The possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilization was not as frightening as the simple realization that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us. Now that, she had always thought, was terrifying.
We begin at the end for Tequila Leila, ‘as she was known to her friends and her clients.’ Working, before her sorry death, at one of the oldest licensed brothels in Istanbul she is no longer in her apartment, now she lays dead, vanishing further away from the here and now, ‘inside a metal rubbish bin with rusty handles and flaking paint.’ How did she end up discarded like trash, less than trash? Her group of misfits and best friends Sinan, Nalan , Zaynab , Humeyra and Jameelah don’t know yet what has happened, they intend to find out. Her friends, nothing more than garbage themselves according to the country and times they live in, the sole family she has left-at least that will acknowledge her, are the ones left behind to care about what has happened to her, just another dead prostitute to the citizens, but so much more to them. They don’t have rights, they must find a way (of course it’s a crime) to give her a proper burial, they may be her true family, but not legally.
How did you get here Leila? The mind sticks around and soon there is an influx of memories, the earliest is her birth and through that ‘slippery passage’ the transgression that followed against her own mother is recalled. In fact, though this novel is about outcasts, and many will focus most on the transvestite Nostalgia Nalan and Zaynab the dwarf, whose stories are very engaging, it is Leila’s mother, aunt and uncle’s sordid tale that clutched at me. It is here that everything went awry, where the hope for a different sort of life, one free of ‘shame’ was made impossible. Here lies the wreckage, and how my heart broke for Lelia’s mother, all the lies that darkened the family. We learn who truly bears the mark of shame, and it isn’t in Lelia’s decomposing body.
Her first mistake was being born a girl to her father’s second wife, and what are women if not vessels to deliver cherished sons? And if they cannot, well the elders assured Leila’s father that the Qur’an allows a man to have up to four wives. What good are wives who have only miscarriages? God help you, woman, if you are a flawed. This time Binnaz (second wife) took care to heed old wives tales and superstitions, leaving nothing to chance. Yet it is the shock of how she is rewarded for her efforts that has lasting effects on Lelia, who has two mothers. What rights does a second wife have? None. She must be an obedient wife, who is she to complain? No one, nothing, just a mere woman. All Leila’s father Houran wants is for his baby girl (though he desires a perfect son) to one day make him proud, “true to your religion, true to your nation, true to your father.” But how do you measure loyalty, pride, obedience, and chastity when others are bent on fouling the waters? Just who truly is a shame to their religion, to Allah? Rather than an example of piety, she is a challenge to her father, a thing to be cast away and disowned and surely through no fault of her own.
As her heart ceases to beat she recalls only the lonely child she was. The severity of her father, the odd behavior of her deeply trouble, sad, mentally unstable aunt and the complex relationship her mother had with her. It was a house of whispers, the women controlled by her father’s beliefs, and the simmering anger a confusion to Lelia who is sheltered from the truth. After a terrible abuse, Leila loses both her family and love….
The streets are mean, it is in the brothels where hustlers bring her to find refuge and here Leila loses all hope of ever being a proper Muslim woman. It is also in this life where she finds her true family, and so begins their heavy stories, no lighter nor happier than Leila’s. These are the people tourists don’t see, and the ones the citizens would rather ignore or use, the disposable women. What happens to Leila is brutal, meant to expose the violence against women, but if you go back, isn’t what happened to Leila’s powerless mother just as violent in it’s own godless way? There is hypocrisy particularly in religious fervor, in the existence of these sinful places that are denied, and her friends lives are heavy, take “Osman” Nalan’s transformation, it is hard to contemplate in a time, place against women. Imagine trying to survive in her shoes.
It’s not solely those born native to the soil who face being subjugated by men. Some arrive there through trickery, as Jameelah’s story has her forced into our modern form of slavery. If you’re not forced into marriage, another brand of slavery for some as Humeyra can attest to , then you’re trafficked like Jameelah. Too, women subjugate each other as much as they uplift. We see this in the hatred between Jameelah’s stepmother and the cruelty Suzan heaps upon Binnaz, because I can’t think of a crueler thing. So while the tight bond and love Leila and her friends have, even despite death, there is shame too between women within this tale.
This is a world where fathers seek spiritual masters, where women are defeated, and being an outcast can end in brutal murder. Where unless you have family, you are buried like a pauper, trash. It’s an interesting blend of family, abuse, mental illness, politics, religion, feminism, society, poverty, wealth -there is a hell of a lot happening here. It’s hard for those of us living in the Western World to comprehend being punished for crimes against us, living in fear of religion. I hate to say this too, but in how men are teased by their elders it certainly fuels the fire, that man feels a push to punish his women… Women still have a long way to go when it comes to feminism, but in other parts of the world, you die for your dissension towards those in power. The filth upon you, put there by rape, is your fault and can never be washed clean. It’s unconscionable. These are places you do not speak up, as you see when Leila tries, look how that ends.
Her friends stories are told, and in fleeting memories Leila speaks but I was far more interested in her as a child. I felt I lost her when she grew up, however her friends fill that hole. They make up the ‘immodest sinners’ of these ‘immoral times’. Still, what they are forced to do is a freedom from where they escaped, lives among the ruins. Elif Shafak gives voice to those never heard, after-all, they don’t exist right?
Publication Date: September 24, 2019