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Turkish novelist Elif Shafak reflects on the earthquake in Turkey


The scope of devastation and death across Turkey and Syria is hard to hold in our minds. Human beings often want to look away. We are going to turn now to one of Turkey's most esteemed writers. Elif Shafak looks at pain in her novels, including "The Bastard Of Istanbul" and "Three Daughters Of Eve." And her novels reflect her country's tangle of history, humanity and politics. She spent her formative years with her mother and grandmother in Turkey and later taught at universities there. In recent years, she has made her life abroad. Elif Shafak joins us now from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELIF SHAFAK: Thank you.

SIMON: And may I ask, what do you hear from family and friends in Turkey?

SHAFAK: It's horrible. You know, this is a massive, massive catastrophe. There's so much sorrow and so much anger, as well. It didn't have to be this way. And people have lost everything.

SIMON: How do you explain anger towards an earthquake?

SHAFAK: Well, this - of course, this was caused by a massive earthquake - actually two earthquakes - in a very short span of time. They followed each other. And it would have caused huge destruction or damage, I should say, in any parts of the world. However, it wouldn't be so horrific if building regulations had been up to standards. I think what caused the catastrophe was, rather than a natural disaster, it was a human-made system of inequality and corruption. And we need to talk about that.

SIMON: Let's do talk about it with you, if we could. What's been happening in Turkey over the past few years as you see it?

SHAFAK: You know, I was in Istanbul in 1999 when a terrible earthquake hit. More than 18,000 people died that night. I will never forget the fear of waking up in the middle of the night and finding the entire building swaying like a raft in a storm. After that earthquake, after that horrific death toll, many promises were made to the people in Turkey. Politicians said that they were going to bring stricter laws and rules and regulations, but none of those promises were kept. You know, there were some new rules on paper, but they were not enforced. They were not implemented. Just the opposite. The government kept issuing these construction amnesties, pardoning constructors who were not using good materials when building these buildings. And every few years, they would keep doing this. So there is a lot of corruption at the heart of the system that needs to be questioned now. This is precisely why so many people have lost their lives.

SIMON: Because of widespread corruption, building codes were not observed, and more people have died now.

SHAFAK: Yes, because the truth is a remarkable, really mind-blowing number of buildings in Turkey, in my motherland - they're not up to standards. So the materials used - they are not good. And there isn't proper checking mechanism. In addition to that, the government has introduced something called an earthquake tax, and they have been collecting money. And they told us that they were going to use that money in the next emergency. But as we've seen after this horrific earthquake, the rescue efforts were completely uncoordinated. They were not enough. So many places were left without aid. For so many hours, people waited under the rubble. And the trauma - so many people experienced the trauma of hearing the voices of their loved ones, their friends and family from under the rubble and not being able to do anything about it.

SIMON: As you see it, Ms. Shafak, has the corruption centered in any particular party or political interest?

SHAFAK: Well, I think we need to hold the people in power accountable. You know, it might sound unusual for me to say this in the sense that we never talk about democracy when we talk about natural disasters. But I think there is a correlation because in a democracy, in a functioning democracy, people know there's transparency. There's accountability. There's checks and balances. So when we are looking at this massive destruction, we also need to bear in mind that because there's no democracy, this thing has been so enormous.

SIMON: Isn't there a democracy in Turkey? I mean, elections are coming up in the spring.

SHAFAK: In Turkey, we have relatively regular elections. That in itself is not enough to keep a democracy alive. For a democracy to survive and to thrive, we need separation of powers, checks and balances, a free and diverse media, rule of law. When all those institutions are broken, the ballot box in itself cannot deliver democracy. It can only deliver majoritarianism. And from majoritarianism to authoritarianism - it's a very short fall.

SIMON: I wonder if you've been turning to something over the past few days, something you've written, something somebody else has written. Are there lines that keep running through your mind that that give you some solace or reflection now?

SHAFAK: It's - you know, I keep crying. I feel angry. I feel immense sorrow. I always find solace in poetry. It's very interesting. I mean, the fact that I'm physically not there doesn't mean emotionally, I'm disconnected. And I know this feeling will resonate with many people across the diaspora. You know, we do not forget our motherlands just because we happen to be away, you know? So it's just heartbreaking.

SIMON: What do you hope happens in the days ahead?

SHAFAK: I want focus on change. You know, change needs to happen. Women can create - can bring on change. I've always believed in this. But we also need to bear in mind that in times of disaster, women and children are affected disproportionately. We didn't get a chance to talk about Syria. I think there's immense suffering there. Let us not forget that the region we're talking about was already suffering a lot from poverty, inequality, conflicts, war. My point is, as citizens of humanity, wherever we happen to be across the world, we cannot remain indifferent. We cannot be disconnected from each other's stories and sorrows. We must keep global solidarity alive and especially global sisterhood alive.

SIMON: Elif Shafak. Her most recent book is "The Island Of Missing Trees." Thank you for being with us.

SHAFAK: Thank you so much. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREY REVEREND SONG, "LITTLE ELI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.