… Their honour was all that some men had in this world … The English didn’t understand these ancient rules. Their wives could kiss other men, drink and dance with strangers, and they would look on smiling.
Honour. In recent years, much of the negative publicity surrounding the Middle Eastern diaspora has revolved, among other things, around this piercing and elusive word which is so often misunderstood. As a Westerner, I often equate honour with concepts such as nobility, dignity, and respectability; as an Iranian and an Easterner, however, the word goes far beyond such comparatively petty terms. As children, my friends and I had no shortage of inventive, novel, and ingenious obscenities to hurl at each other. However, nothing stung as much as being called a namard (lit. ‘non-man’) or bi-gheyrat (lit. ‘honourless’). Similarly, while one might not have made much of another’s anger or frustration, the minute the word namoos (honour) was uttered, you knew things were going to get ugly.
Indeed, in certain Middle Eastern cultures, a man’s honour is no laughing matter. Simply put, it’s something that depends on both a man’s own actions and folly, as well as those of his female relatives – especially where relations with the opposite sex are concerned. Like a set of dominoes, if one woman in the family – a mother, sister, daughter – ‘errs’, she takes the whole family down with them. Sometimes, in such instances the shame – or rather, the sense of shame – brought upon certain families by these seemingly reprehensible acts is so stifling and devastating that the men of the house feel compelled to forever cleanse their hitherto unsullied faces of its source. In certain cases, the woman in question is killed – most often without remorse or regret – or alternatively, is given the opportunity to do the deed herself; for while women may come and go, a family’s honour (or lack thereof) is everlasting.
Aside from the chilling stories flaunted in the news in a ‘see, I told you so’ fashion, the subject of honour and the killings committed in its name in a Middle Eastern context have also been highlighted in the art of the region, with literature being no exception. Just a few years ago, O.Z. Livaneli’s novel, Bliss caused a sensation in the West, and was recently adapted into a film. Although displaying overtly mainstream tendencies, the novel was significant in the fact that it not only tackled a sensitive and controversial topic head-on, but that it did so from a Middle Eastern perspective, as opposed to a Western one. Similarly, Elif Shafak’s latest effort – simply titled Honour – casts another light on the topic, albeit from a different perspective, and in a far different context.
Whereas Livaneli’s Bliss took place close to home – in the Anatolian countryside, and later, Istanbul – Shafak’s novel combines the subject of honour with the immigrant experience. Set in East London in the 70s, Shafak’s novel tells the story of the Toprak family, and the troubles that befall them after an illicit extra-marital affair takes place. Living in grey and grimy Hackney, the Topraks – a half Turkish, half Kurdish family from Urfa – are a rather incongruous bunch. Adem, a spineless gambler who ditched his family for a Russian prostitute, and his lonely plain-Jane wife, Pembe, have three children – Iskender, Esma, and Yunus. While Esma engrosses herself in her books, and the innocent, baby-faced Yunus joins a group of communist squatters, the troubled Iskender – or Alex, as his friends call him – falls in with the wrong bunch of kids, and slowly watches his bleak life take wrong turn after wrong turn. After their uncle Tariq – the antithesis of their shameful father – catches Pembe with another man outside a cinema, it’s up to Iskender to set things straight. After all, when his honour was in the hands of another woman, what was he but a mere domino? As Shafak explains, ‘They shared the same surname. If one of them was disgraced, shame would attach itself to him as the eldest Toprak. Their honour was his honour’.
In between the Topraks’ familial dilemmas, Shafak vividly brings to life 70s London in all its grittiness and griminess. Reminiscent of Hanif Kureishi’s edgy, early novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, in Honour one comes across places, characters, and sounds, which perfectly evoke the bleakness of the times. While the Clash’s album, Give ‘em Enough Rope (cleverly name checked in reference to an unsavoury family incident) plays in the background, Shafak takes you by the hand through Holloway Road, Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, and the now-celebrated Brick Lane, where you encounter skinheads, casual racists, squatters, and subversive religious fanatics. Her depiction of a London that is anything but a ‘sleepy’ town is so vivid and vibrant that you cannot help but be overwhelmed by a sense of gloom and anxiety, as the pungent smell of cigarette butts, stale beer, fresh urine, and cheap Bangladeshi takeaway pervades your nostrils.
I have to admit – when I unexpectedly came across Honour in a Hampstead bookstore, I immediately thought, oh no – not again. After having encountered the subject far too many times for my liking, I thought I was going to have to subject myself to something painfully cliché; fortunately, though, I was mistaken. Although like Bliss, the book is quite commercial, it’s formidable in its biting accuracy of the immigrant experience, its characters which simultaneously evoke sympathy, disgust, and admiration, and its alternative take on its namesake. While for the most part, Livaneli vilifies those behind honour killings and the practice itself, Shafak takes a more humanistic and rounded view of the issue, and is far less judgmental. Sure, Adem Toprak’s wife is dating another man – but then again, he can understand, having effectively dumped her for a prostitute. Likewise, the ‘culprit’ in the novel isn’t as evil as one would expect, considering the fact that he meditates, softens up to a sixty-something ‘guru’ from Brunei, and writes tear-jerking letters in between prison brawls. Throughout a story of twists, turns, and powerful storytelling, Shafak ditches the black-and-white clichés and stereotypes to provide us with the other side of the story – the one that will most likely never (may I be proven wrong) reach the pages of our daily paper.
Originally published in REORIENT