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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Bastard of Istanbul -- Book Review

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, Penguin/Viking, 2007, p 360.
Knowledge is power, it is said, but conversely what good is knowledge if it does not allow you to change anything? What good is knowledge if it seeps into you like poison, spreading its tentacles like cancer, destroying instead of nourishing? Is it better, then, to become a willing participant in the conspiracy of silence if not ignorance? The Bastard of Istanbul compels you to ask yourself this timeless, ageless query. It places you squarely on the horns of a dilemma that has dogged Man ever since the first awareness of Sin dawned upon him. Its author, Elif Shafak goes where no man – certainly no woman – has gone before. By intertwining a bastard child’s willful ignorance of her unknown father with the passionate search of an American-Armenian woman for her roots in modern-day Istanbul, Shafak peels away layers upon layers from memories old and new to reveal gaping wounds where no new skin shall ever form.

The Bastard of Istanbul begins as a popular novel, written in a somewhat racy American English, with a cast of eccentric and highly colourful characters arrayed against the magnificent, monumental backdrop of Istanbul. However, somewhere along the way, something strange happens; the book stops being a potboiler in the best traditions of a ‘family saga’ and catches you unaware and unprepared. For, suddenly, beneath its beguiling simplicity and chatty informality you begin to discern an ominous pattern and a portent of dark shameful secrets lurking beneath everyday harmless idiosyncrasies. At the center of it all are two young women: pouty, petulant Asya, the bastard of Istanbul, and the gentle Armanoush who has traveled from America to Istanbul in search of her family’s roots. Asya, born of the most shameful of unions, is full of contradictions and unspent rage that she directs at everything and everyone. She lives with her mother Zeliha who runs a tattoo parlour, her clairvoyant Auntie Banu who has tamed a djinni who can tell her everything, Auntie Feride who is a hopeless hypochondriac, Auntie Cevriye who teaches nationalist history, a grim grandmother and an Alzheimer-ridden great-grandmother. An unknown family curse causes her family to lose its male members under exceptional circumstances. Among her friends at the CafĂ© Kundera where she goes everyday is the Non-nationalist Scenarist of Ultra-nationalist Movies, the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist who is forever under threat of being banned for offending Turkishness, the Exceptionally Untalented Poet, and the Closeted-Gay Columnist.

Little by little you realize that hidden in the book’s rich tapestry of many inter-twining strands lie cameos of haunting pathos and pictures of unimaginable suffering. The sights and sounds and smells of Istanbul – so evocatively and hauntingly described – are in actual fact not merely a scenic backdrop but vital props for the mise en scene that gradually unfolds before you taking you inexorably towards a terrible denouement. Also, behind all the smart talk of cultural clashes and chauvinistic jingoism, lies a far more haunting message, one that has been erased from collective consciousness.

All old-fashioned Turkish and Armenian tales begin with the same preamble: 
“Once there was; once there wasn’t. God’s creatures were as plentiful as grains and talking too much was a sin…”
This is not the only thing Turks and Armenians have in common. For centuries, they lived together, along with the Greeks and the Jews sharing many similarities in food, culture and habits till one day the differences between them began to outdistance the similarities. Suddenly one became the odar, the Other. The Revolution of 1908 changed everything. It began with the systematic singling out of the Armenians; first all Armenian men were conscripted to fight the Ottoman wars, then all Armenian soldiers were disarmed and gathered into labour platoons, and then started the deportations. The two most notorious milestones in the history of Armenian remembrance are the 1909 Adana Massacres and the deportation of 1915.  When the coming of the Young Turks, the ethnic minorities in Turkey thought they would finally find ‘a level playing field on unequal ground’ but that wasn’t to be. The Armenians were hounded out of their homes, thousands were wiped out in state-sponsored genocides, others were scattered with the wind, settling in different corners of the world, the largest settlement being in California. For all these years, generations upon generations of Armenians have nursed the anguish of their brutal severance, tortured by the imperviousness of the world at large and the Turkish people in particular to their misery, causing them to launch many a crusade for remembrance of things past – through cyber chat-rooms and through community initiatives.

But different people, unfortunately, perceive history differently. For the Armenians: ‘despite all the grief it embodies, history is what keeps us alive and united.’ For the Turks, history is subjective. In modern day Turkey reactions vary: ‘it’ didn’t happen because ‘we never heard anything like that’. Or:
‘It was a time of war. People died on both sides. Do you have any idea how many Turks have died at the hands of Armenian rebels? Did you ever think about the other side of the story? How about the suffering of the Turkish families? It is all tragic but we need to understand that 1915 was not 2005. Times were different back then. It was not even a Turkish state back then, it was the Ottoman Empire, for God’s sake. The pre-modern era and its pre-modern tragedies.’

What is an unhealed, open wound to Armenians young and old is something the Turks choose not to dwell too much on. And it is this blithe indifference, this uninformed forgetfulness if not outright denial, that most torments the Armenians. As one of the characters in a cyber chat-room frequented by exiled Armenians says:
‘All we Armenians ask for is the recognition of our loss and pain, which is the most fundamental requirement for genuine human relationships to flourish. This is what we say to the Turks: Look, we are mourning, we have been mourning for almost a century now, because we lost our beloved ones, we were driven out of our homes, banished from our land; we were treated like animals and butchered like sheep. We have been denied even a decent death. Even the pain inflicted on our grandparents is not as agonizing as the systematic denial that followed.’

The other charge leveled against the Turks by the Armenians is: ‘Since they won’t join us in our recognition of the past, we are expected to join them in their ignorance of the past.’ Whereas, the Turks counter this by accusing the Armenians of first generating, then suffering from ‘collective hysteria’, of having a warped, self-centred notion of time and history:
‘The Armenians and the Turks lived in different time frames. For the Armenians, time was a cycle in which the past incarnated in the present and the present birthed the future. For the Turks, time was a multihyphenated line, where the past ended at some definite point and the present started anew from scratch, and there was nothing but rupture in between.’
And so it goes on, this volley and counter-volley of accusations and recriminations.

In the midst of all this, what is a writer to do? Her job is not to find solutions but merely to bring issues to the fore, to talk of things that no one else wants to talk about. This Shafak does, bravely and passionately, putting forward the case of the Armenians in the face of collective unconsciousness on the part of her fellow citizens. Perhaps she is able to do so because she has spent a great part of her life living and studying abroad and distance has given her the courage and the vision that others might lack. For her outspokenness, Shafak, like the Nobel Prize winning Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, too has been charged with the statutory crime of ‘insulting Turkishness’. Like Pamuk, she faced trial though the charges under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code were eventually dropped. And like Pamuk her infamy at home brought her instant, tumultuous accolades abroad. To praise a good work for the wrong reasons seems such a pity but so in keeping with the polarized world we live in.


 
-- Rakhshanda Jalil

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