Book club: The Bastard of Istanbul

Elif book cover one

Set in Istanbul and Arizona, switching between the past and the present easily, with a good Djinn and a bad Djinn helping the story along, this sometimes dark but perceptive novel is a rewarding read.

Asya and Armanoush explore the streets of Istanbul, unaware of the secrets lurking in their shared history, while the cast of mostly female characters countdown the short life spans of their male counterparts.

The descriptions of Turkish and Armenian food left me curious and hungry, and the portrayal of the diversity of Turkish women, who often share the same upbringing but end up on different ends of the religious and cultural spectrum, was revealing.

The contradictions between the 7 ladies living in Istanbul is enough food for the imagination, with half of them sticking to their secular beliefs while the others hold on to Islam with equal fervour, both sides managing to live harmoniously and lovingly under one roof.  Four generations of Turkish women, supporting each other and driving each other crazy while history unfolds.

Stories of the Armenian plight in Turkey spur the action, as the half-Armenian Armanoush returns to Turkey to learn more about her family’s past before they were forced to flee to America for the hope of a better life.  She hopes to find her grandmother’s old house, and a piece of her own identity in the process.  Living with being half-American and half-Armenian, Armanoush hopes to put together the pieces of her sometimes conflicting identity to better understand her place in the world.

What Armanoush does not expect is that while the Armenians have internalised and lamented over their troubled history with the Turks, it seems that the Turks have all but forgotten that there ever was any issue between the Turks and Armenians, a fact that seems to enrage slighted Armenians even more.  Why won’t the Turks just own up to their ill treatment of Armenians and offer an apology?  But can we expect Turks living in a new and different Turkey to pay for the sins of their forefathers?

Of the 4 sisters living in the Kazanci household in Istanbul, Aunty Zeliha with her short skirts and wild hair seems to be the centre of the action, having borne the “bastard” daughter that the story is named for.  But it is actually her sister, the Hijab-wearing soothsayer Banu who holds true power.  Having somehow managed to enslave a good Djinn and a bad Djinn, she tortuously uncovers secrets from the buried past that may have best been left alone.  The lure of knowledge is often too great, without the cost of knowing being weighed.

The issue of histories forgotten, overlooked, relived, remembered and held onto is a big theme, with the question at its centre: should history be forgotten and should we move on?  What purpose does re-hashing the past endlessly, serve?  Can a nation apologise for its past mistakes, and can that apology have any true meaning or impact?

This Turkish author does a great job of exploring big issues while still weaving an enjoyable story, peppered with colourful characters and dripping with delicious descriptions.

Shafak says that she wrote the book in English, even though her native tongue is Turkish, because it allowed her to distance herself from the past of her country, and the cultural baggage that comes with that.  It’s interesting that she gets a professional translator to then translate her work back into Turkish, before she rewrites the Turkish version herself.

I rarely adhere to the clichéd advice about not judging a book by its cover.  If a book has an awesome cover, I generally take a look.  If the cover looks boring, I often skip it.  Luckily, penguin publishers has a colorful set of covers for Turkish author Elif Shafak’s books, which lured me into peeking inside (and then buying) one.  Guess it’s time to go and look for some more.

Travel diaries: Turkey

Take me to Constantinople…

Narrow cobbled streets, steep downhill to get to our little hide-away hotel, just a few hundred metres away from the Grand Bazaar.  We had arrived.  The city was abuzz with Istanbulites, workers, tourists, migrants, the humid heat sticking to our skin in warm welcome.

An afternoon stroll to the Suleymaniye masjid was a heaven-sent first sign that there would be ladies’ facilities in almost all of the many masjids around Turkey, making it easy to keep going all day without having to stop off to find a spot for Salaah.  The numerous Camii signs (pronounced Jami) were easy to spot and it seemed that masjids were everywhere.

The masjids in Turkey are beautiful, and it wouldn’t be hard to mistake some of the other masjids around Istanbul for the famous Blue Mosque, since the exterior of quite a few have those same grey domes and minarets.

Rather, it is the magnificent blue and green ceramic tilework inside the historic mosque that gives it its fame and its name.  Across the pretty gardens from the Blue Mosque is the Aya Sofia, once a church, then a masjid, now a museum… you see incongruent Arabic writing near the restored paintings of Jesus and the archangels.

But it is a relief that, while the Aya Sofia may now be a museum and tourist attraction, the Blue Mosque, though equally attractive to tourists, is also a functioning masjid, where we stopped off at least 4 times to pray when we were nearby.  For normal prayer times, the Husband tells me that there are around 3 safs, but at Jummah on our first Friday in Istanbul, the place was packed.  The upstairs ladies’ section was opened, and I climbed narrow winding stairs and passed by a few other rooms before I found a spot to squeeze my perspiring self.  The main inside section filled up quickly, which meant that the courtyard outside was also used for prayer.

Before attempting to explore the huge Topkapi palace, we strolled through the adjacent Gulhane Park, where shady gardens provided peeks at the walls and terraces of Topkapi.

Apart from being the living quarters of the Sultan and his family, some of the best artefacts that I have ever seen in a museum are held at Topkapi, and it was worth waiting in line to see the room containing the sacred relics…

I could not believe my eyes, I am still in wonder at the fact that inside the relic room we got to see, not only the swords of the 4 Caliphs and strands from the beard of Muhammad (SAW) but also, the sword of Dawud (AS), the turban of Yusuf (AS) and, my favourite, the stick of Moosa (AS)!!!  How cool is that?

It was so amazing that it seems unreal – it’s quite understandable to me that they would have preserved things from the time of Nabi (SAW) since that history is only around 1400 years old, but the other relics were unexpected and a huge treat.  We also got to see the abaya of Fatima (RA), which was a sober reminder that a Queen of Jannah wore a hessian, thick, wide, beige outfit, patched in places.

Interestingly, the mother of the Sultan wielded a lot of power over the members of the Sultan’s household, which just goes to show, that even Sultans can be mommies-boys.

It’s good that so much Islamic history was preserved by the Ottomans, but most of the historical side of Istanbul is a stark reminder of how great the Ottoman empire once was, how much power the Muslims once had, and how the quest for ever-increasing worldly gain will ultimately lead to ruin.

Taking a ferry to the other side of Istanbul, we explored the area of Eyup, in which another famous masjid and graves are surrounded by a bustling little area, with its own unique atmosphere.  Ayub Ansari (RA) is buried here, and his name has been given to the area and the masjid built in his honour.  This Sahaba is the Ansaari man who opened up his own home for the Prophet (SAW) to live in after the Hijrah.  After the conquest of Makkah, he went to Turkey to spread deen.

Little boys dressed in cream coloured robes with pointy shoes and elaborate hats played around the courtyard while their mothers chased after them with forgotten ice creams.

Missing the last ferry back to the old city, we caught a bus, just as easy to use as the trams, metro, ferries and funiculars around old Istanbul.  The public transport is efficient and diverse and very convenient.

After a delicious trip to the spice bazaar, where we sampled some Turkish Delight and a piece of honey-dripping Baklava, we headed across the water, this time to explore the Taksim area and the Galata bridge.  After a scrumptious baked potato we headed back to our old city, but not before stopping into the museum of the Mevlana’s, where the history of the Sufi dervishes was brought to life.

Other museums worth giving a look through are the museum of Islamic art and the museum of Islamic science and technology.  The archaeology museum is not something I could appreciate, not being a stone boffin, and by that time I was almost all museumed-out.

Another unexpected site was the Basilica cistern, an ancient underground water storage area which I expected, foolishly, to look something like a big bowl or chamber pot.  It’s actually a really haunting, creepy, underground “pond” (filled with koi fish now) with huge stone pillars of all designs stretching out into the inky darkness of the cistern.

The mixture of old Roman and Islamic art and architecture have a breath-taking effect on the landscape of old Istanbul, unlike any other European city that I have seen.  Having seen too many churches in Spain and Italy, it was incredible to see the abundance of masjids instead.

Back to the waters’ edge for a trip to the Asian side, I was happy that we had the time to see something beyond the concentrated touristy part of old Istanbul, where all of the main sites are located.  As usual, I opted for a refreshing lemonade, while the Husband continued to down Turkish tea.  Apart from Turkish pizza (Lamacun) and pita (Pide), we were also kept stuffed by Gozleme (a filled pancake, like a paratha), Dolmas (stuffed brinjals and peppers), beans, kebabs, veggies, watermelon and, my favourite, the best green olives that I have ever tasted.

The Grand Bazaar, though expensive, is also a must-see, and the little book Bazaar on the side was definitely worth a look.

Having crammed as much as we could into our few days in Istanbul, it was on to the relaxing coastal city of Antalya, where we stayed in the old part of the city, a short walk away from the marina.

Swimming in the Mediterranean, exploring the city and getting lost on the picturesque streets of old Antalya provided a restful relief from the buzz of Istanbul.  We met Ali, a Syrian man now working in Antalya, with a smile so sad it could break your heart.  Sailors on our boat provided some comic relief, the captain of our boat managing to somehow bare-handedly catch a fish while swimming.

After the turquoise waters of Antalya, the contrasting brown and pink backdrop of Cappadocia was startling.  Staying in a cave hotel was stuffy but fun, and waking up at 4:15 am was definitely worth the sunrise we got to see from a hot air balloon.

The fairy-chimney landscape was an unusual site, coupled with over 50 balloons lining the sky, all floating gently in the morning air, a site so beautiful that we stayed up after Fajr the next day to have a look at the balloons again, this time from our cave terrace.

The open air museum where ancient churches and monasteries were built were unlike other churches that I have seen, and the fairy-chimney houses and rooms were quite strange.  It was easy to see where the inspiration for the planet where young Annakin Skywalker lives in Star Wars (Episode 1) came from.

Apart from rock formations, Cappadocia also offers a lush valley 14km long, in the middle of a huge canyon, and a peek into underground cities built into the rock.

After the interesting contradictions between Antalya and Cappadocia, we were excited to arrive back in Istanbul for one last hurrah, racing around the city on our last morning to catch one more glimpse of the Bosphorous, the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofia and the streets of the old city.

One more lemonade, one more Turkish tea, and the adventure was over.  Hopefully we will return to Turkey, at least one more time.