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Sad, so sad.
on 16 May 2012
Honour opens with Iskender's release from prison.
What follows is a sad and strange alternation of pasts and present, chronicling the lives of the members of the Toprak family, and anyone connected to them: Pembe and Adem, their children - charismatic Iskender, rebellious Esma, and reserved and thoughtful Younus; their parents and their childhood, their children's adulthoods, their mistakes and their tragedies, happinesses and despair, triumphs and failures - all of it is contained in these 352 pages.
Everything leads up to or away from 30th November, 1978 - the day Iskender Toprak commits a horrifying crime. It spans decades and miles, leaping from point to point in space and time, yet always coming back to that fateful day - how did it happen, why did it happen? Who is really responsible? How does a status quo so ruthlessly cut down its victims? Who *are* the victims, or is everyone complicit, a perpetrator? I think what best sums up what underlies this book is what Shafak writes, that 'men have honour - women have shame'.
It's such a nuanced and careful writing of the cultural backdrop - doing justice not only to Eastern culture (in this case Turkish and Kurdish), but also to Western, and to the peculiar tragedy of cultural immiscibility - forgetting the obvious East/West front, Shafak protrays so many levels of difference: Kurdish/Turkish, male/female, urban/rural, rich/poor, white/non-white, married/unmarried, sonless/with sons, virgin/tainted, captive/captor, victim/aggressor - you can't point at any person and isolate them from everyone else, into a single 'differentness': their differences and sameness are liquid and overlapping, sometimes changing in a minute. There is something so...rich, textured and multilayered about Shafak's narrative.
It's a provocative title, and appropriate: Iskender does what he does 'for honour'. And just as the events keep returning to Iskender's crime, so the themes keep returning to this idea of honour. In the end, though, after the double-standards and false platitudes, you realise that this idea of honour is nothing but an excuse for raging hypocrisy, abuse and self-gratification at the expense of others, and you begin to understand what real honour should be - something accorded to people based on shared humanity, not the reserve of men who live by their own rules, yet impose an impossible or ludicrous standard on others.
A lot of things in this book make me angry - they make me angry as a woman (especially a Muslim woman), and as a human being. Not the book itself, but for the fact that these are stories that really happen. The hypocrisy, the self-righteousness, the idea that a man's honour, instead of elevating him, makes him commandeering, ugly and small, and moreover the idea that women are not honoured or deserving of honour, but shamed and shameful. 'Honour' is not a social or political commentary, but it certainly wakes up a womanly anger in me, and a tearing pain for any woman who has to endure the things Pembe and Jamila did.
As a semi-final note, it strikes me that the heart and soul of this story is sisterhood. There are actual sisters: the identical twins Pembe and Jamila, their six older sisters (especially Hediye), Esma, Esma's twin daughters, and then the wider sisterhood of women helping women. 'Honour' is in no way either misogynstic or misandristic...but it is more like...pro-gynistic? Is that a word?
This book is so heavily saturated with the markers I use to note places of interest or just phrases or passages I loved - a good way to measure how much I think of a book is by the density of them. I find it incredible that Elif Shafak has written a book of such magnificent scale, linguistic quality, historical and cultural integrity, all in what is her second language. I strongly recommend anyone interested in the book or the author to hop on over to YouTube and watch her TEDTalk called 'The Politics of Fiction'. It's what sold me on her in the first place.