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Güneli Gün: On the Road to Baghdad

A picaresque, magic realism novel is not necessarily what you might expect from a Turkish author but this novel is just that. As well as being picaresque and magic realist, it is also historical, set in the late fourteenth, early fifteenth centuries.

Our heroine is Hürü, born in 1496. Her father was a Karaman prince from Konya. There were lots of principalities in Turkey (as in Germany) but the Ottomans gradually brought them all under Ottoman rule, with the Karamanid rule ending in 1487. Her mother was from the steppes.

Hürü was far from the model student, according to her tutor, not least because she did not blindly accept Muslim doctrine but questioned it. Indeed, according to her tutor, a she asked far too many questions. Her parents considered that she should be educated, as she was not attractive and might have difficulty attracting a husband. Worst of all, she liked music.

Her parents had regularly sought permission to travel to Mecca but had been denied, but were finally accepted. Hürü was to stay behind under the care of her tutor and the local imam. So her parents set off to Baghdad, accompanied by Hürü’s half-brother (her mother had previously been married), Mahmut Jan. When they were gone, Hürü found that while her parents may well have considered her unattractive, the imam did not and he tried to seduce her. When she resisted, he wrote to her parents, who were still in Baghdad and complained of her bad behaviour. Mahmut Jan was immediately sent back to investigate.

Mahmut Jan takes her to Konya and then ties her to a tree and abandons her. Fortunately, the tree is not really a tree but seems to be a man. She manages to escape and the man disappears. She then decides to set out on adventures, instead of returning home.

It is at this point that we enter into magic realism and fantasy. She disguises herself as a boy and is found by a wandering prince (half barbarian and half scholar) who will turn out to be the future sultan, Selim I. He, thinking of her as boy, takes her into his service. She, of course, falls in love with him, but cannot reveal her sex, Moreover, she is partially repulsed by him, as he is ruthless and cruel as we shall see when he tries to seize the throne from his father, bypassing his two older brothers.

As she is in Konya, she also meets and learns much from the dervishes. This lasts well for a while but then she has to leave and again sets out on her strange adventures, planning to go to Baghdad. The rest of the novel concerns her very strange, picaresque, fantastical adventures. The Thousand and One Nights are clearly an influence here. She meets a host of magical, characters, travels through time, follows Indiana Jones types puzzles and adventures, falls foul of jinns, sees and causes death and destruction and even ends up in modern New York. In good One Thousand and One Nights tradition, we get stories within stories.

Indeed, she meets Scheherazade who has never heard of the name One Thousand and One Nights or its Arabic equivalent ʾAlf layla wa-layla. Indeed, the version of the story Scheherazade recounts here is different from the one we know. To help explain it all, Hürü summons a jann (not a jinn), called Jaan Baath, who seems to be John Barth, who was long interested in One Thousand and One Nights and other legendary tales. It is he that explains our, modern view of the story.

As both the author and main character are female, we get a decidedly feminist stance. Clearly, in the days of yore, which this novel mainly deals with, women had a very subservient role. Gün gets round this by having Hürü and other leading female characters assume male roles on several occasions. While some of the characters notice that the false male does not seem to have started shaving, none of them seems to notice the difference in voice pitch. It gets complicated when, in one case, a false male has to marry a woman, but this is amicably resolved with a Lesbian fling.

Hürü heads back to Baghdad, with her stepson Suleiman the Magnificent now in charge and then back to the tree, where she was first tied up, where magic realism pops up again.

Gün tells a very clever story, bringing in everyone we might have heard of from the Middle East of that area, as well, of course, of quite a few we have never heard of, some real, some fictitious. The magic realism, the One Thousand and One Nights atmosphere, dabbling with history and the feminist angle all add up to make a very original and enjoyable work.

Publishing history

First published by Virago in 1991