In Elena Ferrante’s brilliant My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan Novels, main characters Lenù, Ada and Carmela learn not to look around after a few incidents with the boys in their rough and poverty-stricken neighborhood. Narrator Lenù explains, however, that in both their district and elsewhere it is standard practice for men to look at women, whether they are young or old, pretty, almost pretty or not very pretty at all. After a couple of scary incidents involving physical violence, the girls learn how to deal with jealousy, harassment, and other dangerous situations: keep your gaze on the ground, ignore all the catcalls and whistles, and keep walking. But Lenù’s brilliant friend Lila stares back. She’s different. She dares.
I wasn’t as brave as Lila when I was a kid. Or as a young adult, for that matter.
It took me, someone who had been driving in Turkey since the age of 18, six full years to take up driving in the Netherlands, a land where bikes are sovereign, where there are comparatively more types of drivers on the roads and even more rules, and where people actually obey those rules. The theory test I passed on the first try, and in Dutch no less. It was my cup of tea: learning, studying, nerding out. The practical test wouldn’t come so easy though, and most of my problems were apparently rooted in the act of looking (or in my case, not looking).
Over two months of lessons, my incredibly patient driving instructor Karan kept saying the same thing: “Look!” or “Did you not see those three signs, one after another, telling you to stop?” or “This is a bike path!” I failed, failed, and failed again. Even worse, this was my second attempt. Ten months earlier, after an extremely frustrating lesson with a different instructor, I had postponed the exam on the assumption I simply wasn’t ready.
Along with books, and apparently driving lessons, movies also seem to shine a light into the darker corners of my psyche and memory. For some time I didn’t dare to watch Prayers for the Stolen (2021), a Tatiana Huezo film that collected various awards, including Un Certain Regard in Cannes in 2021. I had assumed it would be heart-wrenching and put me through the wringer. Which it was and did. The film, based on Jennifer Clement’s novel of the same title (Prayers for the Stolen, 2014, Penguin Random House) tackles various issues related to being a woman, though, above all else, it’s about safety, or rather, feeling safe. (On a separate note, in 2015 Clement was the first woman elected president of PEN International, organization founded in 1921!)
In the summer of 2021, exactly 100 years after PEN International was established, my daughter turned 11. We were in Turkey. She asked me why people were staring at her, or she felt like people were staring at her. I had to think twice; she was a bit too young for sophisticated explanations. Finally, I described it as a cultural thing, or a habit; people in Turkey might be more curious about others than they are in the Netherlands.
In the film Prayers for the Stolen, Ana says to her friends Paula and María “Don’t look!”, as the gigantic wheels of the drug cartels’ SUVs arrogantly roam the dusty streets of a village nestled in the mountains somewhere in Mexico. They are looking for girls. Not to kidnap, simply to take away. “Give us your daughter,” they say. “We can do this nicely, or by force.”
When Ana gets her period, she happily asks her mother Rita for an extra pad. Rita freezes upon hearing this request. Ana is baffled and assumes that her mother is angry for some reason. But we, the audience, whose nerves are already frayed, know that it’s not anger. Rita is simply terrified. She, a single mum, will now have to struggle with a new challenge: the nightmare of having a daughter who is now a “woman” in the sick eyes of the cartel that traffics young girls. It’s usually around this age that mothers cut their daughters’ hair very short, like a boy’s, and explain it away as a measure to fight lice infestations at school. But everybody knew that this was actually done to make girls look like boys and prevent them from being “stolen”.
My hair, too, was cut short to prevent lice. I was nine years old; it was the beginning of the 80’s, and that was no lie. But then I chose to keep it short after realizing with the naïve wisdom of a child that it was easier to be a boy in that place and time. And on that special day deserving of a celebration and a heartfelt blessing from one’s mother, in particular, I also sensed that my mum hated the fact that I had got my first period. It was only years later that I realized she was simply scared. We didn’t live in a small village hidden among the wild mountains of Mexico where drug cartels might bust into our house and steal me; we were in a city in a “modern” part of Turkey, in west Anatolia. Nevertheless, men are men.
This fear of the opposite sex had a tremendous impact on shaping my communication with the outer world, first as a child and then, inevitably, as an adult. The very day I moved to the Netherlands, both my inner and outer worlds were challenged.
After a short time here, I found myself questioning my manners; was I less courteous, or at least less sociable? For example, I was one of only a few people who did not greet others with a nod, or a look, or a few words upon entering a crowded area. At the gym, I almost never engaged in small talk with others awaiting a turn at the shoulder press or leg extension. I didn’t make eye contact with my fellow humans in queues where your ordinary cheerful Dutch people would smile at each other, chit chat and complain about the weather. It would take me six years plus 20 hours of driving with an instructor to face the fact that somewhere deep inside me the fear of being “stolen” lay dormant.
Following this shock, this wave of enlightenment that floods ruthlessly while you’re trying to adapt to a new culture, I told my innermost self: no, you’re not rude.
Our mothers told us not to talk to strangers.
Our mothers told us not to look at strangers.
Our mothers told us not to look at men, to be more precise. But then it became an ingrained habit. Actually, our mothers were warning us not to look.
We’re not rude. We’re scared.
Scared that a minibus driver will skip the last stop and take us to a forest.
Scared that he’ll attack us. Rape us. Kill us. Even if not in body, most definitely in soul. If not the whole of our soul, a part. The killing of dreams, of courage, of willpower, of the person that we could have become, of some part of the person we had become; so many things stolen from the living.
People would say, well, it’s an appalling incident, but what was she doing outside at that time of night? All by herself? And wearing a miniskirt?
This is not fiction, absolutely not. Unfortunately, not. Far worse has happened to many, and one of them is poor, young Münevver Karabulut. #weremember.
She was sexually assaulted. Tortured. Her head was chopped off, most likely when she was still alive. Her body parts were put in a guitar box, and then in a dumpster, where they were eventually found. In Etiler, an upmarket neighbourhood in Istanbul. On March 3, 2009. She was 17.
We also remember how her murderer, a teenager only one year older than her, was not “located” for a full 197 days. Remember how he, the son of a wealthy and influential family, ended up at a police station only after he turned himself in. Remember how question marks surrounded everything from the autopsy report to the deleted security camera recordings at the scene of the crime, a villa. Remember how the murderer’s grandmother scolded a journalist who asked her if her grandson, who was in hiding, was in hiding. “You’d think he was the only one who’s ever committed a murder,” she said. “You’re scaring him away!” Remember how, instead of tracking the suspect, then Istanbul Chief of Police Celalettin Cerrah said parents should keep a closer eye on their daughters. Remember how, after all these years, nobody knows who helped that boy kill that girl in such an organized and monstrous manner, who hid him, if the murder was a sick family ritual and if the murderer really died by suicide in prison in 2014, as was announced, or if he is still alive somewhere, among us.
For someone raised in a land with too many unanswered questions concerning too many crimes where too many perpetrators get away with offenses small and large, perhaps it is understandable that it took me a good six years to address some personal, existential questions. And no doubt all that driving history might seem like a miracle to many “Westerners”; how I and others survive on the roads in Turkey. The truth is, that every single day one manages to stay alive and sane in that beautiful country governed by insanity is a miracle in itself.
So, there I was. It was 2023. It happened 64 years after Lenù, Ada and Carmela learnt not to look, 14 years after Münevver’s fragile life was horrifyingly ended, eight years after Jennifer Clement was chosen as the first (and to this day, still the only) woman president of PEN International, and one week after I took my driving exam. My daughter, rapidly growing into a wonderful teen, asked the same question she’d asked two years earlier in Turkey, but this time at an informal dinner. And this time she was old enough to sense that it was a gender issue even before I answered. I said, just stare back. Until they walk away. They will walk away.
By Çiler İlhan
Çiler Ilhan is a short story writer, novelist, essayist, born in Turkey, living in the Netherlands, writing in Turkish and English. Ciler Ilhan has contributed to 20 national and international anthologies and published four books of her own: Chamber of Dream Merchants (Artemis, 2006), interconnected stories with traces of magic realism; Exile (Everest Publications, 2010), interconnected stories with themes from the invasion of Iraq to women’s rights in Batman (winner of the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature, published in over 20 countries); Nişan Evi (Engagement, Everest, 2021), a novella based on the true story of a mass murder in eastern Turkey and Hayattayız Madem (Everest Publications, 2023), a novel spanning 1943 to 2018, Amsterdam to Auschwitz, and Aleppo to Istanbul where a father and his daughters encounter a Syrian refugee in their neighbourhood Teşvikiye in Istanbul.
Çiler studied International Relations and Political Science at Boğaziçi University in Turkey, and Hotel Management at the Glion Hotel School in Switzerland. She has worked in hotel management, marketing/communications, and publishing (as editor/writer). She’s a member of Turkish and Dutch PEN.