Celebrated novelist Ahmet Ümit talks on the city’s vibrancy, its history, and its dark side.
By Joshua Bruce Allen
Ahmet Ümit’s novel, Farewell, My Beloved Homeland (Elveda Güzel Vatanım), has sold over 2 million copies since its release in December 2015. Ranked the most translated Turkish author in 2014, Ümit’s reputation stretches across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Given this popularity, it is tempting to put his detective novels in the same category as Dan Brown’s. However, a talk with Ümit—and some time spent reading his work—reveals a deeper side to his fictional world.
The source of this complexity may reside in Ümit’s youth, which he spent as a member of the Turkish Communist Party. Looking back, Ümit sees some naivety in his youthful Communism. “In 1975 that kind of wind was blowing through Turkey—we had just experienced a military coup and leftist movements were very popular,” Ümit told The Guide Istanbul. “As a 15-year-old who hadn’t read, thought, or argued very much, I turned to Communism partly to find an anchor in life. And all the girls were interested in the leftist guys at the time. I went to Moscow in 1985, entering the country illegally with a fake passport, because travel to Russia was banned,” said the author.
Just as Ian Fleming found inspiration in his work with Naval Intelligence and Dashiell Hammett drew on his work at a private investigation firm, so Ümit’s experiences fed into his fiction. Disappointed by the version of socialism he found in Moscow, he decided to abandon politics and devote himself to writing. Since then, Ümit has published over 20 novels, ranging from historical mysteries to police thrillers.
Farewell, My Beloved Homeland is the story of a romance between Ester and Şehsuvar, a Jewish woman and Muslim man, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. “We live in a country that still has not achieved democracy, economic development, or internal peace,” says Ümit. “The question is, why? That was my reason for choosing the last days of the Ottoman Empire as a time period—it gives meaning to the present. But like Doctor Zhivago, this is not a history book. It is the story of how a revolution affected the love of two individuals.”
Ümit is proud of his country’s wide and varied roots, saying, “I feel more privileged than a writer from England or America—there are 5,000 years of culture here. My hometown of Gaziantep still has relics from the Hittites, Romans, and Ottomans.” As well as historic depth, Turkey also offers a cultural milieu that is quite different from Western Europe—from religious conservatives to extreme leftists, the population reflects all kinds of views. “In Turkey there is a marvelous spectrum of crime,” Ümit jokes. “You won’t find honor killings or political murders in England, for example. This makes good material for a detective writer.”
Some of Ümit’s most famous novels take place in the dark streets of present-day Istanbul. When Pera Trees Whisper (Everest Yayınları, 2014) tackles the urban renewal taking place in Beyoğlu, telling a story that links the mafia with government-sponsored construction. Beyoğlu is a location that Ümit has returned to several times in his fiction. “Firstly, Beyoğlu is a place of great plurality in terms of language, race, and religion,” Ümit explains. “Secondly, the modern cultures of Turkey are all there—rock bars, jazz bars, folk bars, fasıl, classical. That’s why Beyoğlu is like a modern Tower of Babel. And it isn’t touristic either—it’s a crowded, dirty place.”
Rather than using Istanbul as an exotic backdrop, Ümit invents characters who are part of the living city in all its beauty and ugliness. Ultimately, these twin faces of Istanbul represent the human capacity for good and evil. “When reading my novels, I want people to come face-to-face with themselves and ask, ‘Have I done the right thing?’ In that way I see writers as modern priests,” says Ümit. “In a time when we live without the promise of heaven or the fear of hell, the writer questions our moral decisions.”