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Three Daughters of Eve – a telling window into the heart of Istanbul

May 14, 2017

There must be something about people called Elif. I know two. The first I know personally. She’s a teacher, a former colleague. She’s beautiful person, nurturing, smart and a superb communicator. The second I know through her work. She’s an award-winning novelist. Both are Turkish. Both are open-minded. Like so many in their home country, they look to the West as much as to the East. And both know how to speak to the heart.

I find it easy to write about politics, travel, business and all that other stuff that allows the writer to maintain a distance from the subject. Matters of the heart are not so easy, which is perhaps why I’ve never felt able to write fiction. Yes, I would probably be capable of writing stories in which the narrative predominates. But to create a character from the clay of one’s consciousness and experience, to allow it to live and breathe, to reflect and illuminate the world around it? That would be beyond me.

Great writers can do both. I don’t study the alchemy of creative writing. Too much knowledge about the techniques of any art, unless you happen to be the artist, can, I find, detract from the experience, take away the wonder at the creation. I found that over years in the music business. I became so focused on the technical aspects of performance and delivery that it took me years to remember what I loved about music in the first place – that it helped me to lose myself.

I posted a tweet the other day about the second Elif – Elif Shafak – in which I said that I had learned more about Turkey through her books than in all my visits to the country. It was her latest novel, Three Daughters of Eve, that prompted me to make that comment.

It’s the story of Peri, the daughter of a conflicted family in Istanbul. Her mother is devoutly religious, and her father is an admirer of Ataturk, the man who transformed Turkey into a secular democracy after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Peri is profoundly uncertain – about who she is, and about her relationship with God. She’s a straight-A student at school, and her father persuades her to go to Oxford University, where she studies Politics, Philosophy and Economics. There she befriends two other Muslim girls – one devout, and the other militantly secular. She joins a philosophy class ran by a charismatic professor who selects his students for their diversity, and encourages them to look beyond the narrow confines of their beliefs.

Professor Azur preaches uncertainty. He puts his students in situations where they challenge each other’s certainties. Some find his techniques manipulative. The effect on Peri of the professor and his seminars changes her life. We go back and forth between Oxford in 2001, and the present day, in which she is a mother living back in Istanbul.

For me – though I’m not sure if Shafak intended it this way – Peri is a metaphor for Istanbul itself. Melancholy, passionate, curious, uncertain of her place in the world. Her social circle is drawn from the Istanbul bourgeoisie, where the devout and the secular still mix. They debate the merits of western democracy, and they talk politics in private lest they fall foul of The State that looms over all of them. For some, God takes second place to commerce. To others He has granted political ascendancy after decades of secular government. Yet they are still able to enjoy each other’s company.

Peri is an oddity in that Oxford has taught her to speak out on matters traditionally regarded as male preserves, something that the other women in her circle are more reluctant to do. Some of the men find this disconcerting. The tradition of patriarchy rubs shoulders uneasily with the egalitarian values of the West.

She is convinced that despite its shortcomings, Istanbul is more civilised than its rougher neighbours.

“I read it’s been ranked worst in the world.”


“The traffic. Worse than Cairo, imagine. Even worse than Delhi!”

Not that she had ever been to Cairo or Delhi. But, like many Istanbulites, Peri held a firm belief that her city was more civilised than those remote, rough, congested places – even though ‘remote’ was a relative concept and ‘rough’ and ‘congested’ were adjectives often applied to Istanbul. All the same, this city bordered on Europe. Such closeness had to amount to something. It was so breathtakingly close that Turkey had put one foot through Europe’s doorway and tried to venture forth with all its might – only to find that the opening was so narrow that, no matter how much the rest of the body wriggled and squirmed, it could not squeeze itself in. Nor did it help that Europe, in the meantime, was pushing the door shut.

Of course, Istanbul is not Turkey, and nor do the views of its middle class necessarily reflect the street. Orhan Pamuk, whom I rank alongside Elif Shafak as my guide to the soul of Turkey, shows another side to the city in A Strangeness in my Mind, his recent novel about the migrants from Anatolia who settled in the city over the past three decades.

Three Daughters of Eve is beautifully constructed and very moving. It speaks to the heart through the heart of its central character. Her other books – most notably The Forty Rules of Love, the Bastard of Istanbul and The Architect’s Apprentice – also enrich and inform the visitor’s experience of Istanbul. Read them alongside Pamuk’s work – particularly Istanbul, Memories and the City, My Name is Red and A Strangeness in my Mind – and you will have some understanding as to why the city is what it is, and where it’s come from.

Despite Turkey’s recent move towards religious orthodoxy and authoritarianism, Istanbul in my experience is still a place defined by diversity of thought. Shafak in her writing represents that diversity. Long before the arrival of the Ottomans, in Constantinople religious disputation was a way of life. Arguments over the nature of The Father, the Son and The Holy Ghost have indelibly seeped into its ancient walls.

If there is a future Islamic world in which heterodoxy thrives, in which respect for difference wins out over the suppression of The Other, then I suspect that Turkey, and in particularly Istanbul, will be the source of that mindset. Despite the country’s long history of bouts of religious and ethnic intolerance, if Shafak and Pamuk are to be believed, the spirit of inquiry and uncertainty still survives.

It will outlive presidents, ISIS and the preachers of Medina. One day perhaps, we in the West will stop looking at Islam through fearful eyes, and will once again recognise that it, like other faiths, has many shades of belief, and that among the faithful there are as many uncertain seekers after truth as are to be found in churches, temples and ashrams.

And then we will come to realise that we have much to learn from it.

Or, as Elif Shafak’s beloved Rumi said:

“Listen! Clam up your mouth and be silent like an oyster shell, for that tongue of yours is the enemy of the soul, my friend. When the lips are silent, the heart has a hundred tongues.”

  1. I doubt if writing fine fiction would be “beyond you”, or writing anything much else that’s worth reading. You could probably write a very readable phone directory.

    But then we now live in a world where all the material published in the very best and most respected newspapers is all fiction, according to the President of The United States of America and his proselytes, and where the mindless sewage published on websites like Breitbart News and Alex Jones’ Infowars, guzzled-down by millions, is supposedly fact.

    As they say in the US, you go figure…

  2. Dunno about a phone directory, but I wouldn’t mind having a stab at the Argos Catalogue. Re Breitbart etc, perhaps it will turn out that those who spread the sewage will end up swimming in it. Devoutly to be hoped.

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