Excerpt from The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Bastard of Istanbul

by Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 368 pages
    Feb 2008, 368 pages

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That was a little unfair to the rain, since the traffic, the broken cobblestones, the municipality, the stalker, and the cabdriver, not to mention the stop for shopping, should also have been held accountable for her delay, but Zeliha decided to bring up none of those. She might have violated The Golden Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman, she might also have violated The Silver Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman, but she held her ground to abide by the Copper Rule.

The Copper Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman: When harassed on the street, you’d better forget about the incident as soon as you are on your way again, since to recall the incident all day long will only further wrack your nerves!

Zeliha was smart enough to know that even if she had brought up the harassment now, other women, far from being supportive, would have the tendency to pass judgment on a harassed sister in cases like these. So she kept the answer short and the rain remained the only thing to blame.

“Your age, miss?” the receptionist wanted to know.

Now that was an annoying question, and utterly unnecessary. Zeliha squinted at the receptionist as if she were some sort of a semidarkness one needed to adjust her eyes to better see. All of a sudden, she remembered the sad truth about herself: her age. Like too many women used to acting above and beyond their years, she was disturbed by the fact that, after all, she was far younger than she’d like to be.

“I am,” she conceded, “nineteen years old.” As soon as the words came out of her mouth, she blushed, as if caught naked in front of all these people.

“We’d need the consent of your husband, of course,” the receptionist continued, no longer in a chirpy voice, and wasted no time in proceeding on to another question, the answer of which she already suspected. “May I ask you, are you married, miss?”

From the corner of her eye Zeliha noticed the plump blonde on her right and the head-scarved woman on her left wriggle uncomfortably. As the inquisitive gaze of every person in the room weighed heavier upon her, Zeliha’s grimace evolved into a beatific smile. Not that she was enjoying the tortuous moment, but the indifference deep underneath had just whispered to her not to mind other people’s opinions since they would make no difference at the end of the day. Lately she had decided to purge certain words from her vocabulary and now that she recalled that decision, why not start with the word shame. Still, she didn’t have the nerve to utter aloud what by now everyone in the room had fully understood. There was no husband to consent to this abortion. There was no father. Instead of a BA-BA* there was only a VO-ID.

Fortunately for Zeliha, the fact that there was no husband turned out to be an advantage in formalities. Apparently she didn’t need to get anyone’s written approval. The bureaucratic regulations were less keen to rescue babies born out of wedlock than those born to married couples. A fatherless baby in Istanbul was just another bastard, and a bastard just another sagging tooth in the city’s jaw, ready to fall out at any time.

“Your birthplace?” the receptionist continued drearily.



Zeliha shrugged as if to say, where else could it be? Where else on earth but here? She belonged to this city! Wasn’t that visible on her face? After all, Zeliha considered herself a true Istanbulite, and as if to reprimand the receptionist for failing to see such an apparent fact, she turned back on her broken heel and invited herself to the chair next to the head-scarved woman. It was only then that she took notice of the latter’s husband, who was sitting still, almost paralyzed with embarrassment. Rather than passing judgment on Zeliha, the man seemed to be wallowing in the discomfort of being the only male here, in such a blatantly feminine zone. For a second Zeliha felt sorry for him. It occurred to her to ask the man to step onto the balcony and have a smoke with her, for she was sure he smoked. But that could be misinterpreted. An unmarried woman could not ask such questions of married men, and a married man would display hostility toward another woman when next to his wife. Why was it difficult to become friends with men? Why did it always have to be like that? Why couldn’t you just step out onto the balcony and have a smoke and exchange a few words, and then go your separate ways? Zeliha sat there silently for one long moment, not because she was dog-tired, which she was, or because she was fed up with all the attention, which she was as well, but because she wanted to be next to the open window; she was hungry for the sounds of the street. A street vendor’s husky voice infiltrated the room: “Tangerines . . . Fragrant, fresh tangerines . . .”

Excerpted from The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, © 2007 by Elif Shafak. Excerpted by permission of Viking Press, a division of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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