Portrait of a Turkish Family – H3a Reading Group Review, 12 January 2011

Portrait of a Turkish Family
by Irfan Orga

Our discussion raised the following points:

  • A general consensus that the book gave a revealing insight into the life of a middle class Turkish family in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire and the early years of the Turkish Republic.    It is the story of Irfan Orga’s early life, ending with the death of his Mother in 1940.
  • Ateş Orga, Irfan’s son, describes the book as one of “tears and goodbyes” and we thought this is an accurate summary.  The tears and goodbyes relate not just to the departure and loss of individuals in the author’s life, but also to the whole way of life which was being overturned at this crucial time in the history of Turkey and Europe.
  • Some in the group likened the changes in Turkey to those that impacted on Britain in Edwardian England before the World War I.   The old order was dying; the new world was an unknown, scary and rapidly changing country.   Things would never be the same again.
  • Unlike many standard histories, Orga gives us a firsthand account of the impact on ordinary people of the momentous events taking place in the early years of the 20th Century.   The end of the Ottomans,  World War I, the rise of Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish War of Independence and the birth of the Turkish Republic all had profound effects on  the economic, social and political lives of everyone and we witness these first hand with Orga and his family.
  • He is almost brutal in his descriptions of terrible hardships that so many families the world over had to face during the first part of the 20th century – poverty, factory work for women, army training, mental institutions.
  • Some felt they could hear the plaintive voice of the exile in the book.   It was written in England where Irfan Orga was essentially exiled having broken the rules about Turkish military officers living with and marrying foreign women.   One member pointed out that, well into the l960s, it was still unacceptable for a Turkish officer or diplomat to marry anyone other than Turkish.  Officers weren’t even supposed to live with a foreigner.  He was either negligent or somebody informed on him!  She could remember being affected by this regulation in her own life.
  • But the voice is not sentimental, nor does it idealise his main protagonists or his country.   He is very honest about his mother’s apparent coldness, his grandmother’s eccentricity and her “grand mannerisms”.   He is direct in his portrayal of the state and its cold officialdom failing to support widows of war heroes; he does not shy away from describing the poverty that followed the decision to take Turkey into the First world war as allies of Germany; just as Birds without Wings portrayed the horror of war at the Gallipoli front, so this book gives a flavour of how life was for those left behind.
  • Most of us felt he was writing for foreign consumption, explaining many customs and rituals of everyday life:
  • the life of matchmaking and socialising in the hamam,
  • the customs marking the celebration of bayrams,
  • uttering “Destur bismilllah” against the djinns (and the germs) in the hamam;
  • the ceremonies  of sunnet (circumcision)

These would have been superfluous if the book had been written primarily with Turkish readers in mind.

  • We wondered how it was that Irfan Orga could write in such accomplished English, given that he did not learn English until he was an adult.  The Afterword by Ateş Orga, provides the answer: “In writing his books, (Orga’s) method was to prepare first a sketch in old Turkish Arabic, which he would then translate and expand into new Turkish Latin script, followed by a basic draft in English.  This he would hand over to (his wife) who would absorb, interpret and discuss before fashioning a literary metamorphosis suitable for publication.”
  • Counter-balancing the momentous events taking place around them, Orga’s story gives a fascinating insight into the minutiae of ordinary life at that time.
  • Some were surprised that Grandmother drank wine but one of the group pointed out that, at that time, sophisticated people did drink wine (not raki that was for the lower classes).  Interestingly, Mother’s disapproval of her mother-in-law’s drinking was not the drinking itself but the fact that, when she had some money, she “carried wine down the street, like a drunkard”.
  • Pre-war Istanbul comes over as a very chic place and some Turkish members of the group could remember as children hearing descriptions from their own grandparents of just how chic and sophisticated Istanbul was before 1914.
  • One recalled an elderly Aunt who was very Ottoman in her lifestyle, who automatically bought fruit and vegetables etc in large quantities, because that is what middle class Ottomans did.
  • The main characters reflect the differences between the generations:
  • Orga’s grandmother, the matriarch of an affluent Istanbul family, who clings to the old standards and mores, disciplined and pious in a selective sort of way; she’s fond of wine with dinner, for example.  Hers is a life eased by servants and wealth, but Grandmother realises at the outbreak of war that she is “a defenceless ignorant woman who knew nothing of events outside her own small world, the world which held only sociability, women’s gossip and formality”.    As one member pointed out, at that time, older women were much freer once they had passed through the menopause and were certainly much more respected.
  •  Orga’s mother, betrothed at 3 years old and married at 13 years old, was beautiful, delicate and “perfectly happy, content to be solely an ornament in her husband’s home”; the husband made all the important decisions regarding money and the family’s welfare but bringing up the children was the responsibility of the women.  She has a tortured journey through bouts of depression but eventually rises to the challenge and takes decisions which were undoubtedly painful and difficult.  And in her way she comes across as being a contemporary woman,  removing the protective latticed kefeş from the windows of their new house, adopting the new style of not wearing the veil.
  • Orga himself, the child of these momentous times, caught between the old certainties of the past and the totally changed and confusing reality of the future.  We read of him struggling with the new ways of doing things, be it practising his religion, wearing the new “gavur” military cap, or later, writing in the new script.    He is at the centre of the story and we see the world through his eyes.  His approach is deceptively simple:   “I suppose all memories need only a little shaking up to restore again places, and things, and people”, he writes, and   the whole book is a fine example of the memories being shaken.
  • We were all interested in the relationship between the author and his mother.
  • Some felt sorry for Orga because his mother seemed so distant from him –   his seemed a loveless childhood.
  • Others felt sorry for the mother who, barely out of childhood herself, was suddenly thrust into a world for which she was totally unprepared and untrained, a harsh world, devoid of the support of a husband and the ameliorating effects of wealth.
  • It was, perhaps, easy to understand why the early disasters in her life affected her relationships with the world, and with her family in particular; one can sympathise when she tended to withdraw into herself and cut off emotional ties with her nearest and dearest.
  • But misgivings about Mother’s maternal love are counterbalanced by the tough decisions she took after her husband dies on his way to the Front (presumably Gallipoli).
  • After a rocky start she becomes the “melek” (angel) in the rough street she has to call home after the family home is burnt down;
  • she embraces an arduous and unfamiliar  world of work, sewing in a military factory on the other side of Istanbul;
  • to some personal cost, she abandons the veil when she is outdoors;
  • she is forced to send her two boys to a German charity school in Kadikoy (as a result of which  the author’s brother nearly dies of malnutrition);
  • she eventually gets them into the military school and academy at Cengelköy Kuleli, signing away their lives for 25 years in the process.
  • We all noted too, how much Grandmother’s role too changes in the book:
  • In the early days she is the “grand dame” “She would sit proudly and coldly in the phaeton, ablaze with jewels and hauteur.”
  • Then, as the family fortunes wane,  grandmother is persuaded to remarry after the death of her husband but the anticipated benefit to the family is not forthcoming;
  • It is grandmother who manages by her cunning and wisdom, to keep the family afloat.  We were all amused and impressed by her dealings with the Jewish merchant when she sells excess furniture.  She outsmarts him in bargaining and her underlying philosophy reveals an extraordinary wisdom, for one from such a privileged background.   “Remember”, she advises, “never let anyone know when you are desperate.   Put your best clothes on and pride on your face, and you can get anything in this world”;
  • Contrast this with a photograph taken in October 1939.  Clearly a formidable mother-in-law but the backbone of the family when the hard times start, with her determination and, initially at least, her money.
  • Some of us never felt that Irfan Orga ever grew close to his mother as they both matured but he was a loyal son, caring for her during his time in the Turkish Air Force.   His final visit to her in Bakirkoy Mental Hospital seemed  particularly poignant
  • It is hard for us to imagine the turmoil that most ordinary people must have felt living in the whirlwind of change that tore through their lives.   Everything they had held dear for centuries was being changed:  at first the very real possibility that the country that was once the heart of one of the biggest and longest lasting empires, would be divided up as the spoils of World war I; then the legendary success of Ataturk in saving Turkey from the hands of its enemies, internal and external.     After the triumph of Ataturk, another whirlwind of reform:  alphabets and ways of writing;  what they wore; the need for surnames;  where religion fitted into their lives;  the relationships between men and women,  and particularly the rights of women;  democracy, secularism;  nothing was left untouched.   And all this in the space of just a few years.
  • Finally we all picked up on one of the oddities of the work to be found on page 275.   Irfan Orga lived through the entire transition from Ottoman Empire to Republic.  He probably met Ataturk.   There was even talk of a romantic liaison between Orga and one of Ataturk’s adopted daughters; he says he went to Ataturk’s Lying in State at Dolmabahce palace.   And yet… he gets the date of Ataturk’s death wrong!   He says Ataturk died on 10 October 1938 but as any child in this country will tell you, he died on 10th November 1938.   We decided it was an accident resulting from the to-ing and fro-ing of the translating and editing process between him, his wife and the publisher.
  • Again the conclusion overall was that “Portrait of a Turkish Family” was an enjoyable and informative read.


Terry Glaysher

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