By Chet Yarbrough
Birds Without Wings
By Louis de Bernieres
Louis de Bernieres (British novelist)
“Birds Without Wings” is a fictional account of the rise of the Turkish Republic after WWI. The author, Louis de Bernieres chooses a setting for his story in a village in southwestern Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast. The village is populated by different ethnicities and religions at the time of Turkey’s transition from Ottoman Empire to independent state. What makes the novel interesting is it comes from a recommendation of a Turkish Tour guide.
There are many, many characters in de Bernieres’ novel. The story’s attraction is marred by its leisurely pace and manifold characters. However, threads of de Bernieres’ created lives come together in its last chapters. Each character offers a novelist eye view of cultural disruption, conflict, and resolution in Turkey’s journey to statehood.
The village of Eskibahce (presumed to be Kayakoy, Turkey) is peopled by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, and Turks who live under Ottoman rule.
It is not a cosmopolitan village with wealthy merchants and productive industry. It is a small community of sheepherders, subsistence farmers, one Pasha, one successful entrepreneur, and two religious leaders.
One wonders about the purpose of a Tour guide’s selection of this book. Is it to offer a better understanding of Turkish culture or to give an opinion on the current state of affairs in Turkey? The story illustrates how cultural, and religious differences influence and often repeat history. The author shows how the past is always present.
It is troubling that this cultural novel is written by an Englishman because of England’s pre-WWI, and postwar history with Turkey.
Is the writer being objective? One is reminded of an astute analysis of American Democracy by a Frenchman in 1835.
In WWI, the Turks (as part of the Ottoman Empire) are by treaty compelled to join the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) against the Allied powers (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Portugal,and the U.S.)
The Village is relatively quiescent until war is declared and Turkey is compelled to take sides. As the Allies defeat the Central Powers, the former Ottoman Empire is divided by the victors. In spite of the Central Powers defeat, Turkey demands independence and heads toward authoritarian dictatorship.
In de Bernieres’ novel, Mustafa Kemal is shown as an accomplished military leader who evolves into a secular President who nominally endorses democracy.
Though Kemal professes support for a democratic government, he remains an autocrat during his reign. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the 1st President of an independent Turkey (1923-1938). He dies at age 57 in 1938.
What makes the novel interesting is its depiction of rural life in a small multi-cultural village on the Mediterranean coast. The influence of culture and religion is revealed in de Bernieres’ vignettes of Village life.
The author shows how Greeks and Turks live in the same community before WWI. They live in discord but measured acceptance. Women can be stoned to death but saved by the religion that dictates such a punishment. Written rules of conflicting religions and cultural differences co-exist in a diverse community.
Christians and Muslims intermarry. Both a Christian Father and a Muslim Imam show compassion for residents of the Village. Christian and Muslim youths are as close as brothers.
A Greek Christian Father is considered irascible and judgmental by many in the village but he is a source of education for illiterate villagers.
A Muslim’s son joins the Ottoman army in WWI and writes a letter to his mother.
The letter cannot be read by the Muslim family because it is written with Greek lettering. Though the father of the Muslim son dislikes the Christian teacher in the village, he goes to him for help in reading the letter.
The son’s letter is translated by the Christian Father. This Christian taught the Greek alphabet to Muslim children, and showed them how to read and write Greek lettering. The letter is beautiful and poignant. It explains how much his mother meant to the writer as a boy in the Village. The Turkish father is deeply grateful for the gift of hearing what was written in the letter. He praises the Christian Father for teaching his son how to read and write. The letter is a precious gift for the family.
In another story, a political leader and the richest man in the village is profiled by the writer. His name is Rustum Bey. His wife has a lover. The lover is discovered by Rustum Bey. Partly from defense and partly from rage, Rustum Bey murders his wife’s lover and places her in front of a mob of locals (of all faiths) who begin stoning her for adultery.
The Village Imam stops the stoning and rescues the adulterous wife from the enraged mob.
In continuation of this vignette, the author tells of Rustum Bey’s guilt for placing his wife in harms way. The adulterous wife recovers from the stoning but is compelled by Village ostracism and Muslim belief to live the life of a prostitute. Rustum Bey never divorces his wife. He shows remorse for having put her in front of a mob, and regrets her having to live the life she lives. To Rustum Bey, it is not a matter of forgiveness but of understanding.
In Rustum Bey’s loneliness, he purchases a concubine to become his companion. He presumes the concubine is Muslim. However, she is Greek. The two grow to love each other but circumstances of history compel his concubine to leave.
Rustum Bey’s concubine chooses to leave when Ataturk orders all Greeks to leave Turkey. Though she has not revealed her true nationality to Rustum Bey, she chooses to return to the country of her birth.
As a result of Ataturk’s command, in a mass exodus, Greek men, women, and children are turned out of their homes and forced to leave the Village. They leave by foot, mule, or boat with just what they can carry. Some are old, crippled, and without food for the trip. Many homes are left locked and unoccupied because they cannot be sold. The village begins to look like a ghost town.
Kayakoy, Turkey today–
Obvious hatred exists in Eskibahce (aka Kayakoy) for events that occurred in the past and are reminded of in the present. Greece once ruled the area of Smyrna in Turkey. Greeks committed many atrocities in their rule. Those atrocities are compounded in various WWI’ battles.
Greece’s occupation of Symrna 1919-1922.
The horror of war is dramatically described by de Bernieres. The author writes of the stink of dead corpses, the vermin that infest the living and dead, and the rape of innocents. These historical events live in the minds of those who survive.
In another story, the author describes the betrothal of Ibrahim (a Turkish Muslim) and Philothei (a Greek Christian) at age 13 and 12 and how their love ends in tragedy.
An Ottoman Betrothal
WWI lives in Ibrahim’s memory with such horror that he cannot return to Eskibahce’s peace to marry Philothei. Ataturk demands deportation of all Greeks from Eskibahce. Philothei must leave unless she marries a Turk.
Ibrahim is still dealing with the memories of war and is unable to understand Philothei’s pleas. They argue near a cliff where Ibrahim is tending sheep. Philothei trips and falls to her death.
These and many stories are told of life in early twentieth century Turkey that seem reminiscent of the same conflicts that exist today. Is the current President of Turkey like Ataturk? Have old conflicts between religion and culture changed or are they the same? Hopefully, a traveler to Turkey will gain some answers, or at least, insight to what it means to be a Turkish citizen.