Review of Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family

I purchased my copy at Daunt Books in Marylebone, London after the sales gal told me that it was one of the best works of “travel” literature she’s ever read and how the bookstore’s owner saw it as the “guidepost” of the store: representing the store’s intent on taking readers to another world. Take me to another world, it did. The world is Turkey, circa early 20th century, with the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire being obliterated by WWI, followed by the rise of Kemal Atatürk and the Turkish Republic. Orga places us firmly in his family as they experience the changes wrought by these circumstances and shows their empowering and embittering effects. This book was very interesting to me for many reasons.

I have read a lot about WWI, but the focus is often very Euro-centric, and we don’t see very many narratives of how it impacted other parts of the world, despite it being a global war. The only thing we know really about Turkey is the Dardenelles campaign and Gallipoli, but that seems separated from Turkish life. Orga allows us to experience the effects of war as it takes his family from the upper-echelon of society to the pit of poverty and starvation and rips his family apart. The biggest change is his mother. She married his father when she was 13 and was a 19-year-old pregnant mother-of-two when the war broke out. Until then she wore the veil, stayed cloistered, unseen, and mute inside, and played the role as doting mother. Quickly widowed and impoverished, she transforms herself into as modern as a woman could be for that time and place. She has to be seen and have a voice and make hard decisions that irrevocably impact her family. It is through her that we see the war’s greatest impact on Orga’s family. It is easy to forget that she is so young throughout the memoir. In many respects she was ahead of her time, which is remarkable since she started out as a very young and traditional woman, content to be to maintain her place. She quickly establishes a new set of values.

Orga also delves into what it means to be a family. He sees how the war changes his family members, especially his mother, and how it changes their relationships. What had been a simple love is now complex, full of hurts and disappointments. He often grapples with his feelings regarding his family, and I appreciate how honest he was about those feelings.

If you want to be taken back in time to another place, this book is for you!

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