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The expendable sex 24 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in Books / Livres, Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (UK) Saturday, March 24, 2012, p. 15

Review by Suzy Hansen

In her groundbreaking 2008 book Honour Killing , the Turkish journalist Ayse Onal interviewed a 14-year-old boy named Mehmet Taner who « slit the throat » of his 16-year-old cousin for « going about in cafés ». When asked if he regretted the murder, Taner replied: « Why should I regret anything? I cleansed my dignity, my honour. » It is a harrowing statement, one that raises a thousand questions. Yet when Onal set out to conduct her project – extensive profiles of honour killers from all over Turkey – most Turks thought it absurd that she wanted to understand these men. Successive Turkish governments have done little to understand them, either. It’s as if everyone would rather pretend that honour killings are just a freakish tradition of the backward and the crazy – rather than the most violent manifestations of more fundamental national ills.

The Turkish writer Elif Shafak attempts to address the subject in her new novel Honour , the story of a young Kurdish woman named Pembe who escapes her village for a new life in the west. The novel unfolds around an honour killing, yet it is hardly the only death in the book. Even Shafak’s peripheral female characters have either been killed or threatened with murder, or have considered suicide to escape some grisly fate. Their lives are dictated by the fragile honour of their fathers, their husbands, and even their mothers and their sons. « Modesty is a woman’s only shield, » says Naze to two of her eight daughters, after she catches them dancing like « harlots ». « Bear this in mind: if you lose that, you will be worth no more than a chipped kurus [coin]. This world is cruel. It won’t take pity on you. »

Pembe, one of Naze’s two daughters, bitterly resents her mother’s words, and yet, as Shafak writes, some day she will repeat the advice to her own daughter. By then, Pembe will have left her Kurdish village and her twin sister, Jamila, and followed her husband to Istanbul and then to London’s East End. The novel jumps back and forth in place and time, from the 1940s to the 1990s, from east to west. Despite this, nothing in Naze and Pembe’s world ever seems to change. Just when you move forward, you move back again; as the reader, you’re as stuck as the characters. Even the great modern cities of the west can’t liberate Pembe. This sense of honour is stronger than modernity.

In 1970s Hackney, Pembe’s wayward husband Adem takes off with another woman, and Pembe soon meets a Greek man and falls in love, too. The lovers meet secretly in far-flung cinemas, only touching fingers and wrists, dreamily imagining a future together. Adem’s brother Tariq learns of the relationship and seeks out Pembe’s son Iskender, a macho teenager gravitating towards a more conservative Islam, to salvage the family’s honour. As the drama barrels to its inevitable conclusion, Shafak sprinkles in the narratives of Pembe’s loved ones: her sister Jamila, a single midwife still living in the Kurdish south-east; Pembe’s three children, growing up in a London that is both liberating and rife with temptation; her husband Adem, lost and miserable and working in the Gulf, broken by the west.

Yet in her effort to create a novel of grand narrative sweep, Shafak rarely penetrates the surface of her tale. Her characters’ inner lives feel undeveloped, and all of them sound like the narrator. Shafak also doesn’t capture the lively streets of London and Istanbul, or the beautiful emptiness of eastern Turkey; her backdrops feel like two-dimensional stage sets, cardboard and dull. Perhaps the problem is language. Shafak’s earlier books were translated from Turkish but when she writes in English, her sentences feel flat and clichéd. For example: « All too suddenly, sex resembled a dessert kept to the end of a long meal, » Shafak writes. « Delightful and exquisite, no doubt, but not the main course, and not at all impossible to skip when it came to it. »

What’s intriguing about Honour is what Shafak has to say about Turkey. Some of Shafak’s characters are Kurdish but the book doesn’t imply that Kurds commit honour killings and Turks do not, nor does she indict Islam. The preservation of honour, Shafak instead shows, is a cultural tradition, one that seeps into all areas of gender relations, and one that endures because the Turkish state considers women expendable. In this westernised country, a woman threatened with an honour killing – or any domestic violence – still struggles to find a sympathetic policeman or judge or lawmaker to help her. Bureaucracy or chauvinistic attitudes will often send her right back home to her husband, or on to the street. Recently, one of the few women’s shelters in Istanbul even started advising women to learn how to shoot guns. What else can they do in such a place? « Women were made of the lightest cambric, whereas men were cut of thick, dark fabric, » Shafak writes. « That is how God tailored the two: one superior to the other. »

But Shafak, who never resorts to easy feminist finger-pointing in Honour , doesn’t hold men solely responsible for such brutal beliefs. After all, Naze, Pembe’s mother, abused her daughters because she failed to have a son. And it was Pembe, Shafak’s victim, who blindly worshipped her son until the day he decided to kill her. She called him « my Sultan » when he was an impressionable little boy, long before he learnt what it meant to be a man.

Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Istanbul

Honour, by Elif Shafak, Viking, RRP £12.99, 352 pages


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