Monthly Archives: July 2014

When Pera Trees Whisper

He had many enemies, and so it seems not surprising that mobster Engin got stabbed on New Year’s Eve on the streets of Istanbul’s dodgy Tarlabaşı neighbourhood in the Beyoğlu (formerly known as Pera) district.

A street war seems to be going on between two local gangsters, ‘Dice’ Ihsan and Black Nizam, whose right-hand man Engin was. But it is not only a fight about the predominance in the (illegal) gambling business – to which some corrupt local policemen turn a blind eye for reasons we can easily guess – there is a much wider area of possible motives and suspects, as Chief Inspector Nevzat and his two assistants Ali and Zeynep find out soon.

Ihsan and Nizam were in love with the same woman, Cilem, and there are rumors that also Engin, who had the reputation of a womanizer, had a relationship with Cilem. Jealousy might be a very strong motif for the murder, but it turns out that Engin also secretly bought some houses in Tarlabaşı with the aim to demolish them and turn the locations in profitable big housing projects (which would have interfered with the intentions of his employer).

The deeper the Chief Inspector and his constantly bickering assistants dig into the case, the more questions come up: what did the street kids that were present on the crime scene really see? Has the giant Suleyman, a once powerful pimp, something to do with the murder (since he has great skills when it comes to using a knife in a fight)? Is Swank Cemal, the inspector’s old friend (and a former mobster himself) trying to mislead the police intentionally? What exactly is the role of Nazli, a lady from a wealthy family who is running a cultural center in the area and who is very strongly opposed to the plans of the local mafia? Are some radical members of the Gezi Park Resistance groups that were fighting against the plans to turn the last remaining park in Beyoğlu into a shopping mall, behind the murder? And why is this rather annoying crime novelist turning up every time when the Chief Inspector is least expecting it? What about the Italian mafia that was also after Engin? And what about the Bulgarian connection that seems to become more important as the story advances? Things are heating up more and more, and Engin will not be the only victim…

Ahmet Ümit, the author of When Pera Trees Whisper, is one of the most successful contemporary Turkish writers. This crime novel is a good example for his skillful handling of this genre. An interesting story, fast dialogues, characters that are described in a way that seems to be taken directly from reality, plenty of local flair for Istanbul connaisseurs, and all is set against the backdrop of contemporary Turkey, with its fast development but also its social and political problems that from time to time explode, as the Gezi Park Resistance has reminded us recently.

When Pera Trees Whisper is a real page turner and especially recommended for all readers that know (or want to get to know) the fascinating city of Istanbul.


Ahmet Ümit: When Pera Trees Whisper, transl. Elke Dixon, Everest Publications, Istanbul 2014


© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Istanbul’s Archipelago


“Prinkipo is an island of peace and forgetfulness. The life of the world arrives here after great delays…It’s a good place to work with the pen, especially in autumn and winter, when the islands are almost completely deserted and the woodpeckers appear in the garden. There’s no theater here; there’s not even a cinema. Cars are forbidden. Are there many such places in the world? We have no telephone in our house. The cries of the donkeys calm the nerves. One cannot for one moment forget that Prinkipo is an island, because the sea lies under every window and there is no point on the island without a sea view. We catch fish a mere ten meters distance from the edge of the quay; at fifty meters, we catch lobster. The sea can be as calm as a lake for weeks at a time.”

Prinkipo is now called Büyükada and a popular destination for mainly Turkish weekend tourists who want to flee from the crowded city of Istanbul for a day or two. Cars are still forbidden, and the main means of transport are the bicycle or the horse carriages called peyton you can hire here for a tour around the island. But the atmosphere of peace and forgetfulness that Leon Trotsky refers to in his essay Farewell to Prinkipo, from which the above quote is taken, is still existing on Büyükada and the other smaller Princes’ Islands. (The name derives from the fact that many princes were exiled here in the time of Byzantium). Trotsky wrote his autobiography and the biggest part of his History of the Russian Revolution on the island. The house in which he lived with his wife, his son, two bodyguards and five Turkish policemen is in a quiet ruinous state, but still standing. Trotsky left the place in 1933 and moved finally to Mexico, where he was murdered by a group of NKWD henchmen (among them Pablo Neruda and the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros).



The glorious times of the Princes Islands were the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Greek, Armenian, Jewish businessmen discovered these islands as a perfect summer retreat, established a ferry boat line and built beautiful summer houses and a few hotels. Several Greek monasteries, churches and abandoned fortresses add to the charm of these islands that offer incredible scenic views to the European and Asian coast. Istanbul seems so far away, but it is just a short journey by ferryboat.


A wonderful small book The Princes’ Islands, written by Joachim Sartorius, a German poet, translator and travel writer, can be the perfect companion when you visit these islands during your next trip to Istanbul. Sartorius, who grew up in Tunis and served as a diplomat in the US, Turkey and Cyprus before he became the director of the Goethe Institute, writes a stylistically elegant prose. He takes the reader by the hand and shares his knowledge and feelings, reports the history, explores all interesting places and evokes in the reader the atmosphere of these serene islands. He makes friends with locals who invite him to their homes or to the restaurant, he is rowing to smaller islands with friends, and – we can be thankful for that – he feels inspired by the islands. No wonder that many writers like Orhan Veli Kanik,  Sait Faik,  or Orhan Pamuk lived or live on one of the islands or had or have at least a summer house which they use(d) as a writers’ studio.


During most of the year, there are ferries leaving from Kabatas ferry terminal almost every hour. The trip takes one hour and a half, with short stops on the Asian side and three of the bigger islands before reaching the final destination Büyükada. Don’t miss these islands. You won’t regret it.


Joachim Sartorius: The Princes’ Islands, Armchair Traveller, London 2011, transl. Stephen Brown

Leon Trotsky: Farewell to Prinkipo (1933), in: Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932-1933, Pathfinder Press 1972, pp. 361ff. 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. © Photos in this blog post Cornelia Awear. 

In Arabian Nights

Some time ago I reviewed The Last Storytellers by Richard Hamilton, a book that collects some of the tales of the last storytellers of Marrakech. Also the book about which I am writing today dives deep into the world of Moroccan storytellers.

Tahir Shah, the author of In Arabian Nights, is well equipped to undertake this journey into the heart of Morocco through its stories and storytellers. He has roots in the Orient (his family comes originally from Afghanistan), but he lived most of his life in the West (he grew up in Britain). He comes from a dynasty of storytellers himself: his father Idries Shah collected and published many books with traditional oriental tales and stories that contain a lot of the wisdom of the Sufi dervishes. Also the author’s aunt, Amina Shah, to whom the book is dedicated, was a collector and master storyteller of Arabic and Oriental stories and tales.

The probably best-known book by Tahir Shah is The Caliph’s House in which he describes how he settled in Casablanca with his family and bought an old house there. In Arabian Nights describes what happened after this period covered by the previous book.

It starts with a deeply disturbing and traumatic experience. When the author is preparing a documentary film he wants to make in Afghanistan, he is arrested by Pakistani police as a terror suspect and has to endure a several week long ordeal in one of the many Pakistani torture prisons, before he is finally released. What sustained him during these weeks were the stories told to him by his father when he was a child in Morocco and that he tried to recollect and repeat to himself.

After his return, the author starts to search for “his” story – based on an old Berber belief that each person has his/her own story, a story that has a special meaning for this person, and that you are only a complete person after you found that story.

Tahir Shah takes us readers on this journey which is full of interesting, frequently funny encounters and events. We meet storytellers in the most improbable disguise: from the craftsmen and guardians of the Caliph’s House, to the regular guests of Cafe Mabrook, a men-only coffee shop and hideout for henpecked husbands who hide here from their Alpha females at home; from the cobbler who repairs the author’s shoes, to Monsieur Benito, an old Italian gentleman who owns a copy of the rare first edition of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights; from Mohamed Mrabet, the famous Moroccan storyteller, to a guardian in a mental hospital; from a Tuareg guide to Sufi masters: we get to know a great richness of stories – stories that are never only meant to entertain people but that have usually many layers below the surface, and the deeper the layer we reach, the deeper the meaning of the story. The author is taking us to the Atlas mountain and to Chefchaouen, to the Sahara desert and of course to Marrakech, the capital of storytellers, and to Fès, the dark heart of Morocco.

This book is not only a book about storytelling. It is also a travel book of course. But it is also a book about friendship and the high value it has in the traditional Moroccan society. When Dr Mehdi, a retired surgeon and one of the regulars in Cafe Mabrook with whom Shah makes friends, is asking the author for a favor, Shah agrees to do him this favor without asking (that’s a big difference to the Western world where everybody would first ask about what kind of favor it is – thus diminishing the friendship in the eyes of a Moroccan). Dr Mehdi is asking him to bring him some special salt from the Sahara desert that is needed for a wedding. It will be a journey that will have a deep impact on the author. And the journey has a surprising end that is also a lesson in friendship:

‘Is there enough salt for the wedding?’ – The surgeon took a deep breath. ‘There is no wedding,’ he said. – ‘What?’ – ‘The favor I asked you was less a favor to me and more a favor to yourself.’ – ‘I don’t understand.’ – ‘Think of the things you have seen, the people you have met and the stories you have heard,’ he said, emptying the bag of salt on to the path. ‘You are a different man than you were seven days ago.’

Another thing I really like about the book is the author’s attitude to Moroccans in general and to the poor people in particular. He is always truly respectful and willing to learn from them and to understand their way of thinking. The bidonville, the shantytown that borders the Caliph’s House, may be a mess. But good people are living there with their hearts in the right place.

This is one of the most delightful books I have been reading since a long time. But be careful, dear reader, this book might ignite a life-long passion for Morocco in you. After reading this book, you will almost for sure think about your (next) journey to this country that is so full of wonderful stories. Tahir Shah is opening our eyes, ears and hearts for these stories and for Morocco.


Tahir Shah: In Arabian Nights, Doubleday 2008

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hell Hath No Fury

When old barns burn…

Rosemarie Hirte is an average woman with an average life – so it seems. She never married, lives alone, is working in an insurance company. She is diligent but not openly ambitious, a very respected colleague. Her social contacts outside work are very few: Beate, an old friend (but not particularly close) and Frau Römer, an elderly colleague whose dog she is walking from time to time.

There is no man in Rosemarie’s life, and the very few occasions when a man had shown a serious interest in her during her younger years ended with deep disappointments for her: either she was deserted for a more attractive (or more interesting) woman, or the married man returned finally to his wife. Also the fact that she couldn’t finish her studies has had an impact on her. Rosemarie Hirte, who is also the narrator of the story, is an embittered spinster in her early fifties who has the feeling that her life was one of missed opportunities, there can be no doubt about it.

But then everything seems to change. Against her usual habit, she is giving in to Beate to visit a reading evening together. The author Rainer Witold Engstern is talking about German romanticism and its poets. Rosemarie is not a particular poetic person, but Witold, as she calls him soon secretly, is a handsome man, some years younger than Rosemarie and he has a voice for which she falls immediately. Unfortunately, he is married, but the good news (good for Rosemarie) is that something is wrong with the marriage and Witold’s wife left him some time ago.

Although it seems most unlikely – men in Witold’s age are rarely attracted to women like Rosemarie – Rosemarie is determined to use this last chance and all obstacles need to be set aside to be cleared, at no matter what costs. Witold will not escape her, that’s a promise she makes to herself. He is the man of her dreams, the man who has to make up for all the disappointments in her previous life.

I don’t want to give the story away, but we see a total transformation going on with Rosemarie. She develops an enormous and ruthless energy that is really remarkable. People that are in her way – well, they are just obstacles which need to get out of her way. If not…

One remark about the names of some of the protagonists. Engstern, the name of Rosemarie’s love interest means literally “narrow star”, but it is just one letter away from Engstirn (=narrow mind). I think this is called an aptronym (Thomas Mann was master in this art). As it turns out later, Witold is not exactly the bright star that Rosemarie saw in him first.

The name Rosemarie is a bit old-fashioned and the reader might think of a woman doing crocheted blankets in her free time. A Hirte is a shepherd in German, but Rosemarie is quite the opposite of the good shepherd – so in this case the author is intentionally misleading the reader. The contrast between the name and the real character adds to the black humor that is present in many situations. The peaceful and almost Mediterranean Bergstrasse region where most of the story takes place (and where Noll is living), is another stark contrast that is remarkable. (Since I also lived for a long time in this region, this added even a bit more to my pleasure reading this book.)

Rosemarie’s crude energy and industriousness made me laugh on many occasions when I read the book. But sometimes I also shivered. The book gives us an opportunity to have a look into a truly dark soul. In my opinion an excellent crime novel – with an unexpected end.

This is a novel in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith and it was the first book of Ingrid Noll, now considered Germany’s leading female crime author. Noll, born in Shanghai in 1935, is the wife of a pharmacist. She started to write after her children had grown up and had left the house. Hell Hath No Fury was published in 1991 in Germany. Until today she has published twelve crime novels, several books with stories and a children’s book. The original title Der Hahn ist tot refers to the old French kanon Le coq est mort (The rooster is dead).

Noll Hell

Noll Hahn

Ingrid Noll: Hell Hath No Fury, HarperCollins 1997; Der Hahn ist tot, Diogenes 1991

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.