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Ece Temelkuran: Düğümlere Üfleyen Kadınlar (Women Who Blow on Knots)

Our narrator is an unnamed journalist who, like Ece Temelkuran herself, has just been fired from her job in Turkey, for having criticised the government. She has decided to go to Tunisia to see what is happening with the Arab Spring. She is naturally feeling despondent and wants to be on her own in the evening. She is thinking that she may write a book about the Arab Spring.

Very soon, however, she meets two other women in the hotel. The first is Maryam, an Egyptian from the Cairo American University History Department. The second is Amira, a dancer but also a hacker who has worked with Anonymous to bring down government websites. The three women soon become fast friends. They all have similar political ideas – fighting for freedom in their respective countries and also with strong feminist ideals. Indeed, one of the first things they do when they get together is to mimic the men of their respective countries. We had no idea that the cure to all our problems was present in each other and that the balm we would blend together could protect humankind from evil.

They soon meet a fourth woman, a local woman but older than them. She is Madame Lilla and she invites them to dinner at her house. She certainly mothers them to a certain extent and they partially resent this but they soon all four become close.

At the same time, we are observing the Arab Spring, as it happens in Tunisia and also are learning about the situation in Egypt and Turkey. The Arab Spring in Tunisia does not seem to be as successful as they had hoped. There is barbed wire around the ministries, soldiers everywhere and people complaining that things do not seem to have improved much. In Turkey they don’t believe Arabs are going to change anything. Most people believe the CIA has a hand in all this.

They also do the tourist things. They go to a bathhouse where Amira has something of an altercation with some other young women, and visit Carthage, where they remember a couple of Tunisian feminist icons – Dido and Kahina. Our narrator however, is a bit disappointed with Carthage and the whole situation. What in the world was I doing in this godforsaken country anyway?

Then Madame Lilla offers to take all three of them to Syria on a trip (over land – she does not fly). Our narrator, however, has decided to return to Turkey and she packs her bags and heads to the airport. Just before boarding she receives a phone call from a friend advising her not to come back as there have been more arrests. She abandons her flight. Back at the hotel, she learns that Amira has had a further altercation with the women in the bathhouse and one of them has accidentally died. Time to leave.

The journey to Syria, which makes up the bulk of the book, is naturally the most colourful part of the story. They find out a lot about Mme Lilla (including her various names) and about one another, as revelations are made. Their journey takes them to a UN refugee camp, to a group of Amazigh guerrillas fighting Gaddafi, with whom Mme Lilla seems to have strong connections, more connections with Dido, an explanation of the title of the book (it comes from the Koran, specifically Sura 113.4 and refers to unruly women, which these women identify with) and arguments whether the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions were the real revolution.

Mme Lilla announces that she is looking for the man who destroyed the world I brought to life with my breath and produces a gun to show what she intends. She advises the other three You cannot stay home. … We are pilgrims. So you can’t go home. If you go home you’ll suffocate and die. You aren’t like them. You have to keep walking and Ladies, you must learn to drink your own tears and change pain into anger.

Things heat up somewhat and they have to flee. Next stop is Alexandria, where we learn more about the Egyptian Revolution and they attend a party for Hypatia. From there they go, somewhat accidentally, to Beirut, where there are more revelations about their complicated pasts and they get involved in cocaine smuggling. But all the while Mme Lilla is looking for the man who destroyed the world I brought to life with my breath.

This is a long and complex novel. As the narrator states A circular narrative. A ring whose ends never touch. When I pulled one out it ripped into pieces and I couldn’t patch it together. This is how women tell stories. They begin somewhere in the middle then go back to the start and from there they carry on till the end.

Firstly, it is a wonderful story as all four women are both fleeing from something but also looking for something and, in doing so, have a series of very colourful adventures, often in parts of the world that are not safe for anyone, let alone casual tourists. If you just read the book as a lively adventure story, you will enjoy it very much.

However, there is much more going on. It is, of course, very much about the Arab Spring and, by extension, freedoms generally in the Muslim world, including Turkey. We follow events in Tunisia and Egypt and learn about events elsewhere, including but not limited to Turkey. There is not always agreement among the four as to exactly what is happening and what should happen.

Most importantly, this is a feminist novel. Firstly, it is made very clear that the Arab Spring is not just a male uprising but that women were and are very much involved in it. The freedoms that they are fighting for are as much about freedoms for women as anything else. It is no secret that, in much of the Muslim world, women are suppressed. These four women both exemplify the independent woman in the Muslim world and are showing the way for other women. We have numerous examples of this, from their purchase of alcohol in Tunisia (and subsequent dispute with their taxi driver about it) to their continual standing up to and challenging of men who have old-fashioned ideas about the role of women.

The men in this book do not come out well. Three of the women (not the narrator) have all had serious men problems and can be quite critical of men. For example, If a man says nothing don’t be fooled into thinking anything is actually going on up there and that he has simply chosen not to speak. If he doesn’t speak it’s because he’s got nothing to say.. Despite this, the three do define themselves, to a certain degree, by their relationship to men, even if it is only a desire to kill one.

This is an absolutely brilliant novel, very well-written, continually on the move, raising important ideas about the world we currently live in and showing those of us in the West that the struggle for women’s rights and the rights of all peoples in this part of world has a long way to go but that it is in the hands of women as much as men.

First published in 2013 by Everest
First English publication by Parthian in 2017