SISTERS UNDER THE SCARF;
By Boyd Tonkin
Arts & Book Review
July 27, 2007
Elif Shafak survived a court case and renewed her love for Turkey’s
multi-ethnic heritage. BOYD TONKIN meets a writer who weds the modern
and the mystic
After years of interviewing ego-driven writers, one truth looms
larger all the time for me. Authors who have precious little to say
or to fear always make the biggest fuss about their precious work and
their sacred little selves. Then there is the modest minority in whom
talent, courage and self-knowledge converge; who fight high-stakes
battles against dangerous enemies, but never succumb to vanity,
bitterness or dogmatism. Quietly eloquent at breakfast-time in her
Bloomsbury hotel, the Turkish novelist, journalist and academic Elif
Shafak explains how the Sufi strand of Islam that she loves helps
to ground her in internal as well as external realities. "It’s an
endless chain," she explains. "I’m both observing the outside world,
and observing myself. And this is something that perhaps I derive
from Sufism. Because I think the human being is a microcosm: all the
conflicts present outside are also present inside him."
Compared to the trivial spats that occupy so many writers in the West,
Shafak has had to endure enough external conflict over the past year to
extinguish many lesser lights. In September 2006, she joined the scores
of Turkish authors and intellectuals (notably, Nobel laureate Orhan
Pamuk) who have faced trial for the crime of "insulting Turkishness"
under Article 301 of the republic’s penal code. Inevitably, the
charges – pushed through by a cabal of hard-line nationalist lawyers
– stemmed from a fictional discussion of the mass deportations and
deaths of Armenians in 1915, as the Ottoman empire crumbled, at one
point in her new novel The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, £16.99).
The hearing took place just as her first child, a daughter named
Shehrazad Zelda, was born. Shafak was rapidly acquitted; a verdict
welcomed at the time by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(re-elected last Sunday). In court in Istanbul, she faced a Satanic
Verses- style charade, with the words of one (Armenian) character in a
novel of cultural and emotional polyphony plucked from their context
and treated as a manifesto. With one, crucial difference from Salman
Rushdie’s plight: the judicial harassment of authors in Turkey comes
not from Islamist forces but secular chauvinists.
Although she has had to walk through fire, Shafak carries herself
with an uncanny air of calm ("cool" would be misleading; she has
warmth as well as poise). Much of her mischievous fiction plays with
the treachery of appearances, the mutability of identities. What
you see is, consistently, not what you get. Take the head-scarf,
now worn by around 60 per cent of Turkish women. Shafak explores
its multiple meanings, with only some of them linked in any way to
political Islam. The Bastard of Istanbul, with the matriarchal clan
of the Kazancis at his heart, drama-tises the kind of Turkish family
where "Sometimes the mother’s covered and the daughter isn’t; one
elder sister is a leftist; another is very superstitious. We are very
much mixed, and I think there’s nothing bad about it." As she puts it,
"Islam is not a monolith. It’s not a static thing at all. And neither
is the issue of the headscarf."
Shafak herself could baffle stereotypes as gleefully as her characters
often do. Born in Strasbourg, to a family of diplomats, she had a
father who left home early on and a feminist mother (a foreign-ministry
official in her own right) who brought her up in Spain, Jordan and
Germany. She has taught in three American states and travelled all
over the world. The author of six exuberantly digressive novels packed
to bursting with jokes, tales and ideas ("carnivalesque", she calls
them), she first wrote The Bastard of Istanbul and its predecessor
not in Turkish but in English. "If it’s sadness I’m dealing with,"
she says, "I prefer Turkish; for humour, I prefer English."
Now here she sits in a Bloomsbury hotel lounge, peppering her
conversation with references to Johnny Cash or Walter Benjamin. An
archetype of the secular, Westernised Turkish woman? Not at all: her
involvement with the path of Sufism began as an intellectual quest,
but deepened. "Only years later did I realise that perhaps this was
more than intellectual curiosity, that it was also an emotional bond.
Sufism has always been more open to women, and it’s always been
Along with Sufism comes the passion for Turkish popular traditions –
in demotic language, folk-tales, customs and, above all, cuisine – that
enlivens her books, especially when women wield them. Her grandmother
read fortunes, warded off the evil eye and believed in the occult power
of djinns. "I realised that women who have been denied any power in
other spheres of life can find a means of existence in this little
world of superstitions, of folk-tales, of storytelling??? They are
the queen in that sphere, especially as they get older".
Then, of course, there’s the boundary-busting lore of food. In The
Bastard of Istanbul, a Turkish and an Armenian family tragi-comically
discover their kinship in part via the recipes each thought peculiar
to their tribe. "When I was writing this book I wasn’t interested
in the masculinist political debates," Shafak explains, but "in the
small things that mean so much in the lives of women. And when you
do that, you start to notice the similarities." It always amazes her
"how food can transcend national boundaries". As in the Middle East’s
"baklava wars": "The Lebanese say, ‘it’s our baklava’, the Turks say,
‘it’s ours’, the Arabs say, ‘it’s ours’??? It doesn’t belong to any
group. It’s multi-cultural."
If the new novel celebrates the potential togertherness of Turks and
Armenians, it also shows how divergent approaches to the past can
keep obstacles in place. Her rupture-happy Turks love to forget;
her history-haunted Armenians to remember. For Armanoush, the
Armenian-American from San Francisco who unearths her connection with
the feuding, eccentric Kacanzis, her own people think of time as "a
cycle in which the past incarnated the present and the present birthed
the future". Whereas for the Turks she grows to know (and even love),
"time was a multi-hyphenated line, where the past ended at some
definite point??? and there was nothing but rupture in between".
"If the past is sad, if it’s gloomy," Shafak asks, "is it better to
know more about it, to think more about it, or would you rather let
bygones be bygones and prefer to start from scratch? I don’t think
that’s an easy question, and I don’t think it has a single answer."
In general, Shafak suggests that the Turks would benefit from a lot
more past, the Armenians from a little more present. "I think human
beings need a combination of memory and forgetfulness."
She stresses that the unending dialogues that fill her fiction
leave its readers free to enter it by "multiple doors and multiple
windows". It’s a liberty that seems entirely wasted on some
single-minded jurists. "When I look at the whole year in hindsight,
that’s one of the things that hurt me most," she says. "Here we
are talking about multiplicity, and a plurality of voices, and for
completely political reasons one of these voices is being singled out
and seen as representative of the book. That’s something that hurt me
as a fiction writer." The Bastard of Istanbul had circulated without
impediment and sold around 150,000 copies prior to the case. Shafak
underlines that "My experience with readers in Turkey has always been
very, very positive???I get amazing feedback from them."
So she’s happy to be back amid the inspirational hubbub of Istanbul
after a couple of years of teaching in the "sterile, quiet and tidy"
liberal enclave of Tucson, Arizona. "This can be good if you want to
write a book," she reflects. "But if you want to establish a lifestyle,
I don’t think it’s good for art, for literature. Art needs conflict,
and other forces??? Cities like Istanbul, or New York, or London:
they might have more problems, they might make life more difficult,
but I think these are the right places for writers and artists."
For Shafak, art must struggle to safeguard its space of free enquiry
from the dead hand of doctrine: "Because the world we live in is so
polarised and politicised, many people are not willing to understand
that art and literature has an autonomous zone of existence??? I’m
not saying there is no dialectic between art and politics – there is,
indeed – but art cannot be under the shadow of politics. Art has the
capacity constantly to deconstruct its own truths… That’s again why
I think there’s a link between Sufism and literature. For me, both of
them are about transcending the self, the boundaries given by birth."
"I think it’s perfectly OK to be multi-lingual, multi-cultural,
even multi-faith," she adds when we talk of her current fascination
with the "labyrinth" of the English language. "In a world that’s
always asking us to make a choice once and for all, we should say,
‘No: I’m not going to make that choice. I’m going to stay plural’."
Staying plural in Istanbul can still exact a steeper cost than doing
so in Islington. Yet she has no shortage of allies. The people who
applaud Shafak and her freedom to break out of religious and ethnic
cocoons poured onto the streets in their hundreds of thousands
in January after her friend, the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant
Dink, was murdered by extreme nationalists. In the wake of Dink’s
funeral-cum-demonstration, she wrote that his killing "united people
of all ideological backgrounds" in "a common faith in democracy".
But the September trial, despite its successful outcome, did plunge
her into "a period of mourning". "I was very demoralised for some
time." Fiction has taken a back seat lately to Shafak’s typically
fearless journalism, and she has been developing a TV screenplay about
"honour killings". "At the moment, fiction waits in the background,"
she concludes, "but it’s the main thing for me, it’s the way I
feel connected to life. So I cannot keep her in the background for
Elif Shafak was born in France to a Turkish diplomatic family in 1971,
and as a child lived in Spain, Jordan and Germany before studying
in Ankara. She has taught Ottoman history and culture at Istanbul
Bilgi University and, from 2002, at American universities in Boston,
Michigan and Tucson, Arizona. A prolific columnist and fiction writer,
she has published six novels: The Flea Palace (shortlisted for the
Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) and The Gaze are available in the
UK from Marion Boyars. Her novel The Bastard of Istanbul (published
by Viking) provoked a court case in 2006 that led to her acquittal on
a charge of "insulting Turkishness". Shafak, whose daughter Shehrazad
Zelda was born at the time of her trial, now lives in Istanbul.