The Bastard of Istanbul

The Bastard of Istanbul

by Elif Shafak


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A “vivid and entertaining” (Chicago Tribune) tale about the tangled history of two families, from the author of The Forty Rules of Love and The Architect’s Apprentice

"Zesty, imaginative . . . a Turkish version of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." --USA Today 

As an Armenian American living in San Francisco, Armanoush feels like part of her identity is missing and that she must make a journey back to the past, to Turkey, in order to start living her life. Asya is a nineteen-year-old woman living in an extended all-female household in Istanbul who loves Jonny Cash and the French existentialists. The Bastard of Istanbul tells the story of their two families--and a secret connection linking them to a violent event in the history of their homeland. Filed with humor and understanding, this exuberant, dramatic novel is about memory and forgetting, about the need to examine the past and the desire to erase it, and about Turkey itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143112716
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/29/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 101,678
Product dimensions: 5.46(w) x 8.42(h) x 0.78(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elif Shafak is an award-winning, bestselling novelist; a champion of women's rights and freedom of expression; and the most widely read female novelist in Turkey. Her books have been translated into more than forty languages. Her novels include The Flea Palace, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, and Honor, and she is also the author of a memoir, Black Milk: On the Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity, and Motherhood. An active political commentator, columnist, and public speaker, she lives in London and Istanbul with her family. Her website is

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Laural Merlington has the skills to bring this complex, intriguing story to life." —-AudioFile

Reading Group Guide


Nineteen-year-old Asya, like many teenagers, is full of rage. Feeling like an outsider in a family of suffocating women, she rebels against everything she thinks her family and culture expect from her. Born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, Asya is the youngest female of the Kazanci family: There’s Petite-Ma, the delicate great-grandmother slowly losing her memories to Alzheimer’s; Grandma Gülsüm, a harsh woman who must bitterly corral an unruly bunch of daughters after her only son, Mustafa, flees to America; Auntie Banu, who chooses to live with her sisters rather than her own husband and channels her piety into a career as a soothsayer; Auntie Feride, who has spent her life careening from one mental illness to the next; Auntie Cevriye, a tightly wound, widowed high school history teacher; and Auntie Zeliha, the youngest, who runs a tattoo parlor and refuses to play by anyone’s rules. Zeliha also happens to be Asya’s mother.

Asya, an illegitimate child, is ignorant of her father’s identity and torn between wanting desperately to know the truth of her past and launching herself toward a future that is built independently of her unknown roots. Her conflicted feelings about the past take on more immediacy when her Uncle Mustafa’s stepdaughter, Armanoush, suddenly comes to visit. An Armenian American and a child of the Armenian diaspora who is struggling with the oppressive history of her ancestors, Armanoush hopes that by visiting the country where her family faced such sorrow and loss in the 1915 deportations and massacres, she can finally pin down her own identity. In Istanbul—a city stuck between East and West, past and future, simultaneously an inviting amalgam of stone, color, and sound and an impenetrable, deceptive façade—the two girls set in motion a series of events that uncover long-buried secrets that will link the two girls and their families together in ways no one could expect.

Shafak has created an intricately woven tale about the very different but equally difficult struggles of living with the past and trying to survive without one. Full of bold, unforgettable characters, The Bastard of Istanbul reveals that even the worst events are important ingredients in the recipes that make each of us who we are.



Elif Shafak is one of Turkey’s most acclaimed and outspoken novelists. She was born in 1971 and is the author of six novels, most recently The Saint of Incipient Insanities, The Gaze and The Flea Palace, and one work of non-fiction. She teaches at the University of Arizona and divides her time between the US and Istanbul.



Q. Where were you born, and when and how did you come to live in America?

A. I was born in France, Strasbourg, in 1971. All throughout my childhood and youth I have lived in different cities and countries, including Madrid, Spain; Amman, Jordan; and Cologne, Germany. Then in my thirties I came to the United States, first to Boston, then Michigan and Arizona. I am not an immigrant. I guess all my life I have been a nomad, a commuter.

Q. You divide your time between Istanbul, Turkey, and Tucson, Arizona. What do you think is the most striking contrast between the two cities? What do you think they have most in common?

A. Right now I divide my time between these two cities and the contrast couldn’t be deeper. Tucson when compared to Istanbul is quiet, sterile, and ordered. But it is the desert that fascinated me as I learned to live with her around. The desert and Tucson are calm whereas Istanbul is anything but. She is a restless city of more than 10 million. When the pace of the latter is tiring I feel a need to escape to the former. But when the peace and quiet of the former suffocates, I feel a need to come back to Istanbul. I guess I need both.

Q. Your novel gives readers insight into both the Turkish and Armenian cultures and some of their respective problems. What personal experiences led you to portray these two peoples in the way that you have?

A. I am the child of a Turkish diplomat. I was raised by a single mother, and she became a diplomat around the time I was ten or eleven. And when we were in Madrid, Spain, Armenian terrorists were killing Turkish diplomats. My first acquaintance with Armenian identity is very negative. There is no way terrorism can be legitimized or approved. But that said, in time as I kept reading, thinking, and collecting stories of real people, as a writer and intellectual my pursuits brought me to a point where I had to face the tragic events of 1915 and rethink the whole past.

Q. The Kazanci and Tchakhmakhchian families really come to life in this novel. Which of these characters, and their relationships with each other, were inspired by your own family?

A. I grew up without seeing my father and all my life he has been absent. In that sense there are similarities. The title that I wanted to give the novel at the beginning was “Baba and the Bastard”—baba meaning father in Turkish. I wanted to deal with the absence of the father. Also, as a child I was surrounded by women: grandmother, aunts, neighbors . . . ordinary and sometimes ignorant but definitely strong willed and beautiful souls they were. All of those have been reflected in the book. And the Tchakhmakhchian family has been inspired by my Armenian friends in America and Turkey. While I was writing this novel I had a chance to talk to many Armenian women. They opened the doors of their homes to me and I am grateful to them for sharing their stories with me.

Q. Though American pop culture references are sprinkled throughout the novel, you chose Johnny Cash as Asya’s sole musical interest. Why?

A. First of all because I love Johnny Cash myself. Music has always been a very central ingredient in my fiction, not only in terms of pop culture or alternative music genres (which I am very interested in), but also in the sense that when I write fiction it is to me a matter of rhythm, of music. And in all my novels music plays an important role. I think every story brings its own music along, and then, when the reader starts to read the book, she too hears it.

Q. 6. Your female characters appear in many different lights in the novel: as Muslims, members of a secular state, foreign exiles, social outcasts, Americans brought into foreign families, sisters, daughters, wives, lovers, and friends. What statement do you feel The Bastard of Istanbul makes about women’s roles both past and present?

A. This is a book in which women play the central role, both Armenian and Turkish women.

I believe women’s relation to the past is quite different than men’s. My country is a country of collective amnesia. Yet, if we still have some memory of the past, we owe it to women. Women pass their heritage from one generation to another, through recipes, songs, lullabies, and stories. These are all ordinary but precious gems of daily life. While I was writing this novel I did not deal with big macro-political questions. Just the opposite: I probed the simple and basic ingredients in the everyday life of Armenian and Turkish women. And they have so much in common.

Q. You write in both Turkish and English. What prompted you to write The Bastard of Istanbul in English? How does the process differ for you when writing in each language? Do you find that you are writing for different audiences or just using different vocabularies?

A. Every language has its own labyrinth, its own rhythm. As a writer it fascinates me to discover that. It is a big challenge, not only a linguistic challenge, but also an existential one. In another language you have to rediscover your literary voice, start from scratch again. But despite the difficulties involved I enjoy commuting between languages because I am fascinated with language in the most abstract sense. Just like a Jewish mystic or a Hurufi, an Islamic mystic in love with letters, I do not see language as an instrument and myself outside or above it. Rather, I see language as a new continent and want to explore its meadows, precipices, mountains, and landscape. A new language gives you a new zone of existence. You become a different person as you switch from one language to another.

I know many Turkish women who were raised bilingual cannot possibly utter any bad words in Turkish, because it is not proper for women to use that kind of language in this culture. But when I hear them speak English, I notice they do swear freely, without reservations, as if it is OK to swear in English but not in Turkish. I observe these linguistic journeys.

Q. How have the Turkish and American literary worlds each received your work? What aspects of being a Turkish author and an American author do you most enjoy? Which aspects do you find most difficult?

A. There are differences. I am a well-known writer in Turkey. I was somebody in Turkey when I came to the United States four years ago. Then in a day I became a nobody. If you are a painter you can take your paintings with you when you move from one country to another. You can take your music with you if you are a musician, or your documentaries if you are a documentary maker. But when you are a novelist and you have almost nothing translated into English yet (at that point I didn’t), you literally become a nobody in a day. And I liked that. I was so famous in Turkey, a country in which the novelists are always in the public eye, it both frightened and fascinated me to become nobody and start from there again, this time writing in English.

The two countries are so different. In Turkey the literary world is deeply politicized. A novelist is a public figure. It is a writer-oriented framework. We concentrate on the persona of the writer but not so much on her writing. In the United States it is more writing oriented and I like that.

Q. Your love for Istanbul shines through the pages of this novel. You do not spend as much time depicting your other home, Tucson. What other American cities have you spent time in? Do any of them come to life for you the way Istanbul does?

A. While giving readings and talks at different universities or bookstores, I had the chance to travel to many places in the United States. I lived a year in Boston, then in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then moved down south after an offer from the University of Arizona. I love traveling in the United States and seeing the different layers in this country, both in terms of landscape and people. I am fascinated with New York, and in many ways I do see similarities between New York and Istanbul. I think New York is closer to Istanbul than to Arizona or the Midwest.

Q. Your character Baron Baghdassarian delivers an indictment: “Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood” (p. 263). What fresh perspectives on the past and present do you hope Armenian and Turkish readers will find among the pages of this novel? What would you most like American readers to understand about these communities?

A. I think we Turks need to overcome our amnesia and build a sense of continuity in time. Being so future oriented has made us very dynamic, and yet at the same time we could not mature because you cannot mature, either as a society or individual, without coming to grips with your past. That said, I think Armenians in the diaspora can be too past oriented and memory driven. When I meet a young Armenian, like eighteen or nineteen years old, I meet someone with a very old memory, the memory of her grandmother. But being too past-oriented can blur someone’s vision. Eventually, I wish we Turks could remember, and Armenians could forget.

Q. What books and writers have been particularly influential in your life?

A. So many . . . I have always had a very eclectic reading list. Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky, gloomy voices in European literature, such as Michel Tournier, Henry Mulisch, and of course Virginia Woolf. And then multiple voices in American literature, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison . . . To this endless list I must add my interest in Sufism. I also read extensively on Jewish and Islamic mysticism. As a political scientist, books on political philosophy too are an inspiration for me, particularly Spinoza and Deleuze.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. Right now I am working on my baby, as I just had a daughter. At the same time I am working on a script on honor killings. I want to use the most popular agency, that is to say, the TV, to question and confront sexism and honor killings.


  • On page 34, to whom, and for what, is Zeliha apologizing?
  • The women of this novel create many rules for themselves. Identify and list them, discussing the circumstances that each reflects.
  • How do the various characters in the novel express their femininity or womanhood? How do both the religious conservatism and the secularity of Istanbul influence them?
  • Asya wants so much to be different from her mother. Yet she is like her in so many ways. Compare and contrast Zeliha and Asya.
  • On page 135, Auntie Cevriye says, “The problem with us Turks is that we are constantly being misinterpreted and misunderstood.” Share your idea of what it must be like to live in Turkey. Has this book changed or reinforced your opinion?
  • Born on different continents and raised in different ethnic traditions, what do Asya and Armanoush have in common? How are they different?
  • Asya and Armanoush both find themselves in families that encourage conformity and dislike “standing out,” despite the fact that both families love their black sheep regardless. Explain the reasons each family feels this way and cite examples of how each acts out its preference.
  • Everywhere in this story are symbols of contradiction—or, more specifically, the concept of being many different things at once, existing in a state between belonging and separateness. Find some examples of this theme throughout the novel.
  • On pages 179–180, Asya and Armanoush discuss their differing opinions on the role of remembrance and the past. With whom do you most agree and why?
  • Zeliha refuses to tattoo her lover, Aram, with his chosen design: an upside down tree with its roots in the air. What does it mean to be displaced but not placeless? How does this concept apply to the characters of the novel?
  • Istanbul is personified in many different ways throughout the novel. It also serves as a symbol with many layers of meaning. While sharing drinks and dinner with Aram, Zeliha, and Asya, what is it that Armanoush comes to understand about Istanbul and its hold over Armenians and Turks alike? What significance does this portrayal of the city have for the novel and its characters?
  • With the weight of the truth on her shoulders, Auntie Banu wonders if it’s better for human beings to endlessly pine to discover their history or to know as little of the past as possible and forget what small amount is remembered. What do you think?
  • What is the significance of naming each chapter after an ingredient of the dessert ashure?
  • Customer Reviews

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    The Bastard of Istanbul 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I picked this book up randomly at B&N, a bit curious given the title. Istanbul has always been on the list of places I want to travel to. Reading this book, I felt like I was there. The family bond that you read is so touching. The passion these people are about their ancestors and culture is amazing. All the characters in this book are so realistic. I have already recommended this book to several people. This book hit my itch to read a book culturally rich. I have put Istanbul on the top of my list and will travel there as soon as its possible. I will definitely read another book from this author!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I always wanted to travel to Istanbul, and the descriptions of the sisters living in that city are fascinating. The story behind Armanoush's Armenian family is sad, yet hopeful. The plot moved quickly, and the ending is quite a surprise. It's got a little bit of romance, mystery, suspense and historical significance. What a great read this was. I highly, highly recommend this to all. I'm surprised it's not on the bestseller list. Oh, and kudos for the author who had the guts to write this as a Turkish woman about the Armenian genocide. I'm glad she didn't end up in jail. So, folks, take advantage of your freedom to read 'anything' and buy this book, or check it out of the library.
    regina77004 More than 1 year ago
    It is so hard to rate this book because I felt differently about different parts of the book: Beginning (Ch 1-5) 2 Stars Middle (Ch 6 - 14) 4 Stars End (Ch 14-18) 1 Star The Bastard of Istanbul is billed as a story of two families, one Armenian and one Turk, tied together by a secret related to the 1915 Armeian deportation and massacre. This portion of the story is very good. Unfortunately, this is a minor part of the story wtih the crux being disgusting and so unrelated to promising premise that you have to wonder if Shafak is simply going for shock value. The story is really about secrets and the destruction of those lies needed to keep that secret . The Kazanci family from Istanbul is a family with a curse. The men in the family die young. In current day Istanbul four generations of women live together with the exception of one brother who was sent to America in an attempt to protect him from the curse. Each of these women differ vastly in personality. Petit Ma is the gentle matriarch who now suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. Mother Gulsum is akin to Ivan the Terrible. Oldest sister Banu the clairvoyant, Sister Cevriye high school history teacher, Sister Feride is dealing with mental illness resulting in paranoia, rebel Zeliha, and the daughter she bore out of wedlock, Asya co-exist despite their vast differences. Brother Mustafa marries an American girl named Rose. Rose is a divorced mother of one daughter, Amy (Armanoush). Armanoush's father's family is Armenian and never approved of the American marriage with an Odar. The Armenian famiy are surivivors of the 1915 genocide. Originally Rose dates Mustafa seeking revenge on her ex Armenian in-laws but gradually a sincere love is formed. Armanoush, struggling with her conflicting cultural pasts, secretly travels to Istanbul to stay with her step-father's family to learn more of her Armenian heritage. The visit brings to light a litany of secrets impacting both families. Possible Spoiler: Late in the book we learn that Asya is not the result of her mother's rebelious streak but rather a very oddly constructed rape. The choice for the perpetrator is disgusting and doesn't add anything to the story. It is very disappointing that Shafak took the story in that direction and really ruined the book for me personally.
    firebird013 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Elif Shafak very nearly had to serve a three year prison term in Turkey because of some dialogue she gives to her Armenian protagonists. In the end wise heads prevailed in Turkey and she was just cautioned. Her story seems quite light-weight at first and never loses its humour and humanity. The themes are far from humorous however, and like Orhan Pamuk, she gives a real insight into the complexity of modern-day Turkey. The structure of the book is very clever and it is a most satisfying read.
    punxsygal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Very little plot. Endless descriptions of the main characters and secondary characters. Boring.
    jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This is an entertaining novel and a wonderful story of how the cultures of two families become intertwined with their personal relationships.Elif Shafak has created two fascinating young women, one a Turk living in Istanbul with her Aunts and one an Armenian living in Arizona with her mother and stepfather. Each girl is intelligent and they both enjoy reading although one is obsessed with existentialist authors while the other is immersed in modern literature. It is clear that the author has read Kundera and others, even though her book is sometimes a bit uneven and some of the large cast of characters are mere shadows.How the girls, Asya and Armanoush, come to know each other and their lives come together as the history of their families unfolds makes this a fascinating story. With the ghosts of the Armenian genocide in the background and other dark ghosts closer to home you are not surprised when one of the "Aunts" consults her jinns for help with the family mysteries. I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it for those interested in Turkish and Armenian culture as it changes in the current world.
    Zohrab on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The book goes through the lives of three generations of Turkish women plus a world apart but somehow connected an Armenian girl. The novel brings out some very sensitive issues usually ignored by turkish population. The author of the book been Turkish herself got my greatest admiration for writing trully about an issue that she is by law not allowed to write.
    eenerd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A great book; delves into the intricacies of family, identity, and where these things place us in the past and the present. Wonderfully written, engrossing, engaging, and relevant. I recommend Louis de Berniere's Birds Without Wings as a precursor if you are unfamiliar with the Armenian/Turkish history.
    Violina on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I'm oddly fascinated by Middle Eastern literature because in a way, I find myself to be a blend of Asya and Armanoush -- my past is a fleeting mystery and yet I feel bound to know and honour what little I know of my hertiage. Except that... I wasn't there, I don't know how to take grasp of it and I can't understand it.What I loved about the book was that there just seemed to be so much dichotomy that it screamed to me. Between one searching for answers for her heritage but doesn't really seem to know what it is to be Armenian to another who doesn't embrace their heritage because it's something that has been lost to them -- or never really cared in the first place.And yet while you try to disentangle the assumptions that each person has in the book, you find that their families are so very intertwined that the magical is used to explain how this all occurred.So at the end, one who fights to hold on to her heritage while another claims to deny the past, you find issue and yet admirably in both. You can't escape the past and you can't escape the heritage that has become you.
    EpicTale on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Drawn to the book by an NPR review of a more recent work by the author, I enjoyed it enough to finish -- but not enough to recommend it to others. With respect for the author's Turkish roots -- I would be happy to be a student in one of her college classes -- I found the English translation to be wooden and prosaic and the plot very predictable. For all the attention she paid to the main characters, I never felt the author really helped me to "know" them. Also, Shafak's style was terribly scattered and unfocused. She couldn't decide on a consistent tone. Despite all that, since I didn't know much about the Turks' genocide of the Armenians I was glad to read the book for that reason alone.
    annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Fascinating story of the intersection of the lives of a Turkish family with that of an American-Armenian girl, who comes to Istanbul looking for her family's past. Interesting in the way it shows how a topic that has been unmentionable in Turkey -- the fact that a massive wrong really was done to the Armenian community -- is starting to come out into the open. Only starting to: the author found herself in trouble for "anti Turkish speech". As a novel, this is pretty good, if a bit discursive. Also, why do there have to be so many wildly eccentric characters? Still, well worth reading, for enjoyment as well as instruction
    jeffersonsambrosia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book wasnt really my cup of tea. It was not a bad book. I just didn't connect with it much like I thought I would. I did honestly almost give up on the book, but I didn't and I am glad that I read it. Although, I really cant say much more than that. The characters, are human, you follow their struggles, and their life.
    trinibaby9 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I love the way the various threads of each characters history are interwoven. A book of unique and beautiful women. My only complaint is that the there was alot of plot and chracter development at the beginning of the novel, but then this seems to be abandoned and it drives quickly ahead to a mediocre and rushed finish. Despite this it is worth the read
    nolak on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Asya does not know who her father is, Armanoush does not understand her family history. Their two families become entwined in several ways and only at the end is it all understood and resolved. The turks do not like to think of the past, and the Armenians can't heal from it, but these two young girls form a friendship, one American and one Turkish. very well-written book, with the characters well-drawn and believable. I learned a lot about the Turkish life-style and the effects of the Armenian holocaust several generations later from reading this book.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    So different, and interesting. A must read.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I unfortunately bought this book after reading the reviews, now I am seriously questioning who really is writing the reviews! This book is void of a story, very scattered and garbled up. although the author seems to be making an attempt to make a point about the Armenian killings/genocide in Turkey in early 1900 s, it hardly takes the reader beyond shallow accusations, not able to stir feelings or sympathy. I have been forcing myself to finish it just because I paid for it dearly but at this rate of frequent sleep that accompanies reading this book, it is highly unlikely I will ever discover the ending.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Combines history from different perspectives and different points in time to weave a great story together. Thoroughly enjoyed it!
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    Graziuke More than 1 year ago
    I read this book in less than a week. So far it's the best Elif Shafak's book I have read. I like the way she blends fiction, history and culture all together. It gave me some insight about my bf's cultural background.
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