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.