Female Historiography: Re-writing Armenian-Turkish
Conflict from a Historical and Meta-fictional Point of View
in Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul (2007)
Asst. Prof. Dr. Hasan Baktır
Erciyes University, [email protected]
Lecturer Tuba Demir
Nigde University, [email protected]
The aim of the present paper is to discuss and explain how Shafak in The Bastard of
Istanbul uses fiction to challenge patriarchal views of history. She starts with alreadyknown ideas reflected in history and supported by ‘facts’. She creates a fictional context
and hybrid identities to blur the clear-cut line between the opposite world of
Armenians and Turks. She first celebrates and plays with the traditional idea of the
Armenian-Turk conflict. Then, she develops a female perspective allowing the female
characters to create their alternative worlds. Through parody, intertextuality and
polyphony, Shafak relocates and questions the objectivity of history. She mingles facts
and fiction in The Bastard of Istanbul based on postmodern and feminist reading of
history as his/story. History and story are taken as no more than ideological constructs.
Since there is as much truth as the number of narratives (history and story), history is
not a reliable source for the past. As a result, it is argued that the writer takes history as
a verbal concept.
Key Words: Postmodernism, Historiography, meta-fiction, Armenians and Turks, Elif
Bu çalışmanın amacı Elif Şafak’ın “kurgu” unsurunu kullanarak ataerkil tarih
anlayışına nasıl meydan okuduğunu açıklamaktır. Şafak serine alışılagelmiş tarih
anlayışı ile başlar. Kurgusal bir bağlam yaratarak Ermeniler ve Türkler arsındaki o
kesin ve birbirine karşıt olan ayrımı adeta yok eder. Şafak eserinin başında TürkErmeni düşmanlığı fikri ile oynar. Sonrasında kadınların alternatif bir dünyası ve bakış
açsı olduğunu göstermek için kadın karakterler yaratır. Ayrıca, parody,
metinlerarasılık ve çoklu bakış açıları gibi anlatı tekniklerini kullanarak tarihin
tarafsızlığı düşüncesini yeniden sorgular. Elif Şafak Baba ve Piç adlı romanın postmodern ve anaerkil bir bakış açısını temel alarak, kurgu ve gerçek kavramlarını
arasındaki ayrımı kaldırır. Tarih ve anlatı insan-yapısı bir kurgu olmanın ötesine
geçemez. Her bir anlatı kadar doğru vardır bu nedenle tarih bize geömiş ile ilgili
doğruları vermez. Sonuçta tarih sadece bir eylem kavramıdır.
Anahtar Kelimeler: Postmodernizm, Tarih-bilimi, Kurgu-ötesi, Türkler ve Ermeniler,
Elif Şafak.
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Barthes says that historical reality is no more than restructured and modified information
shaped by historians’ wills and ideology. In other words; “historical discourse does not
follow the real” but it is reflected with “a taste for realistic effect” (Barthes 14). Barthes
claims that “historical narration is dying because the sign of history from now on is no
longer the real but the intelligible” (Ibid. 20). Contemporary view of history, then,
challenges the traditional historiography. In particular, postmodernism suggests
alternative views and argues that there is no clear distinction between fiction and fact. As
such, the particular and the general, present and past, are created by the relevant
discourse. Mingling history and fiction, postmodernism emphasizes that history does not
show certainties but “possibilities and potentialities” (Philips 48) suggesting “new and
diverse approaches, refusing to impose positive meaning and intention and offering an
alternative historical understanding” (Mandricardo 1). Postmodern history attempts to
“re-create, re-interpret and re-invent characters, events and controversies of the past” thus
“to deconstruct and demystify earlier accounts” (Philips 47). There is no unified history,
no eternal truth; there is only “a shifting sphere of multiple and heterogeneous borders
where different histories, languages, experiences and voices intermingle amid diverse
relationship of power and privilege” (Giroux 24). Thus, histories are open to
“interpretation, to possibilities and to pluralities of different meanings” (Philips 50).
History experiences changes in its meaning from being a single and eternal truth to
“pluralist, perspectival and ‘constructionist’ types (Hughes-Warrington 16). This change
points out the local histories rather than the universal. According to White, history is a
combination of “a certain amount of ’data’, theoretical concepts for ’explaining’ these
data, and a narrative structure for their presentation as an icon of sets of events presumed
to have occurred in times past” (ix). In addition, he thinks that history is poetic because it
is linguistics. Thus histories are the constructed narratives which are always political.
History is then a narration. Thus, its “narrator is at the same time its creator”. History
almost always finds its common root in human institutions (Costa-Lima 478). History and
poetry are processes in which truth is reflected as a changeable concept, not a stable unity.
Poets are the creators of poems and historians are the creators of narratives. Both ‘texts’
are much shaped by imagination. However; imagination in both cases integrates facts.
History, like poetry, cannot be free from its writer’s priorities or from the era in which it is
written. White expresses this as follows:
On the most superficial level, for example, the work of one historian
may be diachronic or processionary in nature (stressing the fact of
change and transformation in the historical process), while that of
another may be synchronic and static in form (stressing the fact of
structural continuity). Again where one historian may take it as his task
to reinvoke in a lyrical and poetic manner, the “spirit” of a past age,
another may take it as his task to penetrate behind the events in order to
disclose the “laws” or “principles” of which a particular age’s “spirit” is
only manifestation or phenomenal form. Or, to note one other
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fundamental difference, some historians conceive their work primarily
as a contribution to the illumination of current social problems and
conflicts, while others are inclined to suppress such presentist concerns
and to try to determine the extent to which a given period of the past
differs from their own, in what appears to be a predominantly
"antiquarian" frame of mind. In sum, considered purely as formal verbal
structures, the histories produced by the master historians of the
nineteenth century display radically different conceptions of what "the
historical work" should consist of (4).
Each historian, then, is the narrator of his / her story. Thus, they themselves decide how
to organize their narrative. They also determine how to use language and shape history.
“Depending on historian’s perspective, the past can be reconstructed in different ways
and forms; history is a subjective way of seeing and explaining the past” (Mandricardo
12). Hutcheon points out that the “teller - of story or history - also constructs facts giving
a particular meaning to events. Facts do not speak for themselves in either form of
narrative: the tellers speak for them, making fragments of the past into a discursive
whole” (2002: 56). Then, it is the historian who decides what history is and what it
includes. Selection is the main problem of the historian. Therefore, it is not possible to
talk about the objectivity of history or “the chastity of history” (Barthes 11).
“Historiography, then, is not objective and disinterested recording of the past”
(Hutcheon 2002: 61). An author (fiction writer) and a historian are two different people: a
writer deals with the possibility and impossibility while organizing his intuitions
whereas a historian deals with the probability and improbability while doing the same
thing. “As in history looking for truth,.. .fiction.. ,use[s] the narration but as an
imaginative ground-plot of a profitable invention.” However, in fiction, it is the writers
who “give names to men they write of, which argue[s] a conceit of an actual truth, and so
prove[s] a falsehood:...their naming of men is to make their picture more lively, and not
to build any history” (Sidney 36). An author and a historian may not only share
differences but also have some common points in subject matter, goals, means of
representation and methods (White 400). For instance, fiction, like history, “operates by
means of emplotment and is based not on empirical cause-and-effect causality but on
motivated sequentiality, with superadded level of teleological significance which is (in
the case of historiography) explanatory of an eventually known, and (in the case of
fiction) aesthetically or morally- philosophically motivated outcome” (Fludernik 89).
Hutcheon also pays attention to the similarity between the two. She argues that both
genres depend on language. The use of language is important for both of them because
they can shape their own realities by using and abusing it (2002: 75). However; history
and fiction may also be totally marked as two different fields: “the validation of historical
evidence, which interacts with the argumentative presentation of explanatory theses”
while fiction depends on “individual human experience even if that experience is viewed
from the perspective of a general, philosophical vantage point and constitutes an analysis
of the human predicament” (Fludernik 89).
There are also novels in which history and fiction are integrated. Contemporary women
writers have popularized historical fiction or fiction integrating history. Heilmann and
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Llewellyn define historical fiction as “a female-author-dominated genre looking for
historical narratives in the popular fiction” (5). Historical fiction explores “the tensions
between history and story” (4). In women’s authors’ texts, both fiction and fact are mixed:
“Real historical personages” and “important elements of wider social and cultural factors
in ....the collective and shared past” are used as a means to “blur the boundaries between
the factual individual and their fictionally reclaimed voice” either remembering
memories or making a character witnessing the event speak (7).
Contemporary historical fiction focuses on the desire to rewrite history from a female
perspective re-questioning “sexual categorization, outsiders, deviancy and identity” (10).
Certain questions such as “What kind of sentences should constitute a fictional work?”
and/or “What is the relationship of the sentences with reality, truth or falsity?” are raised
Some literary critics believe that literary texts are the worlds that are created by authors
in a way similar to the real one, with difference of setting, characters and human
experience. In such texts, both fiction and reality are mixed and presented in such a way
that blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality (Abrams 64-65). In a “textual
narrative pattern” history and fiction are combined to reinterpret “the realist illusion”
(Fludernik 84). As such, “one’s worst fantasies are becoming true; in fact, actual events
exceed fictional scenarios in their grotesqueness, paradoxicality and incomprehensibility”
(84). “[M]ajor political figures and their motives, decisions and personal weaknesses” in
history are combined with the “invented dialogues, free indirect discourse and
sometimes even interior monologue” reshuffling “the chronology for artistic effect” in
different kinds of literary modes such as tragedy, satire and comedy (81). Therefore, it
may not be easy to distinguish fiction from reality.
Irigaray says that women “undoubtedly have a different alphabet, [and] a different
language... Women are not expected to speak the same language as men’s” (351).
“Dispensing with linear narratives in favour of multi-voiced, multi-perspectival, multileveled, fragmented arrangements, [female] writing plays with the possibility of creating
new ways of representing and figuring ‘the before now’. This writing is thus often
experimental and stylistically innovative” (Jenkins & Munslow 115). However, it is not an
easy process to create authentic language. Cixous claims that women should create their
own literary forms and techniques; therefore, they should invent their own literary
tradition by using their bodies:
Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the
impregnable language that wreck partitions, classes, and rhetoric,
regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the
ultimate reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very
idea of pronouncing the word “silence,” the one that, aiming for the
impossible, stops short before the word “impossible”, and write it as the
end (342).
Cixous argues that women’s creativity originates from their sexual organs; thus, women
writing should be based on the female body. Women should not accept the word
“impossible”: they should first discover themselves. As such, they should write their own
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original works with their original words. Using postmodern narrative techniques,
contemporary women writers attempt to create female literary tradition. Postmodernism,
in this sense, provides a flexible context for contemporary women writers: they can easily
play with genre and re-appropriate plots, characters and styles to their own purposes.
They have freedom to rewrite, deconstruct and reinterpret aspects of the historical process
which have previously silenced or been closed to their female subjects” (Heilmann &
Llewellyn 2). Refuting the “idea of a single, unitary and linear history”, women writers
“emphasize the subjective, fragmentary nature of historical knowledge in the canonical
texts, through multiple narrators, fragmentary or contradictory narratives, and
disruptions of linear chronology (Wallace 204). They also use parody and intertextuality
to re-write female history which has multiple voices and, consequently, multiple realities.
Shafak uses postmodern narrative techniques in The Bastard of Istanbul. Using metafiction,
she problematizes the highly controversial Armenian-Turkish conflict. She refuses “the
well-made plot, chronological sequence, the authoritative omniscient author” and avoids
“the rational connection between what characters ‘do’, what they ‘are’ and the casual
connection between ‘surface’ details and the ‘deep’, ‘scientific laws’ of existence” (Waugh
7). Instead, the complexity between individual and society, inner world of characters and
their notions are explored by deploying self-reflexivity (23). “Adopting an even more
radical stance, some writers who use historiographic metafiction go one step further,
knowingly disrupting chronology, introducing supernatural” incidences and together
with reality “to remind the reader that history is a relative construct, riddled with
subjectivity” (Vanderhaeghe 140). Thus, the objectivity of history is questioned and there
are no clear-cut boundaries between fiction and reality.
Shafak also uses different voices as narrators to challenge the patriarchal discourse and
rewrite history from alternative points of views. In The Bastard of Istanbul, for example,
Shafak recreates the relationship between Turks and Armenians using different
characters’ points of views. The relationship is transmitted by more than one narrator.
One of these narrators is Rose. Rose is an American widow divorced from her Armenian
husband called Barsam Tchakhmakhchian. The reason for the divorce is Rose’s identity:
she is not an Armenian. She is treated as an outsider in Barsam’s family from the very
first day. She feels that she is “an odar 1”. Rose cannot adapt to the Armenian family; thus,
she finds their life-style strange (Shafak 37). Rose’s attitude reflects the inner conflict of
Armenian society: they are over-sensitive about their past but indifferent and sometimes
arrogant towards other identities. The Armenian attitude towards non-Armenians is also
criticized by the narrator for being intolerant and narrow-minded. In particular, the term
“odar” unmasks this attitude. The Armenian society identifies non-Armenians as “odar”
which is clearly observed by Uncle Dikran’s words in the book. He calls Rose as “odar”
and thinks that “If she is an odar, why not call her “an odar” (Shafak 58).
The relationship between Turks and Armenians is first reflected through the marriage
“odar” means an outsider for Armenians. It is used for people who are not Armenian (Shafak 37)
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between Rose and Barsam Tchakhmakhchian. Rose is an American who learns from her
marriage that Armenians are not happy with non-Armenians, especially with Turks.
Therefore, after her divorce, she marries to a Turk to take revenge on her ex-husband and
his family. She plans her revenge as follows:
Oh sweet vengeance. Recovery was a long term plan, an investment that
paid off over time. But retaliation was quick to ack. Rose’s first instinct
was to do something, anything, to exasperate her ex-mother-in-law.
And there existed on the surface of earth only one thing that could
annoy the women of the Tchakhmakhchian family even more than an
odar: a Turk! How interesting it would be to flirt with her ex-husband’s
archenemy. But where would you find a Turk in the midst of the Arizona
desert? They didn’t grow on cacti, did they? Rose chuckled as her facial
expressions changed from recognition to one of intense gratitude. What
a lovely coincidence that fortune had just introduced her to a Turk. Or
was it not a coincidence? (Shafak 47).
Rose realizes that, in Barsam’s family, a worse concept than an “odar” for
Tchakhmakhchian family is a Turk. The word “archenemy” above displays that
Armenians hate Turks. It means “main enemy” (Longman 64). As Rose is aware of it, she
wants to make use of this ideology to take revenge on the Tchakhmakhchian family. By
coincidence or chance, she meets Mustafa at a supermarket while shopping. Mustafa, for
Rose, stands as a means of revenge upon the Tchakhmakhchians. In other words, a Turk
retaliates against Armenians.
Rose shares her pleasure with her daughter, Amy, about finding and flirting with a Turk
in a supermarket as follows: “You know what? I wish your grandma-the-witch could
have seen me flirting with that Turk. Can you imagine her horror? I can’t think of a
worse nightmare for the proud Tchakhmakhchian family!” (Shafak 46). The word “the
witch” indicates that the relationship between Rose and her husband’s family is not
tolerable while the word “nightmare” signifies that Armenians are much disturbed by
Turks. In addition, Rose’s flirting with a Turk may cause a great pain in the
Tchakhmakhchian family. Rose assumes that her ex-husband’s family is much interested
in their ethnicity and she is not happy with this. All she needs is “a lover with no ethnic
luggage, no hard-to-pronounce names, no crowded family; a fresh new lover who would
appreciate garbanzo beans” (Shafak 39).
Rose faces cultural conflict with her Armenian relatives in several ways. For instance,
Rose’s food culture is not accepted by her ex-husband. She is not satisfied with her exhusband’s family cuisine, either. Although Armenian and American cuisines are
different, the food cultures of Turks and Armenians have common points. They cook
similar foods such as “sarma, patlijan and khavourma” (Shafak 39). The similarities of
Turkish and Armenian cuisines as well as the relationship between Turks and Armenians
are reflected even in Rose’s gossips. One day, Mrs. Glimmer (Rose’s neighbour) comes to
visit Rose. Rose talks about the disgusting food types of Armenians to Mrs. Glimmer.
While gossiping, they both show their reactions in disgust. While they do so, Mustafa
(Rose’s Turk husband) interrupts their talking and expresses that the Armenian meal
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type that they are talking about sounds like a Turkish food “mumbar”, which he finds
delicious and recommends it to them to try (Shafak 100). Then, he leaves the room. After
Mustafa leaves, Mrs. Glimmer becomes curious about whether Rose’s second husband is
Armenian or not. Then, she asks Rose questions about Mustafa’s identity. Rose answers
them claiming that their kitchen culture has similarities and that is the all. The similarity
between Turks and Armenians is not only observed in their foods but also in their life
styles. Karayumak in Ermeniler, Ermeni İsyanları ve Ermeni Katliamları says: “Armenians
adopt Turkish common laws, rules, customs and traditions such that it is not easy for a
foreigner who sees a Turk and an Armenian to distinguish who is Turk and who is
Armenian” 2 (56). Although Rose, Barsam, and his family members believe that Turks are
the “archenemy” of Armenians, Karayumak claims the opposite: “Turks and Armenians
lived in peace together for 800 years until the second half of the 18th century. He also
maintains that what changed Armenians’ attitudes towards Turks is the misleading of
Armenians by Russian and other Western countries during the Second World War” (56)
Some other narrators who comment on the conflict between Turks and Armenians are
Barsam and his family members such as Uncle Dikran Stamboulian, Auntie Surpun,
Grandma Shushan, Auntie Varsenig, Cousin Kevork, Armanoush (Amy), an Armenian
American girl form New York, a neighbour of Rose (Mrs. Grinnell), Lady Peacock /
Siramark, Baron Baghdassarian, The Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies
and his girlfriend, Hovhannes Stamboulian, Kirkor Hagopian, Asya, Aram, a cook,
Miserable-Co-existence and Anti-Khavurma. The conflict is first narrated from the
Armenians’ point of view in a conversation about Armanoush (Barsam and Rose’s
daughter). Armanoush stays with her mother, Rose, for most of the year. And now, Rose
is married to a Turk, called Mustafa. Being under the care of a Turkish stepfather,
Armanoush’s future may not be safe in Tchakhmakhchians’ opinion. The
Tchakhmakhchian family is very much anxious about Armanoush’s life. The anxiety is
expressed in the conversation as follows:
“Hah! Look who’s here!” said Uncle Dikran. “Mr. Barsam, your daughter is
going to be raised by a Turk and here you are doing nothing about it. .
Amot!“What can I do?” lamented Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, turning to his
uncle... “I have no right to interfere. Rose is her mother.”“Aman! What a
mother!” Dikran Stamboulian laughed. What will that innocent lamb tell her
friends when she grows up? My father is Barsa Tchakhmakhchian, my great
uncle is Dikran Stamboulian, his father is Varvant Stamboulian, my name is
Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, all my family tree has been Something
Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all
their relatives a the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been
brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named
Mustafa! What kind of a joke is that? ...Ah, marnim khalasim!” (Shafak 53).
The Armenian family are worried about Armanoush’s future. They think that she will
Translation belongs to Tuba Demir.
Translation is mine.
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forget her past under the care of a Turkish father. As Turks are the enemies of
Armenians, they are afraid that Armanoush may hate Armenians in the future.
Turks are also identified as “butchers” by Armenians. A butcher is “someone who kills
someone else cruelly or unnecessarily, especially someone who kills a lot of people”
(Longman 202). The association indicates that Turks are accepted as violent slaughterers
by Armenians. Armenians’ basic idea about Turks is constructed upon the concept of
“the main enemy”. The notion reflects the dominant discourse taught by the Armenian
diaspora: “the Armenians in the diaspora have no Turk friends. Their only acquaintance
with the Turks is through the stories they heard from their grandparents or else from one
another. The stories are terribly heart-breaking” (Shafak 254). These heart-breaking
stories shape Armenian histories causing hatred between Turks and Armenians. In
addition, reading has less value among Armenians because in diaspora discourse,
“[w]riters, poets, artists, intellectuals are the first to be eliminated by the late Ottoman
government. Only then do they “proceed to extradite the rest” (96). Therefore, Armenians
do not prefer to read, nor do they want their children to show much interest in books,
because books are dangerous as the “path of fiction could easily mislead them into the
cosmos of stories where everything is fluid, quixotic, and open to surprises as a moonless
night in the desert” (96-7). Both are dangerous as they are full of both real and fictional
elements together in themselves. “Imagination is a dangerously captivating magic for
those who compel to be realistic in life and words may be poisonous for those whose
destinies are always silenced” (97). Armenians believe that it is Turks who silence
Armenians by killing millions of Armenians. In contrast, Karayumak certifies that it is
not Turks but Armenians who massacred millions of people savagely in Anatolia to
prove that the Armenian population is greater than Turks’ (Karayumak 336), which
falsifies the objectivity of history.
The communication between Uncle Dikran, Auntie Surpun and Barsam about
Armanoush’s future causes a conflict in the family. Barsam believes that Rose’s date with
a Turk is not serious; she certainly cares for Armanoush as much as is possible. The
argument continues as follows:
“Armanoush will be just fine,” Barsam muttered... “Rose stayed in
Arizona...What she really wants is to become a grade school
teacher...There is nothing bad in that. As long as she is OK and takes
good care of Armanoush, what difference does it make who she is
“You are right, but you are also wrong,” Auntie Surpun spoke as she
drew her legs under her in her chair and resettled her eyes suddenly
hardening with a trace of cynicism. “In an ideal work, you could say,
well, that’s her life, none of our business. If you have no appreciation of
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history and ancestry, no memory and responsibility, and if you live
solely in the present, and our ancestors breathe through our children
and you know that...As long as Rose has your daughter, you have every
right to intervene in her life. Especially, when she starts dating a Turk!”
(Shafak 54-55).
Both Uncle Dikran and Auntie Surpun reject the idea that an Armenian child can be
brought up under the care of a Turkish father. Armenians’ idea of “the main enemy” is
unmasked and reinforced by historical discourses and personal experiences: firstly,
historical discourse is constructed upon “how difficult and unbearable life is under the
oppression of the Turks. Auntie Varsenig uses Armenians’ historical discourse which is
full of pressure, oppression and injustice. She says:
[O]nly a handful of Turks come from Central Asia,...then, the next thing.they
are everywhere! What happened to the millions of Armenians who were
already there? Assimilated! Massacred! Orphaned! Deported! And then
forgotten!” (Shafak 55).
Auntie Varsenig reflects certain aspects of Armenian historiography which makes up
Armenian identity: Armenians are killed cruelly, assimilated, exiled and ignored by
Turks. They believe that they are the minority of Turkish society because their ancestors
are massacred and exiled. Turks are all responsible for Armenian extinction. Secondly,
personal experience and memoirs reinforce the notion of “the main enemy”: Grandma
Shushan, Rose’s mother-in-law, claims that “life is always a struggle, but if one is an
Armenian, it is three times as gruelling” (52). Grandma Shushan also talks about the
traumatic past of Armenians showing the conflict between Armenians and Turks. She
claims that “[o]nly an Armenian can understand what it means to be so drastically
reduced in numbers: ‘We’ve shrunk like a pruned tree’...Rose can date and marry
whomever she wants, but “her daughter is Armenian and she should be raised as an
Armenian” (Shafak 59). She strongly believes that Turks did kill Armenians and she lost
many of her relatives under Turks’ savage attack. The “pruned tree” in her sentences is a
metaphor which deserves attention. The tree is transformed into a symbol to emphasize
the so-called Armenian massacre. The narrator (grandma) using this symbol takes the
readers’ attention to solidarity in the Armenian community. Co-operation, traumatic past
and diaspora-discourse are also intermingled in Uncle Dikran’s story as follows:
One day an Arab goes to a barber for a haircut. After the haircut, he tries
to pay but the barber says, ‘No way, I can’t accept your money. This is a
community service’. The Arab is pleasantly surprised and leaves the
shop. The next morning when the barber opens his shop, he finds a
‘Thank you’ card and a basket of dates waiting at his door. The very
next day a Turk goes to the same barber for a haircut. After the haircut,
he tries to pay but the barber once again says, “I can’taccept your
This is a community service.” The Turk is pleasantly surprised and
leaves the shop. The next morning when the barber opens his shop, he
finds a “Thank you” card and a box of lokum waiting at his door.” Then
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the next day an Armenian enters for a haircut. After the haircut, he tries
to pay the barber and the barber objects. ‘Sorry, I can’taccept your
money. This is a community service.” The Armenian is pleasantly
surprised and leaves the shop. The next morning when the barber opens
his shop...guess what he finds? He found a dozen Armenians waiting
for a free haircut! (Shafak 55-56).
Here, Armenian identity is also questioned and mocked. Cousin Kevork, ironically,
replies as follows: “Are you trying to tell us that we are penny-pinching people?”
whereas Uncle Dikran narrates it to show that Armenians care for one another and share
useful news between one another as soon as possible due to their “collective spirit the
Armenian people have managed to survive” (Shafak 56). Although both Uncle Dikran
and Cousin Kevork are Armenians, they themselves have different approaches to the
same story. Cousin Kevork maintains that “[w]hen two Armenians come together, they
create three different churches, taking a firm state” (56). Cousin Kevork, despite his
nationality, accepts that Armenians can’t create a unity between themselves. They
discriminate between one another. The multi-vocality of the Armenian discourse also
causes conflict between the Armenians. For instance; Barsam is not happy with his
family’s attitude towards his ex-wife. He expresses his dissatisfaction about his family
members as follows:
What I am trying to say is that Rose had no multicultural background”
Barsam remarked. “The only child of a kind Southern couple operating
the same hardware store forever, she lives a small town life, and before
she knows it , she finds herself amid extended and tightly knit
Armenian Catholic family in the diaspora. A huge family with a very
traumatic past! How can you expect her to cope with this so easily!”
(Shafak 59).
Barsam questions Armenian identity although he is an Armenian. He believes that the
main difference between an Armenian and other nations is cultural diversity. Armenians
are multicultural: they live in a multicultural environment. The cook, one of the
characters in The Bastard of Istanbul, claims that everybody lived in Turkey in harmony
and peace in the past and they were all happy with this reality. He also says that “[a]s a
boy I used to buy fish from Greek fishermen. My mother’s tailor was Armenian. My
father’s boss was Jewish. We are all intermingled” (Shafak 170). Actually, some of the
Armenians are happy to live in a multicultural society. For example, Hovhannes
Stamboulian, an Armenian intellectual and Amy’s grandmother, supports Ottoman
Empire and rejects the Armenian independence. He writes “under the present
circumstances Ottomanism is the best option for Armenians, not for radical ideas. Turks
and Greeks and Armenians and Jews live together for centuries and still can find a way
to coexist under one umbrella” (232). Living in such a culturally diversified environment,
Armenians share other nations’ life styles such as “sleeping under hand-woven blankets,
wearing hand-woven cardigans, [being] familiar with the taste of mantı, smell of sudzuk
and the curse of bastırma”, which are all Turkish’ (115). The similarity of food cultures
between Armenians and Turks is also expressed by Amy in her visit to Istanbul.
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Aram, despite his Armenian identity, ironically creates another form of history. He tells
Amy about his own reality of life and the stories he invents about history. He claims that
Turks can be better than their own “flesh-and-blood” Armenian brothers. Amy is so
surprised at Aram’s sentences that she “feels the pulse of the city for the first time. It just
hits her why and how people fall in love with Istanbul in spite of the sorrow it might
cause them. It would not be easy not to fall in love with a city so heartbreakingly
beautiful” (Shafak 257). Amy is surprised to understand that people can live in harmony.
Then, she starts thinking more positively about Turks. When Amy shares her positive
notions about Turks with one of her Armenian friends (Baron), he warns her as follows:
“It’s very nice of you to get along with that family so well. I believe you when you say
they are good-hearted people, and they are interesting in their own way. But don’t you
see? You are their friend only when you deny your own identity. That’s how it has been
with the Turks all through history” (184). Here, the diaspora discourse is once more
emphasized: unless an Armenian denies her or his Armenian identity, s/he cannot make
friends with Turks. Actually, Amy is the most crucial narrator who feels the dilemma
between Armenians and non-Armenians, because she has an Armenian father, an
American mother and a Turk step-father. However, she feels that she does not belong to
any nationality: she does not know how to behave. Her life is divided into two: the one
which she spends with her father; the other which she spends with her mother. She has
sometimes difficulty in coping with the two groups’ demands as they want her to do
opposite things. She faces a serious identity conflict and tries to overcome it creating
different roles in different contexts. For example, who Amy goes out with depends on
whom she is with: her mom or dad. Her divided life is depicted in the novel as follows:
The Tchakhmakhchian family in San Francisco and the mother in
Arizona had antagonistically different views when it came to the
question of who would be the right man for Armanoush....Armanoush
had had the chance to learn first-hand what each side expected from her
and how utterly irreconcilable those expectations were. Whatever made
one side happy was bound to distress the other. In order not to upset
anyone, Armanoush had tried to date American boys in San Francisco
and anyone but them when she was in Arizona. But fate must be pulling
her leg, because in San Francisco she had been attracted to nonArmenians, whereas all three of the young men she had had a crush on
while in Arizona turned out to be Armenian Americans, much to her
mother’s disappointment (Shafak 2007 92).
Then, under the force and disturbing influence of diverse communities, Amy feels that
she does not belong to any of her relatives’ nationality. She should find her own identity.
However, how can she do this? She does not feel safe at either side. The only place that
she finds herself safe is a chat room which is called “Cafe Constantinopolis”. This
“cybercafe” is visited especially by New Yorkers who “had one fundamental thing in
common: They all are the grandchildren of families once lived in Istanbul. The website
opens with a familiar tune: Istanbul was Constantinople/Now it’s Istanbul, not
Constantinople...” (Shafak 112). Visitors to Cafe Constantinopolis have common historical
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backgrounds. They have the chance both to share and to discuss their opinions and
feelings. Amy usually prefers entering “The Anoush Tree” session which “consists of
seven permanent members, five Armenians and two Greeks. They never meet in person
and never feel the need to do so. All of them come from different cities with similar
professions and lives. They all have their own nick-names” (112). Although they do not
know each other in person, a common history or story brings them together. Amy chose a
character name from a famous Armenian women writer “Zabel Yessaian”: “Madame MyExiled-Soul”. Amy’s preference for an Armenian name is the reflection of her identity
crisis. She chooses such a name to be accepted by Armenian friends from the website. On
the website, every week a special topic is discussed. The topic is usually related to
“common history and culture -- “common” usually meaning “common enemy” [the
Turks]. Shafak writes: “Nothing can bring people together more swiftly and strongly though transiently and shakily — than a shared enemy” (113). The visitors all know that
Turks means “enemy”; enemy means Turks. This website’s common themes are
Armenian-Turk conflict and the historical discourses which shape it.
One of the themes discussed on the website is “The Janissaries” who “were Christian
children captured and converted by the Ottomans with a chance to climb the social
ladder at the expense of despising their own people and forgetting their past”. This is
called as “The Janissary’s Paradox” (113). Armenians in the group at the website all
accept that the Janissaries are just one group which is silenced by the Ottomans.
Armenians share the same fate. Therefore, as Armenians, they should not “make peace
with Turks and let them whitewash the past” to look at the future and “[to] move
forward” (114). Amy at first agrees with the people on the website. She is surprised to
see her Turk relatives’ reaction to her past when she starts talking about her grandfather
who was an Armenian intellectual. Therefore, he is on the list to be executed. During that
time, many important intellectuals such as “political leaders, poets, writers and members
of clergy” are on the black list to be executed (161). People on the list are all killed and so
is her grandfather. Amy’s Turk relatives, who listen to her story for the first time, are very
much shocked by the violence. They are sad about Amy, which greatly surprises Amy,
because she waits for a refusal or reaction, but nothing happens. Despite their Turkish
identities, the Kazancıs despise those who killed Armenians. Amy claims that whoever
massacred Armenians are Turks. Auntie Feride, one of Amy’s Turk relatives, exclaims
“What a shame, what a sin, are they not human?” while Auntie Cevriye, another Turk
relative, says, “Of course, not, some people are monsters!” (164). These reactions ease
Amy very much but contradict her assumptions because they do not apologize for killing
her relatives although they accept their guilt. Amy, then, realizes that Turks and
Armenians have different ways of looking at their pasts. She explains the difference as
follows: “they [Turks] see no connection between themselves and the perpetrators of the
crimes. She, as an Armenian, embodies the spirits of her ancestry generations and
generations earlier (164). They look at the concept of time from different angels: “For
Armenians, time is a cycle in which the past incarnated in the present and the present
creates the future. For Turks, time is a multi-hyphenated line where the past ends at some
definite point and the present starts anew from scratch, and there is nothing but rupture
in between” (165).
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Shafak also embodies supernatural elements in the narrative. She ironically uses such
narrative device to subvert the reality. In the book, Mrs. Sweet and Mr. Bitter appear to
Auntie Banu to tell what happens in reality from their own perspectives: Mrs. Sweet is
the reflection of good deeds while Mr. Bitter is the reflection of bad deeds. As Auntie
Banu is very curious about why Amy is in Istanbul and what happened to her grandrelatives in the past, she asks for help from Mr. Bitter. He shows what happened to
Amy’s relatives in a bitter manner as his name shows, pointing out disease, hunger,
violence and all the other masculine values. He tells the so-called reality as follows:
Ill-omened soldiers, ambushed and massacred miles away from their
home, wanderers frozen to death in the mountains, plague victims
exiled deep into the desert, travelers robbed and slaughtered by bandits,
explorers lost in the middle of nowhere, convicted felons shipped to
meet their death on some remote island. . They were there when entire
battalions were exterminated in bloody battlefields, villages were
doomed to starve or caravans reduced to ashes by the enemy fire. Like
wise they were there when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius’s huge
army was crushed by the Muslims at the Battle of Yarmuk (Shafak 2007
As Mr. Bitter is a male character, he reflects events from a male point of view, which is
full of violence, reflected through the words such as “massacred”, “victims”, “slaughter”,
“reduced to ashes”, “enemy fire” and “crushed”. These words all show masculine
aspects. Then, he goes on with his story with little Shushan who is Amy’s grandmother.
Little Shushan loses her dad and mom. She is with her brother. She and her brother are
on the way to leave their homeland with other Armenians. They are hand in hand. They
walk much as the way is too long. They become hungry. Especially Little Shushan’s
hunger is such that she “lets go of her elder brother’s hand and all of a sudden gets lost in
the crowd? She gets lice from a family whom she approaches in the hope of getting some
food. The family has little to consume for themselves: they push her away. A few days
later, little Shushan is aflame with a roaring fever: typhus!” (Shafak 241). Mr. Bitter’s
words show how cruel life is, how alienated people become to other people and how
harsh and difficult the journey is. What if the Armenian family shares a little food with
Shushan! It is so cruel to leave a child to starve to death and it is not acceptable. The story
goes on with Little Shushan’s loneliness. Even worse she is ill: her head is full of lice. She
faints and is left to herself as nobody has the power or is “in the condition to help her”
(241). She is left to her destiny and found by a Turkish mom and daughter although she is
left to herself by her own nation. The Turks take Shushan to their home: they take care of
her. In a month, she recovers from her illnesses. No sooner has she become well than she
is taken to an orphanage where Armenian children are gathered and taken to a school
where she is made to wear white clothes. There, all the Armenian children are renamed
with Turkish names. The little Shushan becomes “Şermin 626”. According to Mr. Bitter,
Armenian children are gathered at somewhere being Turkified with changes as in their
names. Mr. Bitter tells the event or the Armenian-Turkish relationship from the point of
an Armenian. Shafak, through the use of supernatural narrators in the book, intermingles
Turk and Armenian point of view. She creates another alternative narrative or discourse
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which harmonizes or relativizes diverse perspectives.
Lady Peacock / Siramark, is another narrator who comments on “Armenianness” (Shafak
114). She gives a questionnaire to understand who is and who is not a real Armenian.
Some of the questions are as follows:
1. If you grew up sleeping under handwoven blankets or wearing
handwoven cardigans to school
2. If you have a picture of Mount Ararat hanging in your house, garage or
6. If you are familiar with the taste of mantı, smell of sudzuk, and the
curse of bastırma
7. If you easily get pestered and aggravated over remarkably trivial
things but manage to stay composed when there is something really
grave to worry or panic about
8. If you have had (or are planning to have) a nose job
9. If you have a jar of Nutella in your refrigerator, and a tavla board
somewhere in your storeroom
10. If you have a cherished rug on the floor of your living room
11. If gathering to eat fruit after each dinner is a deeply rooted habit at
your house and if your dad still peels oranges for you, no matter
what age might have reached
12. If your relatives keep shovelling food into your mouth and do not
accept “I am full” as an answer (Shafak 115).
If the questions which are taken from the questionnaire above are answered as “Yes”,
then that person is “almost certainly” an Armenian. The parody is that the questions
above may probably be answered by any Turk as “Yes”. The questionnaire is also the
sign that Armenians try to establish common points among themselves. There are also
non-Armenian characters with Armenian attitudes. For example, one day Amy takes an
Armenian American from New York to the city to show around. And they turn towards
Turk Street. As soon as they reach Turk Street, the guest’s face crumples. “Turk Street!
Aren’t they everywhere”, which surprises Amy much because she tries to explain the street
was named to memorize Frank Turk, an attorney who did wonderful jobs for the city
(Shafak 93). However, the guest does not show any interest in the explanation. Even this
simple misunderstanding shows that Armenians are grown up with prejudice. After this
event, Amy talks to herself accepting that Turks are everywhere. Even one Turk is too
much close to her: her Turk step father. How can she admit this reality to her Armenian
friends? Thus, she avoids talking about her step-father with anyone else especially with
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her Armenian friends (93). Amy’s attitude towards her step-father’s identity also shows
that Armenians are not tolerant towards Turks.
Not only Armenians but also Turks have their prejudices towards other nations especially
towards Armenians. This is reflected through the Kazancı family who learn that their
only son’s daughter (Amy/Armanoush) wants to visit them. They become very happy at
the news. The Kazancı family consists of women at different ages. Asya is the youngest
and of the same age as Amy. Therefore, Asya is expected to guide Amy. She also becomes
the translator between Amy and the Kazancı family. The Kazancıs are mainly optimistic
about Amy’s visit. They have no hatred for other nations. This is first narrated by Auntie
Cevriye, one of Asya’s aunts as follows: “The problem with us, Turks is that we are
constantly being misinterpreted and misunderstood...The Americans have mostly been
brainwashed by the Greeks and the Armenians, who unfortunately arrived in the United
States before Turks did .. .You’ll show the American girl what a beautiful country this is
and promote international friendship and cultural understanding” (Shafak 135). The Turk
relatives of Amy are ready to show Turkish hospitality to Amy. They are ready to build a
positive impact on her. When Amy comes, Asya asks her a question about an Armenian
Rock Band after having learned Amy’s Armenian identity. Asya wants to learn whether
the Armenian band really “hate Turks and they do not want any Turk to enjoy their
music or this is just an urban legend” (158). Amy hears the rock band for the first time, so
she gives no answer. Asya believes that discrimination should not be in art and
everybody can enjoy other nations’ works of art. In fact, the music group may be a sign of
how Armenians hate Turks and how Turks are ironically ignorant of this reality.
The Turkish attitude is not one and unified. It also causes conflict within Turks. For
instance; Amy goes to Cafe Kundera with Asya. All the characters here welcome her.
They want to learn about her. Amy talks about her Armenian-American identity.
However; her being Armenian never surprises anyone in the cafe group, but ArmenianAmerican is a different story. An Armenian is no problem - similar culture, similar
problems - but Armenian American means someone who despises Turks” (208). The Turks
at Cafe Kundera know that Armenians hate Turks especially because of the backgrounds
that they are taught in the diaspora. Amy talks about her miserable past. She tells how
her family members are killed just because they are among the intellectuals who are
“leading brains” in the society (209). This ideology points out that Armenians are
massacred violently just because they are Armenians. This is refuted by one of the Turk
characters in the Cafe Kundera: The Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies
We have never heard of anything like that.. .Look, I am very sorry for
your family, I offer you my condolences. But you have to understand it
was a time of war. People died on both sides. Do you have any idea
how many Turks have died in the hands of Armenian rebels? Did you
ever think about the other side of the story? I’ll bet you didn’t. How
about the suffering of the Turkish families? It is all tragic but we need to
understand that 1915 was not 2005. Times were different back then. It
was not even a Turkish state back then; it was the Ottoman Empire, for
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God’s sake. The premodern era and its premodern tragedies (Shafak
The Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies ironically tries to stand at a
neutral point despite his own name. He looks at 1915 event from both sides inviting
everybody to be logical. He believes that people should evaluate events in their own time
not with modern or even post-modern perspectives. The girlfriend of the scenarist
supports her lover by saying that “[p]eople [Armenians] are brainwashed” (Shafak 209),
which irritates Amy reacts promptly: “Well, how do you know? Maybe you too have
been brainwashed” and Asya supports Amy. She says:
Yeah, what do you know?...What do we know about 1915? How many
books have you read on this topic? How many controversial
standpoints did you compare and contrast? What research, what
literature?....I bet you have read nothing! But you are so convinced.
Aren’t we just swallowing what’s given to us? Capsules of information,
capsules of misinformation. Everyday we swallow a handful (Shafak
The Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies rejects Asya’s claims expressing
that he does many meticulous researches in the field. He maintains that “[t]he claims of
the Armenians are based on exaggeration and distortion. Come on, some go as far as
claiming that we killed two million Armenians. No historian in his right mind would
take that seriously” (210). The scenarist supports his ideas explaining what “collective
hysteria” is:
I am not saying the Armenians are hysterical or anything, don’t get me
wrong. It is a scientifically known fact that collectivities are capable of
manipulating their individual members’ beliefs, thoughts, and even
bodily reactions. You keep hearing a certain story over and over again,
and the next thing you know you have internalized the narrative. From
that moment on it ceases to be someonelse’s story. It is not even a story
anymore, but reality, your reality (Shafak 211).
The scenarist claims that life and history are a discourse and full of assumptions. These
discourses and assumptions shape people’s life and life styles. Amy’s way of analyzing
her own Armenian identity changes with two characters’ ideas: Aram and the
Nonnationalist Scenarist. She experiences changes from negative to positive: she gains a
new perspective on the historical facts. With Aram, she realizes that the world can
provide enough space for all nations to live in harmony (Shafak 254). With the
Nonnationalist Scenarist, she learns to evaluate events from both perspectives. Having
experienced changes in her ideas, Amy becomes determined to introduce her Turk friend
(Asya) to the Armenian website and its group of people. Therefore, she visits the website
which can be entered only by Armenians with Asya, a Turk, which surprises all the
members of the website. They show their reactions to Asya asking questions and forcing
her to apologize for the sake of her own ancestors. The first reaction of Armenians is as
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follows: “the truth is we don’t trust Turks” says Miserable- Co-existence” (Shafak 260).
The other reactions are given as follows: Anti-Khavurma and Lady Peacock / Siramark
assert that Turks exploit all Armenian intellectuals such as Sinan the Great doing
wonderful mosques, palaces, hospitals, inns, ...Armenians believe that Sinan the Great is
an Armenian but he is Turkified as he is in the minority. The members of the Armenian
website all believe that Turks made the so-called genocide against Armenians. They live
in the past, because with their past or history, they are meaningful. Baron Baghdassarian,
another Armenian character at the website, maintains that genocide discourse is the only
thing that unites Armenians. Without it, there will be nothing to be valued together (263).
As a Turk, Asya believes that it is nonsense to accuse someone just because his or her
parents did something wrong. She does not find this fair. Therefore, she does not
apologize for what her ancestors did in the past and she is determined to do so. However;
she sympathises with Armenians’ sorrow and misery. Asya, in her own words, claims
that “[n]ation-states create their own myths and then believe in them” (260). Asya points
out that life is full of stories so is history. She also believes that time has changed much.
Therefore, she does not find it logical to evaluate events from the perspectives of the past.
Towards the end of the book, the clashing perspectives are reflected in harmony: both
Amy and Asya, although they seem to be totally different characters, realize that they are
‘relativized’ relatives. They are both Armenian, but they have different ways of
understanding and making sense of the past or history. Despite the differences; Turkified
Armenians, Armenians and Turks may paradoxically have things in common. They can
even understand and respect one another’s lives.
Shafak uses postmodern narrative techniques to discuss and unmask the blind-sides of
the Armenian-Turk conflict. She creates multiple narrators to take the readers’ attention
to the fictionality of the history. Using multivocality, she tries to subvert the patriarchal
notion of reality. Shafak deliberately uses female-narrators to challenge the traditional
patriarchal perspective. In the story each narrator comes up with his or her own story,
each of which has its own reality. Multiple narrators also mediate the Turk-Armenian
conflict questioning and challenging both sides. There are female as well as male
narrators: but it is mostly female friendship which ironically challenges the unending
conflict between the two groups. It is emphasized that history consists of stories. Each
story has its own story-teller and context. This may be told from endless perspectives.
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Taking history as narrative blurs the clear-cut distinctions between fact and fiction; takes
readers’ attention to the multiplicity of the narratives. For instance, Shafak uses “ashure ”
to reveal how seemingly unrelated things can actually be connected. Like “ashure”,
Armenians and Turks have an indispensable past and chronic hatred. She says: “[e]ither
the present moment was quickly decaying into a residue of time or the decay of the past
was seeping into the present” (Shafak 193). As such, what is present and what is past is
not clear: they are all mixed. History, fiction, historiography and genres are brought
together in the novelistic context. Therefore, divisions between sacred and profane, real
and fiction are all eliminated. Likewise, what makes the world meaningful is not the
sacred quality of the narratives but human language. Thus, it is not the metaphysical
aspect of the universe which signifies the meaningfulness of human existence, rather the
ability to create and use language.
Using post-modern narrative techniques, Shafak plays with the signification process
which makes up and subverts the patriarchal reality. In addition, female-point of view
challenges the patriarchal world of war, violence and monolithic universe. In the nonlinear context of the novel all the violence becomes meaningless. Female language
celebrates the coexistence of plurality and gives voice to the “other” to express
him/herself. In this way, history is provided with an alternative discourse to think
about and re-evaluate the present conflict between Armenians and Turks. The reader
of The Bastard of Istanbul is invited to stop finding ultimate, universal, monolithic truths
or narratives that have so far created war and violence: awareness of the “other” is
“awareness of self”; contradictions may be celebrated as a spice of life opening a
possibility for at least a less violent and anti-patriarchal future.
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Female Historiography: Re-writing Armenian