“My Knowledge is limited and tainted, but so is yours.” — Asya
In July 2006, an internationally renowned Turkish writer, Elif Shafak was booked under the Turkish Penal Code for “insulting Turkishness” because of a remark made by a character in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. The trial of the author who vociferously brought forth some of the historical issues in the public realm, which the Turkish state conveniently tries to suppress, tells perhaps less about the author and her work and more about the cultural, political and historical landscape of Turkey.
The emergence of the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 brought several changes with it, including a reconfiguration of Turkish history and selective forgetting of many uncomfortable historical truths. Foremost among these was the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which 1.5 to 2 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turkish authorities. Owing to Turkey’s persistent denial of the genocide, it has not only become a matter of contention between the two states but continues to bear significance on both the Turkish and Armenian identities.
Historians argue that the roots of many of Turkey’s current problems derive from its Ottoman inheritance. The tumultuous experience of the Ottoman Empire before its demise had a deep impact on the Turkish Republic. One of the ways through which the Republic sought to escape the trauma and paranoia it had inherited and to become a secular, westernised state was to create a boundary between itself and the Ottoman past and to present the nation-state as established ex nihilo. However, the construction of an “imagined community” happened through the homogenization of the Muslim Turkish identity and the exclusion of the Other, i.e., the minorities that had coexisted in the Ottoman empire. Although this Kemalist notion of state and culture prevailed in the Turkish society, the economic and political changes in the 1980s and ‘90s brought new ideas, challenging the overarching nationalist narrative with a greater focus on multiculturalism and acceptance of multiple identities. Influenced by these and in turn influencing, the Turkish literature of the period not only began to question the political and social norms but also started redefining culture by reclaiming the Ottoman past.
It is in this literary trend that Shafak makes her important intervention. Her work also coincides with an increasing scholarly and public interest in the Armenian genocide. While the Bilgi University conference held in 2005 heralded a change in mentality through a critical scholarly engagement with the late Ottoman history and the genocide, other literary works like Fethiye Cetin’s My Grandmother: An Armenian-Turkish Memoir, published in2004, opened up the dark past for discussion in the public sphere. However, this changing public discourse has also been met with challenges by the nationalist groups, best exemplified by the murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist working for reconciliation between Armenians and Turks, in 2007, which, although tragic, poignantly brought the Turks to chant, “We are all Hrant Dink, We are all Armenians.”
Apart from these cultural and political contexts, the author’s personal world also played an important role in shaping her work. Refusing to be contained within the mould of any single identity, Shafak embodies cosmopolitanism. Born in France to a single mother, she has spent her life in many parts of the Western world but acknowledges being always attracted to Istanbul, which holds a prominent space in her literary imagination. Writing in both Turkish and English, she finds herself caught between the two worlds, like being on the “threshold.” Her transnational identity has also been reflected in her works, which, intended for an international readership, often engage in cultural dialogues. As her court case reveals, Shafak not only touches upon political issues in her works but also actively criticises the Turkish state’s censorship and control over memory. Calling for freedom of speech, she asserts that part of her job as a writer is “to bring back the voices” suppressed by the state. All these worldviews of the author find resonance in The Bastard of Istanbul.
Asya, the bastard of the Turkish Kazanci family and Armanoush, an Armenian-American and the grand-daughter of a genocide survivor, are the two lead protagonists of the story. While Armanoush, like her Armenian kins in the diaspora, is excessively attached to her history and finds herself unable to escape the traumatic memories of her ancestors, Asya is completely indifferent to the past. She has no conception of collective and harbours a sense of void in her self-image, partly owing to the anonymity of her father. Her voidness extends to the place she frequents, Cafe Kundera, which resembles a haven for escapism, where people relish in the languor or the absurdities of their creation. Perhaps the Cafe is meant as a microcosm of the Turkish society, cut off from its roots. On the other hand, Armanoush feels weighed down by the burden of the past, and yet considers herself as fragmented and not Armenian enough. To resolve her identity crisis, she decides to make a journey to her past “to be able to start living her own life” (p.116).
These two conceptions of time and history clash when Armanoush meets Asya and her family in Istanbul and narrates the terrible fate that her ancestors met in 1915. Hoping to hear some expression of remorse, Armanoush is astounded to find that although the Kazancis sympathize with her, they do not feel any connection between themselves and the perpetrators of the crime. She realises that for the Turks “time was a multi-hyphenated line, where the past ended at some definite point and the present started anew from scratch…” (p.165), suggesting the state control over the historical narrative has led to selective amnesia.
However, the connection between the state and the individual is subtly challenged when Asya, being asked by Armanoiush’s friends to apologise to them on behalf of the Turkish state exclaims, “I’ve got nothing to do with the state” (p.262). Although she does apologise in the end, it is not because of her obligation as a Turk but because she, as an individual, starts appreciating the significance of memory and continuity.
As Neyzi argues, the amnesia among the Turks is not absolute and there is heterogeneity in ways of remembering and forgetting as well as variations and contradictions between individuals’ and collective memory. The way Shafak chooses to present to the reader the truth of 1915 is through the magic of a djinn, who grants Bano, Asya’s aunt, the vision of the events in a silver bowl filled with the consecrated water of Mecca. Shafak not only blurs the boundary between truth and fiction but also challenges the “rational” and “secular” aspects of Kemalism. Gurel argues that the usage of djinn, being part of the shared culture of both Turks and Armenians, forces us to keep both sides of the story in view objectively without providing any interpretation. This is also reflected in the abrupt way the story ends which although acquaints the reader with how the stories of both the families are connected, the reactions of our protagonists remain unclear. Perhaps it is deliberately done to raise questions but to not provide interpretations and thus, create a space and possibility for a multiplicity of voices.
The book not only shows the Turks and the Armenians as reconciling with their pasts but also discovering their shared cultural heritage, expressed through food, music and folkloric references. Kasbarian highlights the growing nostalgia, both in the academic and cultural realm, for the Ottoman cosmopolitanism. Shafak too romanticizes Istanbul as a multicultural paradise, especially through cuisine wherein Armanoush tellingly exclaims, “..I guess I speak the Turkish cuisine” (p.156). Interestingly, some of the culinary cultures which Armanoush initially considers as representing her Armenian-ness later turns out to be part of a shared Turkish-Armenian culinary heritage, reflecting that the artificial boundaries can be dismantled through engagements with history.
In this way, Shafak’s work, transgressing the epistemological boundaries set up by the state, suggests that literature not only acts as a medium of remembrance but can also become a dynamic site of the production of cultural memory. The Bastard of Istanbul brings historical, political and intimate spaces together where individual and national histories and identities are weaved together in a complex web. By bringing forth the multiplicity of voices from the past, Shafak not only challenges the nationalist fiction and constructed oblivion created by the Kemalists but also the fetishisation of suffering by the Armenians. Advocating post-nationalist multiculturalism, Shafak suggests confronting the past as a way of healing historical tensions and moving forward for both the communities. Fiction like this, telling the truth which is sometimes difficult to utter, suggests that the way the Turkish Republic came into existence continues to remain a deeply contested issue and help us reflect on not only how the past has continued to shape the present but also how present concerns shape our perceptions of the past.
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—Akçam, Taner. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. Zed Books, 2004.
—Gürel, Perin. “Sing, O Djinn!: Memory, History, and Folklore in The Bastard of Istanbul.” Journal of Turkish Literature. Vol.6 (2009): 59-79.
—Kasbarian, Sossie. “The Istanbul Armenians: Negotiating coexistence.” In Post-Ottoman Coexistence: Sharing Space in the Shadow of Conflict, edited by Rebecca Bryant, 207-237. Berghahn Books, 2016.
—Neyzi, Leyla and Hranush Kharatyan-Araqelyan. Speaking to One Another: Personal Memories of the Past in Armenia and Turkey. Bonn: dvv International, 2010.
—Shafak, Elif (a). The Bastard of Istanbul. Penguin Books, 2007.