In and around the Turkish university where she once taught, Nancy Milford finds literary life at the heart of a changing society.
Jasper James Istanbul's Literary Life
| Credit: Jasper James

I'd flown to Istanbul from New York to attend a literary conference at the university where I'd been a Fulbright scholar in the late 90's, and hailed a taxi that looked oddly familiar. It turned out to be an old Chevy Bel Air from the 1950's, when I was in high school in the Midwest. We raced along the great road that has led into Istanbul along the coast of the Sea of Marmara for centuries—Herodotus, in his Histories, describes this same path. After the assassination of President Kennedy, the road was renamed for him; today the sea is adrift with the rusted hulls of freighters that look like abandoned toys. We could just see the minarets of Hagia Sophia as we rounded the crescent by the Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet, its gardens and harem asleep in the fresh morning air. When we reached Bebek, a rich community on the Bosporus, we drove up the impossibly steep road everybody calls the Twisty-Turny to Bogaziçi University, where a young female graduate student welcomed me in the traditional manner by pouring lemon eau de cologne into my hands. "Merhaba, Nancy Hanim!" she said, smiling.

The university is built high above the Bosporus around a greensward that looks a lot like Princeton, which isn't surprising since it was built by an American, Cyrus Hamlin, as Robert College in the 19th century, when it was directed by a board of American trustees. In 1971, when the trustees could no longer afford to keep the school running, it was taken over by the Turkish government, and is now the most distinguished state university in Turkey. It was here that I taught American literature, and writing in English, and met some of the writers who are now making their mark. Orhan Pamuk wasn't at the university when I was, but his brother teaches there. And Maureen Freely—whose father, John Freely, has dominated American expatriate writing in Turkey since the 1960's, when the family arrived—translates Pamuk and accompanied him in Stockholm when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. He calls her upcoming novel, Enlightenment, a "Conradian drama set in a beautifully illuminated Istanbul, where the past is always with us."

A good deal of that past is set in the Bebek Hotel. It sits on the edge of a ravishing bay on the Bosporus, where huge freighters from Russia, Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, and the Crimea silently slip by throughout the day and night. By 4:30 the next morning, the singsong Arabic chant of the muezzin at the Bebek Camii is calling the faithful to prayer, and wakes me up. It's a good hour before the sun will rise across the straits out of that landmass we used to call Asia Minor, but is truly the beginning of Anatolia. The only other living creatures I can see from my terrace are sleek black Ottoman crows strutting along on the jetties below; their gray feathered shoulders make them look as if they're wearing military capelets, bird spies in the house of Osman.

It's still too early for breakfast at the hotel, so I walk along the shore of the Bosporus to the great stone walls of Rumeli Hisari, a massive fortress built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452, the year before he took Constantinople from the Byzantines. On the way, I pass two sleepy fishermen, their woolen caps perched atop their heads, pouring a steaming pot of tea into tulip-shaped glasses already half-filled with raki. Beside them, a plate of black and green olives, as well as cubes of white cheese, are set out on a small wood stool beside their rods and gear.

Later, I pay a visit to a colleague who lives near Rumeli Hisari and who taught in Bebek for years, a good decade before I was at Bogaziçi. With the recent conflicts in England and France over Muslims wearing head scarves, I asked her what it had been like among her female students in Istanbul. She laughed and said, "I think the only question then was whether it was an Hermès." But I had seen a very different reaction to the wearing of a head scarf at Bogaziçi when I admitted a devout Muslim girl to one of my classes in American lit. She was absolutely first-rate intellectually, but I didn't know then that head scarves were forbidden in the state schools of secular Turkey. She was the daughter of an imam, and although I've never regretted having her as a student, I was being naïve and ignorant of Turkey's hard-won secularism.

This was nearly 10 years ago, but the question is even more vital today. In a society as determinedly secular as Turkey, is there any room for such a visible symbol of religious identity in a state school?I suspect it is fear-mongering to describe a clash of civilizations, which is not to say there are not considerable differences among us—cultural, political, economic, and culinary. But is the best way to handle those differences to deny, or in effect to punish them?If a scarved Muslim woman is not allowed to attend a state university, where will she go to learn?I will never forget one of the women in my department saying that we Americans were in part responsible for the growing religious intensity of the Muslims in Turkey. She insisted that American support of the Saudis was to blame, since they had opened religious schools for the poorest Turks, who then flooded into Istanbul from the countryside—where memorizing the Koran was the focus of study, where they were not learning basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I thought she was exaggerating the potential danger of such narrow thinking. She wasn't.

It was Maureen Freely who introduced me to Elif Shafak, the young Turkish author of The Bastard of Istanbul, which has sold more than 120,000 copies in Turkey and more than 20,000 copies in hardback in the United States, which is quite a feat. The novel is the story of two young women, both 19: Asya, who lives in Istanbul with her mother and three batty aunts, and Armanoush, who splits her time between Arizona and San Francisco with her divorced father's family, who are Armenian. "What will that innocent lamb tell her friends when she grows up?…all my family has been Something-Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustafa! What kind of a joke is that?"

I wanted to talk to Shafak on her home ground. But in Istanbul, I couldn't find her novel in Turkish—or in English, the language in which she'd written it (considered a cultural betrayal by some)—and I couldn't find Shafak, either. I knew that she, pregnant with her first child, had been charged with violating a Turkish law that prohibits writers from denigrating their Turkishness. She was acquitted, as Pamuk had been on a similar charge. Just why her fiction was causing such a brouhaha in Istanbul is very much worth trying to understand, for it may not be simply that her characters accuse the Ottoman Turks of the genocide of the Armenians in 1915—she uses the "g-word" explosively—it may also be about memory and amnesia, or as Shafak asks, "Was it really better for human beings to discover more of their past?And then more and more…?Or was it simply better to know as little of the past as possible and even to forget what small amount was remembered?" Just after I left Istanbul, Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos, a Turkish-Armenian newspaper, was murdered on the streets there. He was killed by a young man reported to be the pawn of an ultranationalistic group trying to sabotage Turkey's pending membership in the European Union. This splendid sanctuary on the edge of the Muslim world, and a significant part of it, has not been able to forge an easy entrance.

Dink was a friend of Shafak's, and after his murder she found herself living under police protection in Turkey. She was in the hospital in Istanbul nursing her newborn baby, Sehrazat Zelda, when she saw pictures on television of a poster-size copy of her book-jacket photo being burned. Frightened by the violence, she was about to cancel her American book tour. But she made an exception for New York, and this is where I met her.

Tall and slim and strikingly good-looking, she says, "I am demoralized." The anxiety after the murder of Dink has been wearing. "Writers are public figures in Turkey, especially novelists." She brightens as we begin to talk about the wonder that is Istanbul—its myriad neighborhoods, the liveliness of the streets. "I like to walk to Ortaköy," she says, "where the women over the weekends are setting up stalls, selling necklaces or pretty charms." Or baked potatoes, with their wonderful array of ingredients: fresh yogurt and scallions, cheeses, pickles, and sour cream.

"Istanbul is not a passive city—both pain and joy are visible. The dead and the alive live side by side in Istanbul, where tombstones are everywhere." Painted green, I remind her, as in the ancient cemetery on the road leading up to Bogaziçi. "For us, history starts in 1923. It's so far away." And suddenly I think: I'm old enough to be her mother. I wrote my first book when I was her age, about Zelda Fitzgerald. Why had she given her daughter the middle name Zelda?I understood her choice of the name Sehrazat (Sheherazade), the lovely storyteller whose life depended on the tales she told. "I picked Zelda for my daughter's name," she explains, "because under anesthesia I talked about The Great Gatsby. When I woke up, my doctor said that in all his 30 years as a doctor he had never seen a woman he operated on blabber on about a novel. He was smiling. And so I decided to name my daughter Zelda. I have a deep admiration for Zelda Fitzgerald."

Maybe only I remember that when Zelda had her first and only child, she was also groggy when she came out from under the anesthesia. But it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who recorded what she said: "Oh, God, goofo I'm drunk. Mark Twain. Isn't she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it's beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool." When Fitzgerald used it in Gatsby, Zelda felt betrayed. No one, of course, is using Elif Shafak's life to write one of the finest works of fiction of the 20th century. She's making her own way as a writer and a mother in the perilous 21st century in her beloved Turkey. But I must wish her Godspeed, or "Sehrazat!" as the Turks say, raising a glass to toast new lives and new books in their kingdom by the sea.

The Best of Istanbul's Lively Literary Scene

The Bastard of Istanbul

By Elif Shafak; Viking, 2007; $24.95.

The Gaze

By Elif Shafak; Marion Boyars, 2006; $14.95.


By Maureen Freely; Overlook, May 2008; $24.95.

The Other Rebecca

By Maureen Freely; Academy Chicago, 2000; $23.

The Lost Messiah

By John Freely; Overlook, 2000; $26.95.

Istanbul: The Imperial City

By John Freely; Penguin, 1998; $17.

Other Colors

By Orhan Pamuk; Knopf, 2007; $27.95.


By Orhan Pamuk; Knopf, 2004; $26.

My Name Is Red

By Orhan Pamuk; Knopf, 2001; $26.95.

When to Go

Mild, drier weather in the spring and fall seasons make those the best times to visit.

Getting There

American Airlines and Delta fly nonstop to Istanbul from New York's JFK airport.

Where to Stay

Bebek Hotel Doubles from $333, including breakfast.

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet

An ideal location, five minutes from major monuments and the Old City. Doubles from $420.

Cafés and Bookstores

Fez Café 62 Halicilar Caddesi, Grand Bazaar; 90-212/527-3684; lunch for two $26.

Robinson Crusoe Books 389 Istiklal Caddesi, Beyoglu; 90-212/293-6968.

Homer Kitabevi Books12/A Yeni Carsi Caddesi, Galatasaray; 90-212/249-5902.

What to See

Bogaziçi University Bebek; 90-212/359-5400.

Rumeli Hisari

42 Yahya Kemal Caddesi; 90-212/263-5305.

Topkapi Palace Sultanahmet, Eminönü; 90-212/512-0480.