Take a look at the photo on your left. What you see here, is a view over Paris, reaching up to the Eiffel Tower. This is the place where I read the last pages of Elif Shafak’s latest novel Three Daughters of Eve (Havva’nın Üç Kızı). The colourful atmosphere of Istanbul and Oxford that the writer describes very movingly in this book mixed with the particular flair of the French capital. A feeling we all know, once again became palpable: the sensation that literature has no borders, as it transcends time and place.
Elif Shafak is one of our contemporary authors who knows how to create delicious cultural blends through her narrative imagination. The novel’s protagonist is the young Turkish woman Peri who, having grown up in Istanbul, later on gets a scholarship to study in Oxford. Her family is a mirror of Turkey’s heterogeneous society full of contradictions. While her father believes in Atatürk’s idea of democracy and laicism, her mother is a religious woman who wears a headscarf and lives in constant fear of Allah’s punishing powers. Coming from this background, it is not surprising that Peri feels somehow in between – a sensation that becomes even stronger when she leaves her home and has to deal with a completely different culture. Her stay in England is not only a challenge for her mind, but also for her identity. Longing for love and being curious by nature, Peri is always in search for meaning, devouring books and questioning existence in general. When she comes across professor Azur who proposes a class on the philosophy of God, it seems as if she had finally also found a way to solve her inner conflicts. However, the sensation of belonging nowhere, of feeling disoriented and in between will always remain a part of her personality.
“Don’t be afraid of being different” (Farklı olmaktan korkma) is a lesson Peri learns during her time in Oxford. Getting to know yourself means being ready to break yourself up into pieces and free yourself from society’s expectations. Only by being curious about the Other, we can create bridges, closing the gap between “us” and “them”. Peri’s professor Azur tries to prove this by making an experiment in his classroom: Students including Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Atheists and Buddhists who are from very different backgrounds share their (mostly contradictory) beliefs about God during a semester. Among other exercises, they have to explain God or his non-existence without using words. The aim is to look for a common language that helps them see one another not as enemies, but as human beings.
Without doubt, Three Daughters of Eve is, above all, the story of Peri and her search for meaning. We follow her steps in Oxford (from 2001-2002) with occasional flashbacks to her childhood, but also get glimpses of her present life in Istanbul (in 2016). Her character development becomes especially interesting as soon as she gets to know Shirin, an atheist from Iran, and Mona, a religious feminist Muslim. The impact of professor Azur on all of them turns their daily lives into an “experiment of empathy”. Much later they understand that by studying and living together they learnt something about the uniting power of diversity.
Azur’s life philosophy maybe could be summarized by Ionesco’s statement “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question”. If there is something sacred in this world, it is education. Poems are the key to philosophy and love, while words are the key to knowledge. For those who want to fight against prejudices, being curious and having an open horizon is the first step. After all, the more cultures we experience, the more fascinating become our lives. In her novel, Elif Shafak shows us the beauty of diversity, while at the same time providing us with insights about women’s rights in Turkey, identity problems of foreigners, marginalization, feminism, the ghettoisation of society, patriarchy and many other topics.
When I met Elif Shafak in Paris, she signed my edition of The Bastard of Istanbul with the words “In friendship and sisterhood”. Her idea of sisterhood actually embraces all humanity. “See, get to know, understand and love the Other” is her global message that is clearly expressed in Three Daughters of Eve. In Azur’s classroom, we are provided with a lesson of loving and forgiving. We also learn here that the time has come to see the Other as a friend, not a threat. Diversity is what makes our lives colourful. We need to appreciate, cherish and protect it.
08/08/2016 © Mine Krause