Elif Shafak: Voice of a New Turkey

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For me, writing fiction is not necessarily telling your own story. It’s just the opposite, in fact. It is the ability to be somene else, to transcend the self, and in that regard it’s very close to mysticism; it’s a mystical experience.

Elif Shafak
Turkish writer Elif Shafak.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak. [Fatmanur / Flickr]

The novelist Elif Shafak has taken her brave, vulnerable, fascinating place — not entirely unlike Orhan Pamuk’s — among the compelling voices of the “new Turkey.”

Her new book, The Bastard of Istanbul, is a hugely beguiling, broad, tasty sweep of the Turkish terrain — (yes, stuffed green peppers come through as virtual characters in the novel bursting with nuts, garlic, rice and spices). The cast embraces nationalists and cosmopolitans, matriarchs and teenagers, innocents and nihilists, and of course Armenians, too, in Turkey, on the Internet and in the American West.

It is the penetration of Armenian points of view — for example, “… all my family tree has been Something Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915” — that got Elif Shafak criminally charged (before Pamuk was) with “anti-Turkishness.”

So she has become a cause as well as a chronicler — both roles bound up now in the drama of Turkey on the path to Europe, the Pope’s visit to Istanbul and most recently the fateful assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Elif Shafak is not shy about the headline issues, but she is bolder still about the underlying issues of personal and collective memory, violence, the close cousinship of cultures and people. She calls herself one of Turkey’s “very few leftist intellectuals with an interest in religion,” and a feminist scholar who wants the world to look past the tropes of “Islam and women” to traditions of eroticism, pleasure and desire alongside the layered dynamics of oppressive patriarchy.

Shafak will help us peel back the layers of identity and politics in today’s Turkey. What shall we ask her?

Extra Credit Reading

Linguistic Cleansing, New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer, 2005: “Sometimes people take their mother tongue for granted. Just the sheer fact that it is your mother tongue doesn’t mean you know it or you profess it.”

Top novelist acquitted in Turkey, BBC News, September 21, 2006: “Ms Shafak said by telephone that she was extremely relieved her trial was over. But she expressed concerns that there would be other similar cases in the future as long as Article 301 ‘is out there’.”

Elif Shafak, Writers on Trial, Washington Post, September 24, 2006: “I pointed out that my novel was full of characters with many opinions. It was impossible to judge an author simply by plucking one or two characters out of a book and saying that they represented what I believe, as the nationalists had done. It would be like judging Dostoyevsky to be a criminal because one of the characters in his books commits a crime.”

Elif Shafak, Pamuk’s Nobel is a family affair, The Guardian, October 20, 2006: “No wonder then that a novelist is always more than a novelist in Turkey. He is, first and foremost, a public figure. Novelists are the ‘babas, the fathers of their readers. They are loved and hated, looked up to and looked down upon. This is a society which is writer-oriented, not writing-oriented.”

Elif Shafak, The return of the ghetto: coming soon to a country near you, Turkish Daily News, January 13, 2007: “While the immigrant is after this invisible armor, middle classes in Europe flee heterogeneity and multiculturalism as if they were fleeing a plague. Cosmopolitanism is a swear word for hardliners on all sides. Nobody wants to really, fully blend together.”

Rebecca Jane, Book Review of The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak; Viking 2007; 357 pages, Flash Fiction, February 1, 2007: “But it was Shafak’s candid discussion of sexuality in the Middle East that provoked my interest in reading her fiction. Her comments ranged from Ottoman Empire books on sexuality to the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam that is very much open to discussions of eroticism.”


When you look at Turkey’s history, it’s a very special country. It’s a very rich country. We are the children of a multiethnic multilingual empire, and strategically, when you look at Turkey’s position, its culture, its history, it’s very heavy, very loaded. So in that sense Turkey is not Denmark. It’s a country that is firmly rooted to the West, in my opinion. And yet at the same time, it’s not European in the sense Denmark is European, in the sense Belgium is, and perhaps it doesn’t have to be, because it’s a country of hybridities, synthesis, mixtures.

Elif Shafak


The orthodox path, for instance mainstream Islam, has been more closed to women, and in that sense, can be more male-dominated. But that’s not the case at all with Islamic mysticism. It fascinates me to see the plurality, the openness of that realm. The Sufis claim that there are as many paths leading to God as the number of hearts beating for him, so Sufism cannot be reduced to one single interpretation. There are different paths, different means, and women have been much more free to operate in that plurality.

Elif Shafak


In the West I often have this feeling that I am labeled as “Muslim Woman Writer,” or a woman writer coming from the Muslim world, from the Middle East. And once you’re pigeonholed like that, once you’re labeled like that, people almost always expect you to produce accordingly. So you’re expected to tell the stories of women in Muslim societies, and if possible, to talk about how they’re being oppressed. That’s what people want to hear, but that’s not fiction, that’s not imagination, that’s not literature.

Elif Shafak


I’m fascinated with New York City, and I think, interestingly, New York and Istanbul are soulmates. I think New York has much more in common with Istanbul than with Michigan or Arizona, or with other cities in America. This tendency to find safe haven in almost sterile bubbles, the spaces of the like-minded, is something that worries me, and I think it has increased after 9/11.

Elif Shafak


Istanbul is a city that’s very dear to me, and I’m deeply in love with that city. It’s not an easy city. If you want to live a nice and quiet and tidy life, that’s not your city. She’s difficult, very difficult. And yet at the same time she’s a constant, continuous source of motivation for me. Istanbul is a mixture of opposite forces, and she forces you to challenge yourself, to rethink your basic presumptions.

Elif Shafak


I think there is amazing social transformation, political and cultural transformation, in Turkey, and in a very positive direction. And this might sound controversial, but sometimes Western journalists ask me: why are all these trials taking place? Is this a sign that the country is going backwards? And my opinion is no, it’s just the opposite. Precisely because the country has been opening up, taking lots of steps, making lots of reforms, that these things are happening, because they should be seen as a backlash.

Elif Shafak

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  • nother

    I haven’t read Elif Safak’s book yet, but I noticed she has a regular column in the Turkish Daily news. It only took me a few minutes to read some of her recent columns and I highly recommend them.

    I came away fascinated by her perch in these historic times. Every column, every word, tackles big themes because history is literally happening at her doorstep. Tradition, individualism, woman’s rights, freedom of the press, ext. From my small sample I took her overarching narrative to be her countries ultimate decision to side with Islam or the West.

    Turkey is having a national identity crisis and Elif Safak is laying on the couch for us.

    A couple of highlights for me:

    – in her column ”Memorizing”

    “Turkish women are being taught how to be more passive and weak. The force that is making them believe in this is not guns or coercion, but the bright lights of popular culture on every channel.”

    I’d be curious to know how Turkish popular culture differs from American.

    -from her column ”Curiosity: a most suitable state for cats and humans alike”

    “A simple, practically essential value that we’ve been losing is eroding with every passing day — the feeling of curiosity.”

    “before anything else the “individual” and “the ability to individualize” should be esteemed.”

  • nother

    Lastly I will say that from reading her columns I detected cynicism about the future of Muslims living together in harmony with Westerners.

    Two of her quotes from different articles refer to people retreating to their groups:

    “islands of the like-minded.”

    “In today’s world there is a growing tendency to retreat to safe spaces of the like-minded.”

    I’d be curious if she has come across any examples of hope in this regard. What about New York City?

  • Nathaniel Landry

    Pamuk is currently a visiting scholar at Columbia, where he will likely be for several years–interesting to consider in the wake of Dink’s murder; perhaps you could reach him? Probably too late to do so.

    When talks regarding Turkey’s membership in the EU commenced in earnest several years ago, you’ll recall that the US was enthusiastic for early entry talks and was quickly rebuffed by the EU–whose intentions for Turkey are questionable anyhow. In any event, it’s pretty obvious that the US were looking for “alternative support” in Europe, via Turkish membership.

    (Interestingly enough, a bulk of the Turkish elite, I believe, were vocal supporters of the US invasion of Iraq, thinking this would help their case for EU membership. Needless to say, this is not how things played out.)

    Ms. Shafak’s conception of the whole EU-membership process as it has proceeded (or has not) over the past few years would be of great interest to an American audience, I think.

  • herbert browne

    I’m still impressed by the willingness of the Turkish government to turn down U.S. requests for access through Turkey to Iraq, despite the signifigant U.S. presence in the country- and for quite a long time. Does that still wear well for most Turks (that our airbases continue to be a presence)? Do Turks include Russians when they think of (&/or speak of) “European” or Western” influences (in the realm of popular culture, in particular)? I’d like to know how the development of the headwaters of the Tigris & Euphrates will affect relationships with Syria and Iraq- and what, if any, complications arise from the fact that these rivers come from an area of strong Kurdish influence. (Are the Turkish & Kurdish languages linguistically similar?) Do rural Turks indulge in the fruits of the poppy much as indigenous peoples of South America do with the coca leaf? And, if so, is this tolerated by the government to some degree? Not long ago the cyclist/ adventurer Willie Weir and his wife cycled the breadth of Turkey, unaccompanied by others, for the most part. He found the people congenial, by and large… and curious. They took the byways, when possible, and stayed out of the heavy traffic. While occasionally being shooed away from certain areas by military patrols, he reported that they were essentially unhindered (except by rural road conditions & weather). It’d be great to have him and/or his wife join this conversation, since they have been to the place, and may have questions that won’t occur to those who haven’t. ^..^

  • I appreciate her piece on the Sufi versus the sofu way in Islam.


    I wonder if she can tell us if there are any statistics regarding the proportions of each in the Muslim world. I think of Turkey as the center of Sufi Islam – the home of Rumi and many others. Is this true? And if so, could Turkey – if it would even acknowledge the spirituality in it’s midst – be a bridge between fundamentalist idealogies: Western (a euphemism for Christian, perhaps) and Muslim?

  • nother

    Ok, I found the hope I was searching for. I had to go dig back a little further into her columns, a href=”http://www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/article.php?enewsid=18941″>“The bizarre Harmony of Istanbul”

    Elif Safak is writing from a “bohemian café” in Istanbul when a rude ice cream truck driver wants to bully his way through the crowd.

    “We, a bunch of cosmopolitans, of all nationalities and ethnicities, finally bow to the van driver. In 10 minutes, we have all moved our chairs and tables and kindly let him pass. He drives by slowly like a feather drifting in a mellow breeze; an urban lullaby.

    The bohemian café, the traditional coffeehouse, foreigners and natives, Koran sellers and cigar sellers… It seems as if every incongruity has found a way in which to fuse with others in a bizarre harmony.”

  • nother
  • Sutter

    Thanks for the links, Nother!

    I’d be interested in hearing any reactions Ms. Shafak might have to comments like those made by Joe Lieberman in the current New Yorker:

    — [Quoting]

    In another conversation, he told me that he was reading “America Alone,” a book by the conservative commentator Mark Steyn, which argues that Europe is succumbing, demographically and culturally, to an onslaught by Islam, leaving America friendless in its confrontation with Islamic extremism.

    “The thing I quote most from it is the power of demographics, in Europe particularly,” Lieberman said. “That’s what struck me the most. But the other part is a kind of confirmation of what I know and what I’ve read elsewhere, which is that Islamist extremism has an ideology, and it’s expansionist, it’s an aggressive ideology. And the title I took to mean that we Americans will have ultimate responsibility for stopping this expansionism.”

    — [Done quoting.]

    Personally, I think Lieberman takes two ideas that might on their own be true, and draws bad conclusions based on a linguistic sleight-of-hand: First, there’s the (correct) view that ISLAM is spreading in Europe as a demographic matter. Second, there’s the idea (I think also true) that ISLAMISTS are expansionist. Then, somehow that first “ISLAM” gets treated as “ISLAMISM,” such that demographic change in Europe is cause for alarm about expansion (and, apparently, for mobilization of some sort).

    So, to me, the questions for someone like Shafak — particularly in light of debates over “muslim” Turkey’s accession to the EU — are, How do we respond to those who appear to believe that Western, enlightenment pluralism cannot handle an increasing Muslim presence, and who cannot see the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist, or a terrorist? And, to the extent that these people have a point that integration will pose challenges (see Holland and Denmark), how can we surmount those challenges?

  • Sir Otto

    Could Europe’s “Turkophobia” have any basis in the slaughter of more than a million Armenians?

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • I’d love to know if she feels that Istanbul is good place for a foreigner to visit right now. Why or why not?

  • olcer

    hmm OTTO, i think it is more just like Europeans killed Jews, Romas by the millions, they still have their racism intact. i think it is more like that. Even though Jews were in europe for more than 1000 years they were not considered european. They were not aryan race. Is that explain why they are “Turkophobia”

    for killing a million people, How about the 3 million Turks who got killed during the same time? Are they considered humans or you just consider Christians as humans?

    Something to think about.


  • brent

    Allison –

    I was in Istanbul in November and it is quite safe, but use typical “american abroad” travel precautions. I stayed in hostels, and travelled by bus as far as Bergama on the West. Understand that once you leave tourist spots, people do not speak English. I recommend picking up a “Teach yourself Turkish” book prior to going. Having a little knowledge of turkish goes a long way.

    Enjoy Turkey if you go. It’s an amazing country.


  • Olcer you make a valid point which is compatible with something I’ve said recently:

    “..Indeed, the knife cuts two ways.. No one is immune from some level of culpability.. but first blood was clearly drawn by those who now pass themselves off as victims. What we’ve known all along is affirmed: Armenian genocide is a misnomer.. As I’ve suggested before, we might re-name it the “Anatolian Genocide”, and for once, mourn the Turkish casualties too..”

    Olcer, when Muslims die, it’s passed off as “anti-terror” and when Christians die, it’s called either “terrorism” or “genocide”. The western media and the Bush Administration have been priming this engine for many years, and it’s now running full throttle.

  • plnelson

    I used to think that Lieberman’s comments “that Europe is succumbing, demographically and culturally, to an onslaught by Islam, leaving America friendless in its confrontation with Islamic extremism” were hyperbolic.

    It’s true that Europe has made massive concessions in matters of free speech to accomodate their rapidly growing minority. But then I read in the news a few days ago that China has issued instructions to broadcasters and advertisers and corporations to eliminate any pig symbols or references in their celebration of the Chinese New year – the year of the pig! This to avoid confrontations with Muslims who find such references offensive.

    So the Senator may be right that we are the last major place on earth that stands up to such coercion.