Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a popular Turkish author, and a Rumi scholar, raised by her mother and grandmother, experiencing a childhood and influences that fed a fertile imagination. Now based in London, this is her tenth novel. Since reading The Forty Rules of Love, the first of her novels to actively reference her Rumi knowledge and learnings, I’ve read the excellent The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour and her nonfiction essay The Happiness of Blond People. She is an interesting and unique author because of her ability to straddle the thinking of both East and West, captured through engaging characters and storytelling; she demonstrated that for all our supposed differences, we are grappling with similar issues.

Three Daughters of Eve is an interesting, quietly provocative, philosophical novel. Shafak brilliantly sets up a character study of Peri, our Turkish protagonist, who on her way to a dinner party to meet her husband, decides to abandon her car in the middle of a traffic jam, in pursuit of an opportunistic handbag thief.

“Like a magic wand in the wrong hands, the traffic turned minutes into hours, humans into brutes and any trace of sanity into sheer lunacy.”

There is a violent, unsettling altercation after which she will continue on her way, shaken, but in one piece and determined not to change her plans. However this episode and the memories it awakens, will over the course of the evening, reveal her conflicted self and cause her to consider her life and address a significant event of the past, as the present madness moves forward towards astonishing heights.

“Though easy to forget at times, the city was a stormy sea swollen with drifting icebergs of masculinity, and it was better to manoeuvre away from them, gingerly and smartly, for one never knew how much danger lay beneath the surface.”

The three daughters are the three girls who appear in the photo that falls out of her handbag, referred to as the sinner, the believer and the confused. They are three young Muslim students at Oxford university, including Peri (the confused), who will all take the same class with Professor Azur and for a time they will live together. The girls all have different views, as do their fellow classmates, in the class about ‘understanding God’, a guided philosophical think-tank, where the handpicked students are forbidden to discuss religion, and must instead learn to express their opinions without the framework of doctrine.

Thus the novel is narrated across two timelines, the present day Istanbul (2016) en route to and at a bourgeoise dinner party and a period of time at the university in Oxford (2000).

Shirin is the liberal-minded sinner with no excuses or apologies for who she is, she loves to provoke reaction and is a willing accomplice come recruiter to the Professor’s circle, it is she who brings the conservative believer Mona and Peri together.

Shafak’s account of Peri’s parents and family is brilliantly characterised and aptly portrays why she is given the label of ‘confused’, they are complete opposites and over time become even more so, her two brothers are also polar opposite while Peri, loaded with empathy, understands all their positions, but can not stand in either of their shoes. Her plan to study in England, supported by her father and a cause of concern for her mother, was more of an escape for her than the brilliant opportunity her father imagined.

“They were as incompatible as tavern and mosque. The frowns that descended on their brows, the stiffness that infused their voices, identified them not as a couple in love, but as opponents in a game of chess…

Religion had plummeted into their lives as unexpectedly as a meteor, and created a chasm, separating the family into two clashing camps.”

Despite education, philosophical questions and new friends, Peri is a young, Turkish woman coming to live in a foreign country; as I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice the synchronicity between this combination of time, space and circumstance that made Peri vulnerable to manipulative intent and the protagonist of Claire Fuller’s excellent novel Swimming Lessons, a novel that chose not to explore the family background and cultural references of its young, female Norwegian university student, and rather focuses on the life that followed an equally significant turning point.

Here in Elif Shafak’s novel is an attempt to provide an experience with its cultural context. They are both young impressionable women having life-changing experiences in a foreign culture, with little support or guidance, they are lost in an age-appropriate confusion of emotions, one that is not on the same wavelength as the object of their desire.

Elif Shafak speaking in Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of Rayna Tzvetkova

While I enjoyed the novel and love Elif Shafak’s writing and philosophical questioning, there was a point very near the end, where events became too surreal for me to stay captured in the literary bubble of considering that evening dinner party in 2016 legitimate. It may be a satire of the Turkish elite, some of the things that happen and that are said are a mix of humorous and dramatic, however that’s not the tone of the novel as a whole.

I don’t know why the author chose to brings things together in the manner she did, for me personally it distracted from the thought process I’d spent the entire novel developing, and resulted in a suspension of belief, a kind of clocking out. I was waiting for the resolution, that’s where it was heading, and it does attempt to do that, however, as she not so convincingly demonstrates, humans can be unpredictable, and their actions often make no sense at all.

An excellent and thought-provoking novel that I recommend, despite a somewhat less well executed ending.

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Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

To purchase a copy via Book Depository, click here

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Portrait of a Turkish Family

The last of my collection of Turkish literature either brought back from Istanbul or lying on the shelf unread, Portrait of a Turkish Family was hailed as a masterpiece and I have to agree, a timeless classic, capturing a changing way of life as a consequence of war and fire, two of Turkey’s most fearsome destroyers of many families life of peace and tranquility that preceded them.

Orga IrfanIrfan Orga was born in 1908 in Istanbul, his mother only 15 years old, his father 20 and a younger brother Mehmet born two years later. His sharing of the family story really starts at age 5 when he remembers certain events with an amazing clarity, although many memories and conversations are clarified in greater depth later on to him by his mother. His curiosity and gift for eavesdropping apparent early on and perhaps those memories are so clear because life was soon to change dramatically.

By 1913, war was imminent and it was clear that Irfan’s father and only uncle were going to be called up. He sold the family business which hadn’t been doing too well, against his mother’s wishes, before being sent to war, in the hope that there might be something to come back to, a fresh start.

Ottoman uniforms WWI

Imperial Army workshop making uniforms

Once the men left for war, the family, raised and assisted by servants, continued largely in ignorance of what was to come, until food became scarce and their roles began to change.  As time went on, war forced everyone to adapt without realising that life would never again be as it had been before.

As change burrowed permanently into their lives, each would suffer in their own way, the coping mechanism of one often causing suffering in another.  Mother, mother-in-law, and the two boys were forced to move houses, downsizing significantly and rebelling against this change Irfan’s mother ripped the kafes from the windows of the house, insisting on letting the light in.

Kafes are the closely latticed harem shutters always used in Ottoman times to prevent passing males from catching glimpses of the women who moved within the house, not so much in evidence today, due to the neglect that makes them a significant fire risk. As back then, even today many families struggle to afford the upkeep required to take care of these houses, thus they crack, peel, rot and deteriorate into an unlivable state, when not consumed by fire first. We were fortunate to see this excellent restored house near Topkapi Palace and its equally neglected counterpart on Heybeliada Island below.

Without giving anything away, because it is so much better to experience the book, Orga captures the events and dramatic turning points of his family life with insight and brutal honesty. It is heart breaking at times, in particular the relationship between the mother and her sons, of which there is more focus than with his younger sister, born later and not always sharing the same experiences as the two boys.

The Orga Family

The Orga Family

Orga left Istanbul in his 30’s after a period in the Air Force to come to England and eventually married his Norman-Irish wife, amid controversy, not least of which it being deemed an illegal act in Turkey at the time, thus apart from one return visit, he was forced to remain living in exile in England.

His son Ateş Orga contributes a heartfelt afterword, sharing something of his father’s life outside the scope of his book, which focuses on those first 30 years of his life in Turkey.

A brilliant read, full of insight into life in a liberal Muslim family at the beginning of the 20th century and their challenges in coping with the effects of war and devastation.

It seems timely to be reading this as contemporary events overshadow historical reflections, provoked by the seizure of one of the last remaining urban parks in central Istanbul, it is being reclaimed to build a shopping mall and the citizens begin to revolt against what they perceive as authoritarian rule.

Ironically, on our last day in the city 2 weeks ago, we tried to find Taksim Square and Gezi Park, but all we found was a corrugated iron fence and a sea of humanity traversing the great shopping street between Taksim and Tunnel. It had been said that you haven’t seen Istanbul if you have not visited this area, but I was at a loss as to what I was supposed to find, all trace of restive beauty hidden and on the verge of replacement.

I am reminded of Pamuk’s Istanbul Memories of a City and the many pages of hüzün, that sense of melancholy that has hung over the city since Ottoman times and can’t help but wonder if the time for silent brooding is erupting into a new age of outspoken demonstration.CIMG4470

And all down the Bosphor, down, down to the Black Sea, ran the tall trees and the old wood houses that suit the skyline so well. If I turned my head to the left there on the hilltop, I could see Dolmabahçe Saray white and artificial as a wedding cake in its peaceful setting. Miniature mosques front the water’s edge and there at the end of all the shining palaces lay Istanbul – my Istanbul that will forever hold something of my heart. Grey it would look from this hill and the smoke from the boats would lie over it like a soft veil and tall and tapering are the minarets that enchant the skyline, and from my hill I would see, being the Mosques, the Marmara like a faint line of thread. Irfan Orga

The Dervish by Frances Kazan

DervishSo what is a dervish you might ask? And why does Frances Kazan use it as her book title?

“Are the Sufis and the dervishes the same?” I asked.

“The two are like the threads on a loom. She replied. “Different colours, varying textures interwoven together to make a single carpet of immeasurable beauty.”

Perhaps it symbolises the unknown aspect, that thing just beyond our rational ideas, the reason we do certain things that can’t be explained. Not quite insanity, but on the way towards it and yet it is also that part of our nature that makes us feel most alive, that promises to make life interesting. When we choose not to indulge it, our lives, in consequence are more predictable, more balanced and much less exciting.

The protagonist of Frances Kazan’s novel Mary is an artist who lives in New York and is looking back on that period in her life just after she became a young widow, her husband was killed in France in WWI in the Battle of the Somme. Restless in New York, she responds to her sister’s invitation to join them in Istanbul where Connie’s husband works for the American consulate. In the last days of her time in Istanbul, the dervish becomes her sole subject to draw and paint, something about these mystical humanists resonating within her psyche and manifesting in her drawings.

220px-Edib_Halide

Halide Edib

The story is set in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire post World War I, the country is occupied by the British which has spawned the establishment of the Turkish Nationalist movement. While the Americans are Allies of the British, they aren’t directly involved and therefore must exercise cautious diplomacy with whom they make friends. They have tentative relations with Turkish nationalists, but political tensions in the city are high and the two sisters have been warned to stay close to the consulate.

Unlike her sister who listens to that advice, Mary refuses to stay behind the protective walls of the embassy; a new city that embraces so many languages and cultures beckons her. These daring excursions result in her becoming witness to the murder by a British officer of the young son of Turkish Nationalist and to her being wanted for questioning by the British Army.

This encounter is a turning point in her visit, after which she befriends the Turkish novelist and feminist political leader Halide Edib Adivar who supported Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) in the resistance against the occupation of their country by a foreign power and she will also meet and more than befriend the father of the young man who was killed.

“I was born in the harem, in the same room as my mother and her mother before her. Once upon a time we felt safe within those old walls; I fear we dwelt in illusion.”

Mary’s is with Halide and her husband Dr. Adnan, who has been appointed as Minister of Health in recent elections, when they hear there is to be a coup d’etat, which put them all in danger and forced them to flee. It also resulted in a warrant for Mary’s arrest and set her off on an overland adventure with her friends.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

France Kazan has written this story around a subject that is clearly one of her passions in life, the history of the Ottoman Empire and many of the characters are real historical figures themselves. Not just a scholar of Turkish studies and an admirer of Halide Edib, but her late husband the film-maker Elia Kazan, was born in Istanbul. In his book and film by the same title, America America, he tells how, and why, his family left Turkey and moved to America.

It is an entertaining read, not too burdened with political and historical recounting. I found it a little difficult to believe the somewhat complicated relationship between Mary and Mustafa Pasha, and her decision to stay when her sister and husband decided to leave. Perhaps grief makes us less sensitive to risk and more inclined to reckless adventure.

And those whirling dervishes? I will leave the last words to Rumi:

Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi Order in the 13th century said the dancing dervishes represent the solar system and the planets that revolve around the sun. At the same time that they are immersed in their own microcosmos, they create new worlds and make contact with eternity.

The fact that humans can join the choreography of the cosmos by dancing to its rhythm is an awareness that humanity has had since ancient times. One can say that all dance, in a certain way, is yielding the body to the earth’s movement. Slowly, as the body sways and the blood rhythm changes, consciousness also changes. With the revolution paralleling that of the cosmos, the mind assumes a freedom from the earthly bondage. It would be as though the mind begins to concentrate on the depth of existence on its own, while the body has been given away to the earth.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided kindly by the publisher via NetGalley.

Patasana: Murder at an Archaeological Dig

PatasanaVisiting another country is an opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to read outside one’s preferred genre and to gain new historical perspectives. So while I am already a fan of the more well-known in the English language writers, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, Ahmet Ümit was completely unknown to me and while mystery isn’t my preferred genre, a book that introduces us to new places and offers insights into other cultures and their way of life is certainly appealing.

I asked in the bookshop in Istanbul for A Memento of Istanbul, another book written by Ahmet Ümit, but it wasn’t available. The only book they had in English by him, had to be retrieved from the basement. I’m not sure if that is significant or not, although having got to the end of the book and knowing the controversy surrounding the treatment of the Armenian population within Turkey, allowing his characters to thrash out their opposing views,may have courted controversy.

In 2012 France tried to make denial of the Armenian Genocide a criminal offence, souring relations between the two countries, however the draft law was struck down.

HIttites

Ancient Hittites

Patasana was the son and grandson of a palace scribe, who wrote his story and that of his father and grandfather onto tablets that were then sealed and are now being uncovered 2700 years later.

Each alternate chapter is a translation of one of the tablets, so while we follow the contemporary story of the archaeological dig of an antique Hittite settlement in southeast Anatolia and it’s team members, we also learn what Patasana lived through, the confessions of a young scribe, his life, love and regrets.

Hittite Chariot

Hittite Chariot

“He was the chief scribe of the palace, a very important government position among the Hittites. These men were extremely well-educated. They knew several languages. Their duty was to compose texts as dictated by the king, not to write down their own feelings, thoughts and memories. But that didn’t keep the scribe Patasana from writing down his own story. That’s why the tablets are so important….We believe what we have here is the earliest documentation of humankind’s non-official history….We think he’s telling the story of the ancient city’s final days. And together with the history of the city, his own personal history as well.”

Unsure whether it is related to the dig or not, a local elder is discovered dead, having fallen, or been pushed from the minaret of the mosque, a man in monks clothes seen fleeing the scene. Esra, the leader of the team is paranoid about upsetting locals and having her first dig cancelled before they have uncovered all the tablets and participated in an important press conference being held to satisfy their funders. Her insistence on knowing everything and getting close to the police captain makes her just as suspicious as virtually every character who at one time or other she imagines as a suspect.

Euphrates River, Anatolia

Euphrates River, Anatolia

Whilst it could have done with some editing down, it is an enjoyable and I believe popular book. It is interesting that the author was born in Gaziantep, southern Antolia and while on a family picnic near the Euphrates River saw an excavation site, an old Hittite city, prompting him to immerse himself in researching the area, its people and customs and then write this book.

Ahmet Ümit himself sounds like an interesting character straight from a novel and it is clear that his own life has inspired many of the stories and characters he has written. As a young man he was a revolutionary political activist and a member of the Turkish Communist Party and he illegally attended the Academy for Social Science for a while in Moscow.

In an interview with Maria Eliades in Time Out Istanbul in 2011 he said:

“In this land, there’s a problem with history. The Turks came here 1,000 years ago but the land has a history that is 200,000 years old. Generally, the government believes that history began 1,000 years ago. They do not count the history of people who were not Muslim. In my novels, I’m trying to show how these people influenced the history and where their position was. I’m trying to emphasize how the Hittites, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Armenians, Greeks and all the different groups affected it. Turkey needs this: an independent view of people, regardless of their race or religion. That’s the basis of my books. The detective part of the story is a catalyst for explaining the untold part of the stories.”

Istanbul Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

IstanbulAlthough I carried the book  to Istanbul and back, there was no inclination to read it while I was there, I started it on the return plane journey, the appropriate occasion to do so, for Pamuk’s Istanbul is laced with more melancholy than the city I visited and I realise with hindsight, the importance of constructing my own unfettered impressions, free of this philosophical consequence of the decline of a grand empire and the inclination of its progeny to feel somewhat bereft at missing out on an era when their prominence was that much greater than it is today.

However, I remain as intrigued about the author now as I did before I started the book, it is a unique form of memoir, more of a nostalgia trip through selective memories of his childhood and his city, sharing anecdotes from both that formed him into the writer he is today.

The imagination features large in Pamuk’s  life from a very young age, when he was five-years-old he was sent to stay with an Aunt on his own and she used to point at a picture of a child and say it was him. He came to know him as the other Orhan and while he knew it was not him, this shadow of himself never left him behind. Neither did he ever leave the city of Istanbul in the fifty years up to writing this book.

CIMG4275“But the ghost of the other Orhan in another house somewhere in Istanbul never left me. Throughout my childhood and well into adolescence, he haunted my thoughts.”

Though he never left the city, he read many works by writers and poets who published impressions of Istanbul, Gustave Flaubert, the poet Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Pierre Loti, Edmondo de Amici and laments that in the same period they were writing about the city,  little was written or painted by its own artists and writers, therefore, whilst the work of others is familiar, it remains an outsiders perspective and does not quite capture the essence of how the Istanbullus see themselves.

Pamuk often visualises the city in black and white and throughout the book on nearly every page are photographs depicting the city in monochrome. He spends an entire chapter describing Hüzün, the Turkish word for melancholy explaining how if differs from sadness and finishes by almost convincing the reader that it is something close to a virtue, absorbed with pride and shared by a community.

“the hüzün of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry, it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state, but a state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating.”

“… hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea kettle has been spouting steam on a winter’s day.”

CIMG4331

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar

I did not come to Istanbul expecting to see sultans, dervishes or crystal chandeliers, though there are traces of them all if you seek them out. I came to see a city that comfortably exists while straddling two sides of a significant divide.

Bosphorus

The Bosphorus with the Castles of Europe and Asia by Thomas Allum

The Bosphorus, that deep channel of powerful surging water and current that separates two continents is deceiving. The reasonably short distance from one side to the other, only 2 to 3 kilometres, the fact that it embraces one city reminds us that there is less than we might think between the people who inhabit each continent.

A deep and powerful separation of continents, yet humanity passes across it with ease. Great divides can indeed be overcome.  The streets of shops and the Grand Bazaar attest to that passage of traders and pilgrims who have entered and passed through the city over hundreds of years.

It takes until the very last chapter before we meet the more mature Orhan who will become a writer, because unlike many born to write, his first love was painting and he shares much through his observation and study of artists who painted his city, something he practiced prolifically in his youth. The demise of this early calling occurred not long after his teenage muse was packed off by her family to Switzerland, his mother’s relentless cautions against pursuing the life of an artist transforming his rebellion against completing his architectural studies into announcing:

“I don’t want to be an artist.” I said. “I am going to be a writer.”

CIMG4495

“I was, as I had begun to discover even then, the sort who could always wear the same clothes and eat the same things and go for a hundred years without getting bored so long as I could entertain wild dreams in the privacy of my imagination.”

A treat for admirers of Orhan Pamuk’s work and those who have had the good fortune to visit his wonderful city, which is not nearly as melancholic to the visitor as it is to a philosophical resident.

Next up, murder at an archaeological dig! Time to leave Istanbul and travel inland with Ahmet Umit.

Honour

US edition cover

US edition cover

Elif Shafak comments in her essay on identity The Happiness of Blond People about the stereotyping or tendency of books written by or about women from the East, that they often sport covers with an image of a veiled woman.

It is something that makes her other books stand out, because they don’t do that. The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love (at least the editions that I read) have enticing covers that invite you to enter another world, depicting vibrant, warm colours and referencing stunning forms of Eastern architecture, curves, arabesques, spires and sparkling elements.

When I first spied the UK cover of her new book Honour I thought ‘Oh no’, not one of those books – I was disappointed as it looked like it belonged to that genre, the misery tale of a woman’s lot in a society where the veil is used as a symbol of varying degrees of oppression. That was before I read and reviewed the essay I refer to above, in which she cites those books with similar disdain.

It was some comfort to see that the US edition has nothing like that cover, preferring the safe symbolism of the open arches, inviting us in to take a look within its pages, no veils, no dark colours, no fear, no buying into outdated stereotypes. It would be interesting to know which cover  attracts the most readers.

Honour

UK edition cover

There is a plethora of lifestyles among Muslims, a variety of personal stories to consider; and yet only some of these stories come to the fore. They almost always happen to be the most problematic ones: we seldom hear about happy Muslims, in particular about happy Muslim women. Honour killings, female circumcision, child brides, the veil, gender segregation, lack of freedom… Gender is the number-one topic where the so-called Clash of Civilisations is manifest and crystallized. It is no coincidence that a considerable number of books related to Islam have female images on their covers, and in many, if not most cases, these females appear to be sad, silenced, secluded or suffering. Women with their mouths covered, or eyes peeking out from behind their hijab, or heads bowed miserably down… Elif Shafak, The Happiness of Blond People

Book covers aside, this is a very credible story, one that many women who have uprooted their lives and brought up or given birth to children in a foreign culture may relate to. Narrated by her daughter Esma, the story centres around the life of Pembe, identical twin to Jamila and one of eight educated daughters of a family raised in a Kurdish village, the desire and constant striving for a son eventually taking the mother in childbirth.

Life here is a precarious path for young woman, where one wrong step can easily lead to condemnation. One of the twins dreams of a life far away, the other seeks to learn from those around her, from nature and experimentation. Love is the sacrifice that will enable them to attain their so-called dreams.

Their adult lives are lived far from each other, Jamila becoming a renowned village midwife and Pembe, fulfils that desire to live elsewhere, travelling further than she ever dreams, her husband Adem, from Istanbul, brings her to live in East London where they will raise their three children Iskander, Esma and Yunis.

To her the future was a land of promises. She had not been there yet, but she trusted it to be bright and beautiful. It was a place of infinite potential, a mosaic of shifting tiles, now in a seamless order, now in mild disarray, for ever re-creating itself.

To him the past was a shrine. Reliable, solid, unchanging and, above all, enduring. It provided insight into the beginning of everything; it gave him a sense of centre, coherence and continuity.

Through the story, which alternates between 1940’s Kurdistan and 1970’s London, we come to know each of these family members and begin to understand how their individual and collective experiences has moulded them, Pembe and Jamila in their traditional village with its elders, family, traditions, superstitions; Adem with an alcoholic father and angst-ridden mother who eventually abandons her children, unable to cope with the Jeckyll and Hyde character of her husband. Each has been in some way touched by the repercussions of a ‘loss of honour’.

Iskander is raised in London with memories of his early life elsewhere, carrying memories of disappointment like molten rock deep within. He is sensitive to a vibe between his parents he doesn’t understand, something that makes him want to act. When his father leaves home and it becomes clear that his mother is moving on, the pressure of that molten rock within him causes him to explode.

RumiHonour touches on many great themes and then excels in sharing all the familial details, the interactions between its characters, the people and culture around them, to the point where we identify with each character as we spend time seeing things from their perspective and then experience a sense of anxiety knowing that these perspectives are likely to clash and the outcome will not be good.

And then there is Zeeshan, a character who arrives unexpectedly, but one I recognise instantly, knowing of Shafak’s interest in Sufism and the work of the 13th century poet and philosopher Rumi; Zeeshan is a gift and offers a lifeline to Iskender representing hope.

Elif Shafak is a writer with an interesting perspective, as she herself says, she has one foot in Istanbul and the other travels and makes connections in cities around the world.

Writing that crosses cultures and observes characters doing the same invokes a sense of empathy, she is a writer whose work I will be following and whose city I look forward to visiting in May this year.

Elif Shafak speaking in Sophia, Bulgaria Photo courtesy of Tayna Tzvetkova

Elif Shafak speaking in Sophia, Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of Rayna Tzvetkova

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.