By: Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

A week or so ago, I met with one of my students in Istanbul. She wanted to improve her English, but with a full-time job and a new baby she only had time to meet with me once a week, for one hour, during her lunch break.  We had met only two or three times before, and in a few days I would be leaving the city with no concrete plans to return. As the hour was winding down, she asked me to keep in touch in the future. I nodded, smiled, and thought to myself that it was unlikely that I would ever speak to her again. She looked at me and said “Americans don’t trust people as much as Turkish people trust people. I trust you, but you don’t really trust me.”

It took me off guard, partly because she was so direct, and partly because what she said is true. In my mind, my relationship with her was simply a work one. I would leave soon and that would be the end of it. It was odd to see a stereotype validated before my eyes, but the stereotype was rooted in reality, as most stereotypes are.

I like travelling partly because it allows experiences and relationships to fill in the underlying complexities of the empty clichés that form my latent knowledge about different people and places. In Istanbul, preconceptions are often tied to the city’s position as the tenuous thread knotting together two continents. This identity makes discussions of Istanbul booby-trapped with clichés. I would like to make myself promise never to mention the words “Istanbul,” “East,” and “West” in the same sentence again, but I know it is impossible. Talking about Istanbul is frustrating in that way.  It is beyond argument that the city is beautiful, that its culture and history is rich. The Galata tower, the ferry rides, the Bosphorus, the minarets, and the hills all make it easy to talk about how enchanting Istanbul is. But the limiting, yet obnoxiously appropriate “East meets West” concept is impossible to sidestep.

While a “meeting” might suggest a convergence of cultures, Istanbul is a place where East and West have more often been involved in confrontation than seamless marriage. As one characters puts it in Elif Shafak’s novel The Bastard of Istanbul:

We are stuck. We are stuck between the East and the West. Between the past and the future. On the one hand there are the secular modernists, so proud of the regime they constructed…. On the other hand there are the conventional traditionalists, so infatuated with the Ottoman past.

I recently finished The Bastard of Istanbul, which Shafak wrote in both English and Turkish in 2006. Shafak is a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson and divides her time between Tuscon and Istanbul. She is a fine example of the meeting of East and West herself, and one of the most popular contemporary writers in Turkey.

Sometimes a good story can make a tired-out concept seem new and true and exciting. That is what I was hoping Elif Shafak would do. But for all of the things Shafak put into her sprawling novel—crazy aunts, incest, genocide, lost jewels, abandoned children, maple syrup, Istanbul, Arizona, San Francisco, fairies, poison pudding—she left out the real people that make everything else matter.

* * *

The Bastard of Istanbul digs into the interwoven histories of a Turkish family in Istanbul and an Armenian family in San Francisco whose respective pasts connect in a number of improbable ways. The novel concerns one of the most sensitive, controversial, and tragic events in recent Turkish history: the genocide of the Armenian population that took place during and just after World War I. The story spans continents and generations, and the family trees are complicated.

The Bastard of Istanbul begins on the Turkish side with the Kazancıs, a family of women mysteriously cursed with constantly disappearing men. Zeliha Kazancı is the youngest of five children. Zeliha’s fatherless daughter Asya, a rebellious and promiscuous 19-year-old, is the “bastard” of the book’s title. Asya’s mysterious uncle Mustafa, Zeliha’s brother, left Istanbul as a youth to attend college at the University of Arizona in Tucson and never returned. In Tucson he married Rose, who had just divorced an Armenian-American man. Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian is Rose’s daughter from her first marriage. Armanoush is a smart, beautiful, book-loving college student with no luck in love. She decides to go secretly to Istanbul to stay with her stepfather’s family and learn about what happened to the Tchakhmakhchians, who lived in the city until the genocide. Eventually Rose finds out that her daughter is in Istanbul and she and Mustafa fly to Turkey from Arizona to bring her back to America. Once they have arrived, it is revealed to the reader that Asya’s father is actually her uncle Mustafa who raped his sister Zeliha when she was 19, then fled the country. It is also revealed that Armanoush’s grandmother is the mother of Asya’s grandfather, making the Tchakhmakhchians and the Kazancıs one big family.  It is a complex web that is hard to piece together even within the context of the novel.

With the multi-generational, multi-continental, twist-laden plot of The Bastard of Istanbul, Shafak may have spread herself too thin.  I was surprised to find almost nothing in the book to break past the nagging clichés entrenched in conversations about Istanbul and Turkey, let alone Americans and Armenians.

* * *

In preparation for her trip to Istanbul, Armanoush packs her most modest clothing, so as not to look strange in a conservative country. But when she arrives at the Istanbul airport she is greeted by Zeliha Kazancı, who always dresses in high heels and short skirts. Armanoush is confounded by this conflict between her expectations and reality, but even more confounded when she meets the eldest Kazancı sister, Banu, who wears a head scarf and a long dress.

That the two women, despite the stark contrast in their appearance and obviously in their personalities, were sisters living under the same roof was a puzzle Armanoush figured she would have to work on for a while.

This secular-Islamic divide, which goes back to the “East meets West” concept, is the most pervasive contradiction at work in discussions of Turkey. Recognizing that it exists does not bring anything new to the conversation. Armanoush’s surprise serves to highlight Zeliha and Banu and their conflicting wardrobes only as colorful threads in the tapestry of an exotic and befuddling city. Shafak holds up a familiar trope, but does not dig into it or make it matter. Both the characters and the idea ring hollow.

Later, when Asya is watching the Turkish version of The Apprentice on television and waiting for Armanoush to wake up from jet-lagged snoozing to eat dinner, she muses about what could be done to make the television show more “alla turca” and not just an imitation of the American original. In one of her ideas contestants would sell wine in a Muslim neighborhood. Her second idea involves selling pork. Can Shafak think of no other way to infuse an American concept with Turkishness than taunting Muslims with forbidden delights?

* * *

It is easier, of course, to talk about something in the way that it has always been talked about. It is easier to write about a family that perfectly embodies clichés about Istanbul and Turkey, as the Kazancıs do, than to write a family that is surprising and true.  It is easier to imbue the family members with a million quirks—the one who wears short skirts, the one who talks to fairies, the schizophrenic one who dies her hair too frequently, the angry one who loves Johnny Cash—than to show how their relationships work, or how they interact with the city. It is easier to say over and over, as Shafak does, that “Asya is full of contradictions!” than to ever show how she is full of contradictions.

Though I never quite figured out what was so contradictory about Asya, every day in Istanbul I saw that the city really is full of contradictions and contradictory people. I was taken aback recently when one of my English students, after several hours of class, told me that in his free time he whirls with the dervishes, though by day he works as an accountant in a hospital. Before I met him, without knowing almost anything about Sufism or the practice of whirling, I had found it entrancing when I watched on television the opening ceremony for the 2011 European Youth Olympics, which were being held in Trabzon, a city in Turkey on the Black Sea. It was a typical over-the-top ceremony, with a notable scene involving whirling dervishes clad in white, suspended from the top of the arena, turning slowly in the air. It was a ridiculous spectacle, but it was beautiful too. I imagined those men hanging from the ceiling to be so entranced by their whirling that they were barely aware of the screaming masses in the stands all around them.

But my student, far from being wise and inscrutable, was stubborn and difficult to teach. My reaction to him progressed as follows:  before I knew he was a dervish, I had proscribed him with the dullest of lives, then when I learned what he does with his free time I was surprised and excited to be teaching someone so mystical, and I was finally disappointed when his mysticism did not make him an interesting or engaged student.

The modern, the efficient, the exotic, the old-fashioned; all of these things really do come together in Istanbul, though sometimes with a heavy layer of kitsch. A stroll down Istiklal Caddesi will reveal fast food chains, and European-style coffee shops combined with nargile smoking and restaurants with old ladies vigorously kneading dough in the windows. If you go to the Bosphorus shore near the Galata bridge, just a short walk from the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazar, and all of Istanbul’s most famous sites, you will find yourself surrounded by pickle sellers, donut sellers, corn sellers, and chestnut sellers all dressed in black Ottoman-esque jumpsuits with gold brocade. Along the shore gaudily decorated boats rock violently back and forth as cooks dressed in the same Oriental get-up flip fish on a grill for fish sandwiches. A twenty-minute walk will take you to Taksim Square, where you will be surrounded by traffic, Starbucks, Burger King, office buildings and hotels. The dichotomies are so visible and so present, and at times so manufactured, that it is a challenge to think about the city outside of the ruts that they dig.

The people I met in Istanbul simultaneously broke apart my preconceptions and reinforced them, and good books can do the same thing. Thinking outside of clichés does not have to mean disregarding them or proving them false. It can just mean understanding those tired concepts as a somewhat arbitrary coalescence of ideas that has emerged over time from relationships between people, in all of our intricate strangeness.

Sitting up on a hill in Cihangir Park, looking out at a breathtaking view of the Bosphorus, and watching monstrous cargo ships and little ferries and fishing boats move around on the water, it is hard not to be in awe of the city. When I think of scanning the hundreds of minarets in the Istanbul skyline or eating muscles stuffed with rice off the street, I yearn to go back to Istanbul. But as breathtaking as the city is, as delicious its food, I could yearn for those things without ever having set foot on a Bosphorus ferry. I miss Istanbul now in a different way too; over the course of a few months, the city transformed from an idea to a home.

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