East of Trebizond by Michael Pereira

This is one of three travel books Michael Pereira has written about Turkey in the sixties. The others are Istanbul, Aspects of a City, published in 1968,  and Mountains and a Shore, published in 1966, about his trip in southern Turkey. He also has a novel set in Turkey, When One Door Shuts, published in 1969, which I have yet to read. Another travel book, Across the Caucasus, is about his travels in further northeast in Georgia, which was back  then part of the Soviet Union.

The author is fluent in Turkish language, culture and history. There is extensive material on the history of the region with the Turks (Turkomans, Seljuks, and then the Ottomans), Russians, Georgians, Greeks, Armenians and Persians, in particular about the Russian-Turkish wars of the last two centuries, including the politics and the battles. He explains how the borders finally ended up with the way they did between Turkey, Russia-Soviet Union and then Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.



He travels with his companion Tim, in parts of Turkey many people would not visit -except for Trabzon itself which is well-known- either on foot or by public transport thus constantly talking to locals. From his explanations of Turkish phrases, he must have been really good with the language. (At this point I am jealous. How do people learn a foreign language so well? What is the trick, really? Is there a natural language skill like some people are naturally gifted for music or for math, are some people natural language learners?) He can come up with idiomatic expressions and differentiate between different accents. His command of Turkish gives him access to people, especially children (boys) who hike with the author and play the role of guides in some places. His journey is so different than today’s Instagram trips with many colors, but not much soul. After arriving at an inn following a very long hike, instead of going to eat immediately, they choose to chat with the owner of the inn.

We could have gone out straightaway, of course: we were certainly hungry enough. But I have always found, and Tim agrees, that it adds enormously to the pleasure of travel if one takes the trouble to get to know the people amongst whom one finds oneself. I say “takes the trouble”, because it is much easier, especially when one is tired, just to smile and say hello and go one’s way. To keep to oneself, in fact. It is hard making conversation in a foreign language to total strangers, particularly in country districts where the local dialect is often difficult to understand. But it pays – a hundredfold. For merely to see is not enough. To understand, one must talk. (p177)

The trip ends in Trabzon, a rather big city today. It was the capital of the Pontic-Greek Empire of Trebizond which split from the Byzantines around the time of the Latin Sack of Constantinople and was later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. The personal importance of the city for me is that my grandfather’s family parents most likely came through this port after being expelled by the Russians through 1864-1867 as part of their Caucasus campaign. I was planning to visit the city this Summer, but will have to wait a little more. In the last chapter of the book, the lyrics of a song about Trabzon is given. At some point the lyrics have been updated with akçe replaced by para, both meaning money, and hamsi balık, the local sardine of the Black Sea, being replaced by güzel kızlar, pretty girls. Here is the song:


In this book we see a country trying to lift itself up from poverty, the government working to connect remote places, people with hope but not enough resources. Much of the time they are surprised by two Englishman appearing in their remote villages but also flattered by their interest in them and their country. Turkish hospitality (and curiosity about strangers) is always prevalent. I was so impressed by his writing and his personality as a traveler that I tried to find out more about the author. Unfortunately, Google does not know everything. I could not get any information apart from the list of his books – which I already had- and several short reviews of his books in British newspapers when they were published. There was no obituary and his name is pretty common. Eventually, I contacted the publisher who re-published one of his books, Mountains and a Shore, in 2015. I learned that he has passed away in April 2019. I am keeping my fingers crossed for any more information I can get.

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When I Grow Rich by Joan Fleming

First published in 1962 this is the first of two crime novels set in Istanbul (the second one set partly in Oxford) about a drug trafficking organization with an unusual amateur investigator Nuri Bey. He is an intellectual with sufficient inheritance from his family living a mostly solitary life when he gets pulled into a murder case. It has all the classical elements that foreigners find exotic about Turkey – the retired harem lady who almost made it to a sultan’s bed, a eunuch who is her companion/servant, a house on the Bosphorus (yalı),  a murder with body thrown there, a modern Turkish intellectual who admires Europe and a hamam (Turkish bath) scene. Although it takes place in the sixties, it has a very oriental point of view of Turkey including a public hanging in Sultanahmet which was not happening at that time.

It may not be fair to judge a book written half a century ago with today’s standards, of course, but I must say it is highly prejudiced, opinionated and unreal.  It reads like the author read many books about Turkey and decided to write her own picking up recurring themes. I doubt she ever made it to Istanbul herself. She is also very opinionated about Turkish people, women in particular. Her writing today would be considered almost rude. Unless you have lived in a country for some time, you should not try to write a novel about that place.

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Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury

Also published as the Ottoman Secret, Empire of Lies is a novel about time travel and alternative history by Raymond Khoury.

Basic plot: Iraq War orphan and ISIS fighter Rasheed comes across a time travel spell in ancient Palymra in present day Syria and uses it to go back in time and change history in favor of the Muslims. Between the two defeats which stopped the Muslim conquest of Europe – the Moors in Spain and the Ottomans in Vienna- he chooses the latter for better technology. The alternative Europe under the control of the Ottoman Empire is a mesh-up of the classical Ottoman period in terms of architecture, food, customs, lives of Christian and Jewish minorities, charity work, with the Islamic law of Saudi Arabia of very little human rights and no women’s rights. When a family gets murdered by the police who has excessive paranoid control of its citizens with wire tapping and internet surveillance, the remaining members decide to revert the course of history to its normal by making Ottomans lose the war in Vienna as they did.

Kara Mustafa Paşa

There is an excellent account of the second siege of Vienna in 1683 by Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha – the first one was by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1521- with details of geography, parties involved, techniques, weapons, commanders and the cruelty of the war to both sides, regardless of whether they lost or won. There is also quite a bit of hammering at the United States and its racism which is very relevant this month with the protests against police brutality against the Blacks still going on. Besides history Turkish customs and language are used almost perfectly, with the exception that we do not swear “shit”. We do say “You ate good shit!” to mean we are not happy with what the other has done, but the word itself is not used alone. Also, the affectionate “hayatım” (my life) and “canım” (my life/soul) is inappropriate between a man and his recently deceased brother’s wife.


I loved that just before the end, one of the scenes is in modern day Vienna with a Turkish immigrant döner seller. Because I have lived in Istanbul half my life and I still spend all my summers there, but one of the best döners I ever had was in Vienna.

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Haremlik by Demetra Vaka, 1910.

Demetra Vaka, later Mrs. Kenneth Brown, was a Greek-American journalist and author  who was born in Constantinople/Istanbul in 1877 and died in Chicago in 1947. This book was published in 1910. I came across it during an internet search about the harem.

Although she specifically makes a note that all the stories are real, there are times when one doubts them. The book is about her visit to Istanbul, before her marriage, because her being single is a favorite topic of conversation. She somehow manages to to bump into or find several of her childhood friends, at least one a man, and through them goes inside the homes of Turks. In the harems (the private parts of a home where women and children live, as opposed to the selamlık which is the public part where guests are received) she witnesses Turkish women’s secluded but luxurious and lazy life where their sole purpose of life it to serve the husbands and bring up children. It may sound shallow, but the clothes, the jewelry, the servants, the food and bathing in a hamam seem to make it worthwhile.

Each lady was in the hands of her slave, and my little Kondje was droller than ever. In her flowery Oriental language she invested me with all the beauties of the world. The Venus of Milo was nothing in comparison with me, whose size is that of a Jap. While she was bathing me she kept on repeating “Mashallah! Mashallah!” lest some djinn or ev-sahib, seeing my beauty, might be tempted to cast an evil eye on me…After an hour, the flowers withered and were removed; the settees were washed, and light refreshments were brought. Mear the end of our stay a regular cold luncheon was served, and I may say here that the cold dishes prepared for “hamam” are worthy of poetry for their description.

A good part of the book takes place among Selim Pasha’s four wives who seem to get along just fine. There is a brief chapter about a group of women suffragettes and a chapter specifically on harem entertainment. There is a good deal of exaggeration (I don’t think even the Sultan’s harem had that many jewels or that the Turkish ladies spoke several languages), but it gives the book a fairy tale feeling. A common topic that comes up is the difference between American and Turkish women and how the two people are naturally different. The language is old and when Turkish women speak they are extra extra kind:

Little Cherry Blossom-
The wind brings me joyous news of your sweet presence in our miserable city. No wonder the sky is bluer and the scents of the flowers sweeter. Will you not, Allah’s beloved, gladden a human heart by your luminous presence? Come to me! Hasten to my bosom, so that I may tell you how happy I shall be to see you again. I live now in Chartal. Tell me the train which will be honored by you, and slaves will meet you.

What happened to the kind language of the past? I blame text messaging.

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Enlightenment by Maureen Freely

If my life depended on it, I could not get a job as one of these: Politician, spy, lawyer. All are very good at lying or keeping information from others. I talk a lot and don’t have the poker face. I also have a hard time understanding spy novels. Although this is not really a spy novel, it has spies as characters. It is the story of several college students in Turkey in 1970 who are first manipulated, then cover for a spy (wanna be?) I do not think I followed the whole story perfectly. It is also a history of Turkey from 1970 to the 2000s. The political uprisings with US and (probably) Russian intervention and manipulation, the military coup that follows it in 1980, and then Turkish people looking back at their past. As we watch the current Syrian conflict with Russia, US and Turkey involved, things have not improved much…

What made it interesting for me was that most of the plot revolves around students at Robert College, an American missionary founded school in 1863, which was split in 1971, the college transferring to the Turkish state and becoming Boğaziçi University and the high school becoming a secular private American school. I attended both schools, so did my parents. The author’s father was a professor there and the author grew up in Istanbul. There are rumors and books where the teachers at the schools are American spies. Maybe the author’s father was under suspicion, too. Maybe he was one. He stayed in Turkey after retirement, he became the most important promoter of travelling in Turkey, with over 60 books, including a two volume book about the hostory of the school.  Anyone serious traveler who planes to visit Istanbul must have his Strolling Through Istanbul with Hilary Sumner-Boyd (another Robert College professor). He has many more, wherever you want to go in Turkey.

The characters are all too familiar. The children of the rich, living good lives in Bebek, by the seaside villas or on the hills with views of the Bosphorus, where both schools are located. They all have ties to the US, either born as citizens there, eventually married to foreigners or attending schools there. They sound very much like my high school class mates. They are however my parents’ generation, though, maybe a few years younger. I should ask my parents more about the times when they were in college.

There was a very high anti- American sentiment at the end of the sixties. When the Sixth Fleet on the United States was in Istanbul in 1968, there were huge protests by the leftist students. One of the leaders of the student protests was Deniz Gezmiş, who, with two if his friends was later was tried and given the death penalty. He has ever since become a symbol of the left and the turmoil of that time, a historical figure and a hero (to some, but not all).

Go away (more like f*** off) 6th fleet

American sailors were pushed to the sea and there were protests in the city, recorded as Bloody Sunday. The American school’s transfer to the Turkish government was partly as a result of this.


There really was a “suitcase murder” at that time like the novel. The leader of the student group, just like the character in the book, went to Denmark. He is now a professor.

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My Turkish Adventure by Pamela Burr

Published in 1971

Every now and then I have a shopping spree. I go on Abebooks and type Turkish, Turkey in the keyword search and chose a time interval. This book was part of my last spree. I ended up with about fifteen new old books. Almost every day I have a new gift for myself in the mailbox.

Pamela Burr was an English teacher at the American College for Girls (ACG) in Istanbul right after WWII. The school, founded in 1863, became a coed private American high school in 1971 and I graduated from there in 1991. So it has a very special place in my heart and in my blog.

Born and brought up in Philadelphia where her family has lived for several generations in White Christian America, the boat trip was her first exposure to other people.

Never before had so many classes, cults, creeds, races, nationalities, and religions been herded together on one ship. Outward bound on her first peacetime voyage after the close of hostilities, she was not a liner, she was the ark, onto which struggled at least two of every species known to humanity. (p12)

She would not find it so interesting and amusing if she was from Istanbul or any other place in the Middle East where variety of cultures was the norm.

I particularly loved her description of the school campus and surroundings because that is where my parents live, across from the graveyard she describes.

One of our favorite haunts was the old Mohammedan graveyard on an adjacent hill. We reached it by a road that cut across the campus like a moat. Sunk fifteen feet below the modern level, this road was on another plane, physically and spiritually […] Barbed wire, walls and ponderous, wooden gateways kept without the tide of Orient that flowed through it[…] and here a Greek woman tended a small wayside shrine marked with a cross (p90)

The road which I took every day fro six years to school, the walls and the barbed wire are still there, so is the shrine with the cross.

During her time in Istanbul, she takes two trips to Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey, which she describes in a, well, American way. She is surprised and flattered by all the attention she gets as people are just as surprised by her as she is by them. In Rize, in Northeastern Turkey, she is shown around the new tea plantations as if she is a government official. In Gaziantep, she stays with the family of one of her students and is given a family heirloom as a present.

Commemorative stamps

One of the most interesting stories is of the visit of USS Missouri to Istanbul  At the start of the Cold War the United States was wooing Turkey to its side and the reason of the visit was presented as returning the body of the late ambassador of Turkey to the United States, Mehmet Münir Ertegün, the father of Ahmet Ertegün, cofounder of Atlantic Records. She describes two parties in its honor. One at the Dolmabahçe Palace, by the Turks:

A scarlet carpet led up the marble steps to the great ballroom, all blue and gold, swarming with decoration.[…] The huge crystal chandelier blazed down on the jewels of the women, some of whom wore slabs of diamonds or emeralds in the best, or rather the worst, modern fashion, while others wore exquisitely wrought ancestral pieces hung with pearls which museums would covet. Tables, lining the walls, were laden with aspics, ices, cakes decorated with American and Turkish flags all in sugar and champagne. (p129)

Another at the ship by the Americans:

We had tea in thick cups and ham in thick slices of bread […] With the pride of a child they showed us the batteries of guns, the modern hospital, the hewing gum store where one could buy perfume, snakeskin bags, and sunglasses. (p130)

Maybe if you look carefully enough your can spot the author in this footage which includes the described parties:

Working at the American College for Girls, she has many stories about American sailors looking for (but not finding) American girls. For her efforts, she does end up with a cake of Ivory soap as a present. In 1940s Istanbul, that must have been a luxury.

Another place she describes is the American Hospital in Istanbul. Nowadays a private hospital, it was founded by Admiral Bristol during Istanbul’s siege after Turkey’s defeat at the end of WWI in 1920.  Although now it is in a large modern building, its original building served as a maternity clinic with the name Güzelbahçe (pretty garden) in the seventies and I was born there.

After many stories of students and their families, she ends with a platonic love story with a married potter. Could the scene in Ghost been inspired by this story?

Hasaan had prepared for my coming by kneading weighty clay balls, which now awaited me in a row. This, he felt, was not women’s work […] A the potter kicked, round and round gravely revolved the ponderous wheel. I poked and squeezed and mauled the stain smooth clay; resilient with a cool vitality of its own, it resisted me. Hasan endured these preliminary skirmishes as long as he could. Then, as if I had been a child, he cupped my hands in his and molded hands and clay as one. (p209)

If I can trust my internet search, Pamela Burr died in Bryn Mawr in 1983 at the age of 78. She must have been one brave woman to travel half way around the world to the Middle East in 1945 right after a world war. After reading this, I found on ebay the school’s 1946 yearbook. I wonder if I will be able to find the pictures of the students she so fondly talks about.

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Precarious Hope by Ayşe Parla

This is a hard core research book, not one I would normally read, but it is written by Ayşe Parla, one of my classmates from high school. After high school she went to the US for college. The next time we met again was probably at Sabancı University in 2005 when I was getting ready to leave after three years to come back to the US and she was giving her job talk to start there, returning from the US back to Turkey. The talk was on a similar topic as the book, migrants from Bulgaria to Turkey post 1990. During that talk, what surprised me was that she was sitting and reading parts of the text. Our (math) talks were not like that. And then I understood why. The words, phrases, definitions and the way each sentence is put together is a huge part of her work. As in this book, every word she was using had been thoroughly thought. I must admit, it is not casual reading.

These nuanced approaches that refuse to move beyond signification and instead mediate the ever-present tension between language and experience also avoid the irony that besets the radical version of affect theory when it is viewed from a historically contextualized perspective: by favoring a constructivist account in which language and cognition mediate emotion, scholarship in the anthropology of emotions rescues emotion from the monopoly of psychobiology, while the affect theory, in its hard version, ends up reinstating the hegemony of the biological and the non-linguistic. (page 89)

Ayşe always had an excellent command of languages. Back in tenth grade, she would prep us with summaries and explanations of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations before Ms. Watrous’s English class. Listening to her was so much easier and more fun than reading, which back then, I did not enjoy as much.

The second reason why I read this book is that it is about immigration which is a central part of my family’s life.  My family (great grand parents) in Turkey came to the then Ottoman Empire as parts of mass migrations: Circassian exodus from their homeland in 1864, Crimean Tartars forced to leave in 1914- both because of Russian autocracies; Eastern European Turks/Muslims migrating to what had remained of the Empire at the turn of the 20th century as Christian nation states were formed. But, more significantly, I am myself an immigrant, unforced, single family and legal, but that does not make it trivial. Just like the people Ayşe talks about, I waited in lines, filled out forms and counted my days outside the US from my passport to see whether I qualified for my citizenship application. When I spent two years in Turkey after having gotten my Green Card, I was scolded at Kennedy Airport by an immigration officer and threatened to be sent back to my country. I must admit now that being white and a woman (especially in the post-9/11 era when you are really Middle Eastern) must have helped. Not only that, my children’s nanny for seven years was a Mexican and I helped her fill her citizenship forms. People sometimes hinted that she may be illegal and that I paid her less because of that.  I also filled out her mother’s form when she qualified for an amnesty. My nephew’s nannies in Istanbul were from Moldavia and Georgia, both dealing with the exact same problems Ayşe talks about in her book, although not with the privilege of being ethnically Turkish as her interlocutors from Bulgaria. I know about the bus trips they take back home as part of their efforts to keep themselves legal.

Balchik, Bulgaria

Recently, my sister applied for Romanian citizenship because our grandfather  was born in Balçık which is now in Bulgaria, but was part of Romania at the turn of the twentieth century. She had to have documents found and translated to prove his birth place and thus my father’s and her right to citizenship as a descendants. In the end, everything got stuck because of a letter change during translation and the Turkish government’s laziness in recording everyone’s birthday on the same day of that year during very busy days of immigration.

After she thought she had everything ready, another problem emerged: the discrepancy between Bulgarian and Turkish conventions of how one’s name is written on official documents [….] For the application to be considered, everything needs to be consistent across each document- namely, the documents of origin or birth certificate, passport, and residency permit – and even a difference in spelling of a name can cause trouble. (page 131)

We have not lost hope though. Our cousin has a UK passport and we think he has a better chance of getting his petition approved, as Romania would be looking more favorably to a UK citizen than a Turkish one. Part of our worth as humans comes from our skin color, nationality and religion, none of which we chose at birth. Sad, but true.

As Turkish as I am (third generation, proudly, at least) I “look foreign” with blond hair and blue eyes. I frequently get mistaken for a tourist in my home country. In a touristy neighborhood like the Grand Bazaar, depending on my mood, I answer back in English or Turkish. When I answer back in Turkish, they may apologize or make the “you don’t look Turkish” remark. When I was younger, I got questioned more, by shop owners, taxi drivers, and people in general , about my origins. They asked me where I was from (Istanbul), where my father was from (also Istanbul) and where my grandfather was from (not from Istanbul) and they had their a-ha moments! I always found that amusing and harmless conversation. I am now wondering if there was another motive behind it. Did looking European or Russian make me more “available” (I was also much younger then.)  Although I never felt that in my hometown, I learned later that being asked if I was Russian during my trip to Dubai in my twenties was not a nice remark.

Distinguishing herself from the collective “we” of the Bulgaristanlı migrants in terms of outward appearance, Sıdıka went on to say,”They always mistake me for Eastern European or Russian.” She paused and seductively batted the eyelashes that frames her wide green eyes. “I mean, with these eyes, of course they do! But once they realize I am Turkish, they let me go. “Bacım Türküm desene,” they say. [Sister, why didn’t you say “I am Turkish?”] (page 109)

On the other hand looking European has its advantages here in the US. Until I open my mouth to speak, people assume I am a white American. Any prejudice or remarks or questions always come after they hear my accent. Sometimes I get complemented. Travelling in Europe, it is usually a “you don’t look Turkish” followed by a smile, because not being Turkish in Europe is supposed to be a good thing. Here people find it comfortable in my presence to complain about too many foreigners settling in the neighborhood. When I remind them of the fact that they are talking a a foreigner, it is usually a straight forward “but you are white”. So although I cannot always escape discrimination and prejudice for foreigners, I always escape racism in the US.

It is not always our looks or language that gives us away though. My daughter when she was younger was always very conscious -and vocal- of the fact that she was American while her parents were Turkish. We went though a phase when she was just starting elementary school and stepping outside the family and into the local community when she was telling everyone this fact about our family. She felt uneasy when I spoke to her in Turkish in public and people stared at us as a result. But her most interesting remark came a couple of days after we had arrived in Istanbul for our annual Summer trip. Walking around a shopping mall, she said “Mom, everyone here is like you.” I said, yes, everyone here speaks Turkish, don’t they? She said, “No, it is not the way they speak, it is the way they are.”

But even as these internal negotiations over the definition of who was the real inside proliferated, there were simultaneously recurrent declarations of cultural intimacy that bounded the Bulgaristanlı together: “We can immediately spot one another,” I would often be told. “we can just tell another Bulgaristanlı from one hundred meters away, just from the way she carries herself or just from the way he gestures.” (page 188)

What I loved about the book in the end were the stories of the people, those who leave their home for a better life or the promise of a better life and start what initially seems like a temporary life in a foreign country and end up becoming part of that place. But, in the end, the book is about hope. That feeling that takes us through many of life’s hurdles.

Hope 1886 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904

Hope is a fundamental tenet of being in the world. The psychoanalytic perspective would even posit that ths hopeful disposition is necessary to be able to sustain an attachment to the business of living. One can presumable go through the day without other emotions such as anger, or fear, or, for that matter, happiness, but hardly without some minimal hope.  (page 164)

I am writing this from the Korean School in Bellevue, Washington, where my daughter is taking language classes on Saturdays. I am sitting at a table with immigrant parents, talking in Korean, of course, waiting for their children. I am sure each family has many stories to tell about their own history, not just of how they ended up here in Washington, but generations of moving around and settling in new lands, because they were forced to or because they could, hoping for a better future.

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The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

I was looking to read one more novel after Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, so while putting that back on the shelf I picked this one.  The white elphant was hard to miss. The book tells the story of a poor Anatolian boy who runs away from his village and is picked up by a pirate, who also happens to have an elephant from India on his ship as part of his spoils. The pirate makes the boy pose as the elephant’s Indian mahout and send him to the palace with the promise of working (i.e. stealing) for him.  Jahan, as he names himself posing as an Indian, proves to be resourceful. Although he cannot steal enough to the pirate’s satisfaction, he learns not only his pretend role of taking after an elephant, but also becomes an apprentice to the architect Sinan, the most famous and successful architect in Turkish history. On one side we read about the constructions of the famous monuments, on the other hand we follow the mahout and his elephant Chota in the palace. There is even a love story between Jahan and the princess Mihrimah. There is a surprise end bringing Jahan together with his namesake Shah Jahan, the ruler who had Taj Mahal built for his wife.

Süleymaniye Mosque

The story is beautifully told. The places and the characters of sixteen century Istanbul and the Topkapi Palace come alive. The stories of the people and of the city flow beautifully. The description of the people, the palace, the architecture are brilliant. It is an excellent historical novel. We read about the the most famous monuments in Istanbul built by Sinan. He builds a bridge for the Turkish army and renovates the famous Agia Sophia.  He then builds the complex of Mosque of Suleiman in Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque for his son Selim II (the Sot) in Edirne. Later, he also builds an observatory for Suleiman’s grandson Murat. The story of the observatory is also told in another historical novel The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Nouri Huges. The love story between Jahan and Mihrimah, being absolutely hopeless, is not very dominant in the book.

The picture of an elephant with Suleiman and his mosque which was an inspiration for the author


Since this is a historical novel with real characters and buildings, Shafak gives some information for the reader to separate reality from fiction as some things have been changed for the story. She also talks about how she came across the portrait on the left of Suleiman in the book The Age of Sinan about the Architect Sinan by Gülru Neciboğlu.

Before I wrote this, I also searched the book and its reviews in Turkish on the internet. The book was written in English by the author and translated into Turkish. There were claims that this story was stolen from Jose Sarangamo’s The Elephant’s Journey. That one, based on a true story, is also about an elephant Solomon (later named Suleiman after the above Turkish Sultan, probably as an insult to him) and its Indian mahout Subhro. It tells the journey of the two from Lisbon to Vienna. Besides the fact that both have an elephant and a mahout and both take place in about the same time in history, the two stories do not have anything in common. Shafak’s story is far superior in its details, characters and descriptions of the real and imaginary.

If you love architecture and history and you are planning a trip to Istanbul, this is your book.

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The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Museum street this Summer

This Summer I visited the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. It was a challenge with all the paving of the roads. I thought I had read the book (I had actually come half way and quit) and tried to remember the story as I walked through the museum. Not all of it came back, given that I had not finished it the first time, so I went back and started reading it again. I would definitely recommend reading the book first. The book comes with a museum ticket so don’t forget to take your book on your visit. You may also want to reread some parts as you sit among the collections.

Basic plot: The rich upper middle/high class Kemal falls for a very young and distant (and poor) relative Füsun while he is about to be engaged to the “perfect girl” Sibel. He keeps seeing Füsun until the engagement.

If the lycee teachers studying this book in their class are now beginning to get nervous, they can advise the students to skip this page. If there are visitors to my museum who wish to know more, I would suggest they kindly cast their eyes on the furnishings; the scene will be enough to make them understand that what I had to do I did first and foremost for Füsun, looking at me with such frightened and sorrowful eyes, and second for our common good, and only after all these imperatives were satisfied, just a little for my own pleasure. 

He invites her and her family to the engagement party and keeps seeing her after he is engaged to be married. Eventually, he will drift into a life separate from his social circle and spend his time with Füsun’s family even after they separate. The museum is the recreation of his obsession with her. The story is slow – the book is 516 pages in the current Turkish edition, 728 pages in the English paperback edition I have, and took Pamuk more than six years to write. With that length, it is still interesting to read all the descriptions of a time in Istanbul, of its people and lives, the changes that occur. The time coincides (almost) with my childhood and I remember most of what he talks about either personally or from the Turkish movies I loved watching.

When you read the book you feel walking through the neighborhood or sitting at the restaurant, especially if you already have been to the same or similar places. Istanbul and the lives of people living there is at the center of the novel. That is why I love it so much. One place stood out in particular for me. The engagement of Kemal and Sibel takes place at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. Built in 1955, for years it was the only modern/American place people went to. Kemal is from my parents’ generation he mentions that he was ten when Hilton Istanbul opened, making him just two years older than them. Hilton was a Istanbul icon for years.

In those years so many Western innovations made their first appearance in this hotel that the leading newspapers even posted reporters there. If one of my mother’s favorite suits got stained, she would send it to the dry cleaner at the Hilton, and she liked to drink 

tea with her friends at the patisserie in the lobby, Quite a few of my friends and relatives had their weddings in the grand ballroom on the lower level…And it enjoyed one other distinction: The Hilton had been, since the day it opened, one of the few establishments in Turkey where a well-heeled gentleman and a courageous lady could obtain a room without being asked for a marriage certificate.

My parents’  engagement in 1970.

Coincidentally, my parents’ engagement was also there although my mom’s family had more modest means than Kemal’s. The photograph is of the newspaper clipping my mother kept. Years later my father would take me there after a dreaded doctor’s appointment to eat green cocktail olives which I loved (the ones we had for breakfast were smaller and darker so these were really special) while he had a drink.

Kemal’s car, the Chevrolet is one of the main characters, together with its rather quiet driver Çetin. He is the guardian angel who watches over Kemal after his father’s death. Although he is with Kemal everyday, we don’t know him at all. The story taking place in the seventies and eighties, there is much sexism. Füsun’s life “being ruined” by her early affair with Kemal is part of the main story, of course. One point where the sexism is prominent is the story of Füsun getting a driver’s licence. In those times it was rare for women to drive. My aunt was the only woman I knew who drove in the seventies. She had a bright red car. My mother started driving much later when we moved away from her work and she started her cross-Continental commute as many Istanbulites regularly do. The driver’s licence tests were difficult with too many technical questions about the engine and the mechanics, the driving tests even more brutal. In the story, Füsun passes the difficult written exam, but fails the driving test several times.

Füsun did not pass her second test either. This time they set her the very difficult task of maneuvering into an imaginary parking space while driving up a hill in reverse. When she made the Chevrolet tremble and judder again, they ordered her out of the car in the same humiliating way.
I had been watching from a distance with a mixed crowd of retired policemen, applicants, letter writers, teaboys, and various gawkers; when one of the saw a bespectacled examiner once again take the wheel from Füsun, he said, “They flunked that chick,” and a couple of other laughed.

Pamuk’s notes

But her lessons with Kemal in the Chevrolet give them an excuse to be alone,  the only times the two are alone and out in the city. They are also the rare times the two are together after their break up. Driving around used to be a thing in Istanbul. You would take the car and go to the Bosporus. Now traffic makes that an unlikely entertainment. I stopped driving in Istanbul about five years ago. I drive in Turkey a lot, but not in Istanbul. I would rather be looking around than worrying about traffic and parking.

The most impressive descriptions are from the living room of Füsun’s family where Kemal visits regularly covering almost half the book. The food, table settings, television news, conversations, classical politeness remarks, conversation’s filler words and sentences, remarks, smoking, home decor, the changing times, especially the military coup of 1980 all come alive in that living room. It is such a beautiful description of everyday life inside an Istanbul home.

I sat across from the television, which was slightly to my left, and with the kitchen just to my right. Behind me was a sideboard, and sometimes, if I tipped my chair, I would knock against it. Then the crystal glasses inside would shudder along with the porcelain and the silver sugar bowls, the liqueur sets, the never-used coffee cups, the old clock, the silver lighter that no longer worked, the little glass vase with the spiraling floral pattern whose likenesses one could see displayed on the buffet of any middle-class family in the city, other ornamental pieces, and finally the buffet’s glass shelves.

The Consolations of a life in a Yalı

If you ever want to or have to live in Istanbul and you have the means, you should do so in a yalı, a house by the Bosporus. The strait is like the central park of the city with clean air and constant breeze. The view is, well, of Istanbul. And you live by the water which is a pleasure in almost any part of the world. You can brag about being on the edge of one continent looking onto the other. If you are a good swimmer, really careful and are not a hygiene-freak, you can occasionally swim. You can wave to the boats, trying to catch your dinner or just hang out by the water. Kemal moves into one with his fiance Sibel to forget about Füsun.

As we sat at the bay window overlooking the water, eating our evening meal like a couple who were able to live on nothing but love, The City Line ferry named Kalender would leave the Anadoluhisarı landing stage, and there at the wheel we would see the mustached captain with his cap; so close that he could see the crackling mackerel at our table, and the eggplant puree and fritters, the white cheese. the melon and rakı, he would cry, “Good appetite,” which Sibel took for yet another charming bond to advance my cure and make us happy.

The museum has many objects collected by Pamuk, some from hoarders. There are displays for the chapters like the one for Chapter 40. One of the most interesting displays is at the entrance, composing of 4213 cigarette butts (Chapter 68). Made me wonder if I had smoked that many in my life.

Reading Pamuk is a must before visiting İstanbul and reading the book is a must before you visit the museum.

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The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Nouri Hughes

After a break of more than a year, I am reading historical novels again. This one is about Nurbanu Sultan, the wife of Selim II (the sot) and the mother of Murad III. It is based on the theory of her Venetian origin, abducted from her father’s home on the Green island of Paros. The mapmaker in the title is her mother which goes very well with the emergence of many female heroes in arts these days. Her and her mother’s education in math and geography are spun into the story of how Murad III ended up having an observatory built in Constantinople by Taqi-ad Din. Unfortunately, the observatory survived a few years. Its destruction was ordered by Murad when the boundaries between science and astrology were vague and the stars were not able to predict the future of a war. The incident seems like the turning point in the Turkish Empire’s growth and lead in Europe. If they had kept the observatory, would scientific research advance and Turkish and Islamic fate be different? Was the fate of the empire almost saved by a Greek/Venetian woman?

As the historian Bernard Lewis notes “When the fiction is good, the history is usually distorted, and on the rare occasions when the history is good, the fiction is usually less interesting that the straight historical narrative.” He claims this novel has the perfect balance. However, for me, not knowing where the history ends and fiction begins is always slightly disturbing. The novel puts a who did it and why to what we know happened, more or less. It gives a point of view and human touch to an otherwise dull list of facts, but we never know if it gets it right. Somehow the characters, which have to match the actions of their historical realities, seem unbalanced. Nurbanu, educated and smart, with a pain for loss of family, somehow manages to order the killing of children for the sake of a tradition she was not part of. Murad, starting out reasonable, orders the destruction of an observatory he probably paid for because he loses a war. The rumored relationship between Nurbanu and her Jewish kira Esther, is somehow undeveloped. Trying to fit history to characters not easy. The facts, most of which are not certain anyway,  limits the author’s imagination.

The story is still very interesting though. Almost all Ottoman queens (mothers of sultans) have slave origins. Their rise to power from almost nothing, how they survive together with their sons in the palace war of power and politics is remarkable. Nurbanu’s story is not an exception. It is one thing to be born royalty, but a completely different to rise from slave to the most powerful woman in an empire. There are enough movies about Elizabeth. We need more about the Turkish queens.

Talking about movies, Nurbanu and Selim appear at the end of the long series about the life of Suleiman the Magnificient, her father in law. You can see a portrayal of her at 13:15 of the final episode of the series. These days, I am watching another Turkish series – same production company, they had to use all those sets and costumes they made- of Mahpeyker Kosem Sultan, wife of Ahmet I and mother of Murad IV and Ibrahim I. She is more famous than Nurbanu. But, not as famous as Hurrem (Roxelena), wife of Suleiman and mother in law of Nurbanu. A book about her life, Empress of the East, by Leslie Pierce is next on my reading list.

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