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17-year-old Dylan and 15-year-old Irem are infatuated with each other but face problems because of their familial background. So, what's new? Aren't there already innumerable boy-meets-girl stories of this kind on the market? It doesn't matter that a plot is as old as the hills, what an author makes of it matters. What the American author Alan Drew has made of it, is certainly worth a read, in fact it sends Romeo and Juliet to the back benches.
Irem is the daughter of the Kurdish couple Sinan Basioglu and his wife Nilüfer, who have moved from the south-east of Turkey to a small town near Istanbul together with her and her younger brother Ismail. In the flat above them lives an American couple, Marcus and Sarah, with their son Dylan. Marcus is a teacher at an American school in Istanbul, he and his wife have been in the country for nearly twenty years.
Irem and Dylan have got to know each other from secret window-to-window conversations and shared cigarettes, a direct contact is unthinkable for the traditionally raised Kurdish girl. When Ismail is circumcised, Nilüfer invites the Americans to the celebration, unaware that her daughter and Dylan already know each other.
During the night the area is hit by a massive earthquake (the story is set in 1999 when the so-called Marmara earthquake devastated Western Turkey), the house collapses and Ismail disappears. Against all odds he's rescued alive after three days, he was trapped in a hole together with Sarah, the American woman, who helped him survive by trickling water into his mouth. She, however, dies.
From now on the two families are forever linked which is especially hard for Sinan because his father was killed by an American bullet coming out of a rifle of a Turkish soldier in a raid on his village. The American government used to supply the Turkish army with weapons to be used against the Kurds fighting for autonomy. The Basioglus' dependence on the Americans becomes even stronger when they're forced to live in a refugee camp run by Marcus and an American relief team.
Does Dylan love Irem as he claims repeatedly? He's the typical all-American boy despite living in Istanbul. He's got a tattoo, smokes cigarettes and dope, drinks alcohol and knows the seedy underside of Istanbul where well-off Turkish kids hang out. Local conventions are nothing to him.
What is Irem for him? After his mother's death he's lonely, he claims that his father isn't interested in him at all, the schools are closed and he's bored. He's of an age where one does 'it' and Irem's unattainability certainly spurs him on. She never leaves more than her face and her hands uncovered, when he once glimpses her toes, he tells her that this piece of flesh is sexier than all the naked bodies on the beach.
What is Dylan for Irem? He means freedom, escape from the confines of their conservative Islamic traditions. Besides, she thrives in his attention; since Ismail's birth she's suffered from being No 2 in her parents' affection. She loves her little brother but can't but be jealous. He had a great day and a party when he was circumcised, what did she get when she became a women, i.e., had her first period? "Irem. You're a woman," her mother had said, smiling, whispering as if it were a conspiracy. "You must stay away from the boys now." That was it.
Her mother Nilüfer is a simple woman, she doesn't understand her daughter, and she doesn't even want to think a thought outside of what one does and has done forever. She's fierce in her defence of tradition. It seems to me that in all traditional societies it's more the women than the men that fight for the preservation of traditions. If they raised their sons differently, then the next generation of men would think differently and behave differently towards women. I think the reason for this is that if something were to change, if they watched their daughters living a better life, they'd have to look into their own rôles in society, to come to terms with their own sufferings or rather have to acknowledge in the first place that they suffer. Maybe it's jealousy which forbids them to grant their daughter freedoms they've never had.
Sinan is well aware of the fact that he loves his son more than his daughter and has qualms of conscience when he sees her suffering. He'd like to see her happy but he's a village man, bound by traditions, too, and that means he has to watch that the honour of his name is not soiled. Where he grew up it's enough that an unmarried woman is seen talking to a man and rumours spread. A rumour is like a death sentence and it's not unusual that the father and a brother kill the young woman to keep up the honour of the family, a crime which isn't disapproved of by family and neighbours, to say nothing of being reported to the authorities.
Furthermore, there is his father's death and the political implications. Americans are the natural enemies of the Kurds, this is an ingrained truth for him. He knows that his family would probably be dead were it not for the Americans but he isn't able to be truly grateful, he just wants to stay away from them. With time he may be able to see the Americans as individuals, to acknowledge that Marcus is a good man who really wants to help them. But by and by it becomes clear that the American aid workers have got ulterior motives, they aren't simple do-gooders but Christian missionaries who clandestinely introduce the children of the camp to the Gospel. When the fist child is seen with a cross around his neck, Sinan knows that he has to leave Istanbul and get back to his village with his family or go under.
Where does that leave Irem and Dylan?
In Gardens of Water the 19th-century world of a rural Turkish, not only Kurdish, society and 21st century modern Turkey clash. Istanbul is the perfect symbol for this where East meets West, where the Muslim world intersects with Christianity. 'Figuratively and literally, Istanbul stands on a fault line', as a critic remarked.
A great asset of the novel is the way the author evokes Istanbul. Alan Drew lived there for three years and taught English literature at a private high school. He arrived just four days before the earthquake in 1999, so it's not surprising that his descriptions sound true and grip the reader. It would be interesting to learn what Turkish readers think of the novel, it has been translated into 16 languages up to now but unfortunately not into Turkish (yet). As far as I'm able to judge I think Drew has caught the atmosphere well and understand the problems the Turkish society has to deal with. He hasn't written a treatise, though, the dramatic love story is tightly interwoven with the background information. What I find especially laudable is that he doesn't show us Sinan as a backward country bumpkin but as a man caught in traditions which have been valid for ever, who can't accept that the times may have changed or rather, who doesn't see that they've changed for the better. The decision if tradition or individual happiness are more important tear at him. Up to the end I didn't foresee how he'd decide.
Should you ever visit Istanbul or any other part of Turkey, take the book with you as enlightening reading matter, but you can also read it at home, of course. I'm sure it'll grip you and widen your horizon.
Sinan Basioglu and his wife are Kurdish refugees living in a suburb of Istanbul. In the apartment upstairs lives an American couple, both schoolteachers, with their teenage son, Dylan. Sinan, who feels like many Kurds that America backed the Turkish paramilitary raids on Kurdish villages, is outwardly polite to the Americans but he really doesn't want to have much to do with them. However, a tragic event causes Sinan to feel indebted to the American. A terrible earthquake strikes Istanbul, destroying the apartment building and the small store where Sinan earns his living. Sinan, his wife and their fifteen year old daughter, Irem escape unharmed but Ismail, their nine year old son, is buried in the rubble, surviving only because he is protected from the blow by the American woman who dies before the two can be rescued.
With no school to teach at, Marcus joins an American aid organisation, helping to set up a temporary camp just outside the town. Sinan wants nothing to do with American aid and at first refuses to let his family live there, preferring instead to stay in the makeshift cardboard shelter he has built. Eventually he succumbs to his wife's attempts to persuade him it would be better for Ismail, who doesn't seem to have fully recovered from his ordeal. Irem, meanwhile, believes everything in the Basioglu family revolves around Ismail. As her parents worry about him, she is increasingly ignored and that enables her to meet secretly with the enigmatic Dylan. Of course, in a small camp things can't stay secret very long and it doesn't take long for people to start talking about Irem's behaviour.
"Gardens of Water" explores several major divisions in contemporary Turkey, and even beyond. First and foremost it looks at the differences between east and west and explores them in a number of ways. Sinan polices the television shows that his daughter watches to make sure she isn't watching unsuitable material. Even though Irem explains that Buffy is good because she slays the evil vampires, Sinan thinks that vampire movies are intrinsically bad and that Irem should not watch these shows.
Irem's friends come from secular families - ones where religion is not important - and they are Turkish. Not only does Irem have to be the perfect Muslim daughter but she has the added baggage that comes with being Kurdish. Even within Turkey where there are many Kurds living, the Kurdish population often experience treatment not unlike that directed at the Roma across Europe. I thought Irem was quite a tragic character from the outset, attracted to this mysterious American youth who is really quite unlike anyone she's ever met before. They are a less than unlikely match and I struggled at first to believe that there could be any basis for a relationship. That Irem is a Muslim girl who voluntarily wears a headscarf and Dylan is an American Christian was not the stumbling block for me. Their lack of cultural references in common made the relationship seem improbable but if you can get over that sceptism the accounts of their stolen moments are quite touching.
The differences in the way that men and women are regarded is also tackled. Ismail is clearly more important in the Basioglu family than Irem is and she is well aware of this. The sad thing is that Irem has been so sheltered that she doesn't know what she might have instead of the life mapped out for her: all she just knows is that she might not follow the same journey of arranged marriage and motherhood as her mother. However, Irem also struggles with the loyalty she feels towards her parents and she even though she knows her family are old-fashioned, bringing with them their conservative views from the south east, she doesn't rebel completely, finding it difficult, and even unnecessary, to discard all the customs she has been brought up to follow.
The character of Sinan is drawn with great warmth and empathy. This poor man, who fled his home town when his father was murdered during a peaceful demonstration, feels that the world is in conflict with everything he values and believes. After the loss of his shop in the earthquake he takes menial work shifting boxes and stacking shelves at a French-owned supermarket, the sort of store that sells luxury goods to people who aren't living in refugee camps. He knows that Irem hopes for a different life to the one her mother had but he is torn between letting Irem have some degree of freedom and maintaining the "honour" of his family to save face among the other men in the community. For Sinan, the final straw comes when he learns that Marcus has been teaching Ismail about Jesus; not only were the Americans complicit in the death of his father, these Americans are trying to turn his own children from him under the guise of charity.
The American characters are pale in comparison with the Kurdish family but praise must be directed at the author for his skill in creating the Basioglu family as each his or her own very distinctive voice and he captures them with much credibility.
The story is well constructed with an excellent nucleus of a small number of nicely developed and believable characters. This isn't great literature but it's immensely readable and I found it instantly engaging. I understand the author was living in Istanbul at the time of the 1999 earthquake and having been to the city myself, I felt he did a great job of portraying this sprawling metropolis and, in particular, the sharp differences between the old and new, the rich and the poor, religion and secularism. Although the tension between Christianity and Islam is touched upon, Sinan's mistrust of Marcus is more about his Americanness than his faith. The persecution of the Kurds is treated on a "need to know" basis. Drew doesn't go into much depth but there's enough detail to give an overview.
"Gardens of Water" can be read on several levels. It's a story about two quite different families thrown together in difficult times, it's a love story of sorts - a father for his daughter, a young couple - and it's a quite telling study of modern Turkey.