Sometimes you must write the book you want to read. In the afterword to her debut novel Every Rising Sun, Jamila Ahmed remembers growing up with The Arabian Nights as “a cultural touchstone” while always “wanting more of her”. The “her” is, of course, Shaherazade, the teller of life-prolonging fantastical tales.
Travelers to Turkey often return with a ceramic plate or tile as a souvenir of their sojourn, many of these have designs based on or inspired by the ceramics from Iznik (the ancient Nicaea, across the Marmara from Istanbul), a major center of production between the 15th and 17th centuries, a history probably unknown to most of the buyers.
Once upon a time, many of the largest cities in what was at the time called the “Near East” enjoyed the benefits of the presence of thriving Jewish communities. Constantinople, Aleppo and Baghdad were just a few cities with tens of thousands of Jews that have since dwindled down to almost a handful. In award-winning Elizabeth Graver’s new novel, Kantika, she writes about her grandmother’s Sephardic family from Constantinople. At the end of the book, she states that she decided to use family photos and real names to keep parts of her story true all while using creative license with ancillary details.
Peter Constantine is one of the most prominent—and diverse—contemporary translators. He has published English translations from Russian, German, French, Italian, Modern and Ancient Greek, Albanian, Dutch and Slovene, winning numerous awards for his translations of Machiavelli, Babel, and Thomas Mann. It’s only now that he’s come out with a novel, The Purchased Bride, based on the story of how his paternal grandparents met. It comes as no surprise then that language is an important part of this story.
The core of the Ottomans’ political culture could never be replicated. Based on military slaves, forcibly recruited from non-Muslim subjects, a harem full of nubile captives hoping to become sultanas, an emperor who had to murder his brothers to secure his throne, and a pliant clergy that reconciled these extra-legal practices with religion, the “Eternal State”, devlet-e ebetmüdat, ruled over immense territories and numberless peoples for 600 years.
It helps to be reminded from time to time that literature, all other objectives aside, is at bottom storytelling. And Turkish Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel Nights of Plague is storytelling so luxuriant that one cannot help but soak in it.