is a Turkish novelist, controversial but hugely popular in her own country.
On 8 April 2011, Jo Carruthers drank tea with her in a sunlit courtyard in Bloomsbury and reflected on her best-seller The Forty Rules of Love, later listed by BBC Arts among ‘the 100 English-language novels that shaped our world’.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What is it in Sufism that attracts you, and when did your interest in it develop?
I started getting interested in my early twenties, when I was a student. To be honest, to this day it’s a mystery to me why I felt this interest, because there was nothing whatsoever in my life that obviously led me in that direction. I had a strictly secularist upbringing, so I had no knowledge of any kind of mysticism or religious philosophy, and at that time I was very leftist, very nihilist, very feminist, philosophically anarchist – anarcho-pacifist, of course. And when I look at my friends at the time, none of them have any interest in Sufism.
All I know is, I began reading about it. To me, books are the gateway to most things in life: that’s how I connect with the universe, always through reading and reading. So, I began reading about Sufism and one book led to another – and not only Turkish books: there are very good scholars studying Islamic mysticism all over the Western world, including Japan. For many years, I think, it was an intellectual curiosity, but there came a time when it became more of an emotional attachment, though it’s a bit hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. I don’t claim to know anything about Sufism; all I can say is: I’m still reading, I’m still learning.
And I also like to unlearn, because that is what Sufism does to you. You have to unlearn some of your dogmas – most of your dogmas. The ability to learn goes hand in hand with the ability to unlearn.
In The Forty Rules of Love,1Published by Viking in 2010 as The Forty Rules of Love: A novel of Rumi Rumi’s wife Kerra says: ‘If you ask me, when it comes to the basics, ordinary Christians and ordinary Muslims have more in common with each other than with their own scholars.’ Is doctrine at all important to you? Are you a Muslim who is interested in mysticism or someone interested in mysticism who just happens to come from a Muslim tradition?
I’m a student of life – and I’m learning a new thing every day. The moment you think you know something, you stop learning, because you think you possess that knowledge
Allow me to put it this way: I am a spiritual person. I’m a Muslim… It’s hard to say I’m a Sufi.
I grew up in an Islamic culture and it’s part of my identity, but I’ve also grown up with Christian and Jewish friends and I’m someone who believes that, whatever our background, we need to expand our hearts and our minds. It’s a pity if we stay in our little cocoons – and it’s an even bigger pity if we think that our little cocoon is better than someone else’s. In mysticism, the whole idea is that it really doesn’t matter, you know, how you dress up, how you think, how you pray – or whether you pray or not – we are all interconnected.
I know it sounds very simple but it is such a fundamental thing we keep missing and missing and missing. In Sufi philosophy, nobody is excluded. Maybe novelists learn to appreciate this because when you write a story you always write about connections.
I’m still not clear why you hesitate to call yourself a Sufi.
It’s hard for me to say ‘I’m a Sufi full stop.’ I think Sufism is like ending a sentence with a comma – and keep going. I’m a student of Sufism, that’s how I see it – and a student of life. And I’m learning a new thing every single day. The moment you think you know something you stop learning, because you think you possess that knowledge.
In both The Forty Rules of Love and your earlier novel The Bastard of Istanbul,2Viking, 2007 I was shocked to find that there is a character who seems to be beyond the range of forgiveness or love. Do you think there are actions that can’t be forgiven, or people who can’t be loved?
I think it’s a very, very hard question. I believe in forgiveness but I don’t think it comes very easily.
But, if I may say this, in my novels I am not trying to give a message or teach people anything. I do just the opposite: I put all these different views, these different characters out there and I let the reader decide. Everybody reads differently, everybody brings their own perspective, their own gaze into the stories. Everybody’s reading is so, so unique, and we create the story, the meaning, together. I think it’s the task of the novelist to pose the questions rather than to find the answers.
That’s something I enjoyed in both novels, that they are very provocative and ask very difficult questions.
And these are questions that I ask myself, so I like to see myself on the same level as the reader – whereas when you think you are teaching something, you think you’re superior. We have this tradition in Turkish literature of ‘father novelists’, who write in simple language because they want to teach their readers something, or to ‘modernise’ them. It’s not a tradition that I’m very fond of.
Could there be such a thing as a ‘mother novelist’?
I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that. It could be a powerful metaphor, I can see that – but I think [it still implies] a certain hierarchy. Rather than that, I’d like to be… maybe a kindred spirit? That’s better.
Fiction should be read for its own sake, not to get a result. It’s not a box of pills that is going to immediately change us. It will change us, but in the long term, in a more abstract way
In the observation I quoted, Kerra refers to ‘ordinary Christians and ordinary Muslims’. You seem to be very interested in ordinary lives and ordinary spirituality.
Yes, I am. By ‘ordinary’, I mean daily life, right? The things that we ignore, that particularly scholars tend to neglect. To me, those things are important – like, for instance, the recipes that are handed down from one generation to the next. Or tales, songs, myths…
And when you follow cultures through those little doors, you will see there are no boundaries. I mean, we have so many things in common – particularly in societies like Anatolia in the 13th century, where there were people from all kinds of religious backgrounds, all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and there was an amazing exchange of ideas and, you know, daily habits. To me, this is something precious, you know?
The title ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ suggests that Sufism offers a kind of discipline that leads to a better way of living. Is that something that comes entirely from within us, or is it something we depend on God to give us?
I think that’s… It’s a complicated question – and maybe it’s a question that needs to be asked again and again and not just answered once and left behind. I do believe we are all born with an amazing ability to develop ourselves, our minds and our hearts; but whether we do so – it depends on the circumstances we find ourselves in but it also depends on us individually.
I think what I like about [the Sufi] philosophy of life is that it’s so introspective, its energy is introverted – we learn from criticising ourselves, instead of each other. We do just the opposite in our daily life, in the media, in politics particularly: everywhere, everybody is constantly focusing on someone else’s mistakes. But the moment you start thinking introspectively, that step leads you to the next step, and the next step.
You have said that stories lose their magic when they are seen as more than stories. Does that mean that there are good and bad ways to read a novel?
One thing that troubles me is this question I often hear, sometimes explicitly, sometimes very implicit: Why should I read this book? What am I going to get out of it? We think time is such an important commodity and we shouldn’t waste it, so we want to think: If I read this book, it’s going to help me over my depression, or I’m going to learn about a particular culture or whatever.
I would like to emphasise the autonomy of fiction. It should be read for its own sake, not to get a result. It’s not a box of pills that is going to immediately change us. It will change us, but in the long term, in a more abstract way. But oftentimes this autonomy is ignored by today’s politics – when I write a book, there is an expectation that my characters should be representative of Muslim women, or Turkish women, of larger entities. But at the end of the day a novel is about nuances, details, the small things that are important in life.
Your memoir, Black Milk,3Black Milk: On motherhood, writing and the harem within was published by Viking 10 days after this interview. does talk about depression. How did that happen to you?
Depressions can be golden opportunities to reassemble your self. When all your little pieces are scattered everywhere, you have to reassemble them – and perhaps you end up with a better composition
After the birth of my first child [in 2006], I experienced post-natal depression that went on for 10 months. It shook me so hard! I think one reason why it happened is because I stopped writing. I started writing stories when I was eight years old and I had never stopped [before]. That doesn’t mean I am writing novels every day of my life, but every day there are stories, and I had this rather arrogant assumption that wherever I go in this world, all I need is paper and a pen and my mind and that’s about it. My imagination is my suitcase.
And when that talent is suddenly cut off, you have to rethink what it means to be creative. Do we really own [our talent] or, as you said, is it given to us – and can it also be taken away? It leads you to very spiritual questions, I think, about God, about life, about death. I think all of us face these dilemmas.
We all have different people inside us – particularly us women – so in the book there are six different characters: all of them are Elif and all of them are quarrelling constantly, wanting to go in different directions. I realised when I started writing this book that I had no democracy inside me, you know, because I had loved one of those little Elifs – the intellectual, the writer – much more than the others, and I had belittled the side of me that wanted to lead a more domestic life and raise a family. So, throughout the book there is this transformation from a monarchy to full democracy.
To be honest, the depression helped me in a very interesting way. Depressions can be golden opportunities to reassemble the pieces of the self. Normally, you just carry on with your life as a matter of daily habit; but when you fall down really hard and all your little pieces are scattered everywhere, you cry your heart out, of course, but then you have to reassemble the pieces – and perhaps what you end up with is a better composition than before. I think it’s important every now and then to stop and try to reassemble our lives, our personalities.
Do you think that men in general don’t have that same opportunity to reassemble themselves?
I agree. I’m aware that many men also go through lots of depression and lots of turbulence – it’s not easy to be a man, particularly in very patriarchal societies – but I think women have an amazing ability to recreate themselves. And this is something that fascinates me. We go through so many phases – like the phases of the moon – and perhaps are also more capable of expressing our emotions, our weaknesses, which is a healthy thing. So, when you fall down you can say, ‘OK, here I am. My knees are bleeding’ – but then you recreate yourself. And life pushes us in that direction, because there are so many things we need to cope with, like the different stages of motherhood. We have to be able to transform ourselves and to go beyond our boundaries, all the time.
What was your relationship with your own mother like?
I’ve always had a very strong bond with her. She was very well educated, very independent. She had a critical mind and of course was westernised: very modern, very urban, able to find her own feet and raise a kid on her own. It wasn’t easy for her because in the 1970s the environment [in Turkey] was quite patriarchal – it still is in many ways, but then even more so – and most of the time she had to struggle with all those prejudices on her own. I have a lot of respect for her.
Actually, I grew up seeing two very different kinds of womanhood, of female role-models, if you will. My grandmother took care of me for some time when my parents got legally separated, when I was around five. (Their physical separation took place much earlier.) She was a very kind and compassionate woman, full of love. She was always one of those women who love to give without expecting anything in return. A beautiful heart she had.
And she was very spiritual in her own way. She had lots of superstitions – you know, against the evil eye and all that. Emotionally they were very challenging days but at the same time there was a lot of magic in my life.
Is there a single, overriding memory that epitomises that period for you?
Well, here is one scene for instance. People with warts on their hands would come to her and she would pray. There were lots of roses in our garden and she would pick the thorns and she would [draw a circle round] the warts, one by one, and she would stab those thorns into an apple – as many thorns as the number of warts she wanted to cure. And those people would come back a week later and the warts would be gone. That scene – her with her red apples, the roses, the thorns, the people with the warts on their hands looking for healing – it’s very vivid in my memory.
And what did you make of it at the time?
You know, when you’re a child there is so much room for magic in your imagination… You already see life full of such enchanting elements, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise. It’s only much later, as you grow up, that you feel the need to rationalise.
Of course, I don’t call it ‘magic’. I should find a better word for it – for things we cannot explain directly with our reason, our logic. Perhaps ‘supernatural’?
Has becoming a mother made you feel differently about your own upbringing?
The biggest transformation happened with my father, because I had no connection with him as I was growing up – as a matter of fact, I saw him very rarely until my late twenties – perhaps two or three times, maybe two or three postcards and that was about it. So, my father was always this big, big, big void, and there were times when I felt sad about that and there were times when I was very, very angry and bitter.
So, I went through all those harsh seasons; but after that there came a tranquillity somehow, and it happened naturally and spontaneously after all that sorrow and anger. Of course, I’m not claiming that I have no anger or sorrow whatsoever, but they are minimal now. And when my father wanted to see his grandchildren, I of course let him. Whatever problems I have had with him should not affect them. But I can’t say that I have a deep love for my father. I don’t feel anything.
What are the values that as a mother you most want to pass on to your children?
I think the best thing I can do is to give them freedom, self-confidence and love. I think we should also allow ourselves to be students of our children, because you learn from parenthood. You keep learning and learning.
Your surname, Şafak, is an adopted name…
It’s my mother’s first name. When I started publishing my first stories, when I was about 18 years old, I decided I wanted to recreate myself, you know, with a new name – and also I didn’t want to keep my father’s surname, because there was no attachment whatsoever. My mother’s name means ‘dawn’ in Turkish and I like that. Ever since then, it has been my name. When I got married, I did not adopt my husband’s surname either; and he’s OK with that.
I think very highly of humour. It makes life so much more worth living, literature so much more worth writing and reading. To me, it is essential – like bread and water
You’re living in London at present. How do you find that? In some ways, the British are not very cosmopolitan, are they? Most of us don’t even speak a foreign language.
Perhaps the UK in general is like that, but the London that I observe, that I inhale, is full of diversity and it amazes me. I recently read that over 40 per cent of the children attending primary school in London, their mother tongue is not English.
I am someone who very much supports cosmopolitan culture and energy. I believe that in this life, if we are ever going to learn anything, we are going to learn it from people who are different from us. Someone who is exactly like me, who has a similar background, similar views, who dresses similarly, you know – we are just going to echo each other. But someone who has a different story might open my mind up – and I might do the same for them as well.
Of Istanbul you have written that it ‘is like a huge, colourful Matrushka – you open it and find another doll inside. You open that, only to see a new doll nesting.’ I wonder how you would describe London…
To me, maybe because I’m a latecomer, in some ways London is like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s composed of different villages and neighbourhoods. Of course, there is a sense of continuity as you go from one borough to another, but nonetheless I see that each has its own small autonomy. And all these little pieces have their own history, spirit and energy. That amazes me. I’m still trying to understand this puzzle, but I’m very aware of how those pieces function on their own and also compose a picture together.
You have lived in the United States, where people seem to take their country very seriously, and in Turkey you have been prosecuted for ‘insulting Turkishness’. How different does it feel living here, where we have a strong tradition of mocking our leaders and our institutions?
It’s a good thing if we can laugh at ourselves, as individuals, as societies, as cultures – at our own weaknesses, foibles, idiosyncrasies. Of course there are cultural differences, but in Turkey also there is this long tradition of black humour, in cartoons, poetry, songs, images, which goes all the way back to the Ottoman Empire. I think almost all societies find a way for humour, you know – even when the road is blocked you go around those obstacles, because that’s how we breathe.
I’m someone who thinks very highly of humour. I think it makes life so much more worth living. It makes literature so much more worth writing and reading. Humour to me is essential – like bread and water. Black Milk has a lot of humour in it: I made so much fun of myself, and that’s how I came out of my depression.
I’m interested in the dialectics, if I may say that, between humour and sorrow. When I write about something sad, I like to do it through humour. When I write about something funny, I like to do it through sorrow. There is this dance between sorrow and humour that fascinates me, and I believe it’s everywhere in our lives.
We are always talking about how different Islam is, but I want to talk about how much more the three big monotheistic religions have in common
You went to live in the US shortly after ‘9/11’. How did you find that experience?
There was a lot of fear in the air, fear of the other – and that’s a very unhealthy thing, because it cuts off all possibility of dialogue, you know? It just withers away.
Dialogue to me is crucial. When we fail to speak to the ‘other’ and fail to listen to what the ‘other’ says, I think it breeds a lot of fear, a lot of xenophobia, a lot of extremist ideologies. I think listening is so important. As a writer, I listen to people all the time, everywhere I go. I listen to two things: what they are telling me but also how they put it – both the content and the style.
In The Second Plane,4The Second Plane: September 11, 2001–2007 (Jonathan Cape, 2008) Martin Amis wrote: ’The champions of militant Islam are misogynists, women-haters; they are also misologists – haters of reason.’ However, in The Forty Rules of Love you portray militant Islam as very rationalistic, in contrast to the more visceral and emotional Sufic mysticism.
I think there are different approaches in every religion, not only in Islam but in Christianity, in Judaism as well. The monotheistic religions have so much in common, and there are so many parallels in their histories, in the debates they have had. So, I think there is sometimes a gap between, you know, the scholar, who concentrates solely on the surface, on the word, the rules and regulations, on what is permissible and what is not, and the other approach, which is much more holistic, much more mystical, that wants to see what is beyond and underneath and looks for the inner meaning.
When I look at the writings of Christian mystics, to me it is really amazing how similar the words are – and even the experiences they talk about – to those of Muslim and Jewish mystics. They use very similar imagery, because the quest is the same – the one, universal quest that connects all of us. There’s a metaphor that I like in mysticism: every river is flowing on its own, of course, but they all flow towards the same ocean.
Because of today’s politics, today’s prejudices, we are always talking about how different Islam is, but I want to talk about how much more the three big monotheistic religions have in common. That, to me, weighs heavier than the differences. The same quest lies at the heart of each one – I mean, you might go through one door, another person goes through a different door, but we all have this need to understand: What am I doing in this world? How can I make it more meaningful? What comes after death? Am I going to leave anything behind me? Our answers may differ, but the questions are very much the same.
And if somebody says, ‘I am an agnostic,’ I respect that. There are lots of agnostics who think about religion much more deeply than some who call themselves very religious and don’t think any further.
Many of our intellectuals in Britain argue that religion is essentially irrational and ‘religiophobia’ is rational. Polly Toynbee once declared, ‘I am an Islamophobe. … I am also a Christophobe.’ How do you react to that?
I think there is a test we all need to go through again and again, many times: Am I capable of respecting someone who approaches life from a different angle? Am I capable of loving that person as he is, as she is?
I think all kinds of phobia create more phobia and fear elsewhere. Islamophobia creates more anti-Westernism, anti-Westernism creates more Islamophobia. Hardliners create more hardliners. Someone who speaks with hatred creates more hatred somewhere else and so on and on. It’s a vicious circle.
But I think humanity has the ability to break this vicious circle. This is a very interesting age: yes, we are becoming more and more antagonistic in our discourses – we see it all the time – but at the same time we are becoming more and more interconnected. This is the age of migrations, movements, cultural dialogues and ‘global souls’. I mean, 500 years ago people didn’t talk like this, couldn’t connect like this. There is an amazing transformative potential there.
I think there is a test for all of us, and it is a test we need to go through again and again, many times: Am I capable of respecting and loving someone who thinks differently, someone who approaches life from a different angle? Am I capable of loving that person as he is, as she is? Am I capable of seeing the beauties they might give me through their difference? Can I manage to live with them and create something beautiful with them?
We’re always trying to convert the other person to our own perspective, but why? We are all so interested in our own replicas. If I want to surround myself with people who are exactly like me, it means I am very narcissistic, because I want to see my own image wherever I look. That’s something I find very unhealthy, for individuals and societies.
This edit was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Third Way.
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Elif Şafak (anglicised as ‘Shafak’) was born in Strasbourg in 1971. Her parents separated when she was a year old. She spent her childhood in Ankara and Madrid, where her mother worked as a diplomat.
She studied international relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, where she went on to do a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies and a doctorate in political science.
In 2002, she moved to the United States, where for a year she was a fellow at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She was subsequently a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and also served on the faculty in the Near Eastern studies department at the University of Arizona.
She had her first story published in 1994. She has since written four novels in Turkish – Pinhan (‘The Mystic’, 1997), which won the 1998 Great Rumi Prize; Şehrin Aynaları (‘Mirrors of the City’, 1999); Mahrem (‘The Gaze’, 2000), which won the Union of Turkish Writers’ prize for best novel; and her first best-seller, Bit Palas (‘The Flea Palace’, 2002) – and three in English: The Saint of Incipient Insanities (2004), The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) and The Forty Rules of Love (2010), now Turkey’s biggest-selling novel ever.
She is also the author of Med-Cezir (2005), a collection of essays on gender, sexuality, ‘mental ghettos’ and literature, and the memoir Black Milk (2011). Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages.
Her journalism has appeared in various Turkish dailies and monthlies, as well as the Guardian, Le Monde, Berliner Zeitung, Handelsblatt, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and Time.
She has also written lyrics for several well-known Turkish rock musicians.
She won the Maria Grazia Cutuli Award for international journalism in Italy in 2006, and in 2011 was appointed a Chevalier in France’s Order of Arts and Letters.
She married the Turkish journalist Eyüp Can in 2005 and has a daughter and a son.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2011