Moris Farhi

Moris Farhi The celebrated Turkish writer Moris Farhi is the author of Children of the Rainbow, Journey Through the Wilderness and most recently the excellent Young Turk. Here he kindly answers my questions.

Mark Thwaite Nicholas Murray, in our interview with him, called your novel Young Turk: "Warm, witty, wise, humane." I can only concur. What was the spur to writing this particular story?

Moris Farhi "When, in the past, publishers found out that I was of Turkish origin, they kept asking me why I kept writing about other peoples and cultures but not about my own. As it happened I did very much want to write about Turkey, but couldn't. Much as I loved her, I was full of resentment and disillusion. In effect, I was like a spurned lover. I left Turkey - 'tried to escape' would be truer - aged nineteen, in anguish. Basically, I was trying to run away from my family, from real - and to some extent, imagined - antisemitism and from an oppressive political climate where freedom of expression was continuously suppressed - I idolized Nazim Hikmet, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, who spent many years in prison in Turkey for being a communist. And, I can now admit it, I was, unconsciously, running away from myself. I believed outside Turkey everything would unfurl and I would repair myself and become a different person. Needless to say, the mysterious process of self-repair - if it can ever be achieved - can take place anywhere. One doesn't need to go into exile for that, unless, of course, one's life is threatened. Mine wasn't.

So, as the years passed by, I kept feeding on my resentment in order to suppress the ever-growing guilt of having run away. Then one day, as if waking up from a previous existence, I realized that my resentment had lost its venom. Some sanity had returned - restored, I am convinced, by my wife, Nina, a prominent psychoanalyst, who has been my mentor and source of strength for some thirty years, as well as the overall freedom I found in England. I saw that my resentment about Turkey paled in comparison with Turkey's overall richness that had originally nurtured me. So my guilt of flight compounded. My yearning for Turkey, particularly for Istanbul, and for its people became almost unbearable - a desperate love which made me even dream of the smells of Istanbul. So I started meeting other Turkish expatriates; I went to the Turkish neighbourhoods in London where, in cafes and restaurants, I could listen to conversations of other exiles - and occasionally join in. Then around that time, Sonja Linden and Sylvia Paskin, were commissioned by Five Leaves Publications to edit an anthology of modern Jewish writing. They asked me for a contribution, preferably with a Turkish background. So I wrote Lentils in Paradise, the Turkish-baths story in Young Turk. And that proved the final stage of my liberation. It gave me the confidence to write about Turkey. And the more I wrote the more I realized that I was writing, as honestly as I could, an impressionistic account of my generation and of the times in which we had lived. When I finished I realized that, irrespective of some fearful dark hours in Turkey, I, as a Jew, and my friends - Muslims as well as a potpourri of other races and creeds, including Armenians - had, in the main, lived in a haven of tolerance. A tolerance that had singled out the Ottoman Empire in its heyday from much of Europe. By saying this I am not sweeping aside the atrocities committed against the Armenians in the late 19th century and during the First World War. But by that time the Ottoman Empire, having reneged on the compassion Islam demands, had lost its soul and was crumbling from within. I also realized that I had written a love story, the story of my unrequited love for Turkey."

Young Turk

MT Young Turk is your rendering of Turkish history. Indeed, all your fiction seems very historically concerned. Do you see your role as a novelist as being cousin to that of the historian?

MF  "Yes. I'd even say closer than cousins - more as twins. We are so privileged to be able to look back on history, subsume it as an integral part of our lives. And, alas, more often than not, we study it in the wrong spirit, unreflectively. We seldom analyze it without prejudice. Consequently rather than avoid the mistakes of the past, we repeat them. If we could generate the will to look back honestly and try to learn from our mistakes instead of eulogizing the brutal search for power that punctuates all our histories, we could certainly improve the human condition. I see a writer's task as stating the obvious: that the destruction of lives and cultures and the pursuit of power are evil, that religion and the Sacred Books have lost their meaning because they invariably exclude "the other". The basic commandment of loving our fellow-beings, especially of loving the strangers in our midst, irrespective of their race, creed or religion, has been discarded out of sanctimonious expediency. And that, of course, demands that we, writers, must act as an historian, but of a different kind, something like an ever-hopeful Tiresias."

Children of the Rainbow

MT "Children of the Rainbow is a massive - and massively moving - book about the history and plight of the Roma. When, why and how did you become interested in Gypsies?

MF "As a Romani elder once said to me, Jews and Gypsies are 'brothers in smoke' - a reference to the crematoria of Auschwitz. My Mother who was born in Salonica and survived the Holocaust only because she married a Turkish Jew and settled in Turkey, lost many members of her family to the gas chambers. She never recovered from that trauma. I always felt she wanted someone - me - to write about her suffering. I couldn't then. And when we found out that the European Gypsies had shared the same fate as Jews and saw the way my Mother always held the Gypsies in special regard, I began to see myself as a Jewish Gypsy. Then, through Dr. Ronald Kenrick, one of the greatest historians of the Roma, I had an entree into Gypsy communities. They accepted me, made me a blood brother. When I lamented that apart from a few scholars like Kenrick no one was writing about the Porajmos (the Gypsy Holocaust) they said 'why not you?' When I hedged about because the task seemed so daunting, they rebuked me for lacking courage and insisted that it was my duty as a phral (brother) of the Roma to write it. So I did, knowing that no matter how hard I worked, I would fail. How can words express the horrors of systematic extermination? How can words communicate the relentless persecution that Gypsies endure, even today, all over Europe? And, needless to say, I have failed. But the fact that you found it moving encourages me to think that perhaps here and there I conveyed something of the Gypsy Passion."

MT Are you concerned about the instrumentalist view the West is taking of Turkey at the moment? As 'useful' to American/British concerns whilst not really being part of the European family? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Turkey's future?

MF "What worries me is the West's almost total ignorance of Islam. And since September 11, that ignorance has equated Islam with fanatical fundamentalism and terrorism. Even more dangerously, it has exacerbated the Arab-Israeli conflict - a conflict that could have been solved a long time ago, that can be solved even now but for the uncultured policies of such dinosaurs as Sharon and Bush. Sadly, that ignorance is now directed at Turkey because she is predominantly a Muslim country. Except for the horrors of the early 20th century Armenian tragedy which most Turks deplore - for centuries there was scarcely any religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire. The fact that the Turkish Republic has embraced that Islamic tolerance for all faiths is constantly overlooked. Added to this ignorance there is the more prosaic fear that Turkey, being a country where about half the population is still young and able-bodied - and industrious - might, if it joined the EU, cause severe upheaval in some countries in terms of job losses - a fear that creates yet another insidious fear in our imaginations: the importation of "otherness". So today, for certain factions in the EU, yesterday's "sick man of Europe" has become today's "barbarian at the gate". My hope is that those factions will eventually be seen to be what they are: racist - though they would refute that charge vehemently - that the people of Europe will accept Turkey as part of Europe, even admit that she has been so, not only geographically but also culturally, for some seven centuries. I cling to that hope and remain optimistic.

If I may make two other points: Turkish culture is immensely rich and has a long pedigree almost unknown to the West. It would enrich Europe incalculably, just as the Jews did and just as the immigrant communities from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia are enriching us now in the UK and the EU. Furthermore, Turkey's entry into the EU would be the perfect antidote against Muslim fundamentalism that seeks - so far in vain - to establish itself strongly in Turkey. But, alas, the West which, as I mentioned earlier, has little understanding of Islam, cannot, as yet, see this."

MT What are you working on now? What is coming next?

MF "I have started on a new novel - on honour killings and blood feuds. It's very shaky yet - like all beginnings. I feel something is simmering inside me, but that, like the proverbial hope, may be the food of fools."

Journey Through the Wilderness

MT How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?

MF "Straight onto the computer. But I should admit, I use the computer as a glorified typewriter."

MT What are your favourite websites?

MF "Not being very computer literate, I haven't got into the habit of surfing. But since I read your interviews with Nick Murray and David Albahari, I've become an aficionado of ReadySteadyBook!"

MT That's very kind Moris. What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer?

MF "The Iliad - which is the first book I read. (Actually, my Mother read it to me.) So Homer remains my favourite writer. But I also have a very soft spot for that great Armenian master, William Saroyan."

The Iliad

MT What book do you wish you had written?

MF "The Iliad, of course. And War and Peace. And, why not, Othello. But those works were written by gods. So coming down to earth, I wish I had written Marques' Love in the Time of Cholera or Camus' The Outsider."

MT Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer!?

MF "Always doubt your abilities. It will torment you but also push you to extend yourself. Like Icarus, a writer must abandon commonsense and fly closer and closer to the sun. Of course, he will eventually perish, but that doom is the apogee of his/her metier. Falling into the sea for having flown too close to the sun is a much better ending than dying of boredom at your desk because you never dared take a risk."

MT Anything else you'd like to say?

MF "A wistful dream from Young Turk: "let us rejoice in the plurality of people as we rejoice in the infinite multiplicity of nature. Let us reject all the isms and nesses. Let us renounce single cultures, single flags, single countries, single gods and embrace - and preserve - every culture, every race, every faith, every flag, every country, every god for its difference and uniqueness. Let us be Brits, Turks or whatever as well as citizens of the world. Let us be both an individual and everybody!"

MT  Thank you so much for your time Moris - all the very best!
-- Mark Thwaite (10/08/2005)

Readers Comments

  1. Francis Rolt says... Thursday 20 March 2014

    I have only recently discovered Moris Farhi - to my shame - and adore his writing, his ideas, his knowledge and wisdom. In 'Young Turk' his memory of and advocacy for liberal and open-minded acceptance and acknowledgement of difference is wonderful - we need more like him!

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