The Bastard of Istanbul

October 22, 2008

(I bought this for my wife. She groused a little about the multitude of names and untranslated words, but otherwise enjoyed the book. You will too.)

When the Armenians came to America, they gathered in California. They might have been drawn there by the climate or economic opportunity, or maybe they gathered there by accident. I have a theory, though, that they simply wanted to get as far away from Turkey as possible and when they hit the Pacific Ocean they realized the practical impossibility of going any farther.

This is only speculation. My closest and also longest, contact with the American-Armenian community was several months in 1985-86 when I studied Armenian folk dancing at an Armenian church in Glendale, California. Many of the dancers assumed from my weekly presence, my enthusiastic dancing, and my dark complexion, that I was an Armenian. They would begin conversations in Armenian (friendly people!) and chatter away until I eventually smiled (friendly American!) and confessed, “please, English.” And that would put an end to the conversation.

I have had similar experiences on the Turkish side too. When I was a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, I joined a team of folk dancers who performed Turkish dances on stage from 1978-80. There was also a Turkish restaurant on the west side of town and my ex- and I took her parents and siblings to dine there. Throughout the meal, the proprietress, a short Turkish woman who could have easily been the identical twin of any of the equally short Armenian women dancing at the church in Glendale, whispered one short Turkish phrase after another in my ear (friendly person!). What made her think I was Turkish? My presence? My dark complexion? My brush-like mustache? My lily-white in-laws? Whatever it was, my confession that I was simply an American proved most disappointing to her.

So here’s an interesting paradox: both of these groups would have happily claimed me for their own and yet they want nothing to do with each other.

Elif Shafak explores this same paradox in The Bastard of Istanbul. The book’s namesake is a young woman, born to the youngest of four sisters who share a household with their stepmother in Istanbul. The “bastard” has no brothers or sisters and so becomes the sole recipient of her elders’ love, yet an unexplained emotional gulf divides her from her mother, a woman who she simultaneously imitates and rebels against.

On the other side of the ocean is another young woman, the same age, but Armenian. Actually half-Armenian. Her father made the mistake of marrying a non-Armenian ditz from Kentucky. His extended family talks about his wife behind her back and to her face, leaving her with the distinct feeling that she is illegitimate in their eyes. The marriage quickly dissolves and the ditz exacts a revenge of sorts by marrying the first Turk she sees, the self-exiled uncle of the Turkish bastard.

The narrative, which leaps unpredictably through time, and also back and forth across the Atlantic, eventually settles down when the Armenian girl travels to Turkey to find her roots and moves in with her stepfather’s sisters in Istanbul. Since the young Turkish woman speaks the best English and has the greatest interest in America (at least in Johnny Cash) and is the right age, she becomes the visitor’s host.

Mutual understanding and respect eventually develop, but no one is let off the hook too easily. Turks must confront their refusal to acknowledge and atone for their past behavior. Armenians must learn that their habit of defining themselves as victims has become a self-limiting reflex.

But, while the Turkish-Armenian conflict is given its due, the story ultimately returns to the fates of the two families and their surprisingly intertwined histories. Without giving too much away, it turns out that it is not so far-fetched that an Armenian folk dancer and a Turkish restaurant proprietress might be cousins, or even sisters.

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