Looking up at the skies for answers

“Istanbul is home to the Turks, Greeks, Jews and Armenians: a city which could have been proclaimed a cultural hub if not for the blotch in history that keeps glaring back at it,” writes Anantha.

“Either grant me the bliss of the ignorant or give me the strength to bear the knowledge.”

A tale that entangles two families, one Turkish and one Armenian, The Bastard of Istanbul is about two young women: a 19-year-old Turkish girl named Asya, who is born to an unmarried rebellious mother, and an Armenian girl named Armanoush, who seeks answers about her heritage. When the two girls come face to face and exchange their ideologies, little do they know that the past is much murkier than what is apparent on the surface. It leads straight back to the Armenian genocide and the massacres associated with it. The consequences raise their ugly faces in modern-day Istanbul, where the current generation still unknowingly faces the wrath of the genocide. The convoluted and fragile relationships woven and broken in the tapestry of time leave an everlasting mark in the lives of the modern-day youth.

Considered one of the most ambitious works of reclaimed Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul aims to bring to light the cultural and political ideologies, and religious convictions of the modern day Turkish Republic vis-à-vis the mighty Ottoman empire, which ruled over three continents for three centuries before its downfall post World War I. Shafak was persecuted and nearly imprisoned when the book was published, accused of insulting “Turkishness” as the work brings certain forgotten atrocious events of the past into the limelight.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, Viking (2006) Rs 434/- (Source: Goodreads)

“Was it really better for human beings to discover more of their pasts? And then more and more…? Or was it simply better to know as little of the past as possible and even to forget what small amount was remembered?”

The Armenian Genocide is a lesser-known holocaust which was conducted by the Ottoman empire during World War I. It preceded Hitler’s massive Jewish massacre and ended with 1.5 million Armenians either killed or deported from Turkey. The Turkish Government, to this day, has not accepted the accusations of the genocide, disputing that it was a fair war and that people died on both sides. Shafak drives home the point that because of this unabating denial, most modern-day Turks have neither understanding nor awareness of the grimness of the torture that Armenians were put through years ago. They hold no animosity towards any Armenian or any other race residing within their country. On the contrary, the Armenians, especially those who sought refuge in the United States during the genocide, breed on their contempt towards the Turks to the present day. 

So when Rose, a Turkish woman, marries an Armenian boy and enters their family, all hell breaks loose and the fire is not doused till the marriage is annulled. But a conflict arises with regard to the upbringing of the child who is born out of wedlock, Armanoush. Should she be raised an Armenian or a Turk? A downward spiral follows when Rose remarries a Turk. Confused and trapped between the clash of two cultures, Armanoush seeks answers in books and the fellow literati. As she digs deeper into history, she realizes that she has to trace her roots back to where it all began. So one fine day, without informing her family, she arrives in Istanbul, a cosmopolitan republic with an intriguing past.

Istanbul, home to the Turks, Greeks, Jews and Armenians: a city which could have been proclaimed a cultural hub if not for the blotch in history that keeps glaring back at it. A city that ranks in the uppermost echelons in terms of elaborate culinary dishes of the world, where connoisseurs relish every bite of food. A city where literati meet in cafes and refute the government, and soothsayers have their way with magic. Above all, a city where the essence of Rumi still prevails and the most dangerous and powerful Djinn still get enslaved. 

But there are certain horrendous human deeds which would leave even the Djinn aghast. One victim of such a crime is Zeliha, a rebellious woman who lives life on her own terms and does not care about the rules of society. In the muddy streets of Istanbul, Zeliha flaunts short skirts, high heels, tattoos, and flashy nose ring. At the age of 19, she finds herself at a gynecologist’s clinic, pregnant. The child born to Zeliha is Asya, whose father’s identity is a mystery. And hence Asya’s name and the title of the book is The Bastard of Istanbul.

Both Asya and Armanoush’s families are matriarchal with the grandmother as a head. Both of them have aunts in abundance. None of the women in either family share similar views, and they keep stepping on each other’s toes until they finally resign to their own interests amidst the chaos. All of them are exceptional cooks and both the Turkish and Armenian dishes are described in great detail, to the extent that trying the Turkish cuisine is the next thing on the reader’s mind after finishing the book. In fact, the titles of all the chapters are things which are edible.

Ashure, a Turkish delicacy which plays an important role in the story

Each aunt, especially in the Turkish household, has a unique interest of her own. The eldest of them all, Banu, is a hijab-wearing soothsayer who manages to enslave two ancient Djinnis. It is through these Djinnis that Banu uncovers the murky secrets of the past and connects all the pieces of the puzzle.

To be honest, the book sometimes feels cluttered. There are a lot of characters who simply come and go without any purpose. But when they come alive amidst the pages, the reader is misled to believe that they have a bigger role to play. The story also stretches out to various dimensions, be it literature, music, tattoo making, culinary skills or the political atmosphere of the city, alongside the back and forth switch between past and present. This is, at times, quite overwhelming. There are so many uncles, aunts, and distant relatives that at some point towards the end, one has to sit with a pen and paper to draw the family tree.

But a good book makes a reader think and debate. There are many  instances at which the feminist in you will cry outrage at the fate of the women in the book. Should Zeliha really have to pay such a heavy price for her carefree attitude and her eccentric dress sense? Did Rose make such a bad choice in falling in love with an Armenian? Is racial hatred against a mother a strong enough reason to abuse one’s own children?  The questions keep popping in your head till you reach the very end, when a reader learns that everything is linked to that very bloodstained episode of the past: the genocide.

 “Family stories intermingle in such ways that what happened generations ago can have an impact on seemingly irrelevant developments of the present day. The past is anything but bygone.” 

But again, to what extent can an incident from the past be blamed for a heinous crime committed in the present? Should one not face the consequences of one’s own actions? 

You think, you ponder and then you resign. Just like Zeliha did, at one point in time. Just like Banu does, every single time she uncovers a dark, murky secret from her Djinnis.  Looking up at the skies for answers yet unable to find them, they wonder which realm God was looking at when such brutal crimes were committed on Earth. Or is even He helpless like us, sitting up there?

 “Allah’s eye is omnipotent and omniscient; it is an eye that never closes or never blinks. But still no one can tell for sure if the Earth is equally omni observable. If this is a stage wherein spectacle after spectacle is displayed from the celestial Gaze, there might be times in between when the curtains are down and a gauzy head scarf covers the surface of a silver bowl.”

The book leaves you with a sort of hangover; there is a pang of sadness in your stomach as if you are being separated from a friend, whom you had just met recently and of whom you have come to be very fond. This powerful story, along with its complicated characters will linger in your head for days, as will the spirit of Istanbul.

(L) Elif Shafak (Source: Pen America)

Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.

Read more:

A portal to an unknown world

Breathing life in the everyday settings of Karachi

Poetic and prosaic responses to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s