by Michael Greenstein
Like some figure in an oriental carpet, Moris Farhi's Young Turk weaves together thirteen interconnected stories into a well-wrought novel. Each tale showcases a different narrator. The first, "Rifat: In the Beginning", discourses on death from the point of view of children and adolescents. Rifat, a nine-year-old Muslim, describes his circumcision a year earlier to his Jewish girlfriend, Gul, four years his senior and also undergoing her own rite of passage. Innocently examining each other's private parts as an exercise in comparative religion, Gul informs Rifat that his grandparents are Donme (Jews who converted to Islam). These exchanges point to the fluid boundaries between religions that have flourished throughout Turkish history; Young Turk gives voice to this polyphony in a kind of carnivalesque atmosphere, where fat Rifat transforms himself into a muscular wrestler, and Gypsies lurk in the background.
Rifat defers to the sage Mahmut the Simurg, the "Turkmen teller of tales from the circus," who knows all the truths, especially about the Pir, those exceptional individuals in possession of supernatural powers. Ataturk, who launched Turkey's War of Independence in 1919, is one such hero, as is Gul for her ability to foretell death, including her own. Parentheses scattered throughout Young Turk add to its arabesque quality and offer glimpses of history, particularly of events during World War II, which are central to the novel's time frame. "(Ataturk's offer of refuge to those persecuted by the Nazis-an offer that not only saved countless European artists, academics and intellectuals from certain death, but also enabled them to pursue their careers-emulated the way Sultan Beyazit had opened the empire's doors, almost 500 years earlier, to vast numbers of Jews and Moors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.)" Mutating from empire to empire, and from Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul, modern Turkey is a crossroads between orient and occident where paradoxes rule.
The second story, "Musa: Lentils in Paradise", takes place in Ankara in a women's hamam or Turkish steam bath, where seven-year-old Musa and his friend Selim are permitted to observe the sensual rites of cleanliness. Eventually the two boys come of age (Musa has his bar mitzvah), and are expelled from their daily visits to Eden, but not before they learn some truths about life, as do all of the young Turks in Farhi's book. It is fitting that these initiations recur in a country as young (and old) as Turkey.
Robbie, the narrator of "A Tale of Two Cities", explains the change of Jewish names in his modern country: "Ataturk, determined to distance the new republic from the iniquities of the Ottoman empire, had sought to instil in the people pride in their Turkishness. Consequently, by law, all minorities were obliged to give their children a Turkish name in addition to an ethnic one. Thus Benjamin had acquired Bilal; Nehemiah, Naim; and Jacob, Can." (Havva in "A Wrestling Man" also comments on the importance of naming: "Incidentally, I now have a proper name. I chose it myself as I said I would. It's Havva. The name of the first woman. Adem, who is named after the first man, thinks I have chosen well.") The second city in "A Tale of Two Cities" is Salonica, home to many Jews who have to be saved from the Nazis by their extended families in neutral Turkey. But the heroic rescue attempt fails, and Jews from both cities perish tragically.
Although Bilal dies in "A Tale of Two Cities", Selma in the following story, "Half-Turk", imagines him still alive, and she composes love letters to him from 1943-44. In this story we learn of the Varlik, an excessive tax imposed on non-Muslim minorities in Turkey, an example of the spread of anti-Semitism during the Nazi period. The eroticism and sensuality in Young Turk is constantly tempered by its historic background, as Yusuf explains in his story, "And His Fruit Was Sweet to My Taste": "All the beauty, joy and happiness this world offers constitute a mirage. The real landscape is worms and maggots, slaughter and destruction." Farhi's blend of Ecclesiastes and The Song of Songs lends a bittersweet quality to his novel.
Attila, the narrator of "Cracked Vessels from the Same Ruin" explains the phrase that is the story's title: "To my surprise, Orhan said he and I were kindred spirits. Cracked vessels from a ruin somewhere out there. Trying to carry water for good people. Dripping from every fracture, but still able to offer mouthfuls to the thirsty. Then, before we could quench one soul: bang, pulverized by the villains. Reduced to useless dust in the wind. In one word: kadayi." The kadayi are like Robin Hood: they protect the innocent against Turkish thugs or mafia. Young Turk is filled with strong men and kindred spirits who fight, wrestle, or clasp hands in a circus to transcend the injustices of a corrupt world. The fraternity of these self-effacing men exemplifies heroism in our anti-heroic age.
When one writer, Asik Ahmet, realizes that he's been calling his friend Zeki "young Jew", he changes to "young Turk", thus equating the two, but he goes on to explain: "One thing, young Turk: don't lose the young Jew. Cherish everybody's difference. If we all become the same, we're bound to perish." In the final story, "Go Like Water, Come Like Water", Ahmet picks up the cyclical refrain of the novel, "In the beginning there is Death." He addresses all of his students as if they were one: "Into a kaleidoscope so that rather than running hither and thither in my mind trying to find them, I give myself a shake and up you all come in wondrous shapes and colours." Similarly, Young Turk is a kaleidoscope of thirteen or a thousand-and-one shapes and colours. And Farhi's shape-shifting fits in with Ahmet's definition of Turkey: "True Turkishness means rejoicing in the infinite multiplicity of nature! It means rejecting all the 'isms' and 'nesses'-including Turkishness." Ahmet rejects the notion of an ultra-Islamist empire and renounces single cultures, flags, countries and gods. His idealism is obviously shared by Farhi who lives in London, and whose name deserves to be better known at home and abroad. In turn, Farhi pays homage to another writer from Salonica, Nazim Hikmet: neither writer is a household name; they should be.