I prefer not to know anything about a book or its author when I start reading it. I want to make my own judgment on it. It isn’t easy to do of course. You can’t just pick a book at random. And so you always have some kind of prejudice. In this case someone told me it was a good book that I would enjoy. The synopsis was that it was about a woman from Istanbul who gets to study in Oxford. This is true, but only in the sense that it is true that the Lord of the Rings is about how somebody got rid of some unwanted jewellery they had been given. There is rather more than that going on.
There is a political angle to this. The heroine has to overcome gender issues and religious prejudice. That was sort of what I was expecting. But this is all a backdrop. She’s much more interested in the issues that religion poses to all of us, in particular is any of it true? And even if you’ve made your mind up on that, how do you deal with the tricky matter of people who don’t agree with you. And even worse, people who do. And then there’s your family – what on earth do you do with them?
I finished reading this book at about the same time that Russia invaded the Ukraine. This coincided with a lot of news coverage of migrants crossing the English Channel to seek refuge in the UK. Both of these events made me think a lot about identity. I realised that I felt very different about people from the Middle East and Africa arriving by this route than I would have felt had it been French people.
On thinking a bit more I realised that I basically had two categories of humans in my head. Those that I would want to help spontaneously regardless of circumstances. And those I wasn’t too fussed about, but would help as an abstract moral duty. So I’ve got an in group that I’d help regardless, and an out group that I suppose I should help but I don’t really feel much like it. I may be unique in this – but I suspect I’m not.
The positive list was Europeans including ethnic Russians, but not necessarily all Russian citizens. All Americans north and south counted, as did Australians and New Zealanders. So basically everyone who is white. But when I thought more about it, there are a number of groups I couldn’t decide on. What about white South Africans? I’m not sure what I feel about them. Israelis? I think I’d welcome them – and it’s not hard to imagine circumstances where they might need to get out of Israel in a hurry in ways that would make you feel very sympathetic to them. It’s a rough neighbourhood. But equally, you can’t rule out them having to leave because they’ve done something unacceptable either, which would put them into the moral obligation category.
I also realised I had black Caribbeans in my friend list, but not black Africans. So it wasn’t about skin colour. Phew. (The internet doesn’t do nuance, so I realise I’ve probably written enough to end any political or show biz career there. Luckily I am a nobody.) So what is that makes me more sympathetic to some humans than others? Basically it is down to knowing them well enough to think of them as humans. And that in turn is basically about how much cultural contact I have with them.
This is where this book came in. I would have put Turks in my out group. But reading this book about Turks had the effect of making me realise that they are pretty much the same as us. This wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t have to work on it, it just happened imperceptibly by spending the 7 or 8 hours it took me to complete the book in the company of a Turkish woman.
This book is about belief and politics, and how they affect people. We live in a world where politics and religion impose themselves on the problems we already have. It doesn’t give any answers. You have to work them out yourself. One of the things I took away from it was the basic similarity of humankind. Turks it turns out have the same issues and problems as we do. But I need to actually spend some time with people to develop genuine empathy for them. Perhaps that means I’m not a good person, but at least I have a strategy for coping with it. I’ll make a point of reading more books from other cultures in the future. If you are looking for a book to do the same about Turkey, this would be a good choice.