An American in Istanbul Between Muslim and Christian Worlds

15 November, 2020
Istanbul on the Bosphorus remains as intoxicating as ever, and  A Recipe for Daphne  is set here.
Istan­bul on the Bospho­rus remains as intox­i­cat­ing as ever, and A Recipe for Daphne is set here.

 

 

A Recipe for Daphne, a nov­el by Nek­taria Anastasiadou
Hoopoe/American Uni­ver­si­ty of Cairo (2020)
ISBN 9789774169793

 

Anne-Marie O’Connor

 

From its sky­line of mosques, church­es and ruins on the Bospho­rus, to its intox­i­cat­ing mix of Islam­ic and Euro­pean art, the majes­tic city of Istan­bul can feel like an elab­o­rate seduc­tion. Its present is fil­i­greed over lay­ers of his­to­ry, with a mod­ern Mus­lim major­i­ty reveal­ing per­sis­tent glim­mers of its ancient Byzan­tine Chris­t­ian past.

Daphne, an American-born traveler, receives an unexpected welcome amidst Istanbul's proud community of Rum, Greek Orthodox Christians, who have lived in Istanbul for centuries.  Order a copy .

Daphne, an Amer­i­can-born trav­el­er, receives an unex­pect­ed wel­come amidst Istan­bul’s proud com­mu­ni­ty of Rum, Greek Ortho­dox Chris­tians, who have lived in Istan­bul for cen­turies. Order a copy.

Nek­taria Anas­tasi­adou sets her nov­el A Recipe for Daphne in what remains of this Chris­t­ian world.

She eas­es into her sto­ry with food, bring­ing read­ers to Istan­bul bak­eries where pas­tries filled with pis­ta­chio cream beck­on irre­sistibly from the counter; avenues where rose, car­damom, and choco­late are sold with mahleb and mas­tic; live­ly tea hous­es where Istan­bul’s leg­endary street cats are pam­pered along­side patrons.

Istan­bul’s culi­nary cul­ture suf­fus­es the ini­ti­a­tion of Daphne, a young Amer­i­can woman who is explor­ing her roots in Istan­bul’s Rum com­mu­ni­ty, whose name derives from their his­toric roots in Rome’s East­ern Byzan­tine Empire.

Daphne is mod­ern and dera­ci­nat­ed, a Mia­mi dias­po­ra emis­sary to a shrink­ing Istan­bul minor­i­ty whose elders dream of past glo­ry and cling to the tra­di­tions they have man­aged to preserve.

She has a much less com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship than her Turk­ish rel­a­tives with Istan­bul and its feast of the sens­es. You can almost hear the Ana­to­lian music waft­ing in the air as Kos­mas, a young bak­er who hopes to catch her eye, brings a near-erot­ic sen­su­al­i­ty to his instruc­tions for using just the right amount of but­ter to coax the flaky sep­a­ra­tions from a del­i­cate pas­try that must be con­sumed the day it is made.

What kind of cake would Kos­mas bake for Daphne?

Kos­mas clos­es his eyes and sum­mons a rav­ish­ing arsenal—spices from the Egypt­ian Bazaar, but­ter-cream icing, dec­o­ra­tion styled like embroidery—that would seem to con­firm any sus­pi­cions that Istan­bul is a sen­su­al­ist’s dream.

“The motifs will be Ottoman: foliage, tulips, car­na­tions, hyacinths. From top to bot­tom, in an ele­gant curve, will stretch one stem of white orchids,” Kos­mas promis­es, as he pri­vate­ly imag­ines putting his lips to Daph­ne’s hand and kiss­ing her all the way up her arm.

Whether Daphne will suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion to ful­ly taste all this, with a boyfriend lurk­ing back home, is the question.

The Rum world of yes­ter­day is seen through the eyes of Fanis, a wid­ow­er who, at first glance, is the kind of aging Lothario that used to be viewed as a lov­able rogue. Fanis apprais­es women with a com­pul­sive­ly rov­ing eye, going over mem­o­ries of his roman­tic encoun­ters like a cel­e­brant count­ing rosary beads.

His reflex­ive male gaze bare­ly keeps at bay a trau­ma that lives in his heart, and in the soul of his van­ish­ing Rum com­mu­ni­ty, who are haunt­ed by a 1955 pogrom against Istan­bul Chris­tians that left more than a dozen dead and many more raped and bru­tal­ized. The pogrom upend­ed his betrothal, and sent Istan­bul Chris­tians abroad. Tens of thou­sands more Rum were deport­ed in lat­er years, until a com­mu­ni­ty of more than 100,000 shrank to a few thousand.

nektaria anastasiadou
Nek­taria Anas­tasi­adou is the 2019 win­ner of the Zografeios Agon, a Greek-lan­guage lit­er­ary award found­ed in 19th-cen­tu­ry Con­stan­tino­ple. Her writ­ing has appeared in Al-Mon­i­tor, Dai­ly Sabah, Mashal­lah News, The Shang­hai Lit­er­ary Review, Rumi­nate, and oth­er lit­er­ary jour­nals. She lives in Istan­bul and speaks Greek, Turk­ish, Eng­lish, French, Span­ish, and Ital­ian. She writes in Greek and English.

Fanis strug­gles to exor­cise his demons. How did their neigh­bors turn against them?

Daphne is unfet­tered by this trou­bling past. She explores the myr­i­ad attrac­tions of her Istan­bul her­itage with the lighter eye of a woman with agency. She takes a detached view of expec­ta­tions of gen­der and reli­gion, view­ing them as sug­ges­tions, not rules, as she weighs embrac­ing her pat­ri­mo­ny on her own terms, as a lifestyle, rather than a hol­i­day fling.

The pages of Anas­tasi­adou’s nov­el shim­mer with the romance of Istan­bul, and her vivid prose evokes its mag­i­cal melange, even as her char­ac­ters won­der how to hold on to their vibrant but dwin­dling world.

They share a sense of uncer­tain­ty with Armen­ian Chris­tians, whose col­lec­tive mem­o­ry holds the trau­ma of the Turk­ish army killing of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Armen­ian civil­ians dur­ing the geno­cide of World War I.

The weight of this his­to­ry is counter-bal­anced by the strong tug of ancient roots: Believ­ers say dis­ci­ples of Christ were first called Chris­tians in what is now the Turk­ish city of Anti­och. Their iden­ti­ty runs deep.

In the search­ing con­ver­sa­tions that give this nov­el a pulse, its char­ac­ters unspool the twists of Turk­ish his­to­ry that brought light or dark­ness, pon­der­ing aloud over what this por­tends for their future.

It is a dia­logue that is very much alive among Istan­bul minori­ties today. Not long ago I met a Turk­ish Jew­ish man in Istan­bul mar­ried to a Mus­lim woman. The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion their adult chil­dren choose “depends on the day of the week,” he said, smil­ing, with the pride some Turks have for the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism that endures. But his chil­dren live in Lon­don, and his Ortho­dox Jew­ish elders have moved to Israel.

A Recipe for Daphne sug­gests this rich East-meets-West eth­nic stew can still be stirred by its peoples.