Passionate Appeal for Turkish-Kurdish Dialogue

In her novel "Face to Face", Turkish author Ayse Kulin relates the life stories of two women who although they are from opposite spectrums of Turkish society, are closely connected with one another through fate. Book review by Volker Kaminski

Photo: Ömer Akcay
Born 1941 in Istanbul, Ayse Kulin has been the frequent recipient of the "Author of the Year" award in Turkey. Many of her stories and novels have been turned into films and translated into numerous languages

​​ This interview is her big chance. Nevra Tuna, a Turkish journalist at a dead end in both her professional and private life, enters a prison to conduct an interview, arranged by an influential contact, with Zelha Bora, a prominent Kurdish politician who is detained there. Nevra expects her reportage on Zelha, who has been in jail for years on charges of separatism, to salvage her career. But as the conversation progresses, it quickly becomes apparent just how difficult a venture this is; the political differences between the Turkish and Kurdish sides are too great, and reciprocal accusations become all too rapidly vociferous.

But before the conversation comes to a premature end, and the Kurdish activist turns away to return to her cell, Nevra comes clean: 35 years ago they were best friends, two girls who lived in the same village for five years, inseparable blood sisters who never did forget each other after all.

Bridging the gap

With this basic narrative idea, Ayse Kulin succeeds in bridging the gap between apparently insurmountable cultural and political opposites. The conversation, which moves into a high gear after initial sluggishness, shows to what extent these two women living in the same country move in totally different spheres, and just how dramatically their paths have diverged since the time they spent together. It is a dialogue full of drama, passion and pain, but also marked with beautiful, rekindled memories, a conversation that continues throughout the entire novel.

In that eastern Anatolian village where they spent their childhood together, Nevra's father worked as a district administrator. It was in this function that he came into contact with the Kurdish population, which lived in family tribes. The men are allowed to have several wives; the observance of archaic laws means blood revenge and honour killings are not uncommon. Most girls are not expected to attend school – but an exception is made for Zelha, who is allowed to attend primary school together with Nevra.

So although she is given the chance of an education to a certain extent, after the district administrator's family leaves the village she has to stop attending school and is sent out to work in the fields instead.

Fighting a thousand adversities

But Zelha is not prepared to accept these repressive measures and in a daring escapade, she hooks up with a local boy and they run away to another city. But her long-term plans are thwarted by a miscarriage. Zelha ruefully returns to her village, where she is only protected from her brother's attempts to seek blood revenge by the authority of her grandfather.

​​ Zelha is married off to a 40-year-old widower who already has children of his own. She does however appear to be happy, moves with him to Ankara and the couple have three children. Her husband is a Kurdish member of parliament, and when he runs into trouble, Zelha herself locks horns with the world of politics; she dedicates herself to his cause, gets herself voted into parliament and before long, she is arrested for issuing separatist statements and sentenced to a prison term.

The women's dialogue does not only revolve around Zelha's fate, but also illuminates Nevra's highly contradictory existence. The reader discovers many details about Nevra, who leads the modern life of an open-minded Turkish woman. Not that this made things easier for her. Although she is initially happy with her husband, her relationship fails when Nevra falls in love with another married man, and is ground down by the monotony of her marriage.

A huge narrative undertaking

Although she does not have to grapple with the strict laws of a backward tribal society, she also finds it difficult to achieve balance in her life in spite of personal freedom and a challenging profession. The fact that she does not dare to tell her old friend that both her parents and herself have been divorced, is just one of many empathetic aspects of this moving novel.

Using personal life stories as well as the major historical events that have impacted virtually the entire history of Turkey, Ayse Kulin manages to present an absorbing illustration of the monumental Turkish-Kurdish conflict. In the process, the interview situation in the foreground is repeatedly interrupted by flashbacks focusing on differing aspects in the lives of the two protagonists. Kulin sets herself a huge narrative undertaking and it is above all her great literary talent that holds the novel together.

Kulin, born in 1941, is very well known in Turkey as a writer of novels, short stories and biographies. Her works are best sellers, and the novel "Bir Gün" published in 2005 has already been translated into English. Kulin has been awarded numerous prizes and people in Turkey listen attentively to what she has to say – especially on controversial matters such as this.

It is clear that her novel cannot provide any answers to the unresolved questions in the Kurdish conflict. But it goes much further than the average political novel, which so often runs out of steam endlessly peddling the familiar arguments – it is a passionate appeal for mutual dialogue, a plea for the education of oppressed girls in eastern Turkey, and a call to avoid violence in any shape or form as a way of resolving the conflict.

Volker Kaminski

© 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

Murathan Mungan
The Muse of Mardin
Murathan Mungan is one of Turkey's most popular contemporary writers – not least because of his provocative and experimental style of narration and his habit of challenging social taboos. Nimet Seker presents a portrait of the author

New Developments in Turkish Literature
From Provincial Reality to Problems of the Individual
Even before Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Turkish literature had already taken a major step towards modernization. Turkish author Feridun Andaç reports with an overview of Turkish literature

"Chador" by Murathan Mungan
Journey into Nowhere
Murathan Mungan is almost as well-known and popular in Turkey as Orhan Pamuk. This is all the more noteworthy because Mungan is open about his homosexuality. His latest novel, Chador, is a bleak odyssey through a country ruled by religious fanatics. Volker Kaminski read the book

Literary Dialogue
Literature plays an important role in intercultural dialogue. Our dossier shines the spotlight on some remarkable authors, books, translations and dialogue initiatives