Modern Turkey emerged in the 1920s as a secular, westernized nation where the rule was always to look forward, never back. But novelist Elif Shafak says buried memories have a way of rising to the surface. She takes us on a tour of an Istanbul street, where battles over identity, modernity, ethnicity, and minority rights have played out in miniature.
Turkey has long been known as a nation at a crossroads between East and West, Islam and Christianity. Literally straddling Europe and Asia, it is considered by many to be the exception in the Islamic world: a large country with a majority Muslim population and a westernized, secular political culture. It seemed a natural place to explore the heightening tension between tradition and change – a central theme of the times in which we live, and the central interest of the Worlds of Difference project.
As with all our stories, we wanted to capture that tension in a lyrical, sound-rich way that would privilege the voices of ordinary people. In the end we found a voice that is quiteextra-ordinary: that of Elif Shafak, a young, fiercely intelligent Turkish novelist and social scientist whose own work drills deep into the multiple layers of her nation’s history and psyche.
In late 2004, I called Elif, the author of five novels, including The Flea Palace and The Saint of Incipient Insanities. She splits her time between Istanbul and Tucson, where she was an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. In Turkey, she explained, the secularized, western orientation engineered by the country’s modern founder, Kemal Ataturk, taught Turks always to look forward, never back. This one-way gaze came at a cost, she said: the loss of a national memory, of both the beauties and the atrocities of the past. I thought this sounded fascinating. But how could we turn such an abstract idea into a radio documentary? She had an immediate answer: Let’s approach it through the voices on a single Istanbul street.
She had the perfect street in mind: Kazanci Yokushu, the “Street of the Cauldron Makers,” an unremarkable, litter-strewn lane tucked below Taksim Square and the Iskitlal pedestrian thoroughfare. Elif saw the street, where she once lived and wrote a novel, as a metaphor for Turkey’s modern history – a place where the nation’s battles over identity, modernity, ethnicity and minority rights have played out in miniature over the decades. A walking tour from top to bottom would reveal more about modern Turkey than any scholarly treatise.
I admit I was skeptical. How could a single street serve as a metaphor for a great nation’s history? But in the voices of the butcher, the barber, the grocers, the tailor and the domino players, I believe we were able to unearth a good many layers beneath the gray, gritty stones of the Street of the Cauldron Makers.
According to Proust, the smell of a biscuit dipped in tea can liberate memories long sequestered or suppressed. I feel fortunate to have traveled with Elif Shafak to her old street as she searched for a way to unlock some of her nation’s memories, and to dig for clues to its future.
– Sandy Tolan