Honour by Elif Shufak

image(8 January 2014) This is the sort of book that had me stay up till 02:00 in the morning, because I just had to read the end of the chapter, and then another, and another. Even though I had to be up, when the youngest boys get up. This is our last day of holiday. Back to school tomorrow! I went to bed with just 36 pages left of the book and those are the most exciting pages in the book!

This is the sort of book that one really should have everyone read. It explains so much, and it makes you think. Like when “Naze” tells her daughter “Pembe” that women and men are made out of different fabric. Women of white fabric, so every spot shows and men of dark fabric that hides all the spots. She teaches her daughters that women are born with shame and can never be given the name Honour. While men are born with honour, can carry the name, and nothing can take the honour away from them. Well, I guess a woman can by her deeds, according to these cultures. Politicians really should read this book, so they can understand what a ticking bomb people are that come from cultures where education is non-existant or where culture goes before religion and education. That people that are not assimilated in to society, are a risk in themselves, because they create a law unto themselves and their own society within society.

Over and over again, we hear about honour killings in this country. The families are smart and have a young brother or cousin commit the dead, so that the punishment will not be as harsh. And the boy says that it was an accident, even if there are 36 stab wounds in the sister’s body. The press and politicians seem as surprised every time, as well as the legal system. It’s like they do not understand what they are dealing with here.

I guess I am starting to sound xenophobic, but I do have a difficult time with people not accepting that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I myself do live a different life, than the average Swede, because of my religion. Some things one can refuse to bend on. But one thing that noone should be allowed to do, is break the law, because their individual culture says it is alright. IF one can not abide to the laws in one’s new country, one should NEVER have left one’s original country where one was allowed to do what one pleased. One can not bring one’s own set of rules and laws with one, to a country where other things go. If you are a Muslim, you can not go to a Christian country and expect what you came from! You can’t expect to go to a modern world society and expect that society to move back in time, to fit your ideas. And as an immigrant you have to be aware of that IF you move to a new country, it will change you. It will demand change. If it does not change you, it might change a spouse and or children, that adapt better than adults. If you are against change and evolution, you must stay where time is standing still.

This book has everything of this. The dilemma of old-fashioned ideas colliding with new ideas. The dilemma of clinging on to some parts of a culture, while in some parts you’ve moved on because it suited you. It describes the old ways of Turkish Kurds in Turkey but also when they face the busy multicultural parts of London.

The book is written in a way I normally don’t like: Jumping back and forth in time, but I finally was ready to overlook this fact and just get on with the intriguing story, with all its twists and turns. It’s a tragic story, a story full of struggle but in the end, one doesn’t feel sad for the people anymore.

For me, it once again confirmed, that whatever the Koran says about women, they are seen as second-rate humans in the Muslim countries. Tariq, (the uncle of the boy who kills his mother in this book), says that it’s Pembe’s fault that her husband Adem left her. Adem being Tariq’s unfaithful gambling brother. Pembe was not woman enough to keep her husband from leaving her/cheating on her.   Tariq has no problem at all with Iskender (his nephew, the murderer) having made a girl pregnant. And of course has no sympathy at all for the girl’s dilemma, since she is just English English as he calls her. And of course the book starts out with a mother not wanting daughters. Her daughter Pembe, being the same way, when Iskender is the only one that means anything to her. The women are only there for one thing and that is to serve the men and give them sons.

I read the Swedish version, since I borrowed it from the library as an e-book. So all quotes are my translations.

The book starts in 1992 when a woman named Esma is on her way, reluctantly, to Shrewsbury prison, to fetch her brother, who has been sitting off a prison sentence of 14 years, for the murder of their mother. An honour killing. She can foresee every minute of their reunion, what he is going to say, what she is going to say. And from there we are taken straight back to a village in the Euphrates area, called Mala Car Bayan. A woman is giving birth to twin girls in 1945, and she is most unhappy about it. So unhappy that she stops talking for 40 days, refusing to name the girls, in order to force Allah to speak to her and explain why he has sent her 8 daughters and no son. The village elders finally tell her that why would Allah talk to her? That she should stop the nonsense. She finally names her daughters Bext and Bese in Kurdish, Kader and Yeter in Turkish and in all other languages Fate and Enough. Her husband will not let her give the girls names like that, which might provoke the anger of Allah. So he gives them the names Pembe and Jamila. But they get called Pembe Kader and Jamila Yeter anyway which translates in to Pink Fate and Enough Beauty.

Their father is of a sound mind when he insists that all his girls go to school, which is contrary to what the other fathers in the village believe in. His wife Naze don’t like it but he says that his daughters are going to learn to read and write, so they can learn the law and know their rights. He tells her that if they get badly treated by their husbands, they should know that they can take their children according to the law, leave and come back to their father. The mother swears that no daughter of hers is going to leave their husbands, she will make sure of that. She is a woman ruled by the shame thoughts. When Pembe gets bit by the family dog one day, her father takes her to Urfa, the closest town and the hospital there. After getting a terrible shot, that her identical twin felt back in the village, she gets to go to the cinema and sings all the way home to the amusement of their fellow passengers. She loves the applauds and teaches her sister the songs and dances from the film, but the mother gets angry and asks them if they are going to become harlots. She is not a very nice mother and when the girls are about 8 years old, she is once again pregnant  and ready to give birth to a son. The midwife tells her to go to the town and give birth since the baby is in breech but Naze says that her son is going to be born in her bed at home. So she stays. And the baby can’t be turned. She bleeds and the midwife decides to save her life and not the baby’s but Naze forbids her, so Naze dies and the baby GIRL born, dies within minutes.

This is not the only tragedy that strikes the family. The father re-marries a woman who turns out to be barren and who never takes to any of the children. Their oldest sister instead becomes their mother. Hediye is content with her lot in life, to stay single and see her sisters married off. Till a doctor arrives to vaccinate the villagers against tuberculosis. She elopes with him but returns after 4 months since his family did not accept her. No longer having any honour, her father and step-mother takes the decision to send the 7 sisters out of the house and force Hediye to hang herself. The sisters have a difficult time getting over this. Then the next sad thing happens. Kamile, another sister, is to be married but the father falls out with the groom’s family and stops the wedding from taking place. The groom’s family kidnaps Jamila and holds her hostage till Bezro, the father, changes his mind, which he does, but Jamila returns with questionable honour. Was she molested? She will not say anything which leads to the worse sorrow her life will go through. A year later, a young man, about 18 years old, walks in to the village. His brother is doing military service nearby, and he seeks housing so he can visit his brother.

Adem is from Istanbul, and comes from a complicated family. His father is an alcoholic who beats his family. When Adem is 8, his mother goes to meet her lover. Adem begs his mother to never leave him, so she alters her plans for elopement and takes Adem to a dam, to commit suicide with him. But he throws himself to safety and her attempt fails as well. When he is 11, she leaves with the other man and the three sons, Adem 11, Khalil 13 and Tariq 16, are left with their father and the abuse. Adem runs in to happy, beautiful Jamila and falls in love. He meets the not so happy and cheerful Pembe a day later, and mistakes her for Jamila. When the truth is sorted out, he decides that he wants to marry Jamila and sends a telegram for money to Tariq. Then he is told that Jamila might not be a virgin and has therefore become betrothed to an elderly widower, from Kamile’s new family, since they were the kidnappers. Adem could have said he wanted her anyway, but he does not want to worry about it all his life. But he doesn’t want to tell Tariq the truth either, so he marries Pembe, when her dad says that the girls are the same.

It breaks Jamila’s heart and she begs her father to let her stay unmarried and he agrees. Pembe on the other hand is not happy either. She goes to live with her young husband in Istanbul, where he gambles away all money, while she gives birth to a son at age 17 and then a daughter at age 18. She fancies seeing her dead mother and starts getting most superstitious. She who was the adventurous of the two girls, she who was going to work as a sailor and see the world, while Jamila was happy at home. She who gladly learned Turkish in school while Jamila refused to open her mouth. One of the crazy things Pembe does, is that she refuses to give her son a name for 5 years. Adem doesn’t care about anything family related. He doesn’t love his wife and she doesn’t love him. But she loves her son to pieces and wants to save him from the grim reaper. She thinks he can’t take an unnamed child. But finally Adem says that if he goes to school nameless, he will get nicknames from his school mates. So she goes back to the village and asks the elders. They take her to the river and hides. She is supposed to ask the first person that crosses the river, what her son’s name should be. An elderly woman crosses and encounters the nasty little boy. She asks for water and he tells her to go get it herself, he says he doesn’t want to be named by her. And the old lady tells Pembe that he will mature late, not until middle age will he act grown up, and that he should be named Askander/Iskender/ Alex after Alexander the great. Pember spoils him so, and her daughter resents her calling him little sultan, treating him like a prince all the time, giving him privileges.

Pembe has to support the family by cleaning for others and once she gets in to real trouble. The husband of her employer tries to meddle with her. She flees without her salary, and with Esma that was with her. Men follow her and she is saved by an elderly man and his boy, who is named after the prophet Jonah. She tells the old man who she will name her next son Yunus, after the boy and she does this, when she has a little boy in London. Because the family has to leave Turkey because of Adem’s gambling. They live in London for 8 years. But things don’t get better. Adem’s gambling continues and when he meets a Bulgarian stripper at the club, his marriage is over for good. He moves in with the stripper that will only stay with him as long as he has money. Iskender, 15 years old, decides that now he is the man of the house.

Pembe by this time works in a hair dressing salon, as a helper more than anything, since she has no education nor is her English very good. One day, she decides on getting some pastry. At the bakery, she is grossly insulted since this is the time when racism was very high in some parts of London. It is 1977 and immigrants are attacked. A racist working in the bakery treats her so poorly that a 50-year-old man intervenes and helps her out. His name is Elias, and is immigrated from Canada but he has lived all over. He is newly divorced and depressed over it, but he is at the same time a successful chef at his own restaurant. Elias, comes to the hair salon, and starts a friendship with Pembe that is not looked kindly on, when discovered. I would not say it is an affair even if they are in love with each other, since Pembe is always too scared, and they never do anything but go to old films at cinemas far away from her part of London. It doesn’t matter how careful they are. One day, Yunus, 8 years old, notices them looking at flowers and that she looks happy. And worse, one day, Tariq, who now lives in London too, with his narrow-minded, uneducated, judgemental wife Meral, sees them at a cinema. He is quick to inform Iskender and that he has to do something about it.

Iskender is a hot-headed, spoiled boy out of control. When he finds out about his mother, he is involved in a lot of things. He has made his all-English girlfriend Katie pregnant and she refuses to have an abortion. He leads a bullying gang of other immigrant boys that gets up to nasty things. He has also made contact with a fanatic Muslim called the Orator, that sees the other boys as immature boys but who sees the anger that rages in Iskender and feels he can use it for the cause. He himself is part of an entourage of a local fanatic that is called Mamrut Baba, who insists that women should wear hijab like his wife is forced to do, and who lends money to people, but wants what in return? The Orator tells Iskender that one can love one’s parents and yet not respect them,if they do not deserve respect. He says that Iskender needs a moral compass. So Iskender asks him what to do about his mother and the Orator says that his father must do something otherwise Iskender must do it himself.

Esma has not inherited her mother’s beauty, but is a clever girl. So clever that she is helped by a Mrs. Powell, to get in to a better school than the rest of the immigrant children around where she lives. When Yunus admits to having seen their mother with a man, Esma understands that her mother needs to be protected from Iskender. But she can not stop what happens. That he forbids his mother to continue working. That he forbids her to leave the house.

Yunus deals with all the strange things at home, by fleeing. He finds a house full of squatters and become friends with the anarchists, punk rockers, drug addicts, hippies etc. He even at the tender age of 8 falls in love with the 20-year-old Tobiko and this has disastrous consequences in the end, as well as offering a solution to a great problem.

Adem? He does nothing. He refuses to give Pembe a divorce. When Roxana throws him over for another man, an Australian businessman with interests in Abu Dhabi, she emigrates there and Adem goes after her. He has no thoughts of his family and soon he is gambling away in his new country.

Jamila? She never married and is content living in the mountains, far away from people. She gets visits from Pembe and the children till there is no more money for such trips. She is not loved but respected, in the Euphrates area, because she is the virgin midwife that also have all sorts of herbs and potions to treat illnesses. When she finds out that Pembe’s husband has left her, she starts worrying. She gets even more worried when Pembe tells her that she has met a man and that she fears Iskender. After Jamila has helped a smuggler’s wife to give birth and has helped a dying smuggler back to life, she begs the smugglers to help her to London. In her possession, she has a priceless yellow diamond, that she will take with her.

This is the set up, for the murder that will put Iskender in prison. That will leave Esma and Yunus orphans in the care of their awful uncle Tariq. Break Elias heart. If you want to read the book, I would not read beyond this point!

Many pages are written by Iskender, from his prison cell. He does become suicidal after the murder. He is caught on the run. He becomes a father of a little boy, Tom, but Katie marries someone else and have more children with that husband. Iskender is at first lucky. He gets a good cell mate that he calls Trippy. He learns to control his temper. The prison warden helps him. But when he has 2 years left of his sentence, the warden retires, Trippy’s wife wants a divorce and he commits suicide because of it, and the new warden does not like Iskender one bit. This McLaughlin tries to make him blow up so his sentence will get extended but Iskender manages to control himself at least that much. In the end, a man claiming himself innocent of the crime he has been sentenced for, is put in his cell. Zeehan seems insane but he is deep, tries to alter Iskender in to a better person, and for the most part, Iskender finally responds. While Esma visits him often during the 14 years he sits in Shrewsbury, to show her anger and hatred, that she doesn’t forgive him, Yunus only visits twice. A year before he is to be released, Yunus comes and tells him that their mother is alive and that he must not try to kill her again. This is when he really tries to better himself and starts doing what Zeehan tells him to do.

How can she be alive after the newspapers wrote that a 16-year-old Iskender killed his mother because of an extra marital affair and the neighbours said that it was his task to restore the family honour? Iskender, like the bully he was, stayed out late as usual the night before the murder. And left early on the day it took place. So he never knew that his aunt Jamila arrived in England un-announced. He did not know that the beautiful woman walking home with grocery bags, stopping and looking at street musicians, in shop windows, was not his mother who was in house arrest. He thought that a stab in her right chest would only teach her a lesson and stop the relationship.

Happily, Jamila offered to go out shopping for Pembe, with the help of Yunus. Pembe dressed her sister in pretty clothes, made her take off her shawl and put on lipstick. After 2 hours Yunus got bored and wanted to talk to Tobiko that they ran in to. So Jamila walked home and never knew what happened. But Pembe saw, got terrified and ran off. Rita, her former boss hid her at first. Esma and Yunus of course knew that it was Jamila that was killed, but played along. They had that much sense. And they informed Elias that Pembe was dead, to save his life. Devastated, he went back to Canada. Yunus knew exactly where to hide his mother, among the squatters. But when things had settled, she decided to sell Jamila’s diamond and go back to her roots, back to Jamila’s house in the hills by Euphrates. That is where she stayed, praying till the day she died of a virus, 6 months before Iskender was let out of prison.

The book is tragic yes. Because none of the characters have a happy life. Adem commits suicide in Abu Dhabi which is never told to his children. Esma and Yunus are at first raised by Tariq and wife, that spread awful lies about their mother, in the neighbourhood. But for those two children things do work out. They get sent by the state, to a boarding school and university, because of talent. Yunus becomes a musician and a very good-natured man that wants Esma to forgive Iskender. Esma marries a 16 year older man at age 20 and has twin girls at age 21. Her husband from Gaza is a scientist and only believes in objective truths, so he is not an old-fashioned narrow-minded husband at all.

Jamila no doubt was at peace after her death, even though she haunted Iskender and showed herself to Pembe. She was never happy after Adem married Pembe instead, and it was like she only lived,waiting to perform the ultimate deed. Taking her sister’s place, dying for her. It is deep really when you think that Iskender is the son she should have had. Adem, would he have become another kind of man, husband, had he married Jamila? Or was the seed to addiction already planted in him by heritage? And Pembe that loved Elias so much but did not dare to give herself to him? All they had together was a couple of caresses and constant fear of  discovery.  Is she ever happy? Spending the rest of her short life in prayer. What has she really accomplished?

Towards the end of his life, Adem remembers what the village elder told him when he said he wanted to marry Jamila. Not until then does he understand what the man said: Before you loose your heart, you need to ask yourself what sort of love you have to offer the girl. A man’s love is a mirror of his personality. A quarrelsome man’s love is full of conflicts. A calm and kind man’s love is like balsam. A man who feels sorry for himself, will make his love crumble to pieces. A happy-go-lucky man will give love full of happiness. Made me suspect that he would never have been happy with Jamila either, that he would have destroyed her life as well.


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