Longlisted for the 2008 Orange Fiction Prize, Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of
Istanbul is a tale of an extraordinary family curse and clashing cultural identities
in the mystical and mysterious city of Istanbul.
One rainy afternoon in
Istanbul, a woman walks into a doctor’s surgery. ‘I need to have an abortion’, she
announces. She is nineteen years old and unmarried. What happens that afternoon will
change her life.
Twenty years later, Asya Kazanci lives with her extended
family in Istanbul. Due to a mysterious family curse, all the Kaznci men die in their
early forties, so it is a house of women, among them Asya’s beautiful, rebellious mother
Zeliha, who runs a tattoo parlour; Banu, who has newly discovered herself as clairvoyant;
and Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster. And when Asya’s Armenian-
American cousin Armanoush comes to stay, long hidden family secrets connected with
Turkey’s turbulent past begin to emerge.
‘Wonderfully magical, incredible,
breathtaking…will have you gasping with disbelief in the last few pages’ Sunday
‘A beautiful book, the finest I have read about Turkey’ Irish
‘Heartbreaking…the beauty of Islam pervades Shafak’s book’
Elif Shafak has emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in
both English and Turkish contemporary literature; her novels, The Flea Palace, The Forty Rules of Love,The Gaze and Honour, are consistently at the top of bestseller lists across the globe.
Elif Shafak’s examination of national identity, The Happiness of Blond People is available as part of the Penguin Specials
series – a digital only series of shorts designed with commuters in mind.
» Read the first chapter of The Bastard of Istanbul by downloading the
Penguin Taster here
» Visit Penguin Tasters
'Elif Shafak found uproarious comedy as well as culture-crossing wisdom in her transatlantic tale of the hidden affinities between Turks and Armenians.'
Whatever falls from the sky above, thou shall not curse it.
That includes the rain.
No matter what might pour down, no matter how heavy the cloudburst or how icy the sleet, you should never ever utter profanities against whatever the heavens might have in store for us. Everybody knows this. And that includes Zeliha.
Yet, there she was on this first Friday of July, walking on a sidewalk that flowed next to hopelessly clogged traffic; rushing to an appointment she was now late for, swearing like a trooper, hissing one profanity after another at the broken pavement stones, at her high heels, at the man stalking her, at each and every driver who honked frantically when it was an urban fact that clamor had no effect on unclogging traffic, at the whole Ottoman dynasty for once upon a time conquering the city of Constantinople, and then sticking by its mistake, and yes, at the rain . . . this damn summer rain.
Rain is an agony here. In other parts of the world, a downpour will in all likelihood come as a boon for nearly everyone and everything – good for the crops, good for the fauna and the flora, and with an extra splash of romanticism, good for lovers. Not so in Istanbul though. Rain, for us, isn’t necessarily about getting wet. It’s not about getting dirty even. If anything, it’s about getting angry. It’s mud and chaos and rage, as if we didn’t have enough of each already. And struggle. It’s always about struggle. Like kittens thrown into a bucketful of water, all ten million of us put up a futile fight against the drops. It can’t be said that we are completely alone in this scuffle, for the streets too are in on it, with their antediluvian names stenciled on tin placards, and the tombstones of so many saints scattered in all directions, the piles of garbage that wait on almost every corner, the hideously huge construction pits soon to be turned into glitzy, modern buildings, and the seagulls . . . It angers us all when the sky opens and spits on our heads.
But then, as the final drops reach the ground and many more perch unsteadily on the now dustless leaves, at that unprotected moment, when you are not quite sure that it has finally ceased raining, and neither is the rain itself, on that very interstice, everything becomes serene. For one long minute, the sky seems to apologize for the mess she has left us in. And we, with driblets still in our hair, slush in our cuffs, and dreariness in our gaze, stare back at the sky, now a lighter shade of cerulean and clearer than ever. We look up and can’t help smiling back. We forgive her; we always do.
At the moment, however, it was still pouring and Zeliha had little, if any, forgiveness in her heart. She did not have an umbrella for she had promised herself that if she were enough of an imbecile to throw a bunch of money to yet another street vendor for yet another umbrella, only to forget it here and there as soon as the sun came back, then she deserved to be soaked to the bone. Besides, it was too late now anyway. She was already sopping wet. That was the one thing about the rain that likened it to sorrow: You did your best to remain untouched, safe and dry, but if and when you failed, there came a point in which you started seeing the problem less in terms of drops than as an incessant gush, and thereby you decide you might as well get drenched.
Rain dripped from her dark curls onto her broad shoulders. Like all the women in the Kazancý family, Zeliha had been born with raven black, frizzy hair, but unlike the others, she liked to keep it that way. From time to time her eyes of jade green, normally wide open, and filled with fiery intelligence, squinted into two lines of untainted indifference inherent only to three groups of people: the hopelessly naïve, the hopelessly withdrawn, and the hopelessly full of hope. She being none of these, it was hard to make sense of this indifference, even if it were such a flickering one. One minute it was here, canopying her soul to drugged insensibility, the next minute it was gone, leaving her alone in her body.
Thus she felt on that first Friday of July desensitized as if anesthetized, a powerfully corrosive mood for someone so zestful as she. Could this be why she had had absolutely no interest in fighting the city today, or the rain for that matter? While the yo-yo indifference went up and down with a rhythm all its own, the pendulum of her
mood swayed between two opposite poles: from frozen to fuming.
As Zeliha rushed by, the street vendors selling umbrellas and raincoats and plastic scarves in glowing colors eyed her in amusement. She managed to ignore their gaze, just as she managed to ignore the gaze of all the men who stared at her body with hunger. The vendors looked disapprovingly at her shiny nose ring too, as if therein lay a clue as to her deviance from modesty, and thereby the sign of her lustfulness. She was especially proud of her piercing because she had done it herself. It had hurt but the piercing was here to stay and so was her style. Be it the harassment of men or the reproach of other women, the impossibility of walking on broken cobblestones or hopping into the ferryboats, and even her mother’s constant nagging . . . there was no power on earth that could prevent Zeliha, who was taller than most women in this city, from donning miniskirts of glaring colors, tight-fitting blouses that displayed her ample breasts, satiny nylon stockings, and yes, those towering high heels.
Now, as she stepped on another loose cobblestone, and watched the puddle of sludge underneath splash dark stains on her lavender skirt, Zeliha unleashed another long chain of curses. She was the only woman in the whole family and one of the few among all Turkish women who used such foul language so unreservedly, vociferously, and knowledgeably; thus, whenever she started swearing, she kept going as if to compensate for all the rest. This time was no different. As she ran, Zeliha swore at the municipal administration, past and present, because ever since she was a little girl never a rainy day had passed with these cobblestones primed and fixed. Before she was done swearing, however, she abruptly paused, lifted her chin as if suspecting someone had called her name, but rather than looking around for an acquaintance, she instead pouted at the smoky sky. She squinted, sighed a conflicted sigh, and then unleashed another profanity, only this time against the rain. Now, according to the unwritten and unbreakable rules of Petite-Ma, her grandmother, that was sheer blasphemy. You might not be fond of the rain, you certainly did not have to be, but under no circumstances should you cuss at anything that came from the skies because nothing poured from above on its own and behind it all, there was Allah the Almighty.
Surely Zeliha knew the unwritten and unbreakable rules of Petite-Ma, but on this first Friday of July she felt spoiled enough not to care. Besides, whatever had been uttered had been uttered, just like whatever had been done in life had been done and was now gone. Zeliha had no time for regrets. She was late for her appointment
with the gynecologist. Not a negligible risk, indeed, given that the moment you notice being late for an appointment with the gynecologist, you might decide not to go there at all.