Irfan Orga, Portrait of a Turkish Family (©1950, Eland & Galeri Kayseri 2004)
This was my letting-go-of-Turkey read. We bought it at Galeri Kayseri English Bookshop right next door to the McDonalds within shouting distance of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. Evidently the Galeri Kayseri had decided it was ideal for tourists wanting to read an Istanbul story, as there were big piles of it near the counter. They were right.
It’s a memoir. Irfan Orga was born in 1908 into a wealthy family in Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. His mother, a great beauty who had married at 13, hardly ever went out into the world, and when she did she went veiled and chaperoned. His grandmother was the dominant personality of the household, and of the whole neighbourhood – an early chapter gives a richly comic account of five year old Irfan accompanying her on a trip to the Turkish baths. The family lived a blissfully entitled life within sight and sound of the Sea of Marmora (as he spells it) until the First World War, when Irfan’s father, previously a successful businessman, was conscripted and killed. That, plus a fire that destroyed the family house and all their savings, completely overturned the family’s fortunes, and what follows is a chronicle of terrible poverty and struggle. Nobody and no relationship emerges from the years of struggle unscathed, and the final scenes between Irfan and his mother are devastating.
Meanwhile, Turkey itself was going through major upheaval: poverty was widespread, the Ottoman empire was defeated and in disarray, and by 1923 Kemal Atatürk had led the revolutionary forces to establish the Turkish Republic. The fez was banned and the introduced hat, seen by many as offensively Christian, led to violence in the streets. (Incidentally, I was in Turkey in the summer and don’t remember seeing a single Turkish man wearing a western hat, which makes me wonder about the success of Atatürk’s cultural change.) When Irfan’s mother went out alone and unveiled, boys threw stones at her in the street. One day, in Ottoman Turkey, school students were beaten for arriving late at prayers; a few days later, in the secular Turkish Republic, the few who remained devout were likely to be beaten because prayers made them late for class.
The story of this family is heartbreaking, and though there is much hilarity and some high melodrama, the general trend is towards devastation and disintegration. Not that there’s any nostalgia for the days of the Ottomans, but the human cost of the radical changes – political, cultural and economic – that happened in Turkey between 1914 and 1940 is made painfully real. An afterword by the author’s son, Artes Orga, in 1988 makes it clear that the pain continued for the rest of his life. (He formed a liaison with a non-Turkish woman, whom he eventually married, and as this was somehow illegal he lived in exile, raising his son in a kind of cocoon of Turkishness in London. This book was a big hit, but he never really prospered or found contentment.)
I find it hard to think how a book could be better at giving a reader a way of getting behind the cheerful tourist façade of the old city of Istanbul. Reading it, you become aware of the ghosts of women behind the latticed windows of those old wooden houses latticework, hiding from the gaze of the street. You get that the muezzin calls were once the unamplified sound of human voices. You realise that today’s sleek, crowded trams are luxurious compared to the rattling, swaying ones of yore. And you realise that the prosperity of modern Turkey, and for that matter the modernity of Turkey, didn’t fall as a gift from the sky.