The book is as arresting and temerarious as its title.
Zehlia is a pierced, mini-skirted and high-heeled rebel living in Istanbul. With unconscious misconceptions about a Muslim-majority country in the Middle East, I was surprised that Turkey is a secular, democratic republic. Its ethos is oddly similar to India. It’s difficult for a religious, diverse country to strive to be liberal and accepting, making for some odd quirks in its society. Like in India, Zehlia might be (unpardonably) subjected to catcalling while walking down the street in Istanbul, but her fashion choices aren’t a crime and there is an air of defiance about her that is endearingly familiar.
Rose, on the other hand, is perhaps slightly dotty. She is reeling after splitting up with her Armenian husband, left with a young daughter who she decides to stubbornly call “Amy” instead of the Armenian “Armanoush” and determinedly seeks out a partner who will not fail to infuriate her erstwhile in-laws: a Turk. He’s Zehlia’s brother and the uncle of the book’s titular character, Asya.
Among the hilariously fleshed out characters including Asya’s zany aunts, Armanoush’s rambunctious Armenian family and Café Kundera’s oddities, Elif Shafak weaves an exquisite tale that is in equal parts entertaining and sensitive, handling complicated themes like the Armenian genocide with delicate understanding.
I had heard of the Armenian genocide in passing last year when I saw video displays commemorating its centennial anniversary at Madison Square. It didn’t make much of an impression on me; I almost felt inured to yet another instance of human depravity. Reading Istanbul made me feel guilty about my apathy. Elif Shafak, as a Turk, tries her best to faithfully represent both sides of the coin. She was even accused of “insulting Turkishness” by her government but was fortunately not convicted.
The dilemma is that the Ottoman empire clearly performed an ethnic cleansing of the Armenian diaspora. Intellectuals were targeted first. The rest were ejected from their homeland in harsh conditions, having to walk miles without food or water. The ones who survived the punishing journey were placed in concentration camps or burned or drowned. It was the first act of large-scale violence in the twentieth century. This happened in 1915. Turkey was created in 1923. The state refuses to acknowledge that the deportation of the Armenians was “genocide” and will not shoulder responsibility for it. Should Turkey, a country that didn’t exist then, apologize for the Armenian genocide after 100 years? Does Germany apologize to the Jews? Yet, if all it takes is an apology to give families some long overdue closure, is there a reason to demur? Doesn’t Germany acknowledge the Holocaust? As usual, there are no easy answers but does that mean we stop asking questions?
From magical djinnis to the patriarchy, commentary on the State to the state of being, simit to ashure, Shafak draws a glorious picture of Istanbul. The narrative is crisp and articulate and the scenarios are constructed in such enchanting detail that one can’t help but fall in love with fiery Asya, wise Armanoush, cool Zehlia and beautiful Istanbul.