By Latife Tekin.
Translated from the Turkish, BERCI KRISTIN COP MASALLARI, by Ruth Christie and Saliha Parker.
London: Marion Boyars, 1993 from the 1983 original.
160 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2003

One night a group of about 7 families invaded a garbage dump on the outskirts of Istanbul and built some tiny shacks from scraps of wood, tin and cardboard found in the dump. Within a few days word of this squatter’s group spreads in the slums of Istanbul and hundreds more folks flock to the area to build their own small shacks.

Initially there is a response from the government, spurred on by the owner of the dump, and the huts are bulldozed again and again, only to be rebuilt the same night again and again and again.

Things remain fuzzy in Tekin’s narration of this struggle, but it does become clear that somehow at sometime the owner of the dump and the city give up this battle and a new neighborhood is established.

The story of Latife Tekin’s fascinating and most unusual novel is simply the building of this primitive society. Since we learn that the bulk of the people who come to live on Flower Hill (as one of the main settlements is called) neither listen to news on the radio nor read newspapers (and most can’t even read), what we have effectively is the story of the building of a very primitive community by people who come armed with no theory of government or community building, but evolve a community by simply dealing with the practicalities of everyday life.

The names of things and places in the area are given names which grow out of experiences and thus we have Rubbish Road, Wind-Curse Point, Water Father (who first pursued the notion of decent water for the community). Before long employment is found in a series of factories along Rubbis Road, quite a few of them sham-factories (factories making goods that don’t work at all, but are sold on the street at cheap prices – laundry soaps that don’t clean, chocolates which burn one’s mouth) spring up and work is found. However, there is a constant theme in the novel of the labor struggles as workers learn the value of uniting in strike groups to struggle to protect themselves and eke out survival wages.

Little by little a community comes to be. A near-by community of gypsies attaches itself to the garbage dump, and slowly coffeehouses appear (doubling as gambling places), even, in the (seemingly) later stages, a bank, movie house and some roads.

There are four things that make this account of the origins of Flower Hill such an amazing story for me:

  1. The isolation of the people from all the rest of the world, so this could be a primitive community thousands of years ago, except for some mentions of modern inventions – electricity, air planes, moon visits and refrigerators come to mind.
  2. The people do not think in terms of modern western notions of knowledge. Rather, they tend to understand all events in spiritual or what we would call superstitious, religious or occult explanations. When anything new arises, and every single day entire new problems and worlds of “civilization building” are being encountered, the explanations tend to be fantastical with appeals to transcendental sources and interventions.
  3. Tekin seems to purposely hide all reference to time and to present things in a non-sequential way. We have no idea how many years this development of Flower Hill takes, and the events just seem not to be in any sequential order at all. There are hints that something we are learning on, say, page 70 precedes what has happened back on page 30. This is obviously no accident. She seems to want to ignore or even make a statement that the TEMPORAL ORDER of development is totally unimportant.
  4. Lastly there is the curious narration choice that all references to weather seem to be of winter and rather bitter winter at that – snow, very cold and such. At first I thought the entire book was taking place in the first winter of settlement, sort of thinking that the initial squatters might have come to the dump in autumn, and then all the action taking place in the first winter. But it becomes obvious this is not the case and that a number of years are involved in the story. Yet only winter is ever referred to when temperature and such are mentioned.

The novel is so different from what an anthropologist would record who went to Flower Hill to record the history of this squatter’s settlement and its metamorphosis into a legitimate neighborhood. We are on the inside, we are given insights into the lives and struggles of these people who live so far beneath normal society that we have to stretch ourselves to both remind and allow ourselves that such people really exist on the fringes of our modern cities. It is this inside view which is so original and even daring in Tekin’s story.

But it could just as easily be read as an allegory of how human communities are born, and how they slowly and gradually move from primitive struggles for survival and the clinging of needy people to one another, to the development of societies with form, government, even rising standards of living and security.

Along the way there are many fascinating and humorous characters such as Crazy Gonul the first prostitute of the area, Gullu Baba a prophet and seer, the “learned” Honking Alhar who teaches people the most scatter-brained mix of facts and myths, a muezzin who fakes his daughter’s resurrection from the death to bilk people…. they just go on and on.

This is an interesting and quick read, and a book very unlike many others I have read.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu