw the village's elderly midwife approaching. As she walked, she tapped the ground with her cane, raising some dust. Aunt Makbule's son was scurrying alongside her, trying to keep up. İbrahim, blushing profusely, looked down as if he had done something wrong, and waited for them. The midwife saw him. From a distance of 20-30 feet, her toothless mouth opened wide and she yelled some things to İbrahim he could not understand. As she approached İbrahim, she touched his belly with her cane and comforted him saying:

"Don't worry. With God's help I will deliver your baby right away. Everyone knows how light-handed I am. Your mother had difficulty giving birth to you too. But look how you have grown - big and healthy, like a bullock..."

She then turned to the boy next to her and instructed him to run along, and tell the assembly attending to Asiye to prepare hot salted water.

İbrahim walked a little ahead of the midwife without saying a word. His face was still red. He was not yet 19, and he did not have the swagger of the other young lads in his village who had completed their military service, and on their return, had got drunk and started fights. He was still baffled that a year earlier, he had been able to convince Asiye to elope with him.

In reality, it was Asiye who had made advances toward him. But he did not want to admit this, fearing others might look down on him and say, "He went along with a girl's whim!" İbrahim's father had died when he was little, and a year ago his mother had also died, leaving him feeling very lonely. He needed someone who would work alongside him to farm the few acres of land he owned, someone to share his bulgur with, and someone who would milk his cows in the mornings and make the yogurt. It was then that Asiye, the orphaned daughter of their late neighbor, Kara Halil, began to smile at him whenever their paths crossed. To formally ask for her hand in marriage would have been very costly. So, instead, he decided to elope with her, and that's what he did. For a year now, he had no complaints. However, it was very unfortunate that Asiye was giving birth right in the middle of the harvest season.

After the midwife from Köprüköy entered the room, Asiye's screams increased substantially. They were so loud, they could almost be heard from the distant threshing floors of the village. İbrahim collapsed on a rock just outside the door. He kept scratching the ground with the midwife's cane, and each time Asiye screamed, he jumped up, only to collapse on the rock again. Frustrated, he bent down, picked up a stone from the ground and threw it at the children who were swarming around him.

"Get lost, you sons of bitches!" he shouted.

He did not know the exact time, but it was certainly long past suppertime. Asiye's screams had faded, and now she was silent. Eventually, the midwife from Köprüköy came out, leaning on Aunt Makbule's shoulder because she did not have her cane with her. İbrahim jumped up and took a step towards them. Then, the midwife put her hand on his shoulder and said:

"I can't save her my lad! I simply can't! The baby is large and her hips are small. You had better put her on a cart and take her to town. There is no other way."

İbrahim, feeling grateful that there was at least something he could do, and without thinking about much else, moved the oxen from their shelter and harnessed them to the cart. The women carried Asiye - with her mattress and covers - to the cart and settled her down.

Before urging the oxen to move on, İbrahim, his face still red, looked at the ground and asked the midwife:

"Did the baby die?"

"No, God forbid! But, I don't know; it is now left to the almighty God. The labor pains have stopped. Now, only a doctor can help Asiye."

İbrahim set off. Three hours later, when the town appeared, the dawn was breaking. Asiye was not making sounds anymore; but her sunken eyes were whirling continuously. By the time they had crossed the bridge over the creek that ran through the center of the town and arrived at the hospital gate, it was already daylight. However, there was no one around and the hospital's gate was closed.

İbrahim pulled the cart to the side, and not having the courage to knock on the gate, he began to wait for it to open. Slowly other sick villagers arrived. Some on horses, some in carts, with their husbands, wives, mothers, sons, daughters, some unconscious, some moaning, they filled the street. Without making any sound, not even talking to one another, they just waited.

When the hospital's gate opened, everyone rushed in together. İbrahim joined the crowd and waited about an hour outside the head doctor's door. No one paid attention to the order of the patients. The 45-something year old, Tatar-faced surgeon who had been serving as the head doctor of the hospital for the past 15 years was half-opening the examination room's door himself, reviewing the patients as if trying to identify which patient needed his help the most at that moment, and beckoning for the selected patient to go in. By the time it was İbrahim's turn, there was no one else left waiting. As he collapsed into his chair the very tired, Tatar-faced surgeon asked:

"What's wrong with you son?"

The surgeon was a specialist for every type of sickness in this hospital because there was no other private doctor on the staff. A government doctor was assigned to handle the internal medicine patients in exchange for a small fee, and two military specialist doctors were assigned to treat the eye and ear patients. However, other than the first day of the month, which was payday, these doctors came to the hospital very rarely, only when they felt like it. On these occasions they would briefly say hello to the head doctor, then leave. They did not even hold policlinics because they were afraid an important patient might need to be hospitalized, which would have required them to visit the hospital every day until the patient was discharged.

Every morning the sick people who gathered in front of the hospital's gate - sometimes as many as a hundred - were examined by the head doctor. Based on experience gained through long years of practice, he tried desperately to find a cure for every illness, and treated everyone, from trachoma patients to women giving birth. Because he was single, he slept in the hospital and spent most of his evenings doing his rounds in the sick wards, reading medical journals, and studying German. He was obsessed with not turning to the other doctors around him, and took it upon himself to serve his patients whenever they needed him. However, the doctor's idealistic attitude caused many of his colleagues to develop serious misgivings about him. Some even went as far as filing complaints of fraud against him to the authorities.

Because he was single, to avoid potential gossip, the doctor did not hire any female nurses or caretakers below the age of 50 at the hospital. However, this attitude was misinterpreted and there was totally unfounded gossip about him being gay. Because he did not turn any patient away, he also developed a reputation among the other doctors of being a show-off, and a know-it-all fool, who stuck his nose into things he knew nothing about. He lived in a small room at the hospital, without cigarettes and alcohol, and spent very little money. Part of his salary went on foreign magazines and books, and another part was used to buy medicine for the hospital, which had very limited external funding. Because of this, he became known as very stingy, and some people even accused him of being a thief. Pretty much everyone was certain that he had 80 to 100 thousand liras saved in the bank.

The head doctor heard about these allegations and was aware that even those close to him who should have known better, were treating him like a fool. Despite all of this, he continued to work in the same manner with great determination. He didn't do this because he was an idealist, or because he felt deep love for people around him, but rather because he was disgusted, almost sickened, by those doctors who were different to him. Even while treating patients he was fond of, he had an expression on his face that revealed a bitter lack of faith in his fellow men. It was as if his expression said, "If you had the opportunity, you too would be corrupt just like the others. I know this well, but because I am not like you; in treating you, I am conducting my duties as best I can, and will even go over and beyond what is required of me."

"What's wrong with you, son?" the head doctor asked İbrahim. Then he fixed his slightly slanted eyes on him and waited. İbrahim responded:

"Nothing is wrong with me... But my woman... she could not give birth... and I brought her here. She is on a cart outside, near the hospital's gate. Doctor, we are at your mercy!"

The doctor jumped up as if someone had hit his shins with an iron rod. İbrahim, in a state of fear, noticed that the doctor's face had suddenly turned pale yellow. Anxiously, İbrahim added:

"Two midwives tried... one from our village, the other from Köprüköy. They couldn't deliver the baby. After that, I brought her to you. I beg you, don't send us away!"

By now, the doctor had composed himself. He responded with a poisonous smile on his pale yellow face:

"It's a pity, but I will send you away, son!"

"Oh no doctor... Asiye is outside. She will die in the cart before we reach the village."

"Perhaps, that's what will happen. But I must turn you away."

"For God's sake, don't do this!"

That poisonous smile which persisted on the doctor's face surprised İbrahim the most. He asked the doctor, "What am I going to do now?"

"You will take your wife straight to the private maternity clinic on İstiklal Avenue. If you have money, the baby will be delivered there. Otherwise, pull your cart to the vacant lot next to the clinic. Either your wife will give birth there screaming, or on the road back to your village. And if she cannot give birth by herself, she will die. Do you understand?"

İbrahim was wondering whether this was really the doctor known as "Baba" (means "father") among the villagers. He looked at the doctor in astonishment. The doctor, noticing his look, continued:

"Why are you surprised? I am telling you everything honestly. I have been forbidden from admitting any woman to this hospital with women's health issues. Do you understand? I am only a surgeon; cutting legs and arms. I know nothing else."

As he talked, that smile, or more like it, that nervousness, which was totally incompatible with his taut-skinned, pale-yellow face, was pulling the ends of his lips down. Over many long years, he had surgically removed hundreds of babies from women's wombs. But now, it had been alleged he was sticking his nose into areas he was not trained for, and endangering the lives of women by admitting them to a hospital and providing health services to them in the absence of a qualified obstetrician. Doctor Mutena Cankurtaran (the last name means "lifesaver"), who owned a maternity clinic that had recently opened, had reported all these allegations to the governor to protect the health of the citizens. However, when the governor did not listen to him, he had complained to the Ministry of Health and written to his father-in-law, who held a prominent position in the government in Ankara. His father-in-law, for whom the current Minister of Health had worked as a health director some years previously - while the father-in-law served as governor in the province - saw fit to issue a warning letter to the head doctor in order to protect the citizens from the dangers he posed.

As these thoughts paraded through the head doctor's mind, he became upset with himself for almost losing his temper:

"You see son, we don't have a doctor to operate on your wife. So, take your wife to the maternity clinic, and appeal to Dr. Cankurtaran, so that perhaps he will operate on her for a little money."

Then, he turned his back and began to look at the sky from the window. İbrahim was not ready to give up. He insisted, "You are here, Doctor. I don't need anyone else. For God's sake!"

The head doctor, hardly containing himself, turned around and said angrily, "Son, I told you; it's impossible." He then noisily shut the door, left, and hid in his office behind closed doors.

İbrahim slowly sneaked out from the half-closed door into the hallway. He looked first to the left and then to the right, as if he was looking for someone to give him advice. He did not see anyone - just the flies that were continually whizzing and banging their heads against the side windows overlooking the garden.

Doctor Mutena Cankurtaran was a very polite-looking 35-year-old man with blond, curly hair and gold-rimmed glasses. He had a deep, sweet voice. He examined Asiye in the street as she lay in the cart. Then he made his way to the clinic, and said to İbrahim, "Leave the patient here and come with me." Inside his room, he sank into a chair behind his table, his blue eyes gazing at the door. After making some quick calculations, he said, "Brother, for 400 liras, I will deliver your baby. It will be a difficult operation with a lot of responsibility. Not every doctor is capable of doing this operation. Think carefully, make a decision, and tell me your answer."

İbrahim was surprised. He left the room, ran to Asiye, and yelled, "Dah!" to the oxen. Just then, maybe because of her labor pains, or perhaps because she realized that going back meant she would die, Asiye began to scream at the top of her voice. Those passing by began to gather around them. İbrahim turned the cart around and proceeded to the empty lot next to the clinic. Without saying anything, he released the left ox, and holding its reins, guided it to the marketplace. He sold the ox in the new inn for 130 liras and ran back to the clinic out of breath. He went to the doctor without first checking on Asiye, and put the money on his desk:

"For God's sake, please do something. Asiye is in no condition to wait any longer. Before anything happens to the baby, do what you can do!"

After counting the money carefully, Cankurtaran, pushed it away and said:

"Are you kidding me? Who performs a cesarean operation for 130 liras? Take your money and go to a midwife!"

"The midwives are useless doctor! I sold one of my oxen and this is what they gave for it."

At this point, İbrahim could hear Asiye's screams from the lot next to the clinic. As İbrahim gazed fearfully at Cankurtaran, the doctor's lips started quivering:

"Sell the other ox and the cart and maybe you will be able to raise the 400 liras," he said.

"I will give you anything you want. Take everything doctor. But, please do something, don't leave Asiye screaming..."

"Wait a minute. What if the ox and the cart will not raise 400 liras? Why don't you first sign a contract for me, for 270 liras? Then, while I am operating on your wife, you can go and raise the money."

Cankurtaran quickly wrote a contract and İbrahim signed it by pressing his thumb on the paper.

As Asiye was carried half-unconscious to the operating room, İbrahim guided the cart with a single ox, including the mattress and the blankets, to the marketplace. This time, no one offered more than 150 liras for both the ox and the cart. The ox was old and thin, and potential buyers, without even looking closely, said, "It's old, not even worth 100 liras!" İbrahim accepted an offer of 150 liras, and holding the money tightly in his hand, he quickly returned to the clinic. A nurse at the clinic gave him the good news that his wife had been saved. Doctor Cankurtaran ran into İbrahim in the hallway.

İbrahim immediately presented the 150 liras to him:

"This is all I was able to get. Please give me your blessing and accept it."

"What, this is not a poorhouse! Look, I worked hard, spent an hour and saved your wife."

"What about the baby?"

"The baby died. If something had not been done, your wife would have died as well within a few hours."

"The baby died? Was it a boy?"

"It was a boy."

"What will happen now?"

"God will give health to the next baby. You are both young; you will have other babies. Don't stand there. Go back to your village and raise the rest of the money. You must bring me 120 liras more."

"Where will I find it, doctor? It's impossible."

Mutena Cankurtaran's deep and sweet voice quickly changed.

"What does this mean? Are you trying to swindle me? I don't want to hear more. Your wife will be discharged in five days. If you bring the 120 liras you can take your wife back. If you don't bring the money, I will not discharge her. And for every extra day she stays at the clinic, I will charge you 15 liras."

İbrahim could not raise the 120 liras and Cankurtaran did not release Asiye. A week later, when İbrahim came to the clinic, Cankurtaran said, "You now owe me 160 liras. Tomorrow you will owe me 180 and the day after that 195 liras. As long as you don't bring the money, you will not get your wife back. Now, go away!"

Cankurtaran did not let İbrahim see Asiye even once.

İbrahim consulted with Asiye's adoptive mother, and they tried together to get Asiye back. However, the clinic's nurses and the head nurse threw them out of the clinic. They also slapped Asiye twice when she came to the top of the steps and put her back in bed. To avoid something like this happening again, they locked Asiye's clothes away.

Despite being quite late harvesting his crops, İbrahim extended the date by another day and once again went to appeal to Cankurtaran.

"Doctor," he said, "even if I sell all of my crops and we go hungry during the winter, I will not raise more than 50 liras. I beg you, give me Asiye so we can leave!"

"You talk too much," the doctor replied. "Anyhow, you peasants are all swindlers. It's a mistake to trust you. You can't take your wife unless you bring me 225 liras."

"Doctor, the baby came out dead! What are the 400 liras for?"

"Don't forget I gave you a signed contract. And, for each extra day she stays in the clinic 15 liras will be added. Now, go away."

Once again, İbrahim returned to the village without seeing Asiye.

It had been 15 days since the operation. Cankurtaran had no intention of letting Asiye go without getting paid the amount they had agreed to. But he was beginning to lose hope that İbrahim would be able to raise the money. So, he let one of the cleaning women who worked at the clinic go, and began to make Asiye work in her place. Asiye had not yet fully recovered, but she mopped the floors, emptied the trash, and cleaned the spittoons all day, wearing only a flimsy shirt and long underwear made of American cloth, the hems of which were tied at her ankles.

A few days later, Asiye's adoptive mother and Aunt Makbule made another attempt to rescue her. They entered the clinic and while they pretended to be talking to Asiye, they gave her a shalwar they had hidden under their own garments. The young woman put on the shalwar in a toilet and covered her head, but just as they were leaving together, the head nurse realized what was going on and grabbed Asiye's arm. After that, a tough squabble ensued in which Asiye, caught in the middle, was pulled roughly from both sides and started screaming loudly. Just then, a nurse came and removed Asiye's head cover. At that point the two old women decided not to pull Asiye away any longer, and they left muttering loudly. The next morning, İbrahim came to the clinic and appeared before the doctor:

"Doctor," he said, "my harvest is not done, my house is a disaster. Are you giving me my wife or not?"

Without looking up, Cankurtaran shuffled some papers in front of him and said:

"Bring 250 liras and take your wife. I will not ask for more."

"So, you are not giving me Asiye?"

With a softer voice, Cankurtaran said:

"I have already told you, brother. Without the money, I will not give her to you."

"In that case," İbrahim replied, "she is yours. There is no shortage of women in the village."

He then shut the door behind him and climbed down the stairs and left. He did not see Asiye, who was two feet away, hiding behind a wall.

Asiye's work finished close to midnight. After wiping and cleaning the toilets and the kitchen, she entered a small chamber at the end of the hallway which was separated by a curtain. She lay on a mattress on the floor and covered herself with a dirty, uncovered duvet. The chamber was lit with a soft light coming from the hallway's lamp. Asiye's black eyes swirled continuously, just as they had when she had traveled in the cart from the village to the town with her dead baby in her womb. It was as if she was searching for something on the white ceiling.

Suddenly, she jumped up, opened the small window above her head and looked out. The ground was about the height of one-and-a-half men. Without even thinking about wearing something over her American underwear and flimsy shirt, she jumped down barefoot. As she landed, she muffled her scream with her fist. Pain shot through her abdomen towards her back and legs. Feeling dizzy and holding her groin with her hands, she reached the street feeling as if she had been stabbed with a knife. Then she began to walk slowly toward her village. Once outside the town, the road to the village ran parallel to a large creek. As she got further from the town, the rush of the creek's water brushing the weeds on the edge of the riverbank sounded like a snake, and was getting louder. As the river approached the creek's bends, this noise rose and fell just like the sounds made by a crowded group of disorganized people.

As Asiye walked, it become impossible to control the pain she felt. So, holding her groin with both hands, and in unison with the sound of the waters, she whimpered repeatedly, "There is no shortage of women in the village!" Then, between the fingers holding her groin, she saw a lukewarm, black liquid leaking through her underwear of American cloth and trickling down her legs. When she noticed this, Asiye started walking faster. She walked swiftly, crouched over in pain and, with a voice that was getting increasingly louder, she screamed: "There is no shortage of women in the village!" Her screams merged with the noise of the creek on the left, and shot across the tops of the willow trees and the rocks on the right-hand slope. Her feet were wet from the blood spilling from her open surgery wound and sand stuck to her feet leaving a trail of black footprints behind her.

When Asiye arrived at the edge of her village, she had lost so much blood her head was bent forward, close to her knees. Despite this, she howled like a wild animal, "There is no shortage of women in the village!" Those who heard Asiye's screams immediately jumped out of their homes. By the time they reached her, Asiye had fallen down and was rolling on the ground. They took her away immediately, but Asiye did not see the light of the next day.


  1. What a heartbreaking tale. It has the feel of being the story for countless poor women. You just feel, as you read, the eyes of 10,000 village women in the same position. It’s a tale very well told.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Aysel K. Basci

  2. Nicely written, nicely translated story, though a little tragic…

  3. Poor Ibrahim and Asiye!
    It is hard for me to imagine a more broken healthcare system than ours in the states, but this healthcare system for Ibrahim and Asiye seems impossibly destructive.

  4. Never expected a happy ending, so not surprised.


  5. Sad ending, but great story. Enjoyed reading it.

  6. Beautifully written in a prosaic, but moving style that fits perfectly the sadness of this tale.

  7. Such a classic story, masterfully written. But that chilling ending…

  8. “No shortage of women in the village!” Poor Asiye…