This article explores the space created by physical bodies in Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul. In this novel, Shafak uses obvious cultural identities which have been created through societal pressure or stereotype as a form of dialogue. Incorporating these elements and studying them through the lens of Roland Barthes’ idea of mythology, I explain the function of certain characters within the text. In addition, I rely on Ruth Benedict for a cultural analysis and Mary Powers to help decipher the idea of taboo within a given society. Finally, I incorporate Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality as it applies to marginalized groups, illustrating the way that the element of myth allows this novel to transcend its boundaries and create a dialogue of healing and redemption.
Keywords: cultural identity, Elif Shafak, Intersectionality, Roland Barthes Mythologies, The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkish literature
The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak, discusses the complexities presented by political upheaval and cultural stereotype. Shafak portrays two families, one Armenian and one Turkish, who share strong cultural and historical ties, but whose narratives have been separated by the removal and exclusion of the Armenians from Turkish society. Shafak creates stereotypes as a necessary structure which enables the novel to quickly access both confusing and complex scenarios generated by the rupture of a society. Therefore, she assigns characters specific and recognizable roles as a stylistic writing technique. The characters must obviate their identities and societal roles in order for the book to assume the mythological presence that it acquires. She then shakes up the plot by deviating from the characters’ assigned social roles, which serves to enhance the often confusing scenarios involved in forced separation. The reader must grasp the weight of the assigned role and understand why the rule has been broken in order to gain access to the transformative language involved in Shafak’s mythology. The female voices in this novel unfold the story and develop characters for the reader. Considering the cultural elements and weight of male presence in the Turkish society, the novel’s dependence upon female voices awakens the discrepancy between common fairy tale and transformative, mythological speech. Removing the male figures from the Kazanci household allows Shafak to focus on the oppressions created by men, religion, culture and Turkish political history, which in some cases has created a narrative separate from people’s actual experiences.
The female voices in Shafak’s novel merge in a curious manner. One family lives in the United States, Armenian refugees who emphasize the importance of their traditions. The Turkish family that remains in Istanbul, however, has changed and modernized. The two young girls in the novel, Armanoush (Armenian-American) and Asya (Turkish), are unlikely, disparate step-sisters, who begin to bridge the gap between Turkish and Armenian traditions. The families are faced with challenges despite the similarity of their cultures, in terms of food, music and religious traditions. The two girls are unknowingly linked by a weak father, Mustafa, himself a product of persecution and upheaval. At his death, Mustafa transforms from a physical being into a silent, physical space that allows for conversation, healing and understanding. Without words to define his transformation, Mustafa the man disappears and instead becomes the framework of a mythological text.
Myth is a sacred type of speech that allows people to recognize and name the unspeakable. Roland Barthes believes that all obvious cultural objects have the power to attain mythical properties. Barthes says,
Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter. (109)
The body of a man has the ability to transform from a physical presence into a culturally significant text, filled with symbol and rhetoric larger than the individual. In coming to understand the events in Mustafa’s life that led to his eventual demise, the reader becomes a key participant in the evolution of myth. Barthes states that: “[M]yth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things” (109). Therefore, in order to understand Mustafa’s mythological significance, the reader too must know his history.
Shafak takes great pains to explain a character’s societal and cultural significance. She uses categories as names, creating nick-names laden with socially constructed, obvious and essentialized identities. This unique approach must be differentiated from simply explaining a society or culture. Here, characters represent a specific aspect of a society and their actions, expressions, words and descriptions allow the reader to comprehend the nuances from particular stereotypes within the culture. By creating characters with disparate identities, she creates forms and through these forms, she enables speech. Shafak is, of course, designing a mythological society that parallels the actual. She leaves intelligent, obvious and accessible signs in this created culture. When Armanoush, self-named ‘Madame My-Exiled-Soul’ in her online chat room, decides to seek her roots, she claims, “I need to find my identity…. This is a journey into my family’s past, as well as into my future. The Janissary’s Paradox will haunt me unless I do something to discover my past” (117). Shafak deftly moves Armanoush from one place to the next through conversations with people categorized by their stereotype, creating layers of intersections and accessible, informative bridges simultaneously. The reader must note the importance of this technique, or overlook the meaning of Zeliha’s introduction, Armanoush’s journey to discover her Turkish family or Mustafa’s eventual death. This proves that the characters’ identities have been formed, in part, by cultural norms. They are mapped by things greater than themselves.
Due to the accepted norms placed upon women by religion and culture, the reader is doubly shocked at Zeliha’s rebellious nature, which forms a complex grid of intersections. The novel begins with Zeliha’s attempted abortion. Everything within this first chapter startles the senses. Unlike traditional Turkish women, Zeliha Kazanci speaks brusquely and rebelliously, but also places importance on traditional cultural practices such as the delicacy of teacups and the ritual of prayer. She embodies anger, rage, frustration and strength all of which affirm her voice, body and occupation as the text that deciphers the entire mythology. Zeliha’s narrative and experience is solidly placed within a marginalized world, outside of Islamic norms and made possible only through the use of character types. As Kimberlé Crenshaw notes, “[W]e will dare to speak against internal exclusions and marginalizations, that we might call attention to how the identity of ‘the group’ has been centered on the intersectional identities of a few” (“Mapping the Margins” 1299). In other words, Shafak’s novel utilizes culturally prescribed stereotypes in order to highlight disparities of identity. The Kazanci family forms the body of this myth and, therefore, in a male-dominated society, Zeliha is able to own a tattoo parlor, wear miniskirts and speak her mind, bridging both ancient custom and radical modernism.
From this introduction, the novel moves quickly while many characters are described, some developed, and some left as shadowy substances that represent nothing more than their assigned role. In this deluge of characters, Shafak purposefully chooses to begin and end the novel with the strength, resilience and rebelliousness of Zeliha. In order to understand The Bastard of Istanbul, one must understand Zeliha’s full-bodied mythological representation which contrasts with Mustafa’s bare form. Mustafa, Gulsum’s only son and Zeliha’s older brother, is introduced as a “king in his house” and “precious from the day he was born” (31). As a child, Mustafa was arrogant, rude, greedy and unlikeable to everyone but his family. Due to the fact that most of the men in the Kazanci family die unexpected deaths before reaching the age of fifty, these women decide to send Mustafa away for school as a form of protection. Mustafa’s existence within the Kazanci household allows him only silence as he is smothered by women. The women, then, conspire to keep Mustafa alive and out of reach of the family curse by sending him to the United States. Until the very end of the novel, he resides in Arizona and does not return to Istanbul. Other than a quick history of Mustafa, the novel barely discusses him, proving that he is minimized by his own weaknesses and overshadowed by strong women.
As a voiceless, adolescent male, deified by a group of women, Mustafa, therefore, remains a shadowy figure throughout the novel. The reader learns about him through the voices and eyes of his sisters and future wife, Rose. In fact, Mustafa first speaks more than two thirds of the way through the novel, and then only about weather in Istanbul. He hints at regrets, but does not articulate them. Instead, the narrator notes, “[I]f truth be told, more than Arizona or any other place, it was the future that he [Mustafa] had chosen to settle in and call his home – a home with its backdoor closed to the past” (285). Without a past, Mustafa is an unactualized shell. Yet, the reader should recognize the cultural importance of the only male in a Turkish family. Typically, families would rely on the male to complete all business transactions in addition to offering a certain unspoken respectability. Instead, Shafak points out the way that female voices in a Turkish society can create intimacy and richness. And she allows the story to unfold through the Kazanci women. Shafak utilizes the language of the novel as both a background into social institutions and representative of social values. Roland Barthes explains the way that one accesses idea through form. Bridging both ideology and semiology, Mustafa is idea-in-form, he functions purely as a cultural stereotype representative of historical ideologies (Barthes 112). Deified, fragmented, bereft of emotion, Mustafa’s voice arrives in only two sections of the novel: Zeliha’s rape and Mustafa’s own death.
Shafak creates other human bodies in order to assume a space which will represent an idea-in-form, linked by universal, culturally significant history. In this way she builds a mythological, but culturally significant family. Generally speaking, The Bastard of Istanbul is a novel of women. The first chapter alone introduces the reader to Zeliha and the four other remarkably different women in the Kazaci household. In addition to living without a male in the house, the Kazanci sisters assume extravagant qualities including clairvoyance and hypochondria. The mother, Gulsum, ironically avoids sentimental attachments, presenting as a severe and nearly silent figure throughout the novel. Mary Douglas writes, “To which particular bodily margins its beliefs attribute power depends on what situation the body is mirroring” (121). The family within their societal role, then, becomes the culturally significant text expressing sexual taboo and ritual.
The novel opens with the lines, “Whatever falls from the sky above, thou shall not curse it. That includes the rain” (1). Water serves as a linguistic device at critical times in the story, meant to draw attention to the implicit cultural identifiers. In this case, the character of Zeliha, on her way to obtain an abortion curses the rain, in direct contrast to etiquette and expected cultural norms. Then, as she receives anasthesia, Zeliha imagines cobblestones falling from the sky. The text reads, “[I]t was raining cobblestones from the blue skies. When a cobblestone fell from the sky, a cobblestone lessened from the pavement below. Above the sky and under the ground, there was the same thing: VO-ID” (19). Zeliha screams and the doctor abandons the abortion. First, real rain descends into the text, and then links into the cobblestones of Zeliha’s dream. Zeliha, sister of a ‘prince’, beautiful, youthful, falls in the same sense as the cobblestone, through a void. As she prepares to cross the physical boundary of abortion, Zeliha’s body becomes a text heavily laden with images. Mary Douglas notes, “Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins” (121). Therefore, as Zeliha’s body awaits an abortion on the surgical table, she absorbs and reflects societal symbolism. For her, the chanting of the Friday prayer, typically a holy day, resulted in an internal awakening that allows her to abandon the abortion and accept the life of a single mother in a society that values the male.
The major events in this novel all incorporate rain. The element of rain, then, becomes the link that allows an object to transcend daily discourse and enter into myth. The rain from this scene links modern day Istanbul and Zeliha’s story directly to Noah’s ark as told by Auntie Banu, which will further enlighten the way in which bodies can be read as culturally significant texts. The familiar story of Noah’s ark is changed slightly in this retelling. Auntie Banu’s story focuses on the way that all members of Noah’s ark must share food. The ingredients physically combine to create community and sustainability through the image of a single pot of ashure. It is important that Shafak uses such a common myth and equally as important that she edits it to pinpoint a singular cultural event involving food. This shared history allows the story’s transcendence into a mythopoetic form. Instead of the biblical story of the flood, the myth transforms into one through which readers will experience struggle, survival and salvation in terms of these two families. Barthes writes, “Unlike the form, the concept is in no way abstract: it is filled with situation. Through the concept, it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth” (119). In this case, Noah’s ark models an entire narrative that involves flood, famine, hardship and salvation. Rain signifies growth, change, and transfer and links the three major events of this novel: Zeliha’s rape, Zeliha’s abortion and Mustafa’s death.
The Kazanci family represents a marginalized portion of Turkish culture and history, evidenced by the oddities of Mustafa’s burial. The women in this novel deal with the dead body in a very unique manner, mixing both fairy tale and tradition and finally dipping into myth. The family chooses not to bury the body immediately, which is rare in Turkish society. Instead, Mustafa’s body is washed, prepared for burial and transported back to the Kazanci household for a viewing, despite numerous religious objections.
The body was cleansed with a bar of daphne soap, as fragrant and pure as the pastures in paradise are said to be. It was scrubbed, swabbed, rinsed, and then left to dry naked on the flat stone in the mosque-yard before being wrapped in a three-piece cotton shroud, placed in a coffin, and despite the adamant counsel of the elderly to bury it on the same day, loaded in a hearse to be driven directly back to the Kazanci domicile. (338)
The Kazanci women blend and bend the rules of Islam depending on their emotional needs. They determine that the body should remain visible to family and friends, but more importantly, to the reader. It is significant that the novel ends with Mustafa’s body resting within the Kazanci household, unburied, shrouded, in much the same role as his entire life: surrounded by women, silent, lifeless and yet, significant. The women circle around Mustafa’s shroud, creating a new space and a new ritual.
The irregular treatment of Mustafa’s shrouded body allows the story to assume mythological properties. As the body is prepared for burial, the narrator notes, “[I]t started to drizzle; sparse, reluctant drops, as if the rain too wanted to play a role in all of this but just hadn’t taken sides yet” (338). Once again, the presence of rain alerts the reader of the story’s framework, and of the underlying mythology. Noah’s flood has begun to trickle into a modern era, blending old with new, at play with chronological time. Not only does water fall from the sky, but soccer fans flood the streets. These fans interrupt the funeral procession, a fact that becomes relevant when discussing the intersection of myth and fairy tale. Mary Douglas claims, “Just as it is true that everything symbolises the body, so it is equally true (and all the more so for that reason) that the body symbolises everything else” (122). The reader literally follows the frame of the story through the watery streets of Istanbul, flooded with the modern noise, people and cars. Disgusted with the soccer fans, the driver of the hearse asks Armanoush and Asya, “Aren’t they Muslim or what?” (345). Attempting to show his disgust at the lack of respect for religious customs he sees in the soccer fans, this comment actually solidifies the transformation of fairy tale into myth. Shafak is asking the reader to answer this question. Are the people in this novel Muslim? Are they modern? Are they traditional? And where is the line between the two drawn?
The story of Zeliha’s rape follows closely on the heels of Banu’s retelling of Noah’s ark and ashure. The story begins, “But the day Auntie Zeliha was raped was not a rainy day” (307). The absence of rain highlights the physical divide, the rupture of time and of nature. As Armanoush, the youngest of the Armenians, and a second generation Armenian-American, begins to comprehend the differences that exist between the two cultures, she notes, “For the Armenians, time was a cycle in which the past incarnated in the present and the present birthed the future. For the Turks, time was a multihyphenated line, where the past ended at some definite point and the present started anew from scratch, and there was nothing but rupture in between” (164-5). Void, anger, avoidance and isolation fill the current ‘rupture’. In a similar way, Zeliha and Mustafa begin their lives within this void. Brought up as witnesses to and products of the estrangement of their cultures, the rape only confirms the existence of a hyphenated line. The absence of rain during the violent event obviates the discord between time and nature.
In this novel, there are two events that interrupt the natural flow of life: Zeliha’s rape and the Armenian genocide. Shafak explores the events of the Armenian genocide through the story of Hovhannes Stamboulian, an Armenian author and intellectual. The reader sees only his march to prison, an unfinished children’s story upon his desk. Guards demand that he leave his desk mid-story while writing a myth that relies heavily upon culturally significant objects, such as the pomegranate. This is the beginning of the genocide, the rupture of time and nature. After his death, most of Hovhannes’ sons and daughters move to the United States to begin again, removed from the painful location of persecution. Hovhannes’ daughter, Shushan, marries into the Kazanci family, which is Turkish, and remains in Istanbul for a short time. She ultimately abandons her Turkish family to rejoin the Armenian family in the United States. Shushan begins a new life and from there is mother to a wholly Armenian family inside America. The family that she has abandoned, purportedly Turkish, assumes a family curse. Something of the unnatural and evil sentiments reflective of the fear involved in the persecution remains hidden among the Kazanci men, and it is said that they are fated to die before their fiftieth birthday. Ignorant of this, Shushan left the Kazanci family for America, and married again, becoming a mother to an Armenian-American family in addition to the Turkish family she left behind. Armanoush, the youngest of the Armenian-Americans, notes the “mordant gap between the children of those who had managed to stay and the children of those who had to leave” (254). The silent past affects both Turks and Armenians, but without addressing the issues, the gap between two cultures widens. In much the same way, the two families’ histories unexpectedly intertwine and this is to Shafak’s purpose of creating space to discuss cultural taboo.
Mustafa cannot entirely bear the blame for his impulsive, irrational, angry conduct. Raised by women who pampered him, raised to be a prince, raised to be the man who breaks the family curse, Mustafa has little chance of finding his own voice in life. Instead, in an act of pure rage, Mustafa rapes and unknowingly impregnates Zeliha’s body which then assumes the weight of repression and the fallen woman. Zeliha’s body physically becomes larger with motherhood in direct opposition to Mustafa’s emaciated body and literal absence. Asya’s arrival as a bastard is important because she will be the key piece which forces dialogue in the end. As Barthes claims, “[I]ts [the myth's] point of departure is constituted by the arrival of meaning” (123). The presence of both Zeliha and her daughter, Asya, at Mustafa’s death allows them to hold a discussion about past events. Mustafa’s death creates space for the rejection of taboos, such as incest and rape, and replacement of myth with the conceptual neologism of future inclusivity. His death removes Zeliha from mythology and places her solidly back into a future of unruptured time, a future in which she has overcome the cultural difficulties placed upon women in Turkish society.
Throughout the novel, Shafak plays with time and place. She moves seamlessly between past and present, the United States and Istanbul. She carefully highlights the weakness and lifelessness of the present day, Americanized Mustafa so that, when looking back at the time continuum of historical events, one understands the origination of the puppet strings he wears. Mustafa is a creation of his heritage, nothing more, nothing less. Due to family pressures, family heritage and political upheaval, he could not have been other than what he was. He could not have acted differently. The weight and complexity of the intersections of his particular identity did not allow for tools that would enable atonement. Instead, he seeks silence, distance and avoidance. Because he is male, Mustafa achieves this separation without question. Most importantly, Mustafa’s silence and virtual departure from his family create a different kind of form from Zeliha’s. Like his ancestor, Hovhannes Stamboulian, Mustafa’s absence generates the space where story unravels.
Mustafa’s destined path began generations before his birth, with the imprisonment and death of the Armenian intellectual, Hovhannes Stamboulian. As guards lead him to prison, Hovhannes recalls a passage from Rousseau’s Social Contract: “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains. In reality, the difference is that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him” (235). And generations later, Mustafa arrives to prove Rousseau’s point and link himself to Hovhannes’ story. Mustafa is the product of secrets, of pain and of tragedy. His attempt at a life of silence obviates the need for healing. Mustafa’s form allows the two families access to their painful, personal history. Likewise, Mustafa’s death opens the door for a discussion of taboo, rape, incest and genocide. The narrator explains: “In time he had learned to appreciate the desert, its infinity soothing his fear of looking back, its tranquility easing his fear of death. At times like this he remembered, as if his body reminisced on its own, the fate awaiting all the men in his family. At times like this he felt close to committing suicide. Finding death before death found him” (269). Mustafa’s weakness prevents him from confronting his own past, which he escapes as long as he can. However, upon his return to Istanbul, he finally accepts that he is not a prince and no longer wishing to live a lie, he succumbs to his fated destiny. Aware that Auntie Banu had poisoned his ashure, he eats anyway.
Using Auntie Banu’s voice, Shafak incorporates traditional fairy tales into the story. The popular fairy tale style introduction “Once there was; once there wasn’t” frames the novel, a verbal signifier that allows for a different sort of reality. The story of two families, then, transcends its reality by accessing the framework of fairy tale. Mary Douglas writes, “There can be thoughts which have never been put into words. Once words have been framed the thought is changed and limited by the very words selected. So the speech has created something, a thought which might not have been the same” (64). In this case, the introduction of “Once there was; once there wasn’t” offers a comfortable prop in the form of accessible, obvious forms, much in the same way that Shafak labels characters in a way that reflects their personalities.
Both Asya and Armanoush interact with social groups named for their attributes. Armanoush belongs to an online chat room where everyone has given themselves labels, such as hers: Madame My-Exiled-Soul. Likewise, Asya often visits a cafe in Istanbul where her friends are labeled, but not named. For example, she dates the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist. Framed by their titles, the characters in this novel outline basic cultural stereotypes.
These cultural identifiers function in much the same way as theater props. Only necessary in staged environments, props serve as a means to an end. In this novel, Shafak utilizes the djinni, magical and mischievous deities, as a sort of prop. Fairy tales involve magic and enchantments, so in a culture where djinni are perceived to be real, the fairy tale drifts into myth. As is often the case, this family is full of secrets, rigidity and rebellion. Auntie Banu relies upon djinni to tell her of historical events. These voices build a bridge over the ever-widening gap created by war, incest and rape. The two victims, Zeliha and Mustafa, have only one verbal exchange throughout the novel, during the rape scene. Banu, the eldest sister, relates the story of Zeliha’s rape at the hands of her older brother, Mustafa, to the reader through the invention of djinni.
In order to access the images of a specific mythology, the reader needs to identify with the symbols. Layers of complexity exist within each image and as it sheds the specific unique identity, it gains a concrete, culturally accessible value. Barthes explains the way that the signified comes to be known through the signifier within a system of mythology. Barthes’ metalanguage, or mythology, arrives when one utilizes a group of forms as a place of global sign. The original bodies lose their individuality and instead come to represent a larger notion. Only when the reader understands the historical links between characters can each character of The Bastard of Istanbul represent the larger ideology of myth as described by Barthes. In this created society, forms of oppression interrelate to create a system of oppression, reflecting multiple layers of discrimination in much the same way as contemporary societies. As Auntie Banu continues to investigate the past and relay it to the reader with the help of the djinni, she obviates layers of discrimination. Kimberlé Crenshaw writes, “[T]he failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness is not simply a matter of political will, but is also due to the influence of a way of thinking about discrimination which structures politics so that struggles are categorized as singular issues. Moreover, this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces the status quo” (“Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race”48). Therefore, Auntie Banu’s narration in addition to the elements of mythology and cultural stereotypes all enable the transcendence of Mustafa’s death from the death of an individual into a redemptive, healing space, one that overcomes taboo and secret. Again, Barthes explains, “When it [meaning] becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains” (117). Mustafa is now a mere form, a key word, set out to assist the reader decipher the remaining signs of the text. Mustafa’s absence speaks more powerfully than his presence.
Mustafa as the form, or the signifier, cannot be the sum total of the story. A form must be utilized in order to speak about structure. Therefore, he becomes an actual, physical space over which Zeliha feels able to tell Asya the truth about her father. Asya, being the ‘bastard’, was unprepared to hear that Mustafa, her uncle, was also her father. Zeliha notes that this discussion must take place at his death, that the time for discussion is fleeting. She says to Asya, “’I finally realized, I owed you an explanation. And if I don’t make it now, there will be no other time” (353). She means, of course, that the family curse, the political history, the rape and the family history all the way back to Hovhannes Stamboulian can be laid to rest. As Barthes noted earlier, the unnatural occurrences in this story and within history, have led the characters to precisely this spot. They transcend their spatio-temporal plane, enabling their bodies to represent larger issues in the cultural context. Mustafa is the prop that results in a cultural neologism. And the ‘bastard’ is no longer a bastard.
Ruth Benedict explains the complexity of an individual within society. She states, “In reality, society and the individual are not antagonists. His culture provides the raw material of which the individual makes his life” (251-2). Culture has indeed shaped these characters and is inseparable from them. The farther one moves from the initial event or rupture, the more it writes a narrative, transforms into myth. Barthes claims, “[W]e are no longer dealing here with a theoretical mode of representation: we are dealing with this particular image, which is given for this particular signification” (110). Mustafa’s physical purpose in the novel would be lost without the family history, and more specifically, without Zeliha’s presence at his death. Shafak assigns and specifies very concrete images to each of her characters for the purpose of obviating their cultural significance.
Mustafa’s existence in The Bastard of Istanbul can certainly be seen as marginal. Mary Douglas claims that structures are most vulnerable at their margins (121). And the Kazanci women are, without a doubt, marginalized characters in both actual, mainstream culture and within the auspices of the novel. The fact that the reader gains access to culturally significant rituals and events through the eyes, voices, actions and habits of the Kazanci women, speaks to this marginalized structure. Douglas explains:
Any culture is a series of related structures, which comprise social forms, values, cosmology, the whole of knowledge and through which all experience is mediated. Certain cultural themes are expressed by rites of bodily manipulation… The rituals enact the form of social relations and in giving these relations visible expression they enable people to know their own society. The rituals work upon the body politic through the symbolic medium of the physical body. (128)
In other words, the Kazanci women represent the margins of society and they mythologize Mustafa’s body through a blend of ritual and superstition. More importantly, societal margins often represent important but often unheard voices within society. As Douglas claims, “What is being carved in flesh is an image of society” (116). Zeliha realizes this when she designates Mustafa’s burial as the space in which to discuss the cultural taboo of at least incest, if not rape.
The marginalized, then, participate in Mustafa’s funeral in multiple ways. First, and most obvious, are the Kazanci women: mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of the fallen ‘prince’. Yet soccer fans and pedestrians participate as well, obviating the idea that this novel discusses not only familial rites, but societal ones. The narrator describes the scene of soccer fans: “Thus they all flowed along the avenue in a flood of red and yellow, amid chaos and clamor” (344). It is important to note that the people flowed, much like water. They flowed because they will be the redemptive elements of the novel, while also creating a present day mythology. Red and yellow soccer fans surround the green hearse, which carries Mustafa in a white shroud. Color symbolizes both an adherence to Islamic traditions as well as diversity and a celebration of life. These colors swirl into a pot of ashure, given at Noah’s ark, a mix of everything. Margins are everywhere present in this scene, as if replacement characters and scenarios for Noah’s ark. Instead of an ark, Shafak designs a Turkish household that grows to include an Armenian-American family member. Crenshaw notes that, “The struggle over which differences matter and which do not is neither an abstract nor an insignificant debate among women…they raise critical issues of power” (“Mapping the Margins” 1265). These families and voices become the elements that transcend their cultural identifiers, that transcend present and past in order to perform a creation myth.
The element of water moves through the text in a significant way. Rain was absent on the day of Zeliha’s rape. However, its absence may be just as significant as the presence of rain in other scenes. Events that disrupt nature must exist in order for change and growth to occur. Decades later, as the green hearse carries Mustafa towards the family house, pedestrians sing, “Let earth, sky, water listen to our voice/ Let the whole world shake with our heavy steps” (344). These pedestrians reflect the function of marginalized voices in much the same way as the Kazanci women represent modern day culture in Turkey. And they sing their importance.
What follows the end of a myth? The reader is led to believe that, as is often the case in fairy tales, there is a happily ever after to this story. Shafak’s novel begins as fairy tale, which involves magic and enchantments such as the djinni. She then melds the story into myth, in order to elucidate the way in which a society may renew itself. Though marginalized, the Kazanci family finds a way to create a vibrant future. Auntie Banu uses djinni often and retells common folklore consistent with fairy tales. In this case, genocide, rape and incest significantly rupture chronological time, which also allows the story of the bastard to enter the realm of mythology. The Kazanci family seeks and creates a new way of life through inclusion and acceptance.
Myth is laden with meaning only if the object itself loses individuality and gains universality. In other words, a physical presence must disappear allowing myth to appropriate image, laden with new meaning. Barthes claims, “In semiology, the third term is nothing but the association of the first two” (121), meaning that The Bastard of Istanbul conveys meaning through both cultural mythology and culturally relevant signifiers. Mustafa’s body allows for a space over which Zeliha can discuss the taboo subjects of incest and rape. Mustafa’s death is a product of the unnatural rupture of time, healed only by the full disclosure to Asya about the identity of her true father.
While this novel incorporates many elements of rupture, disease and division, it also allows for healing, discussion and community. Through marginalized voices, repurposed cultural stories, and tragedy, Shafak enables discussion and proposes a reparation of time through myth. The reader feels that Zeliha’s future holds much promise as she stands apart from the shrouded Mustafa, clutching two fragile tea cups purchased at the beginning of the novel, moments before her attempted abortion. Both the teacups and the baby survived two decades of struggle. And finally, rain closes the novel, once again highlighting the fact that myth underlines this novel. Rain enables each character a function on the chronological timeline towards a modern people. The novel ends hopefully, a hodge-podge family full of once marginalized voices, now the ‘first peoples’ of a modern era.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.
Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989. Print.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscriminiation Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics”. University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1989. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. Stanford Law Review. Vol. 43: 1241. July 1991. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger; An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.