Towards the mid-1920s Turks were asked “not to follow the Islamic traditions, but the traditions of the West; not to use the Ottoman Turkish alphabet, but the Latinized Turkish alphabet; not to wear fez or amamah (also known as imamah; an Islamic headwear), but only fedora or similar kind of Western headwear.” Moreover, to be an elite in the newly established Republic, one had to be a positivist, or a fervent follower of scientism even. All of these changes were implemented incrementally after the 1924 constitution, ultimately defining and describing the Republic of Turkey’s “desirable citizen.” Thus, an amnesiac generation was born, severed from a thousand years-long tradition, that couldn’t read the tombstones of its ancestors, that would mistakenly assume any note written in Ottoman Turkish was religious scripture to be hung on walls.
As people could never be transformed into Westerners overnight, many tragic events came to pass. Many were in limbo between the East and the West. Author, screenwriter and filmmaker Ayşe Şasa’s parents were the exemplary “desirables” of the country who adopted and embraced the new lifestyle. For this reason, the schizophrenic nature of the republic left its mark on their daughter Ayşe Şasa. She was lonely, emotional and intelligent. She would become a true Western intellectual, unlike her parents, and continue to inquire and interrogate relentlessly. Even though the rigorous bouts of the said schizophrenia that started in her youth were abated by “sincerity and veracity” later, they continued to haunt her for many more years.
Cultural Alienation and Şasa’s Trauma
Her mother would organize balls, while her father was an affluent businessman and an admirer of the US who would participate in sports that emerged in parallel with the republic’s foundation, play tennis and indulge in sailing. According to Ayşe Şasa, they “despised traditions, the past and everything that was related with it. For them, everything that is Western was good without an exception. Nevertheless, they lacked the ideological and cultural background that an average Western bourgeois possessed.” She, on the other hand, would become “a madwoman who settled down on a misty mountaintop and attempted to interpret the world of the sane,” as put in her own words. She would be always conscious of the difference between the sane and herself; constantly observing the sane, she would try to encode her feelings and ideas to this world.
Her mother had entrusted all her upbringing to tutors, so that she could be “educated in accordance with the necessities of the age.” Ayşe Şasa, in her own words, was feeling like “Dickensian orphans,” as she was thinking and speaking in German, the language of her tutors, instead of her mother language, Turkish. She was raised by two Jewish tutors, along with a Christian tutor, who fled the cruelties of the Nazis. With them, Hitler and the Nazis became a part of her life; as a child, she was told the stories of people being buried alive by her tutors. Even though she couldn’t comprehend the reality, she became extremely afraid of death at the age of four. However, the tutors weren’t content with only telling stories; a tutor who threatened her with jail time and even threw Ayşe Şasa into a ditch a couple of times was followed by another who forced her to write “Ich bin ein Esel” (literally “I’m a donkey” in German, with the connotation of being a dunce) a thousand times.
Ayşe Şasa said “it was a complete form of alienation; I was praying to Gott, not Allah.”
Frau Katie, boasting of raising King Zog of Albania, had promised Ayşe Şasa’s parents that she would be “educated in the most scientific manner.” For instance, Katie was making her lay on the snow in the winter and letting her cry at night, so that her lungs could develop properly! Despite being a cardiac patient, she was sent to ballet lessons and forced to learn to play the piano she hated, just because these were “the necessities of the age.” Sister Katie made her adopt the German conception of God, “Lieber Gott.” Ayşe Şasa said “it was a complete form of alienation; I was praying to Gott, not Allah.” The Christian tutor was taking her to the church in Taksim and making her light a candle in front of the Christ icon. “I started to identify myself with this pale body that was covered in blood clots. Meanwhile, during my primary school education, my parents would take me on their trips to Europe. We would visit the churches of Rome and this made me anxious. The pale body of Christ covered in blood was arousing fear and sorrow, which in turn exacerbated my melancholia,” she recounts.
She was sent to the American College for her secondary education. The ambition for success that was instilled by Sister Katie was effective in her school performance and many sports activities, including swimming and skiing. She entered contests and won. Ayşe Şasa was a student that received many awards and commendations. In her book, she says that “the main educational policy of the American Girls’ College, which was a Protestant institution, was the instillation of the humanist philosophy to children in every course. The humanistic approach essentially is a movement that incites hostility against tradition and divine inspiration. This approach makes a god out of each human being. The college was a place where the Western lifestyle was taught and the West was idealized. Arts, science and philosophy were idolized, made into a religion; there was nothing sacred with the exception of human beings and their creations.”
When she heard “there is no God” uttered by a guest of her family, it had an immense impact on her; contemplating the non-existence of God, she lost all conceptions of God and there was nothing divine left to resort to, including the “Lieber Gott” of her childhood. While reading Camus, Sartre, Kafka and Joyce, she becomes a nihilist during her education; believing that happiness is pedestrian, she almost started to pursue unhappiness.
Rauf Orbay was another important figure in Ayşe Şasa’s life. Orbay was an Ottoman officer, one of Atatürk’s companions, and her mother’s uncle.
Another important figure in Ayşe Şasa’s life is her mother’s uncle Rauf Orbay, who was an Ottoman officer and one of Atatürk’s companions. As he was sent into exile for 9 years after the foundation of the republic, her great uncle is also a political figure; she listened to many tragic stories extracted by him. Ayşe Şasa, joining the street protests side by side with all the leftist Turkish intelligentsia to support the May 27 coup in 1960 that would result in the execution of the prime minister and three other ministers, attempted to boast to his great uncle who was deemed a “zealot” at the time. In her memoir, she recounts the event: “I was covered in dirt when I went to my great uncle. Laughing, he said ‘are you rebelling, miss? These are nothing. I had three near misses with the death penalty.’ There was a sudden chill. It took years to realize who and about what I was talking to.”
“Everything alla turca was considered shameful in our home,” she said in one of her interviews. The usage of the word “alla turca,” the distinction between alla turca and alla franga, along with the preference of the latter, was even an indication of the schizophrenic nature of things. In this respect, listening to classical Turkish music was also considered a shameful act in their household. Constantly looking for sincerity and veracity in everything, Ayşe Saşa expressed that she used to hate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha and rightfully so: “Holidays would come so suddenly; out of the blue, I was required to kiss the hands of the elderly (a traditional act out of respect).” At that time, especially in major metropoles, these holidays were devoid of their religious elements and were only celebrated out of habit. For Ayşe Şasa, it’s absurd to celebrate Eid al-Fitr without fasting throughout the month of Ramadan. In a similar sense, Ayşe Şasa explains that she used to see Eid al-Adha as a meaningless ceremony, as the flesh of the sacrificed animals wasn’t distributed to the impoverished. “The noteworthy thing to understand is that I myself and my parents are just temporary speckles. Nevertheless, the events transpiring within this tiny unit also takes place in all segments of the society with varying intensity at a macro level; this is the true disaster,” she says.
Always cataloging everything in her mind and able to relay this to the reader as well, the first image that came to Ayşe Şasa’s mind while thinking about writing her memoir was the French hospital La Paix in Şişli, Istanbul: “I was 16 years old and wasn’t religious; yet, while I was passing in front of the hospital, I said that if this hospital was to be a means to finding the truth, I would concur to be there. As if wishing a wish… I was intrigued by the word ‘truth’ and was almost obsessive about it. I believe I first saw this word in Plato’s dialogues during my secondary education. If I had to define the story of my life in a much simpler way, I would say that it’s an abstract of a pursuit, the pursuit of the truth.”
Twenty to twenty-five years later, she was hospitalized because of severe schizophrenic episodes and was taken to La Paix Hospital by her family. Thoughts and images of Nazis, the gestapo, juntas and torture rooms riddled her episodes, along with the Turkish War of Independence, exile and extractions of her close friend and fellow leftist Kemal Tahir about his time in prison, police pursuits and torture. In her book titled Delilik Ülkesinden Notlar(Notes from the State of Insanity), Ayşe Şasa describes these bouts that she noted while being in that state. It’s not definite whether this is the case for all patients of schizophrenia, but there seems to be a pure, innocent side in facing the perception of a greater threat. Illnesses make the temperament of a person more apparent, as they say; it seems that the good and kind nature of Ayşe Şasa was also explicit during her episodes. During her stay at the hospital, she would start to pray for the first time in her life; not to Gott, but to Allah.
Ayşe Şasa discovers Ibn Arabi’s Fusus al-Hikam
In her 40s, she marries for a third time. She has become an addict of sleeping pills because of her illness and weighs 40 kilograms despite being 1.78 meters tall. In those days, she sees the name Ibn Arabi in a book catalog. She has never read a work written by an Islamic scholar to that date; she would order the book from the UK, but put it aside and not read for the time being. Her third husband is a filmmaker, just like her second husband, and shows a level of affection that Ayşe Şasa has never experienced in her life. “During those days, while my mental faculties were acute, I started to read Fusus al-Hikam (The Bezels of Wisdom, or also known as The Seals of Wisdom). Even though it was a difficult read, I was able to understand certain in-depth concepts to an extent because of my philosophical background. After a while, an event that couldn’t be explained through rationality occurred: it felt like I was standing gazing upon a ray of joy, a shimmering sea. ‘This doesn’t resemble any other book you’ve read,’ I said to myself. Ibn Arabi was describing and ascribing meaning to the universe and dimensions through Allah’s ‘the compassionate’ attribute. In the book, I saw the renowned hadith qudsi that is beloved by sufis: ‘I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known. “From that moment on, Islam becomes a part of Ayşe Şasa’s life and her sole interest. She meets an academic working on Ibn Arabi and finds herself in the vast world of Sufism. “The mind, rationality is insufficient in penetrating and permeating the secrets of the universe. The mind exists and is important; yet, it is inadequate. Once miracles start to take place, they never end,” she says.
An elderly woman said “You assume that life is over, but it suddenly starts over, again and again.” Ayşe Şasa, one of the most prominent screenwriters of Turkish cinema, passed away on June 16 2014, at the age of 73. She said that there was no death, only a life that was deeper than life; indeed, the book which tells the story of her life is aptly named The Journey of a Soul.