Identity and belonging

Print edition : July 19, 2019

A rally on the sixth anniversary of the Gezi Park protests near Taksim Square in Istanbul on May 31. Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP

For Indian readers, particularly, the novel hits bang in the solar plexus: everything said and implied is relevant in our context.

Anine-year-old once told me the books she liked best were the ones that were about people like herself. Although set in Turkey, Without a Country is such a book. But first, it must be said that this is far from being a great novel. Although the author, Ayse Kulin, is described as “one of Turkey’s most beloved”, known for her “captivating stories about human endurance”, and although Without a Country is unerringly about the human condition, the lack of balance in the plot and an underlying prescriptive tone deflate a palpably powerful and relevant theme: cultural and religious integration or the absence of it.

Frankly, it needed to be a much fatter novel in order to do justice to the lives of the four generations it chronicles, beginning with the flight of Gerhard Schliemann and his wife, Elsa, from Nazi Germany to Istanbul in Turkey. While their story gets the detailed treatment it deserves, the stories of their child, grandchild and great grandchild get shorter and shorter shrift, sufficient only to serve as pieces of information, not a story-telling. The transformation of their daughter, Susy, from a sturdy German child to a Turkish Suzy Siliman (oddly spelled “iliman” in a chapter heading; surely a typo?) is reasonably filled out, although not satisfyingly so. Her daughter Sude’s story is brief, and her daughter Esra’s story is just a fullstop.

Despite this, it is a compelling read, thanks to the power of the theme. Cultural differences, dislocation from one’s country, religious tensions, ideas of democracy, dictatorial regimes, riots, inter-faith and intercultural marriages, discrimination against certain communities (Jews, Armenians)…. All these are themes that persist as distressing realities to this day, and Ayse Kulin tackles them head on. The novel begins with Suzy, who has always thought of herself as Turkish, advising her granddaughter, Esra, to leave Turkey. She writes to Esra, recalling a time when foreigners were treated well and people did not dwell on religious differences. Then she goes on to say that “Turkey is your country, but the hatred and violence are too much… bombs can explode and injustices are committed everywhere, but here, in a place where hate crimes go unpunished, you are no longer safe. These anti-Semites are filled with hate. At the very least, they will break your heart. And a broken heart aches forever.”

In spite of all the flaws in the book, Ayse Kulin manages to seamlessly situate human emotions in the context of Turkey’s recent history in a smart and impactful fashion. She also intends the novel to be a sort of tribute to all those scientists who came and settled in Turkey for one reason or the other and who helped modernise the country.

In this instance, it is doctors and scientists from Germany who come together in a spirit of community and have to face the many challenges of living in a completely different cultural space.

In the course of their lives, the Schliemann family find themselves dealing with both assimilation and discrimination at the personal and professional levels. Gerhard encounters resentment from native-born Turks who feel their jobs are being snatched from them; Elsa misses the company of fellow Germans; Peter (Suzy’s older brother) remains distant from the locals; while Suzy quickly takes to all things Turkish. She grows up to marry a Turk. The journey of their lives in a new country, dealing with a different culture, unfamiliar language and social mores is told with felicity and detail. In the process, we come to learn something about Turkish history and ways of life.

A confounding translation of an article in Turkish about her seems to suggest that Ayse Kulin is of Ottoman ancestry. Her views are unambiguous and shine through the telling. But it soon becomes clear that the reason for writing this novel is to showcase the plurality of Turkey’s history and show how that has changed in recent times.

When Sude’s boyfriend Enver breaks up with her, she is distraught: “She’d been rejected, and it was because of what she was, not who she was.… Enver hadn’t minded that she was German. He’d dumped her because she was Jewish. His father admired Hitler! Was that possible? How could anyone admire Hitler? Was it because he hated Jews?” Ayse Kulin’s political position could not be clearer and she misses no opportunity to spell it out.

This is a conversation she has with her Turkish grandfather Nazmi (whose son Demir marries Suzy):

“‘Would you have let your son marry a Jewish girl you didn’t know?’ she asks. ‘Yes. As long as our grandchildren would be brought up as Muslims.’ ‘Grandpa, am I a Muslim?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘But I never pray or fast. And for that matter, neither do you or Grandma.’ Nazmi Bey didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he looked his granddaughter in the eye and said, ‘Look inside your heart, Sude. You’re whatever it is you see there.’”

This is the level at which the novel resonates. Certainly for readers in India, it offers many insights and offers many moments of reflection, not just in terms of religious tolerance/intolerance, cultural assimilation and the strengths of tradition, but also about how to look at history and understand who we really are. The novel comes right down to the Gezi Park uprising of a couple of years ago and references the current thinking of the Turkish government in putting behind bars anyone who opposes it, including the record number of journalists jailed in that country.

Most importantly, though, it emphasises the ridiculousness of differences and discrimination and shines a light on the fact that essentially, everyone is a mix of many things. When Esra is a schoolgirl, she finds a piece of paper on her desk with the letter “Y” written large on it. She is puzzled. Boys’ names? Yakut? Yusuf? It is only later she discovers it stands for “Yahudi”, Jew. She goes home and asks her grandparents: “But my great-grandparents are German. Aren’t Germans Christians? And aren’t we Muslims?”

Grandma explains that a person can be German and Jewish, Turkish and Jewish. “Here in Turkey, most people are Muslim. You’re Muslim too.”

“But they called me a Jew in school today!” says Esra. “That must be because of me,” her grandmother explains. “My family is Jewish.… It’s important to know your family history and your background, even if you were brought up Muslim.”

Without a Country has been much reviewed and not entirely favourably, which is a fair assessment. However, its impact is what is more important, and it is for this reason that it deserves to be read. With the kind of intolerance, parochialism, extremism, violence and hatred prevailing all over the world, Ayse Kulin reminds us that we can create a better environment for our children. For Indian readers, particularly, the novel hits bang in the solar plexus: everything said and implied is relevant in our context. And that is a big one to score.

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