Novelizing Turkish Feminism: On Suat Derviş’s ‘In the Shadow of the Yalı’


The novel In the Shadow of the Yalı has been translated afresh for contemporary Anglophone readers by Maureen Freely, an author of seven novels, chair of English PEN, and perhaps best known as a translator for Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. In the Shadow of the Yalı was initially written as a Turkish newspaper serial in 1944, and Freely likens its flamboyant prose to the heady atmosphere of midcentury feminism led by Simone du Beauvoir, particularly in her book The Second Sex. When Suat Derviş’s pulpy novel first appeared for Turkish readers, France had just granted women the right to vote, a full decade following Turkey’s suffragette movement, which, while granting women voting rights in 1934, did not overturn single-party rule until 1950.

In the wake of such seemingly garish political contradiction, Derviş and her sister, Hamiyet, lived and starved in Paris between the Literary Left and the Communist Party, the latter eventually supporting Derviş because of her connections with poet Nazim Hikmet, who was then exiled from Turkey in the Soviet Union. In France, she rewrote her novel in Turkish, and Hamiyet translated it into French. The sisters were navigating the borders of liberality, where society and literature were lovers whose intimacies turned heads from Paris to Istanbul. Freely reflected on the pressures that Derviş experienced from the general secretary of the French Communist Party, putting her name to romantic fictions that served to express the very bind in which women were caught: between stable marriages and impetuous affairs, under the multigenerational gravity of patronymic male inheritance, and at the mercy of officialdoms that treated women as voiceless functionaries born to uphold family honor.

In the Shadow of the Yalı, as it appears in the 2021 edition published by Other Press, is more true to the Turkish original, even if Freely herself confessed that its language was “breathy,” “occasionally baggy,” and dripped with the “gothic excess” of its emotional extravagance, making it comparable to a soap opera or telenovela. The plot is simple, even redundant, and although its literary merit is arguably farfetched, Derviş wrote with an evergreen intuition for metaphor. It is a classic tale of wifely disenfranchisement, of a party-going modern woman named Celile who goes from a steady, 10-year marriage with Ahmet to his financier and her seducer, Muhsin, whose political ambitions and unrivaled wealth appear as spectacular as the night sky. Celile, however, is from a decrepit Ottoman yalı, or seafront mansion on the Bosphorus strait, many of which still dot Istanbul’s shores. Her romantic tragedy is indicative of the dishonor that Ottoman families endured as 1920s modernism roared them into oblivion.

Derviş was a prolific novelist, writing since the age of 16, setting her fictions in the manner of social realism, a genre that, when she wrote, was surpassed by interwar postmodernism. Yet, with Turkish women as her readers, she drew her genteel audience to the page amidst a progressive if censorial publishing climate in Turkey that had printed feminist news and views since the 1870s. She had led double lives in those pages, as a political journalist, she earned the attention of her mostly male readership while becoming a popular subject of interest herself. She could be found overspending at dessert cafes in sight of the Bosphorus mansions that she novelized to capture Ottoman decadence—a reality that continues in Turkey’s government culture of Islamic populism. In the Shadow of the Yalı frames Celile and her mansion-bound grandmother, Çeşmiahu, as figments of a vestigial past in confrontation with a sociopolitical guard that, while changing, adheres to a shared and ongoing patriarchy in which Turkish women fall between the cracks of male-led Westernization.

Çeşmiahu is a lightly fictionalized autobiographical adaptation of Derviş’s grandmother, as both grew up as Circassian slaves to the sultan’s harem before being married to wealthy pashas. Yet, if Freely’s prefatory biographical notes are any indication, Celile was perhaps the least like Derviş herself (their beret-clad feminist bohemian fashion sense might have been similar). Although she would go on to marry the general secretary of the Turkish Communist Party, Derviş preferred to be seen as an independent woman, not in her husband’s shadow. She demanded to be introduced as a writer, not a wife. That the status quo saw her as subordinate to her spouse runs parallel to Celile, not only in the shadow of the Ottoman yalı but of her husband and lover. She rewrote her novel in French, but, as Freely’s translation emphasizes, its English reads like a quotidian Ottoman romance, Francophile in its gushing melodrama, roundly simplistic and full of tropes that challenge the reader to wonder if, at times, Derviş merely co-opted the salable objectification of women that she spent a lifetime rewriting, exposing, and overturning.

Toward the novel’s end, Celile repeatedly bemoans her fate, pitying herself after listening to Muhsin mansplain her into submission to convince her that their love is such that they need not marry, appear in public, or, when she is pregnant, have a child. But she later hides three months of pregnancy from him. He reacts by demanding she abort the baby. As a narrator and in Celile’s voice, Derviş blurred representation and critique of misogyny for dramatic effect: “‘What a helpless, passive creature I am!’ she thought. She lacked the will to die, just as she lacked the will to live.” In other passages, such as when Celile goes missing on the night of another young woman’s death, Derviş uses terms like “loose” or “demented” for women (as translated into English by Freely).

Celile’s character is divulged elaborately, her personality formed in the vise of her school, which was mostly comprised of modern children from the “new order.” That she came from a “rotting, crumbling yalı” where “dying traditions” could be smelled in the air, placed her square outside of the social life of her fellow students. Her anxiety as an outsider defined her marriage, although her condition, which she suppressed, went unnoticed by her husband Ahmet, who would not be able to detect her affair until Muhsin broke the news to him face-to-face. It was 10 years after they were married when Ahmet came across Muhsin at a “gazino,” where men gathered to eat, drink, and revel. Muhsin secured a bank guarantee for Ahmet, who had been involved in smuggling food from Bulgaria.

In the Shadow of the Yalı is shaped by the narrator’s voice, an omniscient observer whose running commentary reflects on Celile’s experience as a woman in Istanbul, where, despite being married, “a beautiful woman was always under watch, no matter how private or solitary her life.” The narrator wonders, on behalf of Muhsin, why Ahmet might exhibit his wife, and more, why she might accept his advances. The colorful narration has the effect of fomenting a gossipy Greek chorus that explores the dramatic tensions of moral conscience against the temptations of love and money—and of belonging to the saga of modernism. When the cat is out of the bag and Celile’s affair with Muhsin is known, Ahmet responds, firstly, with affectionate forgiveness. His relatively progressive stance is matched by Muhsin, who poses a number of arguments for Celile to remain with him, in love, but unwed.

Quite quickly, Celile exclaims that she loves Muhsin, the words falling from her lips to enchant him. As the narrator unsentimentally explains, “Wouldn’t any woman say this to her lover as she lay in his arms in his small apartment.” It is his love that provides an antidote, however fleeting and deceptive, to her lifelong waywardness. The yalı’s shadow lifts when they consummate their passion, and by the force of their desire slaked, she is, as Derviş wrote: “Freed at last from the decaying yalı and its dying breed.”

There is an undercurrent to Muhsin’s motives in which his desire to subdue Celile comes to symbolize the assimilative, even imperialistic tendencies of modernism. Celile, to him, is not merely a beautiful woman, nor simply the wife of his underling business partner, but an emblem of the past that they would all like to see snuffed out. After describing the voluptuous features of Celile—her “leopard eyes” and “white skin, soft as velvet”—Derviş wrote: “For what he sensed in Celile’s devotion was the extravagance of the old aristocrats, whose wealth and power belonged to the distant past.”

But instead of digging further into a more nuanced tale of socio-historical metaphor, Derviş, pressured by the conditioning of her immediate social spheres among the elite leftists who supported her in Paris, dove headlong into what Freely has called “puzzling aspects of indigenous sexual mores.” These, as her novel reads, are the surface-level tit-for-tat in which Muhsin and Ahmet engage, quite pathetically, by a series of unspoken or indirect gestures. Theirs is a shamefaced and rather flaccid passive-aggressive male sexual competition over the possession of a woman. The sore loser, Ahmet rages at parties defaming his wife as a prostitute, while Muhsin is rankled by doubt and jealousy. He imagines that Celile has successfully played him to benefit her husband, sacrificing herself to social suicide out of love for Ahmet, or worse that, eventually, she could leave him too.

Ultimately, Derviş leaves the last word to Celile, but her utterance is as obscure and unfulfilled as her very life. The men, as is common to patriarchal oppression, are heavy-handed in their words and actions so that by the time she has a moment to speak, she has lost all sense of love, life, and self. She is still every bit in the shadow of the yalı, those fixtures of the past that, like American suburbia or the downtown tenements of New York and Istanbul, once glimmered with the sheen of hope but since have endured the depravities of impoverishment—returning to capture the imagination of new money and old stories.

A Nightingale in the Lion’s Den


I first met Kaya Genç at his home in Istanbul. It was 2017, and I lived a short walk away, up and down a few steep, sloping streets in the city’s historic core of Beyoglu. The district is a collision course of ideologies, where family grocers and underground factories compete with vegan restaurants and vintage clothiers. It snakes through a swathe of art galleries and antiques dealers before leading to a cross section of two alleyways, Altıpatlar and Çubukçu, which translate to six-shooter and pipe-maker, respectively. Under the nostalgic spell of meters-long Ottoman smokers and the 19th-century weapon-of-choice, the young journalist grinned, approaching mid-career prestige as arguably the most important Turkish writer writing in English still living in Turkey.

Around the corner, The Museum of Innocence received guests into a world of fictive artifacts based on Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Before becoming a political exile, the Nobel laureate would stroll under the shadow of Armenian tenements to schmooze with curators exhibiting contemporary installations on bare concrete floors, well-lit for teasing out the latest theories in conceptualism. It’s a milieu that Genç captures with verve in his second nonfiction book, The Lion and the Nightingale, which begins and ends on New Year’s Eve, encompassing the bittersweet political and cultural dramas that ensued and changed history in the year 2017 in the Turkish Republic.

Genç poured coffee, and raised his phone to snap a photo of me. He was making a record of every visitor. I was an admiring fellow writer, the younger; a year into my life in Istanbul, far-flung from my Anglo-American world. We wrote for the same arts section of a Turkish daily newspaper’s English-language edition. His criticism displayed a signature deftness and plain professionalism that lent itself to descriptive prose and the creative interpretation of his subjects. His style was spare, and incisive. He introduced his first-person voice with surprising freshness. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won reelection in 2018, Genç finished his New York Times op-ed with a tone of apathy, weary of his nation’s affinities for military coups and single-party rule.

I asked him what his aspirations were, as a writer who had published a novel in Turkish, and reams of journalism in two languages, leading to his 2016 book of reportage about the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, titled Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey. He pointed to a tome by Masha Gessen, one of many stacked and shelved along with magazines of every variety, most including his contributions to the book reviews, from New York, Los Angeles, London, as well as The Nation, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to name a few. He wanted his nonfiction to read like fiction. If that is the litmus test, The Lion and the Nightingale earns its keep.

The book opens tragically, with an intimate account of the Reina Nightclub massacre. Genç has a talent for writing about Turkey to Western taste, providing the usual fare of terror and oppression. Yet, he accommodates multiple perspectives while remaining convincingly independent, at times proudly and transparently leftist. His is the writing of a Turkish journalist committed to freedom of speech and assembly in a country where those rights are endangered. It is a boon for readers to have that delivered to them directly in English, from the source. In his humanist approach to bias, Genç stands with the artists that he portrays so personally in The Lion and the Nightingale. Journalism, Genç defends, is an art. And he has proven its merit as literature.

Artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, generally liberals, are symbolized as nightingales by Genç, who sees Turkey’s sociocultural fabric as riven by their confrontation with representatives of militarism, industry and politics. On the right, populist strongmen and conservative demagogues assume his metaphor of lions. That dualism is fixed and encircled by multifarious external forces both malign and freeing, such as Turkey’s vulnerability to international terrorism and the compulsion to fight for individual, free expression as a people divided by ethno-religious majoritarianism, mass incarceration, and multigenerational diaspora.

But, as is typical to nations traditionally allied to the global East, liberalism has had a wholly different narrative in Turkey’s political history than that of Western democracies. Briefly, the Republic of Turkey was born out of a nationalist, secular dictatorship, a totalitarian liberalization led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Lion and the Nightingale is an apt reflection on a mirror-like opposition to Western historical convention. The book’s focal point revolves around the rise of Erdoğan and his unprecedented consolidation of presidential power following the 2017 constitutional referendum. In response, nightingales changed their tune, migrated, or fell silent.

“In the eyes of liberal Turks, Erdoğan’s term in office began promisingly,” he wrote, giving ample background to the counterintuitive progression of Erdoğan’s ascent. “Here was a politician critical of Kemalism. He questioned the nationalistic foundations of the Turkish state. He appeared to criticize its patriarchal national identity. This was music to Nightingales’ ears. For a long while, many artists openly or discreetly supported the governing party. Through their art, they interrogated many aspects of the Turkish identity that it undermined. An awkward period ensued. The Turkish art world’s provocative iconoclasts were saying the same things as Turkey’s conservatives.”

But as he later comments, “Their overlapping agenda with the Lions was too good to be true.” The Lion and the Nightingale is also a work of meta-nonfiction. Genç takes the reader on the adventure of his research, explaining how and why he chose to interview certain people, barbers and housemaids as well as cultural and political elites. He empathizes with workers and their struggle to process their disempowerment. He approaches people especially skeptical and unused to voicing broad, societal concerns, and paints a number of intimate psychological portraits. “There is a strong element of fear of the state among Turks,” he wrote.

Adhering to principles of New Journalism, Genç reports in a way similar to Gay Talese, who confidently inked the thoughts of his sources. The reader rides shotgun with Abdulkadir Masharipov before and after his nightmarish shooting in the first hours of 2017. On his way to gunning down 39 people at Reina Nightclub, Genç profiles the terrorist’s exchange with the cab driver in staggering detail. “He felt awkward when the passenger asked if he could use his mobile,” he wrote. “The passenger was talking to someone he called hodja; the driver thought he was getting spiritual advice from an authority.” Reporting the thoughts and feelings of key witnesses makes for a stiff cocktail of literary journalism and crime drama.

Genç delivered a premeditated shock to the system by opening The Lion and the Nightingale with a sobering account of brutality in the heart of Istanbul. Four chapters chronicle each season set to despair, hope, dissent, and silence, in that order. Cingöz, a married man from a conservative neighborhood in Istanbul, has a nightmare and pens an arabesque poem on his morning commute: “I take refuge inside the smoke of my cigarette.” Genç charts the mental and emotional landscape of his people with visual acumen, to reflect the thoughts of the working class and professional artists that he followed and documented, down to their everyday activities, from the Anatolian countryside to the offices of Hong Kong.

With ample tact, reporting on the private lives of citizens is an ethical balancing act that, when effective, clarifies into the roots and ramifications of widespread social ills. It is particularly strategic when writing about the political atmosphere of a country like Turkey, where people are censored and criminalized for expressing themselves freely in public forums. “There was a gap between people’s views and their articulation in public,” wrote Genç. “In an Istanbul coffeehouse I thought how these two issues, the gap between private and public views, and our ability to cut ourselves off from reality, reflected my conflicted view of the state.”

Orhan Pamuk described the private-public gap in personal opinion most memorably for Genç in his 2014 novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, as “evidence of the power of the state.” Frequently, he compares Turkey’s stifling political climate with its complex relationship to American foreign policy, and the old European appetite for Orientalist prejudice. “This belief in our freedom to choose a future for Turkey is a very American way of thinking,” he wrote. As a student, Genç cultivated his unique stance within the domestic political spectrum as an internationalist intellectual. He grew up after Turkey’s first democratically elected politician, Adnan Menderes, fell to a military coup in 1960, entangled in U.S. withdrawal and intervention.

“I sensed people silently considered Turkey as a laboratory that could teach them about the future of the United States more than the history of my country,” he wrote. “I found this frustrating. Treating foreign cultures as testing grounds for their own was quintessential Orientalism.” Leftists Turks label advocates of progressive American values, liboş, or “sissy.” Since the media purge following 2016’s failed coup, foreign journalists increasingly claimed local coverage of Turkey in the international press. “I knew I could face the same prospect. Exile. Friends around me moved to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other European capitals.”

As a self-proclaimed nightingale, Genç has been surprised by his reception at home, where, for example, after the publication of his first nonfiction book, Under the Shadow, about popular resistance against the current government during the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, the state-owned television station TRT World invited him to interview. He has a sense of humor remembering how mainstream Turkish newspapers reviewed his book positively. At the same time their columnists were rallying for the unjust detainment of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who spent more than two years in Europe’s largest maximum-security jail, located just outside Istanbul, for allegedly funding millions of protestors in 2013. (Kavala was acquitted in February only to be rearrested on equally spurious charges linking him to the 2016 failed coup.) Writing in English is a major part of Genc’s self-preservation. The vendetta against Kavala, Genç reported in his new book, is ideological warfare, waged by the lions incriminating nightingales, i.e. the culture sector, as the opposition.

In his recent essay for The Point, published in May, “How to Lose a Language,” adapted from the book How to Lose a Country by exiled Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, he reflected: “Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.” His English has a clear, distanced perceptivity underscored by his cultural and linguistic objectivity. The Lion and the Nightingale, however, enters deeply into the work of fellow Turkish journalists who write in Turkish, with special empathy for their struggles, personalities, and careers on the other side of a distinctly opaque language barrier.

One endearing nightingale is named Murat Çelikkan, whose quarter-century service to journalism culminated in his incarceration in the wake of the July 2016 failed coup. Working for a mainstream Turkish newspaper, he became a guest editor at Ozgur Gundem, a daily read mostly by Kurdish people. Genç realized he had walked past the paper’s offices at least twice a day for the last five years when he saw a video of the raid that shut the paper down. Çelikkan could often be seen in the bohemian neighborhood, red in the face and roaring with laughter behind his mischievous smile. But by September of 2016, he was learning Kurdish in a cell with four other inmates. It wasn’t the first time he suffered jail time, nor the second.

“In Cihangir, journalists were saddened by the news of his conviction. At a goodbye party, many broke down in tears. If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues,” Genç wrote about Çelikkan. He also depicts a young journalist named Ömer Şan. When San wrote his first poem in his hometown of Rize, along the Black Sea, a far cry from progressive circles in Istanbul, he shared stomping grounds with Ahmet Erdoğan, the father of the Turkish president. The region, Genç explained, is vital to understanding “New Turkey.”

Şan covered environmental protests, bolstering a tradition that inspired 3.5 million people to join the Gezi movement. “I found Şan’s story interesting not only because he spent his life attending May Days, like me, but also because he was a reporter. He had devoted his life to documenting injustices and stories that define life in Turkey,” Genç wrote in solidarity. “Despite censorship and state pressure, Şan remained a muckraker.” It is a stretch to imagine a nightingale raking the muck of concrete-heavy oppression. But when a country becomes a den of lions, a song, the night, and wings are saving graces. Or, as Genç wrote of his visit to the reclusive, prestigious artist Evlent Kutluğ Ataman, “He seemed victorious to be living in a massive house in the middle of nowhere.”

A Glimpse into a Different World: The Millions Interviews Bruce Humes


Translator and blogger Bruce Humes has worked to advance global interest in borderland fiction from China, often spotlighting voices from Altaic cultural perspectives. This work began with his English translation of Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian, a novel about the Tungusic-speaking Evenki.
Earlier in his career, Humes translated literature reflecting China’s mainstream urban culture. His work on the novel Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui, published in English in 2001 and a bestseller in Hong Kong and Singapore, is a notable example. The original novel was banned in the People’s Republic of China not simply for what was then considered its shockingly bold depictions of sexual acts, but because Hui was the first female author to unabashedly detail the protagonist’s experience—orgasms and all—from the woman’s point of view.

More recently, Humes took an interest in Xinjiang, a huge autonomous region in westernmost China, long populated by a variety of ethnicities including Turkic peoples, Mongols, and Han. Since the Urumqi riots in 2009, a series of crackdowns began, aimed at diluting religious practice and snuffing out any hint of separatism. In August of last year, the United Nations reported that more than a million Uighur Muslims now endure mass incarceration and are undergoing forcibly administered “re-education” programs. The infrastructure, largely constructed with great haste during 2017 and 2018, comprises what is now arguably a network of internment camps that has been likened to the infamous Soviet gulag political prisons of Siberia.
Humes and I talked via email while I reviewed his translation of Alat Asem’s novel Confessions of a Jade Lord for the English-language Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.
The Millions: How did you come across this book to translate? Describe your process working with co-translator Jun Liu.
Bruce Humes: I launched my blog in 2009. Until recently, I kept a close watch on new novels about China’s ethnic minorities published in the PRC in Chinese, often introducing them on my site via interviews with authors and translators, book reviews, and, occasionally, by translating and posting an excerpt.
I translated Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, a tragic novel about the twilight of the Evenki, reindeer herders of northeast China, that was published in 2013. Chi Zijian is a monolingual Han author writing about the Tungusic-speaking Evenki; that is to say, she is unavoidably an outsider looking in. Since then, I’ve tried to focus on non-Han authors writing about their own people. And while the source text is inevitably in Chinese, I do try to translate non-Han authors who speak the language of their own people. For example, last year I translated The Mongol Would-Be Self-Immolator, an excerpt from a novel by an author who grew up in China’s Inner Mongolia, and spoke mainly Mongolian until his early teens.
I set my heart on learning a language indigenous to one of the peoples who have traditionally lived on the borders of the Chinese empire, so that I could gain more insight into their way of life, rather than perceiving them through Chinese eyes, as it were. I chose a Turkic language and left for Ankara—and eventually Antalya and Istanbul—where I studied modern Turkish. Just before I left, I came across Alat Asem’s latest novel set in Xinjiang, Confessions of a Jade Lord, which won the Jun Ma Literature Prize for Ethnic Minority Writers in 2016. Knowing that he is Uighur, and that Uighur is a Turkic language, I took it with me to Turkey where I read it.
Having already translated two novels on my own, I decided that this time I would experiment by working with a native Chinese co-translator. I chose Jun Liu, a mainlander who emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, partly because she had done an excellent job of proofreading my draft of Last Quarter of the Moon, and partly because she actually prefers to translate into English. I suggested that we work like a literary translation duo I know personally, Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz: She drafts a chapter, sends it to him, and he edits it. He drafts a different chapter, sends it to her for an edit, and so on, back and forth, until they both agree that a given version is up to snuff.
There are some obvious benefits to this approach: My co-translator could immediately detect when I had misinterpreted the original, while I could catch her minor spelling or grammatical errors, and more subtly, tweak the overall register of the text. More generally, I felt I could be more daring in my first rendition, knowing that Jun would catch any mistranslation or misdirection based on my ignorance of things Chinese. In the end, I felt our collaboration made for fresher language and a more creative final text, since it incorporated the vocabulary—and cultures—of two translators from very different backgrounds.
TM: In the context of the current humanitarian crises in Xinjiang, where traditional Uighur customs are increasingly perceived as “un-Chinese” and thus taboo, do you think Alat Asem would still write a book like Confessions today, explicitly referencing Muslim Uighur cultural norms?
BH: I don’t know if Alat Asem would choose to write Confessions now as he wrote it several years ago, some time prior to publication in 2013. Nor do I know if it could be published today—in China—if it were submitted to a publisher.
The reason: A severe and wide-ranging crackdown has been underway throughout Xinjiang since 2017.  Its targets are not perfectly clear but appear mainly to be any resident who could be considered a practicing Muslim, a supporter of greater autonomy for Xinjiang, those with separatist sentiments, and, generally, non-Han residents whose lifestyle appears more traditional Turkic than mainstream Chinese.
As of early January 2018, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, and smaller numbers of other Turkic peoples of Xinjiang, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, have reportedly been incarcerated in newly built camps scattered throughout Xinjiang. This has been widely reported now in the West, in respected media such as The Economist, The New York Times and The Guardian.
What is not so well-known is that well over one hundred Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz scholars, translators, and writers have also reportedly been sent to these camps for incarceration and indoctrination. News of their incarceration has been tweeted by organizations such as Concerned Scholars of Xinjiang, and detailed in articles in The New York Times, and scholars of Uighur culture such as Rachel Harris and Darren Byler.
Given this situation, Alat Asem might well think twice about writing such a novel or trying to get it published right now. Not because Confessions contains problematic text per se—I’m not a reliable judge—but it is evident that even Uighur artists, scholars, and writers who have long toed the Party line in their writing can easily end up incarcerated. Historically, particularly during anti-rightest campaigns in the ’50s, and even more so during the Cultural Revolution (1965-75), published writing has often been used as proof of “unPC” thinking. That said, I have had no news whatsoever indicating that the author has encountered any problems, and, after all, he is a member of the CCP, and deputy chairman of the Xinjiang branch of the China Writers Association.
TM: On the copyright page of Confessions, there is a credit for Nurahmat Ahat for his contribution as the Uighur Culture Consultant. What role did he play in the translation process?
BH: From the start, I intended to hire a bilingual Uighur in order to ensure that we understood and could accurately translate references to Uighur culture in Xinjiang. Nurahmat Ahat is Uighur, grew up in Xinjiang, and is an academic with a useful knowledge of languages such as English, Turkish, and Arabic, who was doing archaeological research at the time.
He ended up doing much more than that, however. In particular, at my behest he translated the literal meanings of all the characters’ names. In the original Chinese text, many of the names were simply transliterations of Uighur sounds; most Chinese readers, not knowing any Turkic tongue, would have no idea of what these names actually meant in Uighur.
I was aware that Uighur men often give one another humorous, even insulting, lifelong nicknames during heavy drinking sessions, and I wanted to know exactly what those names meant. As a result, my co-translator and I had several options for naming any given character: We could use the sound only, the Uighur sound plus a partial translation of the actual meaning, the meaning only, or even create a new, humorous name that was more or less a wordplay on the original. This undoubtedly makes the novel a lot richer and more fun, and most importantly added a genuine Uighur touch to it. It should also be noted that since some of these names were not explained in Chinese in the original, the English reader is therefore privy to a bit of wit and “Uighur-ness” that a Chinese reader of the novel did not enjoy.
TM: Are the capitalizations of key words reflected in the original Chinese?
BH: No. My co-translator and I simply felt that those words, like Dawn, Wind, and Night, had a fable-like feeling to them, and were characters unto themselves, so we decided to capitalize them. Similarly, we tended to italicize dream-like sequences, which was not the case in the original text.
TM: And why did you choose to transliterate—rather than translate—certain Uighur terms?
BH: That’s a good question, and underscores one of the things that gives the novel a somewhat unique flavor. Or so we hope.

I was influenced in doing so, first of all, by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which featured 125 or so Dari and Arabic words frequently used in Afghanistan. In my eyes, this slightly exotic touch was a plus for two reasons: It served to remind the reader that we are in Afghanistan, and these characters are Afghani (not English-speaking Westerners). And secondly, by making the reader commit these phrases to memory—the terms were generally defined by context or translation only upon first mention—it subtly engaged the reader in the story.
Chi Zijian also used this technique in her Last Quarter of the Moon, and I found it quite engaging there as well. She used Evenki terms for place names and certain cultural icons in particular.
Frankly speaking, we took this to a new level in Confessions, because many of the terms—perhaps most—that we Romanized in the novel were conveyed mainly or entirely by standard Chinese in the original. They appeared frequently throughout, and I felt that they conveyed something essentially Uighur, so we used transliteration to underline this.
They included: various terms for friend/brother (adash, aghine); foods such as süt chay (milk tea); rexmet (thanks); terms for respected jade mafiosi (Ghojam, Xojayin); karwat (a rectangular couch-like piece of furniture for lounging indoors or outside in the shade); ghilap pichaq (dagger), religious terms such as Sheytan (Satan) and kafan (cloth used in Muslim burial); and, of course, aq qashtishi (mutton-fat jade, suet).
TM: The book is billed as a pulpy work of noir, with its mafia-like jade dealers reveling in money, liquor and whole roasted lamb, but Asem conveys a significant amount of wisdom, both seemingly gleaned from Muslim and Chinese polytheistic (e.g. Taoist) cultures. The middle of the book, which is filled with scenes of Eysa’s homecoming, is bulging with spiritual writing, while towards the end the tone transforms into something utopian, harmonious, and almost one-dimensional. Does this overarching tone speak to the lack of free expression in Chinese letters, where authors like Asem are repressed to the extent that they may not convey more dynamic human drama?
BH: Frankly speaking, I’m not sure how to answer. I did feel that the ending of the novel was a bit Hollywoodesque, i.e., all’s well that ends well. It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that he tweaked the ending to get the novel as a whole past the censors.
But my impression was that the author wanted to convey—and contrast—three very different sides of his people in a single story: the intense bonds of brotherhood established at their firewater-fueled feasts where stories are told and monikers that belittle are born; the materialism, greed, and violence that has come to dominate the jade trade; and the Uighur’s philosophical bent, which while strongly influenced by Sufism (considered a form of Islamic mysticism by some), also reflects their pre-Islamic faiths that include Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.
TM: Did you enjoy Confessions as a reader?
BH: Absolutely, otherwise I wouldn’t have translated it. One of the reasons I became interested in Alat Asem is a fascinating interview he did (somewhat ominously no longer accessible at its original URL), in which he spoke at length about how he enjoys experimenting with a new kind of language in his writing. He is bilingual and even today, speaks with a thick Uighur accent—we’ve spoken Mandarin over the phone—and he writes in both Chinese and Uighur.
He spoke in some detail about how he toys with his prose in order to endow his Chinese with a Uighur ambience. On the back of the printed paperback, I described his writing as “a hybrid lingo with an odd but appealing Central Asian flavor.”
In his own unique way, Alat Asem creates his own Uighur universe, and we benefit from this glimpse into his world—realistic or not—where Han Chinese rarely figure and real men piss standing, not squatting, and unsheathe their daggers when honor, brotherhood, or jade require.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Horseman for the Headless: On Ismail Kadare’s ‘The Traitor’s Niche’

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1978 was a good year for Albanian literature, if not for Albania. Its great man of letters, Ismail Kadare, released two books. Kadare is best known for his pitch-black humor, authentic to the painful saga of Balkan history, and for winning the inaugural International Man Booker prize in 2005. It was two years after his country’s Third Republic era had commenced in 1976, when readers of the Albanian language devoured his pair of linked historical novels, Three-Arched Bridge, and The Traitor’s Niche.

It was a time fraught with anxiety over the erasure of recorded time, as the infamous Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha instituted a new constitution in 1976 further enforcing the destruction of the multi-faith establishment that had been part of the small nation’s contested ancient Illyrian legacy, bloodstained by some five centuries of Ottoman occupation. According to atheist state law, preaching was a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. Other such crimes were inconceivable beyond the isolationist government that ended in 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall lifted the Iron Curtain.

At the cusp of that epochal paradigm shift, Kadare chose exile in France, where he has lived out his golden years, since becoming a global voice who defends the artistic integrity of literature foremost over its political import. Yet, it is difficult to read his works without identifying certain critical parallels to the times in which he lived and wrote. Forty years after its publication in Albanian, the English translation by John Hodgson is effective in relaying the creative naturalism of his informal, though skillfully poetic, idiosyncratic tone. The complexity and sharpness of Kadare’s sentences are delivered with a powerful candor by Hodgson, an English writer and professor who also translated Three-Arched Bridge. It is the case that Kadare is an artful literary writer, a quintessential prose stylist, leading to his brushes with Nobel candidacy.

The Traitor’s Niche is not plot heavy. Kadare’s fiction intuits the spirt of the art movements of his day, orbiting the dark ambiance of indie cinema, goth punk, shock installation. The gift of Kadare as a writer is also not merely in the aesthetics of his language, but in the rudimentary transmission of deft, witty meaning, and deeply satirical commentary in dialogue with pages in history that were thoroughly obscured from his perspective in Albania, particularly as he wrote while priceless manuscripts went up in flames, disappeared from state-ransacked mosques and secularized churches.

Such blind and irreversible cruelty finds its perfect metaphor in the severed head. Be it a head of state without its body politic, as Ali Pasha of Tepelene came to resemble in the example of Hoxha, symbolizing the drive to sheer, ideological madness, often manifest in the form of extreme nationalism unfollowed by the national majority. But in the Balkans of Ottoman times, nations went doubly silent, unable to speak by law, while thoroughly disenfranchised of all cultural faculty as victims of multiple, overlapping forms of extractive politics. Finally, in Kadare, an Albanian voice penetrates the abyss of lost time.

Under the pen of Kadare, the central square of the old city in Istanbul resembles the present day with an unsettling likeness. It could be read as an imagistic comment on undemocratic, superficial progress, intractability at the core of Turkish life, where premodern and current trends constantly commingle. Like a freak of modernity, the word, “tourist,” as hotly used today as in the past, opens the narrative from the first page.

With his deft knack for original turns of phrase, Kadare writes: “The square was like a swimming pool whose water changed every half hour.” Fixed within its earthly tide is the introductory character of Abdullah, guardian of the traitor’s niche, a cutout of stone where decapitated heads are displayed. Kadare has a talent for conveying disgust, to the point where his readers may feel the need to retch at the thought of the overcrowded, overfed masses streaming past unfocused, dead eyes, blank with a colorless expression like “the distant reflection of a void,” stuck to a dish of honey.

Abdullah has his own, more personal problems. He breaks at a cafe, where many of the news-criers retire after losing their voices, also their livelihoods, as they read the news aloud in the streets for the illiterate masses. He also partakes in a bit of hashish. He needs it, as so many Turks do today, considering the parallel crises of national financial and political instability. As he notes, the price of currency is often a better indicator of imperial and international disputes than newspaper reports. But his problems are not merely shared by the state, and that is where he finds his greatest source of difficulty, given to envy and later delusions of grandeur that will be his downfall.

Abdullah is unable to satisfy his young wife. He visits a gregarious doctor. It happens to be the Night of Power, an Islamic holy day marking the eve when Muhammad first heard the Quranic revelation, also when the Turkish sultan traditionally takes a virgin into his bed. This is a point of great psychological friction for Abdullah, exacerbated by the rumors of the legendary harem of 38 women in far-flung Trabzon which the owner of the first head in the traitor’s niche is said to have enjoyed during orgies that turned his face yellow. That man was Bugharan, and he ended up bodiless in the traitor’s niche because he failed to vanquish Ali Pasha from his seat as the separatist Albanian governor who ruled from the seat of the Ottoman province that is now the northwestern Greek city of Ioannina.

As in historical fiction by contemporary Turkish writers like Ihsan Oktay Anar, who, in his, Book of Devices, details the sexuality of characters with cartoonish exaggeration during 19th century Ottoman times. Kadare also maintains the dirty mind of his repressed characters with the rawness of a pulp romance bought from a dusty used bookstore at the turn of the century in Istanbul. In that way, he cleverly portrays the spirit of the age when stuck-up, early Victorian mores imported from the West met with the fundamentalist traditions of Islam, only to unravel under the guise of self-censorship before the all-too-human spells of sex, drugs and violence.

Abdullah listens to the the doctor at a coffeehouse as he bluntly advises the impotent young man in public, assuring that his virility will return when his bride regrows her pubic hair. Kadare’s sense of humor is woven through his wordplay of the administrative language of Ottoman military and scholarly contexts, almost in the vein of a David Foster Wallace brand of outlandish mockery of official vocabularies. There are “assistant pronouncers of curses” who stand ready among the soldiers on the frontiers of battle, and a manual, “Regulations for the Care of Heads of the Condemned” with a chapter, “On the Use of Salt” which the decapitated head courier Tundj Hata refers to on route from the provinces back to the capital with the grisly state prize essential to his mission.

Hata endures throughout The Traitor’s Niche more than any other character. In fact, even after exhuming the third and last head of the novel from a grave five fathoms deep with his yataghan dagger, he returns home to the marital care of his loving wife. Hata ties many of the loose ends from head to head, capital to frontier, as the action of the novel follows him as he retrieves and delivers the remains of enemies of the state from the neck up. He is an unsavory presence, a quality that lends itself to his amoral attitude and bullheaded perseverance in the lifeless underworlds of the Ottoman-era Balkans. Like an enigmatic growth of the wilderness, ugly to the bone with his hennaed beard and flaxen face, he emerges out of the wintry mist like a misbegotten spawn of evil.

From the perspective of Hata and his reason for being, Albania is the sharp as the edge of the formidable empire, with its longest running dynasty in history. And over a hundred years after the novel’s period has passed, its geography on the southern reaches of the Adriatic Sea prompted inhabitants under the mid-20th century’s Communist rule to make a break for Corfu despite shoot-to-kill guards and floating mines. It has the aura of an outdoor prison, a terrorized ghetto, where people endure an existence without the light of humanity, driven to suicidal extremes, to see if there is life beyond the interminably overcast skies that darkened life from extremity to the heart of the empire under a uniform shade of foreboding.

There are passages in The Traitor’s Niche that evoke a reality worlds apart from that experienced by most around the world today, before near-universal, personal, handheld communication illuminated geographical remoteness with user-friendly information technology. Kadare writes, that when Hata traverses the no man’s land on the road between the capital and frontier, “the nothingness and the darkness were severing all his connections to this world.” And in that way, Kadare trains his novelistic writing into something more akin to the lost, versified literary forms of old, with his repetitions on the theme of decapitation, figurative and literal.

Kadare then breaks up the environment of darkness with flashes of levity, as when Hata takes unwanted shelter in an inn one night when the weather is too bad for him to continue, placing the head of Ali Pasha down at the hearth where a group of civil servants were gossiping about the private lives of famous people in the arts. Some things do not change. And while Kadare captures the historical moment about his subject, he has a swift ability to humanize it with a timelessness that makes for fine reading, whether in 1978, or 2018, as his penetrating sentences are unencumbered by glaring, technical research, but have all of the substance of eyewitness verity. The author clearly spent his life reading broadly enough to crack the hard shell of unknowing that confined his countrymen to state-approved knowledge.

Like the true Balkan tale, that “makes your flesh creep,” as Kadare states, he animates the territorial character. His settings are shrouded in deep, bold atmospheric writing. The natural border to Albania, for example, is bridged by the Ujana e Keqe, which is said to hold a body of a dead man in its structure. Every element is distilled into an effect that makes the skin crawl. While in the countryside, Hata espies a bride riding on horseback, and what could have been rendered into a scene of beauty is lowered to the humor of a ghastly scavenger who simply imagines her genitals riding up against the saddle.

The grim mood is punctuated by constant attention to the head itself, as it requires vigilant care. At one point, Hata must bargain to buy a handful of snow for its weight in silver from a village on his way through the backcountry. Demonstrating a pillar of historical fiction, Kadare brandishes his ingenious literary ear to the authenticity of provincial diction among the rustic, uneducated rabble who inhabit the featureless zones between provinces whose names are merely designated numerals. In one, where Hata gives a show of the head, he notices a mosque that had, “swallowed the old chapel without digesting it.” In his intelligent wording, Kadare gives vent to the visual history of Ottoman rule, even as it continues today in both historical preservation efforts and in Turkey’s political conservatism.

In some examples, the historical believability of Kadare’s storytelling reaches its limits. Vasiliqia, the 22-year-old wife and later widow to Ali Pasha identifies Byron’s literary merit, comparing him to the Albanian poet Haxhi Shehreti, who composed an epic poem about the height of Ali Pasha’s rule in Ioannina. In his lonesome hours, Ali Pasha is something of a political philosopher. While he was compared to Napoleon by the likes of Victor Hugo for his militant audacity, he was, by all accounts, a figure given to vanity and duplicity more than any socially redeemable qualities that would have made for a successful attempt at national separatism from the Ottoman Empire.

At one point, the autocrat engages himself in an inner monologue of sorts, in which he considers his resemblance to Scanderbeg, the mythical Albanian rebel leader who stood up to Turkish forces in the 15th century with great strategic skill and popular support. Ultimately, bankrupt of a real connection to the hearts and minds of his people, he sees his imminent death as his only ticket to eternity, throwing aside such measures of posterity as Byron’s celebrated “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which he is mentioned.

Exploring the condemnation of Ali Pasha, Kadare reflects on the complicated tradition of Albanian nationalist thought. He muses on the capricious hand of death that swept down to take the head of Hurshid Pasha, Ali Pasha’s killer who was once deemed the finest Ottoman general with claims to the title of grand vizier, yet had failed to find the proto-capitalist tyrant’s treasure. Kadare recognizes the legacy of violence in the Balkans as it has echoed down the halls of history indiscriminately, despite the many and varied changes of the guard over the centuries.

Before explaining the administration of language death, how Ottoman authorities meticulously unthreaded the Albanian social fabric of its cultural memory, the people grow as indistinct as the loose, colorless garments they are forced to wear, punished for having survived separatist leadership. Albania is epitomized as a place where people are forced to close the ends of their chimneys so their children are blackened and suffocate from soot, where tax collection is performed like bodily functions and borders are defined by human death. Even the way the country is named becomes dehumanizing, as its native tongue is replaced by the sound ravens make. Caw-caw, writes Kadare, renaming his country to denote desolation, emptiness, and the extinction of all humanity.

In the final passages of the slim, spacious novel, a dream comes to the capital from the reaches of Anatolia, to the imperial capital’s Palace of Dreams, where subconscious visions are gathered, circulated, and interpreted. It is said to hold the fate of Albania, a place that, even in the center of Istanbul no one really knows how to pronounce, despite a steady stream of heads coming from there to the traitor’s niche. Kadare translates the original meaning of Albania, from its autochthonous place name, Shqiperia: “a convocation of eagles with bloodstained plumage scattered by the winds and storms.”