Saturday, December 6, 2014

I Am Istanbul (Istanbullu) by Buket Uzuner, Translated by Kenneth J. Dakan

Source: Everest Yayinlari
I Am Istanbul (Istanbullu)
Buket Uzuner
Translated by Kenneth J. Dakan (from Turkish)
Originally 2007, I read Everest Publication's 2008 version
421 pages, drama

The Airport: Land of Arrivals and Departures

Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. On this day, as on any other day, it is crowded with people: people waiting for passport control, people running to catch their plane, people checking their makeup in the bathroom, people gazing at the arrivals board, people shopping for last-minute duty-free Turkish Delight. Airport staff greet them, direct them, flush toilets when they forget. On this absolutely normal day, a couple is about to be reunited and start a new life together: Ayhan, a Kurdish sculptor, and Belgin, a professor of genetics formerly based in New York. Are they ready for this tremendous change? And are they ready for what the airport will throw at them in the next few hours?

This novel explores the thoughts, feelings, and impressions of a wide range of Istanbullu who are only united by their common, anonymous presence in the airport at the same time. Can they find common ground in a moment of crisis?

Read a sample

Buy from Amazon:

I Am Istanbul

What does it mean to be "from Istanbul?"

Uzuner uses this novel to explore many themes, of which the most important appears to be "who can be considered a native of Istanbul?" In this huge, cosmopolitan, and ancient city, who really belongs? Uzuner raised the same question several times in Water, her fantasy novel that I reviewed earlier. In Istanbullu, she attempts to parse this question through examining the internal monologues of a wide range of characters.

Besides the two main characters, Ayhan and Belgin, she includes a wide range of fully 3-dimensional characters, some of whom are only distantly related to the main plot. Instead of being boring, this decision increased my interest in the events at the airport. Some of the secondary characters were intimately related to Belgin, such as her ex-husband and his personal assistant-cum-lover or her uncle or her uncle's bartending protege. But others were unrelated, such as the hijabi college student on her way to America who feels attracted to the handsome Jewish duty-free shop manager.

Including characters who are just as affected by the events in the airport but who are completely unrelated to the main couple was a brilliant artistic decision. By doing so, Uzuner demonstrates a wide range of opinions on the question of what makes one an Istanbullu, from members of different religions and ethnic groups, different classes and neighborhoods. It widened the viewpoint of the story in a way that was both powerful and realistic. However, the disjointed narrative made it more difficult for me to read, and I was only able to get through 3-4 short chapters at a time. It is a thought provoking book, and you need a bit more time in which to read and process the ideas.

Relationships between different groups

One of the major accomplishments of this novel is the depiction of assumptions and stereotypes that people make about other religious, ethnic, or class groups. By recounting the internal monologues of many people, she shows how they react to each other internally. As is generally the case, some of the stereotypes hold true some of the time - but it depends on the individual more than anything else!

For example, one of the interactions she depicts in this way is between two women in the bathroom, one an employee who cleans the facilities for 8 hours every day and the other Belgin's ex-husband's aforementioned personal assistant-cum-lover. The bathroom cleaner, who is from a village and plagued by a lazy husband, judges the personal assistant based on her looks and rudeness to be a nasty person who is trying to sleep her way to the top. When we look inside the personal assistant's mind, we come to the same conclusion! This doesn't stop the bathroom cleaner from viewing the personal assistant as a person, however, as becomes clear at the end of the novel.

On the other hand, in the case of the hijabi college student we see how stereotypes are often wrong. Based on the way the hijab is looked down upon within Turkish society, the student believes herself to be judged negatively by everyone around her. This includes the Jewish duty-free shop manager who is being nice to her. When we look at what he's thinking, however, we discover that he's trying to figure out how to give her his number and cursing the fact that his name is Jewish - he is secular, and he wishes that people wouldn't judge him based on his ostensible religious affiliation! In this case, both of them are wrong about what the other is thinking.

Moral of the story: people are individuals, not representatives of groups, and should be treated as such.

The uncertainty of a no-longer-long-distance relationship

Belgin and Ayhan both find themselves panicking over the major change that is about to happen in their lives. Both consider running away, back to the way it was before. The future is scary; how do they know what will happen? But then, after a lot of reflection, something beautiful happens. They remember why they are doing what they are doing. And because they remember why they love each other, why they chose to live together, they decide to choose that again. They choose love, and to be together, no matter how scary it seems at the moment.

I can completely relate to this feeling. The first year of my now-husband and my relationship was long-distance. It was, without any question, the hardest thing I have ever had to do and the hardest part of my life. To be separated from the one you love the most is a terrible feeling. And yet when we decided that I would move to be with him on the other side of the world, I was terrified. What if it didn't work out? What if we didn't actually love each other like we thought we did, when we were together? These thoughts are completely reasonable reactions to the situation. I felt terrible about having them, as if I were somehow betraying him by thinking these things. In the end, I plucked up my courage and went to him. I am glad I did.

As the frame narrator, Istanbul herself, states, love and fear are "two opposing and typically mortal emotions.... what do Mortals love and fear even more than me? Themselves and each other" (pg. 209). But in this constant tug-of-war, it is important to discover how we create our own prisons of fear, break them open, and let ourselves experience love!

Oh, and in case you're curious about what actually happened at the airport, I asked Uzuner for her opinion:

Where I found it: D&R, Antalya, Turkey 

(a major chain bookstore, website in Turkish) 

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