This is for the unwanted

A black and white photograph from Ara Güler showing four small boys playing in the backstreets of their flats, with hanging clothesline above their heads.
Credit: © Ara Güler

I just finished reading the new book from Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, possibly my fifth Shafak’s book I have read. The title lends itself to a finding of a research, however unproven, that whenever one dies their mind will stay alert for another exactly 10 minutes 38 seconds. I was always been told by the elderly in my family that during this duration, your mind will go through a replay of key moments in your lives — from your childhood all the way through your last few seconds.

Needless to say I have always loved every story about Istanbul — both the poetic evocation of it (as one Turkish friend once said of how I felt about the city — until he supplied me with every journal and news article possible about the political climate of the country) and the beautiful mess hidden within its sprawling small streets. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds tells a story about a sex worker called Leila, who found herself dead in a city dumpster. As she drifts away for good, Shafak does what every writer knows how to do well, and perhaps especially she does it extremely well — Leila is instantly humanised as her mind takes her back to her childhood home in Van, all the way to her early years in Istanbul till she starts to make friends with all the unlikeliest people to be seen together: a Marxist, a transwoman, immigrants, a woman with dwarfism, someone who flees home to escape domestic violence, and a childhood friend with a secret life. Their friendship, despite personal differences and social standing, strengthens out of love and especially respect for each other. Leila, despite who she is to the world, has loved and is deeply loved. Her death does not stop her from telling her story, and one that should not be silenced.

Until the year 1990, Article 438 of the Turkish Penal Code was used to reduce the sentence given to rapists by 1/3rd if they could prove that their victim was a sex worker. Legislators defended the article with the argument that “a prostitute’s mental or physical health could not be negatively affected by rape”. In 1990, in the face of an increasing number of attacks against sex workers, passionate protests were held in different parts of the country. Owing to this strong reaction from civil society, Article 438 was repealed. However, to these days, there’s still been a few, if any, legal amendments in the country towards gender equality, or specifically towards improving the conditions of sex workers.

This is a story for the unwanted, the unworthy, and the unidentified of İstanbul — and in all cities, in an amalgamation of all our identities, who deserve better lives.

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