Books: Love & death in a Turkish melting-pot

The Independent (London)
March 19, 2004, Friday



by ALEV ADIL The waterfront of Salonika in the late 1930s

The anxieties and fixations of adolescence are universal. Like
teenagers today, the group of youngsters in mid-20th-century Turkey
whom Moris Farhi brings to life in his latest novel are preoccupied
by burgeoning sexual desires and the contradictory need to impress
parents and peers. The secret rituals of growing up, the first crush,
the bonds of friendship, the desire to understand and make one’s mark
on the world, take place against the darker canvas of Turkish and
European history between 1939 and 1959.

Like the Turkish national identity he describes, Farhi’s novel is a
mosaic of ethnicities: Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Gypsies, Greeks,
Levantines, Pomaks. The weave of voices and stories that emerges
speaks of the interconnectness of fates. While their parents
reconcile themselves to the betrayal of Ataturk’s idealistic vision
of Turkish identity, the children have their own battles.

Tubby Rifat, a convert from Judaism to Islam, is desperate to join
Naim’s neighbourhood gang and secretly in love with Naim’s sister Gul
de Taranto: a beautiful Jewish girl who has premonitions of the
genocide that will sweep across Europe. Bilal and his friends hatch
an ill-fated plot to save his relatives from the Nazis in Salonika.
Selma has to deal with the pain of first love, and the destitution
forced upon her family by the tax on Jews, Armenians and Greeks
imposed in 1943. The neighbourhood rally round: Sufi musicians,
wrestling champions, gypsies, all do their utmost to help their
Jewish neighbours.

Farhi evokes the idealism and erotic energy of male adolescence.
There are strong women here too, as driven by desire and ambition as
their male counterparts. Havva the orphan circus girl is quietly
relentless in her pursuit of Adem the trapeze artist. Handan is
determined to be a great musician. Madame Ruj the matchmaker is a
fiercely independent career woman.

Farhi’s novel emphasises the solidarity and warmth of Turkish culture
as well as its political shortcomings. The contradiction at its heart
is that “the Turks’ innate nobility tempered with the best of Islamic
teaching makes them the most tolerant people in the world, while the
plethora of complexes instilled by the worst of Islamic teaching
could – and sometimes did – turn them into ogres”. Death and desire
are the two forces that forge the characters’ destinies. The novel
begins and ends with the spectre of death, for, as a Turkmen circus
storyteller recounts, death demands courage from even the most
ordinary individual. Ethical and erotic energy are inextricably
intertwined; political resilience is nourished by sexual intimacy.

Poetry, especially Nazim Hikmet’s verse, is a vital presence in the
novel. Hikmet, perhaps Turkey’s greatest 20th-century poet, was
labelled a “romantic communist”. Farhi has inherited that
romanticism; Young Turk is infused with a passionate humanism.

Both a novel of ideas and an entertaining adventure story, this is a
prodigiously researched and lyrical celebration of the multicultural
heritage of Turkish history. Young Turk recounts Turkey’s past, but
also provides a vision of the present and future potential of Turkish
national identity.