Monthly Archives: April 2012

Issue of Identity in The Bastard of Istanbul

What is personal identity?  It is what makes the individual unique.  It is an individual’s perception of “self”, which can include gender roles, sexuality, and racial identity.  The struggle to discover identity and family heritage is a major theme in The Bastard of Istanbul.  Both Armanoush and Asya yearn to feel confident in their identities – both culturally and as a human being.

Armanoush desires to know more about her family’s history and what it means to be an Armenian-American.  She talks about this in the online chatroom, “I need to find my identity. . . Grandma always talks about this gorgeous house in Istanbul.  I’ll go and see it with my own eyes . . .  The Janissary’s Paradox will haunt me unless I do something to discover my past (117).”  The Janissary’s Paradox Armanoush speaks of is the duality of her nationality.  She is both American and Armenian, but doesn’t know what it means to be Armenian.  The Tchakhmakhchian family in America is cut off from other Armenian families in Turkey and has become very bitter towards the Turks as a result.  They do not know what the relationship between the Armenians and Turks is like in Turkey and have only their own prejudices that have been passed down in the family.  Armanoush is influenced by these opinions and yearns to discover the childhood place of her grandmother, who lived in Turkey.  She wishes to learn more about her past in order to establish herself in the present, “For me to be able to become an Armenian American the way you guys are, I need to find my Armenianness first (119).”  Can we be certain and sure of who we are if we don’t know our roots – where we came from and who our ancestors are?

Asya first learned that she was a bastard as a young girl and the word loomed over her, defining her and making her different in the eyes of her peers.  That title has separated her from other children and looked down on.

“By the time Asya Kazanci reached seventeen she had further comprehended that she no more belonged to Istanbul than did the ROAD UNDER CONSTRUCTION or BUILDING UNDER RESTORATION signs temporarily put up by the municipality (62).”

Asya’s mother, Zeliha, refused to tell Asya her biological father for most of the novel.  The reader later found out that Asya’s father was in fact the brother of Zeliha.  Perhaps Zeliha didn’t want to tell Asya the truth of her birth because she thought that the knowledge would haunt Asya and damage her psyche.  We often find our “niche” by observing our parents and either following in their footsteps or taking a divergent path.

“But in all honesty, someone like me can never be past-oriented . . . Not because I find my past poignant or that I don’t care.  It’s because I don’t know anything about it.  I think it’s better to have the knowledge of past events than not to know anything at all (180).”

Here Asya shows here a hidden yearning to learn the truth about her past.  Asya wants to know who her father is because she believes that the knowledge will fill that missing piece that is holding her back.  Without that missing piece, she has become bitter and confrontational, much like her mother Zeliha.

Perhaps after discovering who her father is, Asya can finally begin to heal and move on in her life.  Armanoush came to learn more about her grandmother, but ended up learning about the Turks themselves and, ultimately, about what it means to be Armenian in the midst of other cultures.

Symbolism of Tea Glasses in Elif Shafak’s, The Bastard of Istanbul

In The Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak uses tea glasses as a strong symbol of Zeliha’s ability to endure. In spite of her refined beauty, Zeliha’s “towering high heels”, bold wardrobe choices, offensive language, public smoking habits, and nose ring (4) all seem to counteract any likeness she could have with a delicate tea glass. Even Zeliha’s profession as a tattoo artist is an indicator of toughness. However, throughout the novel, Shafak continues to bring up the tea glass in conjunction with incidences in Zeliha’s life, and eventually uses this fragile object as a symbol of Zeliha’s remarkable strength.

            Despite Zeliha’s appreciation for the beauty of tea sets, her abhorrence of the fragility of tea glasses becomes apparent to readers early on in the novel, “She was the only one among all the Kazanci females capable of getting infuriated at tea glasses when they broke” (9). The shattering of a tea glass angers Zeliha because to her it represents a lack of strength, which is a quality she detests.

In order to prevent herself from becoming “one of those walking miseries who scattered tears and nitpicky complaints everywhere they went” (15), Zeliha forbade herself to cry. However, as the time for her abortion draws nearer, the author describes her as becoming“as fragile as a tea glass…she couldn’t help but come close to tears” (15). Shafak compares Zeliha to a tea glass in this moment to show how greatly this experience has affected her. This young woman who so vehemently loathes the frailness of a tea glass, is experiencing something so traumatic that her own fragility prevails.

The tea glass is brought up again as Zeliha’s brother, Mustafa, is on a plane bound for Istanbul and the household is preparing for his arrival, “…a tea glass cracked in Asya’s hands. So unexpectedly did this happen that it gave her a jolt” (297). In this context the cracking tea glass foreshadows the shocking truth about Asya’s conception that is to be revealed in this chapter, and is a reminder of Zeliha’s capacity for weakness as the past comes back to haunt her.

In the final pages of the book, Shafak once again uses the tea set as a symbol of Zeliha’s strength:

I bought this set twenty years ago. So strange! … I never believed they could survive this long. I always feared they would break so easily, but I guess they live to tell the tale, after all. Even tea glasses do! (357)

With this passage the author shows that despite Zeliha’s best efforts to avoid becoming a “tea-glass woman”, she realizes that tea glasses can be resilient. The author uses the un-shattered tea glasses as a symbol of Zeliha’s persistent strength and her ability to remain whole even in circumstances under which she would be expected to break.

Calling for an End to Female Circumcision

Caroline Lindberg

Female circumcision, female genital cutting (FGC), or female genital mutilation (FGM), is the partial or total removal or cutting away of a woman’s external genitalia is still practiced widely today. It is performed ritually in 28 countries all over the content of Africa as well as several Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, the Republic of Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and is found in some Muslim groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and India. Scientists say that there is no real medical evidence to support the performance this invasive act and that the risks associated with it greatly outweigh the benefits. Education through public information campaigns is vitally important to end this harmful practice.

People give may reasonsfor why this tradition is still upheld today; these include: psychosexual and sociological ones, ones regarding hygiene and aesthetics, as well as mythological and religious reasons for why it exists. Although no religion requires explicitly that this malicious act be performed, many support it as part of their cultural identity and it is seen as a way to prevent promiscuity and ensure a woman’s “purity” before and sometimes even after marriage. Some cultures see it as a rite of passage while others simply use it as a means to maintain control over the women in their society, as the decision to become circumcised is usually made by a woman’s father or by some older relative from the father’s side or the family.

This extremely harmful and painful procedure can be performed at any point during the female’s life including: during infancy, adolescence, or even after her first pregnancy, however it is usually performed anywhere between toddler-age, around four, up to early teenage years before marriage, around age 14. The tradition of “cutting” is often strongly influenced by members of individual communities and is encouraged if not mandated by elder family members, men and women alike.

This procedure is physically and emotionally traumatic for these young girls and is usually performed by untrained medical midwives or an elder village woman as part of a group tribal ritual. They are often performed under extremely unsanitary conditions with almost no supervision. Female circumcisions are often carried out to differing levels of sophistication based on the geographic location in which they’re being performed.

Strickland writes, “circumcisions or infibulations may be performed with primitive instrumentation such as knives, glass, or razors without the benefit of anesthesia or aseptic techniques. In more populous areas, circumcision may be done with modern aseptic techniques, but conditions vary widely and the procedure is unstandardized or unregulated.” The context or environment along with the absence of qualified doctors in this field for which these circumcisions are being performed, open doors for serious and potentially fatal contamination of the genital region; even if no infection occurs, the act of genital cutting in and of itself causes permanent physical damage.

Women who have received even the less extensive of circumcisions, in addition to possibility of infection often leading to toxic shock are also susceptible to complications such as inability to pass urine, often leading to urinary tract infections, hemorrhage, nerve-ending damage as well as intense pain and swelling of the effected genital region. As infibulation is the most intrusive form of circumcision and includes the covering of the urethral opening, the health complications associated with it are that much more sever and life threatening. Complications include: repeated urinary tract infections, bladder stones caused by the obstruction, reproductive tract infections, vaginal scaring leading to keloid formations and cysts, and lowered fertility or even sterility. This type of mutilation can also lead to sexual dysfunction and pregnancy or birth-related complications. For these women who have been subjected to this most serious form of cutting, attempting to endure intercourse with their husband is traumatic in its own right. Sexual relations in this form are not at all pleasant for either woman or man, in that it causes both extreme pain and discomfort for both participants. In those cases in which the woman’s opening is too small that consummation is physically impossible, it is not unheard of at all for the man to reopen her wound right there in order to perform the marital act. This is not seen as radical or uncommon among these cultures because in the majority of these patriarchal societies believe that it is his right as her husband to consummate and claim her “purity”. In many instances, these women are so socialized to accept this circumcision tradition as an inevitability in their lives and as part of their culture; therefore, they often don’t make the cognitive link between the ritual act that was performed and the physical symptoms they experienced as a result.

One of the biggest problems, globally regarding circumcision is that it had failed to gain public attention or support of those countries in which this ritual was not prevalent in their society. It is hard to quite understand the plight of a women that has been circumcised without having experienced the same fate or listening to the words of a broken woman that has. This excerpt involves a young woman who was able to successfully get people in the U.S. motivated into taking notice of the problem and taking action.

Both liberal and conservative Westerners alike take a strong opposition in regards to female genital mutilation, viewing it as sexually dehumanizing, immoral, politically unacceptable, without ever considering the tradition and culture that is encompassed in that act. They tend to take radical views and methods of change, neglecting to consider how these women feel; this approach to change has been inevitably hindered our success in achieving it, in that many Africans find this direct opposition to their way of life offensive and an insult to their culture.

Going through the government to institute change hasn’t worked in the past because if the larger majority still believes in practicing circumcision, then prosecuting those people and their families who have practiced and performed this ritual actively would be counterproductive to the cause. Thus, organizations have begun to mold their strategies by directing their efforts towards educating these women, not insulting them. Researchers suggest that public information campaigns and counseling families about the effects of the practice on children may be more useful. Using these strategies to inform and educate these affected women in respect to gynecology and promoting economic autonomy will most certainly be the most effective way for us to ensure the prohibition of female genital mutilation in Africa and other countries while still maintaining respect for their traditions and cultural beliefs.