Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Bastard of Istanbul

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
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May 28, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, 2008, cover-love
Read in May, 2008

It was the cover that snared me. Turkey is one of the top three countries on my mental list of countries to visit, along with the Czech Republic and Morocco, and I love Turkish architecture and design. The cover reminded me of those beautiful mosaics and arches and mosques, and then the title! Who could resist? A less impulsive person than me, sure, but this is my idea of living dangerously :)

Beautifully, gracefully, vividly written with a light, airy atmosphere that really allows you to breathe, The Bastard of Istanbul follows the story of two girls and their families, one Turkish, one Armenian American, and how their histories interweave. Asya Kazanci is the bastard daughter of Zeliha, raised by an eccentric group of aunts and grandmothers in Istanbul. Now 19, she spends most of her time listening to Johnny Cash records and philosophising with a group of older, cynical political outcasts at the Cafe Kundera. In Arizona, 19 year old Armanoush "Amy" Tchakhmakhchian bounces between her over-protective American mother Rose and quiet Turkish step-father Mustafa, and her father Barsham's large Armenian family in San Francisco. Struggling to understand herself and what it means to be Armenian, she decides to journey to Turkey and stay with her step-father's family, the Kazanci's.

Politics, history, philosophy, religion, and the familiar struggle for personal identity in relation to and against a collective group flesh out this lovely tale, littered with references to popular culture and classic literature. Likened to the work of Amy Tan, Shafak's prose is much more philosophical and lyrical, and her themes are less dramatic for drama's sake. I found all her characters to be instantly recognisable, and I felt that both Asya and Amy to be familiar, and similar, to myself in some ways. I identified with them far more readily than I would reading about a more conventional teenager.

The atmosphere is wonderful, from dry Arizona to misty San Francisco to loud, colourful, vibrant Istanbul - made me want to go there even more than before! I could hear and smell and see it all so clearly, though the prose is not overly descriptive. With an omniscient narrator who reveals the inner tortures and idiosyncracies of the characters with a humorous but sympathetic touch, the narrative goes back and forth in time, skilfully revealing the past as it corresponds to the present, creating a tapestry as detailed and vivid as a Turkish carpet. I loved all the aunts too, with their quirks and Banu's djinni. Yes, there's a touch of magic realism in this book that serves it well.

The conflict between Turks and Armenians, the denial of the Armenian genocide which, I believe, is still keeping Turkey out of the EU, is dealt with with a great deal of compassion and understanding. Shafak makes an effort to show different arguments, as in, why the Turks are so ignorant of this history and why the Armenians are so stubborn to relive it. There was a wonderful quote about that but sadly I didn't mark the page and now I can't find it.

This was a random find in the bookshop and an absolute gem to read, and I highly recommend it. On a side note, the author mentions that the book was first released in Turkey in 2006 (she wrote it in both Turkish and English) and she was facing up to three years in jail because some of the things the Turkish characters said went against the nation, something like that, but the charges were dropped. Still, it's a bit scary, but also fascinating - Turkey is arguably one of the more liberal Muslim states, by western standards, where women have rights and opportunities, but where conservative traditions still play a heavy hand in domestic affairs.

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03/31 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Anca Could this be the quote?
“Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood” (p. 263) it's Baron Baghdasarian


Really good review, you said it just how I felt it but couldn't put it down. I just finnished it and find it so hard to write something about it since it's, like you said, a complicated and multifaceted tapestry. Still, you were very concise and caught just the right tone. congrats from me on this one..


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Yes that sounds like it! I can't quite remember if that's the one I was thinking of but if it wasn't it should have been!

Thanks for that Anca, it's not easy for me to capture a book or how I reacted to it either, so it's encouraging to hear I'm making sense :) I'm sure there's lots that occurred to you that I didn't even notice.


message 3: by Kate (new) - added it

Kate I just got an ARC...and it was the jacket that snared me, too! Thanks for the review...I will check it out!


Becky I also think your review is very well written for such a complex book! On a side note: Shafak was nearly jailed by quotes from Armenian characters, not Turkish. The Turkish state does not acknowledge the Armenian genocide, which is a major question raised in this book. The Turkish government is also radically secular. Shafak's charges had nothing to do with the Muslim religion.


message 5: by Silva (new)

Silva The book sounds like a very good read, my mother is currently reading it. We are of Armenian descent thus this is a subject that is very close to our hearts and it is refreshing that an author of Turkish descent writes about something that is so sensitive for Turkey and the Armenians. On this note the comments posted are typical from people that do not understand what it is like to have history denied in this way, to lose your lands, to lose your identity and to be living in the diaspora - where the majority of people you meet have not even heard of Armenians. Armenians that still live in Turkey today still suffer in silence at the heart of Turkish nationalism. Armenians will always continue to fight for justice, I don't believe it is wrong to be stubborn in these situations as much as it is wrong for it to be denied and forgotten. I am very curious and interested in reading this book and hearing the authors accounts on this subject.


Ebru Dearest Silva,

Having had Armenien friends, neighbours and landlords in Turkey I don't know if any of them is suffering. And if they are, can you please explain why they are still plenty immigrating from Armenia? ;)


Nivedita I love how beautifully you have written this review. It captures the very essence of the book. Thank you.


message 8: by Faiza (new) - added it

Faiza This was my first Elif shafak and it was a pleasure reading it. Once you get past the first few chapters it is difficult to put the book down. I loved the way shafak has touched upon the turkish paradox and the dichotomy people face within after the abolishment of the caliphate. It makes you realize if you take away from a nation their history they keep struggling to find their identity.; and all this in a country with such deep historical roots; in people who ruled half the world...and thats what we see happening in cafe kundera. I love istanbul and everything from the bubbling samovar to the simit vendor to the fishermen on the bridge made me feel I was back in the city where every cobblestone on the street has a story to tell. On the other hand some religious stories are not factually correct.
Overall a very good read and the last few chapters would be downright unbelievable.


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