Book Review: One man’s journey through the eyes of another

Updated 26 May 2017

Book Review: One man’s journey through the eyes of another

Sabahattin Ali published “Madonna in a Fur Coat” in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1943. At the time, the book was one of many of his published works. They were widely circulated in Turkey and held in high esteem although, at times, they got him into trouble. While this book may not have gained much recognition then, its popularity today in Turkey, 70 years later, is greater than many other authors. And now, translated into English by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, it can attract a new generation of readers.
“Madonna in a Fur Coat” is the introspective journey of a young man in the 1930s. Told from a narrator’s perspective – one whose name the reader never learns – it opens with him struggling to find work after losing his job. While desperately wandering the streets, the narrator happens to stumble upon an old friend, Hamdi, who promises to help him out of his predicament.
“When misfortune visits those who once walked alongside us, we also tend to feel relief, almost as if we believe we have ourselves been spared, and as we come to convince ourselves that they are suffering in our stead, we feel for these wretched creatures.”
Hamdi offers the narrator a job in his firm and it is here that he meets “the rather ordinary” Raif Efendi, a man “with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.”
The narrator discovers that Raif Efendi is the longest-serving clerk in the company and that his translations are exceptional, but who has no friends. Despite his excellent work, Raif Efendi is constantly ridiculed and yelled at by his bosses but he never retaliates. He has a lackluster daily routine, which he does not alter, not even to join the other clerks in the coffee houses to play backgammon. His demeanor eventually begins to annoy the narrator as a man who “had, I thought, no more life inside him than a plant,” until one day he notices Raif Efendi has made a brilliant sketch of one of the directors who always yells at him.
“Nowhere had I seen the line between cruelty and wretchedness so clearly drawn.” Realizing he may have misjudged Raif Efendi, the narrator grows curious to find out all he can about him.
But the task to get to know him is difficult as Raif Efendi falls sick often due to pleurisy, and so misses days at the office. That, however, does not stop the company from sending him work. One day, the narrator offers to take Raif Efendi’s work to him, eager to learn about the man and his family.
He discovers that Raif Efendi’s home is decorated with the finest crystal and velvet in spaces where guests can see but nowhere else. His family is not pleasant, least of all to Raif Efendi, treating him “as if he were expendable, and always in the way.” But Raif Efendi acts the same with them, without reacting. He is a man who “did more than just tolerate ridicule from people with whom he had nothing in common: he seemed actively to approve of those who looked down on him…”
One day, Raif Efendi falls extremely ill. It is at this point that he asks the narrator to retrieve his things from his office desk, everything from his top drawer, especially his black notebook, which is to be destroyed. It is a diary of sorts, one that dates back a decade, revealing a younger, different Raif Efendi.
“I looked at this man who wished to leave nothing of himself behind, who, even as he moved toward death, wished to take his loneliness with him.”
After pleading with Raif Efendi to allow him to keep the notebook, the narrator takes it home and reads it. He finds Raif Efendi as a young, bookish boy, “one of those quiet boys who preferred dreams to the real world.” Sent to Germany to learn everything he could about soap manufacturing, young Raif is fascinated by Europe and uninterested in making soap. He busies himself with books, learning German and absorbing all he can from the museums and galleries he visits. One day, he happens to find himself an art exhibition where he discovers the portrait of a woman with a “strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman.” Raif is transfixed by this portrait of a madonna in a fur coat and eventually meets the painter who changes his life and helps to explain the mystery of Raif Efendi.
Sabahattin Ali was many things in his life; a poet, a short story writer, a teacher and the owner of a newspaper. He served time in prison at various periods in his life, once when he criticized the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Always using his writing as his strongest weapon, he was eventually killed in 1948 under suspicious circumstances while trying to get to Bulgaria.
Ali’s writing is moving and reflective. He writes of every character intimately, as if he has encountered and watched them his entire life. There is beauty in his disenchantment through description that shapes and molds characters and scenes for exactly what they are. He seems disillusioned by the world he lives in but revived by his revolutionary ideas of the role of men and women in society, relationships and life.
Ali seems as if he lived in a world that was not black and white, but many shades of beautiful colors revealed through nature and relationships. In this book, it is evident that there is no protagonist or antagonist in his stories, just people who live for themselves and sometimes devote their efforts to others. Ultimately, Ali reveals that life is a journey to be taken alone, because people’s experiences are not the same. As the narrator says about Raif Efendi in “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” one feels about Ali, a man who was taken before his time, “To live in the same place was not to live as he did.”
— Manal Shakir is the author of “Magic Within,” published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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Inmates serve their sentences in this collection of personal essays written by UAE prisoners

‘Tomorrow, I Will Fly’ is a collection of personal essays from Dubai prisoners. (Shutterstock)
Updated 28 February 2020

Inmates serve their sentences in this collection of personal essays written by UAE prisoners

  • British novelists Annabel Kantaria and Clare Mackintosh host a one-week writers program for 12 male and 15 female prisoners in a project organized by Dubai Police and the Emirates Literature Foundation

DUBAI: A new book released at the Emirates Literature Festival last month gives voice to 27 inmates of Dubai Central Prison. “Tomorrow, I Will Fly” is a first-of-its-kind initiative in the region, and saw British novelists Annabel Kantaria and Clare Mackintosh host a one-week writers program for 12 male and 15 female prisoners in a project organized by Dubai Police and the Emirates Literature Foundation.

The results of the workshop — a series of short personal, often poignant essays — were compiled and edited by Kantaria and Mackintosh and have now been published in the book, which was initially launched at the prison and will be available in digital format, as well as being distributed to other English-speaking prisons.

Its title is taken from one of the essays — written by a Ugandan housemaid named Cathy. The only time she has been on an airplane was to come to Dubai — “the city of opportunities.” The inmates were not allowed to write about why they are in prison, but Cathy wrote, “I made a bad choice of girlfriend and she put me behind bars. Because of her I had to bury the dreams of my husband and me.”

Its title is taken from one of the essays — written by a Ugandan housemaid named Cathy. (Supplied)

Still, her spirit remains strong. “I know we can’t turn back time, but we can create new memories,” she wrote. “It’s never too late to sit down at the same table with my family and share a meal and laugh together. That’s what I’m looking forward to. My next flight will be back home to my country, my motherland, the pearl of Africa… Today I am here. Tomorrow, I will fly.”

According to Kantaria and Mackintosh, the workshops taught the participants how to come up with ideas, mind map, structure and plan their work, assess newspaper articles and improve their use of language. It was an emotionally charged project for them both.

“It was very humbling being there with them,” Dubai-based Kantaria told Arab News. “It was lovely that they put their trust in me to tell me their stories. It’s a very unique thing to be able to go into a prison and help people who really need and appreciate it.”

Mackintosh’s former profession as a police officer helped her to engage in the project without any prejudices about the inmates. “We perhaps like to think of ourselves as being morally correct and that we would never do anything that would land us in prison,” she said. “But things happen in life — people make mistakes. I went into the prison just thinking about these people as people, and I have the same amount of respect for them as I have for anyone else.”  

Kantaria was especially struck by the female inmates’ eagerness to learn. And she said she was surprised by the prison’s fairly cordial atmosphere.

“I’ve never been in a prison before and I suppose you imagine people (just) locked up in cells. But, it was more like being inside a school; they were milling about, talking to each other, and there were grassy, open spaces,” she said.

In spite of the prisoners’ difficult circumstances and understandable fear of what might happen to them, it was their hopeful and philosophical attitude that left an impression on Kantaria: “I think if you haven’t been to prison, you imagine it would be the end of your life — you’d be absolutely devastated and destroyed. But they didn’t see it like that. They were sort of reassessing their life, counting their blessings, planning the future. One of them said to me: ‘It’s not that my life is over — my life is on hold. And when I come out, it will start again.’”

Mackintosh noted that one of the major challenges that arose during the sessions was convincing the inmates to open up emotionally.

“When you’re in a difficult situation, there’s a tendency to shut down your emotions because it’s too hard to cope,” she said. “You build up a protective wall around you and that’s something that is very common in prison inmates, who are in self-defense mode and are quite numb. We had to chip away at that wall in order to allow them to write freely.”

Their approach appears to have worked. After the project had finished, one of the inmates wrote: “If you ask me to pick one good patch of comfort (from) my entire prison term, I’d say it was your workshop.”