Hazel McHaffie


Turkish delight? Not so much.

Way back in 2017 I read my first novel by much-garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red. It was shortly after I’d visited Turkey myself, and I reviewed it on this blog.
Verdict? Brilliant and well worth the time spent.
I’ve just read a second one of his: Snow, which I bought on the strength of the first experience.
Verdict? Much harder work and not so gripping.
However, I’m game for a challenge, so I persevered through this labyrinthine story, all 436 pages of tiny font, densely packed, precise, slow moving prose.

Journalist and poet, Ka, has travelled to a mountainous border city called Kars – one of the poorest and most overlooked corners of Turkey – ostensibly to investigate an epidemic of suicides amongst young women. He is both shocked and frightened by the manner of deaths: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines, one minute jostling normally with siblings or playing with babies, the next lying dead from shotguns or pills or nooses. The speed and efficiency of the deaths convinces him that they had been carrying suicidal thoughts around with them for some time.  But why?

Local reaction is powerful. Posters proclaim: Human beings are God’s masterpieces and suicide is blasphemy. Pamphlets are circulated. Such is the sensitivity around this issue that Ka himself is offered police protection. As he unravels attitudes and mores underpinning both religion and atheism, Ka also writes poems that come to him in blinding flashes – a significant development after a very fallow period in his creative energies.

He’s also looking for answers to his own existential questions. He’s searching for a God who doesn’t ask me to take off my shoes in His presence, and who doesn’t make me fall to my knees to kiss people’s hands. I want a God who understands my need for solitude. But he knows this is dangerous territory and is highly sensitive to the threat on all sides.

The story wanders into some pretty serious territory: the existence of God, why are we here, the problem of suffering, life after death, the importance of headscarves, religious fanaticism, media ethics … But the author, Pamuk himself, describes the heart of the story thus:
How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another’s heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known? Even if the world’s rich and powerful should ever try to put themselves in the shoes of the rest, how much would they really understand the wretched millions suffering around them?

Maybe, after all, the right book to read in this second week of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, where we see such grave inequalities exposed between ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the wretched millions’.

It’s a fact universally acknowledge that I rarely have more than one book on the go at once. Simple mind! So, it’s probably a measure of the density of this particular novel that I dipped into two others in the time it took to complete it. My companion on a long train journey – Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichsrequired no effort or analysis, and was pure mindless distraction during a time of significant mental and emotional turmoil. A more serious alternative to Snow was Lies Lies Lies! by Michael Green, which looks at claims against Christianity. It provided a fascinating contrast with the religious bigotry and fanaticism within the Muslim world in Turkey depicted in Pamuk’s novel.


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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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Whirling Dervishes

Biobank wrist monitorAt the end of November I spent a week wearing a special wristband to monitor my activity. ‘Improving the health of the nation‘ is the slogan for the organisation, Biobank, and I’ve been a participant in their research before, so they have quite a lot of information about me already. This time they’re carrying out the largest study ever on the effects of directly-measured activity on health. I’m instantly glad I do power-walking – don’t want to be seen as an aging slouch, now, do I?

Exercise monitorKnowing I was being monitored made me more than usually conscious of what I was doing. Not just in terms of organised cardio-vascular activity, but domestic things – whipping up meringues, scrubbing carpets, cleaning windows, writing letters, typing furiously, sending hundreds (literally!) of emails, that kind of thing. What will the monitor make of all this movement, I wonder? Will the folk who analyse the results think I’m some kind of whirling dervish?

Ahah, but you might have a totally erroneous view of what a whirling dervish is/does, like me – until that is, I actually saw them whirling in Turkey a few weeks ago. When we use the descriptor normally, we mean someone whose movements are frenetic in some way, but in reality the real Dervishes glide gracefully, rotating as they go – you can see them in action in this short clip:  (We were allowed to photograph them after the religious ceremony but the lighting was very subdued so not conducive to good quality film). How they aren’t dizzy and sick and completely disorientated remains a mystery to me – put me in sight of a children’s roundabout and I’m reaching for the vomit bag! Which would certainly rule me out of the running for becoming a Dervish.

Whirling dervishThe Sufi Dervishes are a sect of the Islam faith who have taken a vow of poverty and love. As they say of themselves: it’s an interpretation of Islam ‘which focuses on love, tolerance, worship of God, community development, and personal development through self-discipline and responsibility. A Sufi’s way of life is to love and be of service to people, deserting the ego or false self and all illusion so that one can reach maturity and perfection, and finally reach Allah, the True, the Real.

Revolution is key because according to their philosophy, everything revolves, and ‘the human being lives by means of … the revolution of the blood in his body, and by the revolution of the stages of his life, by his coming from the earth and his returning to it.’ The Whirling Dervish ‘intentionally and consciously participates in the shared revolution of other beings.’

The whirling dance is not intended as entertainment; it’s part of a formal ceremony performed to try to attain religious ecstacy. But it’s become a tourist attraction in Turkey. I’m glad I’ve seen it, but once was enough, and I’ll use the analogy cautiously in future.

For now I must whirl off and create some more costumes for our Christmas story/play. Now what would the old Biobank monitor make of the vibration of a sewing machine, d’you think?


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Nothing new under the sun

Poor old Julian Fellowes must be heartily sick of smart alecs telling him about the anachronisms they perceive in his TV drama, Downton Abbey, and my sympathy is definitely with him. You can bet your socks not one of his lay critics could write anything half as good as Britain’s most successful TV screenplay. As a friend of mine in the Scottish Office used to say, for every 100 critics there’s only one person who can really write, and that ratio’s sure to be a whole lot higher when it comes to writing that achieves the success of DA.

I do watch the programme. I find the Dowager Countess’s acid one-liners delicious. I’m interested in how Anna and Bates resolve their differences following her rape below-stairs. I’m speculating with everyone else about what’s happened to Lady Edith’s editor chappie who’s supposedly gone to Germany to try to hasten their marriage plans. I’m enjoying the glimpses into attitudes and prejudices of the time in relation to class and colour, abortion and the death penalty. I’m even vaguely wondering who will eventually melt the heart of the ice widow, Lady Mary.

But for me it’s pure escapism; I’m not looking to obtain a degree in the subject. So the occasional anomaly – a song, a word, a piece of clothing ahead of its time, really doesn’t matter hugely. I can shrug my shoulders and say, so what? Even the veritable army of folk who must surely check things for Fellowes get it wrong sometimes, and the author’s surely big enough to take the criticism. OK, you’re right: I’ve been known to be more sniffy about accuracy elsewhere, and I’m bordering on obsessive about checking the authenticity of my own writing, but I don’t have millions of folk poised waiting to crush me with their cleverness. Maybe it’s the price you pay for fame.

Fellowes has protested that some of the words he uses which sound modern were actually in use long ago. And it’s true that there’s very little new under the sun. I had a real sense of this when we visited the Asklepion (or the health centre) at what used to be Pergamon in the west of Turkey recently. Asklepieion signIt dates back to the 4th Century BC and the well known physician Galen practised healing there in 2 AD. It’s a marvellously serene place and you can wander around and over it freely without barriers. The ancient siteI even washed my face and hands in the sacred spring that was visited by the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius! (No noticeable difference to report as yet!) Sacred fountainBack in its heyday patients put on comedies in the theatre because their doctors realised laughter is a good medicine. The theatreThe sound of water was used to soothe patients and allow private consultations. Dream chambers gave doctors an opportunity to induce dreams and suggest things to patients as an early form of psychological therapy. Hot and cold mud baths, special diets, herbal remedies, massages … they were all on offer. And we thought these were relatively new discoveries!

So you won’t be surprised to hear that someone has recently unearthed a recipe for doughnuts (actually dow nuts) dating back to 1800. Pause then before you criticise, all you Downton-bashers. Are you quite sure of your facts?


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A glimpse of Turkey

I’ve just returned from a fortnight in Turkey, and have lots of catching up to do, so I’ll simply share a few pictures of an amazing country with you this week. Relax, folks, it’ll only be a tiny fraction of the 1,273 photos we took – just enough to give a flavour of the spectacular geological formations …Cave dwellings in CappadociaFairy chimneys in CappadociaLimestone terraces at Pamukkalethe awe inspiring architecture …Palace beside the BosphorusMosque beside the Bosphorusintricate interior decoration …Mosque ceilingand the ornate Arabic writing …Arabic writingOf the fascinating ancient sites …Amphitheatre at EphesusLibrary at Ephesusand incredibly old artefacts …Ancient tablet in a caseSarcophagiOf the exotic handicrafts and colourful bazaars …Handicrafts stallBazaar in IstanbulEvidence of Turkey’s long history of conflicts is everywhere …Monument in Taksim SquareThe poignant war graves at Gallipoli made me cry …Remembrance at Gallipolibut plenty of things made me smile …Genuine fakesSign in a shop windowSleeping catsA complete break away from everyday life; refreshing in itself. I only hope my grey cells remember a fraction of the information our superb guides imparted. I’ve certainly returned with lots of ideas and props for the children’s annual Christmas story so I must knuckle down and commit them to the computer while the taste of genuine Turkish Delight is still fresh.

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