Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Of the East and the West

I have been stuck in a rut for way too long now. Job hunting and house hunting in tandem are a terrible, terrible pain. Suffice to say I hate both. In addition to all the running around involved in those two pursuits, there has also been the regular visa hassles. Actually, I had no trouble with the Swiss and Turkish visas. But as usual the Schengen was a major hassle. The day I get a Schengen visa without having to go back at least twice before my application is accepted would also probably be the day hell freezes over.

I haven’t had the strength to read much over the last few weeks. Books have been lying around and I keep meaning to start reading them but I am too lazy and nothing has fascinated me enough to finish it off in one go as of now. So, I was very grateful to Thariel for this post on Ali and Nino that piqued my curiosity. So, I went off to the library to issue their copy and came across another book by Kurban Said (who has quite a background story himself!), The Girl from the Golden Horn. I’ll be in Istanbul in two weeks and needless to say, I just had to read it first.

The book tells the story of the young Aisiadeh Anbari, once a member of the Turkish royal court, promised in marriage to the Ottoman Prince. Having fled Istanbul in the wake of the empires collapse she lives in Berlin, studying Turkic philology. Over time she falls in love with a Viennese doctor Alex Hassa, and despite her fathers initial reservations, she was once to marry a prince and Hassa is an unbeliever after all, they marry. There is also John Rolland, urf Prince Abdel Karim, living in New York and writing scripts about the east for Hollywood. On a trip to Europe he tracks down the now married Asiadeh and reminds her that she was once promised to him. It is thus that Asiadeh is torn between her marriage and an age old promise, between going back to what is at once familiar or staying in a still foreign place and culture.

The plot is more subtle than I make it seem and if it seems clichéd, well, it really isn’t. (Well, not much.) The book is simple and yet immensely satisfying. Perhaps some issues never change. Religious differences have provided fodder for literature since time immemorial isn’t it? And then of course there is the perpetual question of Turkey and where it belongs – in the east or the west? Hassa, though married to a Turk, doesn’t hesitate to call her a savage. His ways are just as strange to her. And yet that they clearly love each other is obvious. Said doesn’t give easy, simple or clichéd answers to any of the issues and that’s why the book works. What was interesting for me is the sense of the Ottoman Empire and the post WWI world you get in the book. The roots of Turkish words are traced back to far flung places. On their honeymoon in Sarajevo, Asiadeh feels at once at home amongst the remnants of the ex-empire, at the mosques, with the dervishes. Hassa, a Viennese, has his roots in the Balkans too – a few generations back called the Husseinovic family before they converted to Christianity and turned their backs on the east.

I found all of these little back stories terribly interesting. They showed how cultures mix, how wrong people are in claiming some sort of cultural superiority, because we are all a result of that mixture (if anything, the world would be a terribly boring place without it, I think), and the influence the East has had on Europe. (Which is why I always find it terribly ridiculous as well as disturbing when people argue against Turkish entry into the EU because Turkey has a different culture. Umm. Okay.)

The book also tells the stories, beautifully and poignantly, of the people who had to leave their country overnight after the formation of the Turkish republic. They would have been just as at sea in the new Turkey as in their places of exile, and yet they carried the images and memories of their home with them. At one point in the book a Viennese doctor tells Abdel Karim that even though he lives in New York his soul is clearly Asia. “How do you bridge the gap?” he asks.

“The home, that is the bridge. As long as you have that, there is no contrast between the outer being and the inner consciousness. Home is not the bathroom you're using every day, nor the cafe you go to every day. Home--that is the structure of the soul, formed by the earth of the homeland. Home is always there, always in man's heart. As long as he lives, man is within the magic circle of his home, regardless of where he happens to be. An Englishman goes to the African bush, and his sleeping tent is England. A Turk goes to New York and his room in Manhattan is Turkey. Only he who has never had a home or a soul can ever lose it.”

I am now half way through Ali and Nino, and while I think I can say that is probably the better book, The Girl from the Golden Horn, is wonderful as well.

Interestingly I will be in Istanbul and Vienna on my trip. I thought to myself the other day, well, I’m basically visiting two great (ex)rival capitals and the centers of two great (ex)empires. It would be interesting to see the contrast, I think. (Does that even make sense? Probably not.) In any case, I have twelve days in Istanbul and a week in Vienna (also throw in three days in Munich and Salonica each). I shall be one happy camper when I am back. And as I was telling my friend the other day, also a fatter camper, what with all that baklava (sütlü nuriye!) and sacher torte to eat. Diabetes is going to be my doom. Sigh.


scout said...

i'm so glad you finally get to see istanbul - you'll love it. AND i know you liked before sunrise, so vienna's going to be awesome too. i actually even went up the same ferris wheel and the steps of the river where that poet sat. and such beautiful galleries. such beautiful paintings.

istanbul, though, i wish i could see again. especially after knowing so much more about it than i knew when i was 15. damn. and all i'm doing is looking for jobs and sitting at home.

Alok said...

this ali and nino sounds very interesting. i hadn't heard of it before. it is there in the library, will add it to my to-read list...

job-hunting? that sounds boring... hope it doesn't impede your wannderlust :)

Anonymous said...

Sacher torte, baklava- totally worth getting fat for, no?
We really should be going to that shop again. That cake was wonderful.


the wannabe indian punkster said...

Ali and Nino is utterly wonderful.

But do you think that its the work of two authors? There are several theories floating around as to whether Kurban Said was one person or if it was representative of two authors, Lev Nussimbaum and Elfriede Ehrenfels.

Nussimbaum was known to spin fantastic yarns about himself, though. I wonder if it could just be him. But if it was him than why didnt he write under his other pseudonym, Essad Bey?

Too many questions. Hmmm.

Szerelem said...

Scout: haha...yes am looking forward to Istanbul. And I haven't seen Before Sunrise in eons. I have only the vaguest recollection of it. I should probably see it once before I leave. And you'll probably have a job by the time I'm back. I would still be unemployed way things are going.

Alok: You should read it! it's really quite wonderful! And I hate job hunting :( But it hasn't impeded my wanderlust yet :)

Karan: In Turkisj there's a saying Tatlı Yiyelim Tatlı Konuşalım which means eat sweet and you will talk sweetly. Nice way to justify eating all that sugar I think :D And we must go back. I want more macarons!

Punkster: I'm still not finished, but I am really loving it. Thariels post which I linked to also talks about The Orientalist, which is Said/Nussibaums biography. Even the introduction to Girl from the Golden Horn talks about whether Said was Nussibaum or Ehrenfels. I think so far everything I've read comes down on the side of Nussibaum. Such an utterly fantastical story in itself no?

Tabula Rasa said...

tried looking for a job in wanderlusting?

Anonymous said...

In hindi there's a saying: "aankhein nikaal ke gotiyaan kheloonga".

Oh wait, that's not relevant. Oh and it's by Crime Master Gogo in Andaz Apna Apna.



niTin said...

Amazing post. It's got everything from a book review to a travelogue and an itinerary.
Turkey's plight is sad though. Sarkozy's vehement opposition to Turkey's inclusion in the EU was the only reason I kind of didn't like him.
Bonnes Voyages then.

Szerelem said...

TR: Yes. But I don't have any experience or know anyone in the area who could help me out. Do you? :D

Karan: Hee. Andaz Apna Apna. I think we remember the lines by heart now.

Nitin: Turkey has too many internal problems at the moment as well. And I have many, many issues with Sarkozy.

Tabula Rasa said...

check out the no soup from you link from my blogroll :-D

Ali Riza ARICAN said...

I am sure you will be alright in Istanbul... It is the city I was born, wrote my first short story, graduted from a university which has the most magnificent view in the world and fell in love with second-hand bookstores...
Say "merhaba" when you see a Turkish person and do not forget to smile... Take a tour on bosphorous while reading the second chapter of Black Book, climb to Galata Tower to see old city, go to Suleymaniye Mosque to see how Sinan made it as if it goe up to God itself...
Anyway, feeling jeaolous...
Take care,