Hazel McHaffie

Turkish delight

‘I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.’

How’s that for an opening line? Brilliant, isn’t it? And the first paragraph sucks you in still further:

‘Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.’

Wow! Who … where … why … what … how …? More please.

I’ve been to Turkey where this beautiful calligraphy was created for me personally by a talented artist just a stone’s throw from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The whole experience was utterly fascinating, so I’ve been keen to read something by the much garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and what better book than one about calligraphers in Istanbul! It just needed a decent slot of time without too many other distractions – it’s over 500 pages of dense small print. Imagine translating something that long! Hats off to Professor Erdağ Göknar who I imagine is often forgotten; his command of English has to be exceptional.

First then, the official blurb about My Name is Red to give you an overview: it’s the late 1590s …

‘The Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and the Ottoman Empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day – in the European manner. In Istanbul at a time of violent fundamentalism, however, this is a dangerous proposition. Even the illustrious circle of artists are not allowed to know for whom they are working. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their Master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?
With the Sultan demanding an answer within three days, perhaps the clue lies somewhere in the half-finished pictures . . .’

The now-dead man, Elegant Effendi as he is known, is one of the select few responsible for painting and embellishing books – illuminating the edges of pages, the borders – in Our Sultan’s workshop under the eagle eye of the Head Illuminator, Master Osman. Elegant is an undisputed master of his craft. But he has now been missing for four days, and his fellow miniaturists – Butterfly, Stork and Olive – are the prime suspects. The question is, which one? And why? Was the motive professional, romantic or religious? The man asking the questions, Effendi Black, is also pursuing his own love interests in delicate and difficult circumstances (his lady love, Shekure’s husband is missing in action not yet declared dead, and her father-in-law and brother-in-law are exerting a lot of pressure on her to stay within their family where she will in all probability become a sexual and domestic slave) giving the book a feeling of subtle layers and stories within stories which necessitate keeping all your wits about you to retain a firm hold on all the threads. Added to that, each chapter is written in the first person by a range of different players (20 in total) in this drama – not all of them human – so we know a great deal about motives and actions and dreams from all sides.

My Name is Red is at once a murder mystery and a meditation on love, artistic devotion, religious conviction, and the tensions between East and West. Tall order, huh? It has the ring of a long involved parable designed to explore deep truths – albeit in the Muslim rather than Christian tradition.

‘Allah created this worldly realm the way an intelligent seven-year-old boy would want to see it; what’s more Allah created this worldly realm so that, above all, it might be seen. Afterward, He provided us with words so that we might share and discuss with one another what we’ve seen.’

Sight/blindness, time/infinity, books/paintings are all recurring symbols.

‘Wherever the blind miniaturist’s memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of the blank page.
Blindness is a realm of bliss from which the Devil and guilt are barred.’

Europeans are ‘infidels‘ and their beliefs and practices are abhorrent to these people. They must take great care not to be tainted by such influences. So, it’s necessary for us to understand the strict rules laid down in the ‘Glorious Koran’ prohibiting the representation of the human image; divine will forbids ‘objects that mimic mankind’ and thus ‘compete with Allah’s creations’. Women’s faces must not be seen outside the family.

The writing is lyrical (thanks to both author and translator), the concepts deep and rich giving much to ponder. The minute detail Pamuk invests in this work, the delicate and subtle descriptions, seem in a way to reflect the exquisitely fine artistry of the illustrations demanded by the sultans, refined by the masters, every stroke given importance and meaning; a combination of inspiration, talent and patience. Though this level of minutiae makes the book long and complex, it needs to be savoured slowly, each idea given due weight – the fine line between right and wrong, good and evil, reality and fantasy, truth and lies, marriage and divorce, beauty and ugliness, life and death.

‘Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.’

It might be expected that these highly sensitive artists working for the Sultan would lead cossetted and protected lives, surrounded as they are by fabulous art and sumptuous wealth. Not so. The master binders and calligraphers whose ‘brushes made horses gallop at full speed and whose butterflies fluttered off the page‘ have suffered for their art. Their lives are fiercely controlled.

‘Only true artists like us who’d suffered throughout our apprenticeships merciless bastinados, random pummelings and fists so that the irritable master who drew a line incorrectly might feel better – not to mention hours of blows from sticks and rulers so that the devil within us would perish to be reborn as the jinn of inspiration – only we could feel such extreme joy by depicting bastinados and tortures,only we could color these implements with the gaiety of coloring a child’s kite.’

Perspectives and insights are the product of this upbringing. And over time, when these apprentices in turn become experts, and then masters themselves, with experience and the study of tomes of illustrations painted over hundreds of years, they come to possess a special kind of knowledge and understanding.

‘I came to know which artist had learned what from whom, in which workshop under which shah’s patronage the thing we now call ‘style’ first took shape, which fabled master had worked for whom, and how, for example, the curling Chinese clouds I knew had spread throughout Persia from Herat under Chinese influence were also used in Kazvin … but an agony lurked deeper within me, a melancholy and regret I can scarcely share with you for the belittled, tormented, pretty, moon-faced, gazelle-eyed, sapling thin painters – battered by masters – who suffered for their art, yet remained full of excitement and hope, enjoying the affection that developed between them and their masters and their shared love of painting, before succumbing to anonymity and blindness after long years of toil.’

For generations, for centuries, these rare skills have been taught in secret using vicious means of control and submission; rivalry, jealousy and backstabbing the norm. But when these highly specialised workmen fall victim to bitter fighting amongst the ruling and political classes, they become ‘penniless and destitute, homeless and bereft’, their rarefied world collapses, and in consequence ‘rapidly transcribed, hastily painted, cheap books appeared everywhere, matching the tastes of common soldiers, boorish pashas and spoiled princes’.

‘Just as the doors of houses are closed of an evening and the city is left in darkness, painting was also abandoned.’

New priorities, different jealousies emerge.

Having myself watched Dervishes whirling, and visited the Hagia Sophia, stared at the priceless jewels plundered from vanquished enemies, sailed on the Bosphorus, smelled the spices of the great souks, and been woken by the muezzin call to prayer, I could readily picture the scenes: Istanbul, the portraits of the Sultans, the fabulous Ottoman wealth. Without that experience I rather think I’d have struggled to understand the culture, the history, the nuances in this unusual and complex tale.

Seen through the eyes of artists used to precision, beauty and painstaking execution, the story has a poignancy, subtlety and depth of its own. Perhaps the narration itself has to aim for a pinnacle of perfection to be worthy of its message.

‘There was a time when Allah looked upon the world in all its uniqueness, and believing in the beauty of what he saw, bequeathed his creation to us, his servants. The duty of illustrators and of those who, loving art, gaze upon the world, is to remember the magnificence that Allah beheld and left to us. The greatest master in each generation of painters, expending their lives and toiling until blind, strove with great effort and inspiration to attain and record the wondrous dream that Allah commanded us to see. Their work resembled Mankind recalling his own golden memories from the very beginning.’

‘… shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world’s beauty belongs to Allah.’

But through the esoteric world of these master-craftsmen we come to better understand fanaticism, how men can be driven to commit heinous crimes for their beliefs no matter how suspect the foundations of their conviction may be to an outsider. Salutary lessons for today, methinks.

 

 

 

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