’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World’ begins with The End- Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul, lays dying amidst the garbage in the outskirts of the city. Istanbul begins to awake from her slumber in the hours of the early morning, but Leila prepares for eternal sleep. Her consciousness begins to ebb away, but for 10 minutes and 38 seconds, her brain stays awake conjuring up distant memories of her life-memories of the weight of salt, of the taste of lemon and sugar, of the smell of cardamom coffee.
1947 saw the birth of Leila Afife Kamile in Van, a small city located in Eastern Turkey. Her mother Binnaz, who had experienced 6 miscarriages prior to the birth of Leila, was forced to surrender Leila to the care of her husband’s first wife, Suzan, who was without child. Leila would henceforth know Suzan as her mother and Binnaz as her Auntie. As a child, Leila was as curious and as inquisitive as innocent children are, fascinated by the colors on the carpet which she would gaze at until they came to life, moved by the animals and wildlife around her-the diverse species of birds and fishes that inhabited Van- and mystified by the women around her who led an almost paradoxical existence. Leila’s transition from child to teenager was a turbulent one which coincided with her father’s growing inclination towards religiosity, and was accompanied by sexual abuse at the hands of her gregarious uncle. Thus, the Leila who viewed life through a vibrant lens of possibility, who longed to wear colorful fabrics and style her hair according to the latest fashions of Audrey Hepburn and who wished to explore her own likes and dislikes was snubbed by her father’s hateful lectures, by the fearful reality of the consequences of her uncle’s actions and the silence of her mother and Auntie. Aged 17, Leila impulsively resolves to leave her home and family in Van for the uncertainty of Istanbul, where she hopes she will find the liberation to build her own life.
In Istanbul, Leila Afife Kamile is no more, and it is Tequila Leila who begins to work as a sex worker in a licensed brothel owned by a woman known as Bitter Ma. She becomes an outcast but she is not alone, for, although her blood family have disowned her, Leila finds solace and support in her water family, her friends. These diverse personalities include Jameelah, a Somali worker, Zainab122, a dwarf, Nostalgia Nalan, a transgender, Hollywood Humeyra, a runaway who performs at nightclubs and Sabotage Sinan, an old childhood friend. To describe Leila’s bond with her water family Shafak writes, “They were her safety net. … On days when she wallowed in self-pity, her chest cracking open, they would gently pull her up and breathe life into her lungs.” Even as the life departs from her eyes, the support of her safety net remains. The 5 friends are determined to save her from the humiliation of being laid to rest at the Cemetery of the Companionless, a graveyard for those who have none to claim them, and where the dead are recognized by numbers rather than names. This endeavor shapes Part 2 of the novel, The Body.
Shafak describes Istanbul as a city of multiplicities, she writes “In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls- struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive.” The betrayal of this city of different faces, of clashing ideologies, of the old and new could be felt most acutely by the outcasts that occupied it, the trans-genders, the runaways, the obese, the dwarfs, the protesting students and the ‘misguided’ women. While the novel deals with many difficult themes, such as inequality of rights between men and women, mental illness and sexual violence, Shafak has described this book as a ‘life-affirming novel’ because it explores the themes of friendship and self-sufficiency. While it is true that Leila and her friends have seen grave injustices and violations of their rights, their resilience and defiance against the stereotype of outcasts crumbling in front of society’s cruelties make them anything but victims of their circumstances. This is truly a masterpiece, and Shafak beautifully makes use of sensuality to shape this book into an evocative experience for the mind and soul.