Book Review: Forty Thorns

Author:Judy Light Ayyildiz

Reviewed by: Marion James

Originally posted: On Sunday’s Zaman

It seems the issue of justice is on everyone’s lips at the moment. With a sentence finally passed in the case concerning Hrant Dink’s murderers, have his family and the nation truly received justice?

Is justice served by a decision in a foreign parliament to create a new crime of denying genocide, or is it hindered and thwarted by such intervention?

If suspects are held for weeks or months before trial, can this be called justice? If court cases take months or even years to conclude, can this be called justice?

These questions have been vexing government ministers, occupying time in Parliament and debated on the radio and television. Whatever their political hue, ministers and media channels seem to be united in one conclusion: Some form of change is needed.

Lawmakers and ministers, judges and lawyers, families of victims and families of the accused, political commentators and television journalists, all are currently voicing opinions on the state of the nation’s legal system.

In İstanbul, we are used to seeing huge complexes being built: mainly shopping malls, luxury hotels or smart condominiums. But last year, the biggest law courts building in Europe opened in İstanbul. This astounding place has 19 floors and 19 blocks joined to one another. Some mind-boggling facts and figures include 73 elevators, 48 escalators, 326 courts, 267 prosecutor’s offices, 442 judge’s offices and a conference hall that can seat 354 people.

As if that wasn’t enough, now the claim for the biggest law courts building in the world belongs to the newly opened mega-development in Kartal, on the Asian side of the city!

All this could lead the observer to think Turkey either has a very high rate of crime, so it needs the largest courts in the world, or it is the country that puts the highest value on justice in the world. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and relates more to Turkey’s current passion to build the biggest and best than to any particular obsession with justice.

But the cry for justice is a common human emotion. So often from children’s lips we hear the cry, “It’s not fair.” We seem to be born with an innate sense of right and wrong and expect those in leadership positions and with authority over us — whether as children this means our parents and teachers or as adults our elected representatives and the police and civil servants who carry out their policies — to act with integrity and justice.

All of the world religions have something to say about justice. In the Jewish scriptures, God is revealed as not caring for hypocritical sacrifices. He would rather see people treated fairly and right, particularly the weak and the poor and the needy. I love the clarion call for justice given by the prophet Amos: “But let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

With the issue of justice so prevalent in the national consciousness at the moment, it seems that I am seeing the word justice — adalet — everywhere. The sticker on the back window of every İstanbul police car displays their motto: “halk için emniyet, adalet için hizmet” — “security for the people, service for justice.” Both of the newly opened mega law courts are called an adalet sarayı — a palace of justice. Justice should therefore reign like a queen in these public buildings.

Recently published both in English and in Turkish by Remzi Kitabevi, American Judy Light Ayyıldız tells the compelling and beautiful story of her mother-in-law, whose name is Adalet.

The blurb on the cover tells us to expect a history of the changes within a nation, of a family and of a woman. Adalet told Judy, “I’m not important, but my story is, write my book!” So Judy set out to write the important story, which is linked to the changes in Turkey’s government and society throughout the 20th century. It is the story of how a Turkish woman was affected by the War of Independence and then in turn set out with great gusto to affect the new Republic.

Adalet is spirited; she leads with her heart; her strength becomes the backbone of the new nation. Right from the very first pages of this memoir of the life of a remarkable woman, it is clear this is going to be not a history lesson, but a feast for the senses. Ayyıldız’s skill as a poet brings an added facet of deep description to her story (we start at Adalet’s funeral, and the image of the imam’s “oboe-voiced recital mingles with İstanbul’s engines and horns). The sights, sounds, smells and tastes draw you into a different world until you can almost touch it.

A girl born in Thrace in 1901 was doomed to see much of war, for this place had seen armies marching across it since before Alexander the Great. Adalet survives the turmoil and nightmare of the Balkan Wars and participates in the national resistance struggle led by her beloved pasha, Mustafa Kemal. A doctor cousin becomes a member of the new Parliament, and Adalet’s husband spends the first two decades of the Republic helping deliver government services, as governor or assistant governor in various corners of the land.

Adalet’s story is a beacon of hope and triumph for the human spirit. She embraces change with all of the “yes we can” enthusiasm that was displayed by Barack Obama’s supporters in the last US presidential race. She was a sassy lady, and her story is told by a sassy author who seems to believe passionately that this is not just the tale of one woman, of interest to students of the founding of the Republic, but the tale of a nation that must be passed on to the next generation.

Adalet’s story becomes even more relevant for today, answering the questions in current headlines, when we read the story with the meaning of her name in mind: justice. Consider just a few examples:

At a wedding, the young Adalet/Justice is called upon to remove the 40 evil thorns, symbolizing evil spirits, from the cape of a wedding gown. Only a pure maiden can pluck them out, and the family beseeches her, “Please Adalet/Justice, you are our only hope.”

Adalet/Justice could “light a candle with her eyes.”

Adalet/Justice wearies of “waiting for something to happen,” of waiting for men to take action.

Adalet/Justice believes “that everything you can imagine can be made to come to pass … when there is a great leader and the will of the people is strong.”

“‘Nations come from wombs like mine,’ Adalet answered. ‘Our hands keep fires while wars rage. We clean the burnt homes, help re-stack the rocks, gather the suffering ruin to our breasts and hide what we can … milk the goats, milk the cows, milk the mules if necessary! — whatever is at hand to give us cheese and yogurt.”

The womb of Justice is mightily powerful for building a nation, too. Adalet’s story reminds us that how this current generation treats justice — what changes we make or fail to make — can affect the nation for generations to come.

“Forty Thorns,” by Judy Light Ayyıldız, published by Remzi Kitabevi (2011) TL 17.50 in paperback ISBN: 978-975141474-8


Author: Faith Oneya

Lover of the written and spoken word.

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