The name “Freely” has been with me for decades. As a teenager growing up in Istanbul, I used to read with delight late John Freely’s books on the city of Istanbul. As an adult writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the English and German translations of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, I could not have possibly ignored daring Maureen Freely’s English translations of modern Turkish literature. I am now honored to write this review of Brendan Freely’s translation of Disquiet, a slim novel by the contemporary bestselling writer in Turkey, Zülfü Livaneli. Freely has rapidly translated into English novels by Elif Şafak and Ahmet Altan, in addition to penning books about Istanbul and its bohemian neighborhoods. Disquiet is Freely’s second Livaneli translation after the acclaimed Serenade for Nadia (Other Press, 2019), and it does not seem to be his last contribution to Turkish letters in English translation.
Livaneli is a household name in Turkey and an outstanding figure in the cultural and political life of his native country. A writer, poet, composer, producer, film director, and political activist, Livaneli was named a Goodwill Ambassador by UNESCO in 1996 for his contributions to world peace through music and literature. His political protest concerts were attended by thousands in the 1990s, and his songs have been performed by prestigious names and symphony orchestras. Now his books are available in 16 languages including Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, Persian, Urdu, Bulgarian, Bosnian, and Czech in addition to major European languages.
Nobody knows better than Livaneli the challenges of maintaining loyalty to literature and politics at the same time, and that literature rather than politics is the writer’s outlet. He was held under military detention in Turkey during the 1971 military coup and was compelled to live in exile for years in its aftermath. He was interrogated and tried again, following the 1980 coup. His books, poetry, and protest songs were banned in Turkey multiple times. He ran for mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and served as a deputy member of the left-wing Republican People’s Party (CHP) for a short stint, only to resign due to the party’s nondemocratic and authoritarian ways.
The novels of a writer of this caliber cannot be pure poetry devoid of historical and social responsibility. His writings tell untold stories, reach out to the remotest corners of the Middle East, and illuminate the lives of the subaltern in an effort to draw contemporary readers’ attention away from flashy headlines. His novel Bliss (trans. Çiğdem Aksoy Fromm, 2006), winner of the “Barnes and Noble Discovery of Great New Writers” award, brought attention to human rights violations against women in Southeast Turkey. Serenade for Nadia (2019), a bestseller in Turkey, tells the forgotten story of the 1942 Allied disaster and the sinking of Struma in the Black Sea with nearly 800 Jewish refugees aboard fleeing the Holocaust. Originally published in Turkey in 2017 as Huzursuzuk, Disquiet pays homage to the long history and religious traditions of the Yezidi/Ezidi (from “Ezd” for God), a Kurdish religious minority of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northern Syria, the Caucasus region, and parts of Iran, throughout years subject to massacre and conversion, both voluntary and forced.
The novel opens with the epigraph,
‘While my son was dying, the flowers were screaming and budding,’ anonymous Anatolian mother
and immediately orients us to the East of Turkey and to its anonymous oral archives. Hussein’s mother mourns her son, the 32-year-old man shot with two bullets in his home city Mardin, and eventually stabbed to death in Germany. Situated on the Turkish-Syrian border at the southeast of Turkey, Mardin is a gateway to Mesopotamia, a geography where languages of Aramaic, Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, Assyrian, Ezidi, Chaldean, and Persian co-exist. Contemporary novelists from Turkey such as Orhan Pamuk, Asli Erdoğan, and Burhan Sönmez have often borrowed epigraphs from Western literary canons to situate their works in a broader world literary context. Livaneli disengages with this tradition and, in an almost defying gesture, criticizes both the westernized Turks and the international readership for turning their backs to contemporary realities, refugee crises, and human rights abuses committed in one of the most sacred geographies in the world.
Disquiet is a journey East, but it is also a successive journey. The novel is divided into two sections, a longer “Journey to Hussein” consisting of a series of short chapters and a subsequent short one, “Journey to Meleknaz.” Ibrahim, the journalist-narrator, finds out about the death of his childhood friend Hussein and travels to Mardin, a birthplace he left long time ago for the appeal of Istanbul. Ibrahim’s journey to Hussein leads him to Meleknaz, a Syrian refugee and a Yezidi victim of ISIS atrocities. Hussein met Meleknaz in one of the refugee camps where he was serving as a doctor and fell in love with her in spite of the cultural and religious divides that made their union impossible.
A short preface introduces the narrative. Uncle Fuat, whose identity we discover later, explains the meaning of the Arabic word, harese, from which “the words for determination, greed, and craving are derived.” Camels, says Uncle Fuat, can survive the drought and famine of deserts for weeks, but they cannot resist a bite from thistle:
Wherever they see this thistle, they bite some off and begin chewing. The sharp thistle lacerates the camel’s mouth, and these cuts begin to bleed. The camel likes it even more when the salty taste of the blood mixes with the thistle. So the more it eats the more it bleeds, and the more it bleeds the more it eats. Somehow it cannot get its fill of its own blood, and if it’s not stopped, the camel will bleed to death. This is called harese. […] Throughout history people have killed one another without ever realizing that they are actually killing themselves. They become intoxicated by the taste of their own blood. (1)
The fable of the camel and the thistle illustrates the logic behind the vicious cycle of bloodshed that continues today in the Middle East and sets the stage for subsequent events in the novel.
Similar to Orhan Pamuk’s protagonist Ka in Snow, who travels to the city of Kars by the Armenian border to report on the suicides among religious girls, Livaneli’s narrator Ibrahim travels to Mardin to disentangle the knots surrounding the shooting and death of his childhood friend Hussein. Upon his arrival, he notices that this is “a place where time had stopped, and frozen within it were Crusaders, Tamerlane’s Mongols, Artuqids, Seljuks, Assyrians, Armenians, Arabs, and Kurds” (16). He notes that the Islam of today’s Mardin is different from the one of his childhood when “Assyrians, Muslims, and Zoroastrians, including Persis, mingled in the marketplace and at school and celebrated one another’s holy days… But now the atmosphere [is] closed, the city [has] been darkened by the shadow of a sterner, angrier Islam… People drank raki and mahaleb-flavored Assyrian wine at home… This [is] a city living in fear, caught in the middle of the conflicts between ISIS, the PKK, and the state security forces” (18-19)
The strength of the novel is in the multiple and conflicting perspectives it lays out to underscore the intolerance against the Yazidi. For Hussein’s mother and sister, Meleknaz is a “she-devil,” who addled his wits and got him to leave his former fiancée and stand against his own family. Mehmet, another childhood friend, thinks ISIS persecutes the Yezidi because they are believed to worship Satan.
Mehmet’s father, Uncle Fuat, has a different story to tell. The Yezidi belief dates some 6,000 years and predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which have borrowed various rituals and practices from it. The binary logic central to later religions separated good and evil, and banished Satan from Heaven. This worldview fails to account for the Yezidi belief that good and evil coexist in the archangel Peacock who like Satan, first rebelled, but later repented and was taken back by God and made a chief angel. In Uncle Fuat’s words, “they’re good people but they’ve been persecuted throughout history because it was thought that they worship Satan” (44). Uncle Fuat councils Hussein to resist marriage with a Yezidi, a taboo according to ISIS ideology that has been following thousands of years of tradition of enslaving Yazidi girls: “there is no chance that they would accept this. A Muslim and an Ezidi can’t marry, can’t be man and wife. […] in these lands belief comes before everything else even if it is superstition, or simply wrong” (45-6).
Another witness, the Assyrian priest Father Gabriel tells Ibrahim that the monastery in Mardin is only 1,600 years old while the sun temple below is 4,000 years old. Sun temples sacred to the Yezidi preserve the ancient practice of sun worshipping. Later religions and civilizations erected their own monuments on top of them. That is, architecture in Mardin represents successive civilizations but also the harese among them. Father Gabriel acknowledges the semantic approximation between “Allah” in Turkish and “Eli” in Aramaic in Jesus’ last words on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani. God why hast thou forsaken me?” But for Father Gabriel, who represents the orthodox monotheistic worldview, the Yezidi are not believers in one god:
There’s the Peacock Angel. May Allah rescue them from their error, because they’re living in sin. Yes, yes, just as with Islam we see them as deviant; the Jews see them that way too. But no matter how hard you try, they won’t give up on that blind belief. Who would worship a peacock, Ibrahim, you’re a sound Muslim, tell me for the love of Allah, what kind of belief is that? No matter what religion you’re from, you can’t mention Satan in their presence. I pray that the Great Creator puts them on the right path, but they’re very obstinate. They’re the most persecuted people in history, but they refuse to change. (53)
At the Syrian refugee camp, a Yezidi Sheikh explains that “the Peacock angel contains both good and evil, just like people. Good and evil stand side by side within every person. Whichever one is nourished becomes the victor. […] We Ezidi believe there’s a place beyond good and evil” (85).
These diverging and conflicting worldviews are the context in which the tragedy of the novel unfolds. At the refugee camp, Ibrahim is introduced to a young woman, Zilan who knows Meleknaz and narrates in graphic detail their capture, abuse, rape, persecution, and eventual escape from the ISIS slave market in Mosul. Hussein is shot by an ISIS militant in Mardin for insulting Islam by wanting to marry a Yezidi, and narrowly escapes death. In Germany, he is stabbed to death by Crusader Nazis intending to teach a lesson to all Muslims. In Hussein’s brother’s words, “there’s no place on earth that’s peaceful […] what ISIS left unfinished was finished by fascists who call themselves Volk […] Muslim jihadists and Crusader Nazis committed a joint murder” (131, 134).
The novel blends fact, fiction, and journalism to craft a story of intolerance but fails to touch the reader on a deeper level. Superficial comparisons between Istanbul and Mardin, the timelessness of remote corners of the world and the lame emojis on Ibrahim’s cell phone, the ragged refugees and glittering Angelina Jolie, and Ibrahim’s encounter and obsession with Meleknaz, all recall TV dramas. Livaneli, a previous UN Goodwill Ambassador who eventually resigned from his post, mocks the hollow title for failing to make a difference in the lives of the destitute. Angelina Jolie, who visited the Syrian refugee camps in 2015 appears in the fictional world of the narrative as yet another Goodwill Ambassador and as yet another failure to prevent harese. The novel criticizes journalists for devoting more attention to celebrity visits than to actual refugee conditions, to Hollywood celebrities than to their activist agendas. The writer vaguely gestures to the relationship between the alleged weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq, and the impoverished lives of the refugees now stuck between ISIS and Europe, but it is nothing more than that.
Disquiet makes a valid comparison and rightly so, between the ideology of ISIS in the Middle East and that of the neo-Nazis in Europe. Yet, it fails to harness the power of literature to instigate change. When the original novel is flat, there is not much the translator can do to improve it, although Freely’s translation could have benefited from a more rigorous revision and editing. After all, rapid translation and pressure to publish hurt the translation as much as the original.
Livaneli, Zülfü. Disquiet. Translated by Brendan Freely. Other Press, 2021.
Dr. Sevinç Türkkan is a Lecturer of Humanities at Eastman School of Music-University of Rochester. She specializes in cross-cultural studies, the literatures and cultures of the MENA region, and translation studies. She served as a Judge for the 2021 PEN Translation Award. Her translation of The Stone Building and Other Places by the writer and human rights activist from Turkey, Aslı Erdoğan was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Translation Award.