Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul

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The Bastard of Istanbul Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 62-page guide for “The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Shafak includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 18 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Food and Culture and Sexism and Toxic Masculinity.

Plot Summary

Elif Shafak’s 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul weaves together the stories of two rival cultures, those of the Turks and the Armenians—peoples who haven’t yet healed from the wound opened by the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Shafak uses the stories of two families—the Turkish Kazancis and the Armenian Tchakhmakchians—who live seemingly disparate lives on two different continents but are connected by a past that reveals how deeply interconnected these families and historical enemies are.

Shafak uses food as the novel’s overarching theme. Food is cultural talisman, and something that unites families. By the end of the novel, it functions as a salve that helps to heal past wounds. The novel begins in 1986, amidst chaos in Istanbul. Nineteen-year-old Zeliha Kazanci is heading to the gynecologist’s office, where she intends to get an abortion. Ultimately, she decides against it and returns home. Around the same time, Rose Tchakhmakchian, a Kentucky native, is grocery shopping in Tucson, Arizona when she spots an attractive and familiar-looking young man shopping for garbanzo beans. She recognizes him as a student at the University of Arizona and introduces herself. After their brief conversation, she  prepares to drive home with her infant daughter, Armanoush, whom she’s decided to call “Amy.” Rose then makes a last-minute decision to return to the store. She offers the young man a ride home. He accepts, they initiate a relationship and, eventually, they marry.

The narrative then moves to San Francisco. The Tchakhmakchians have learned that Rose plans to marry a Turk, which concerns them. Barsam, Rose’s ex-husband, insists that it won’t be a problem. The story fast-forwards to 2005. It is Asya Kazanci’s nineteenth birthday. Her family gives her a traditional cake, though Asya hates birthdays. She finds solace with her less sentimental friends at Café Kundera. The motley crew of creative types includes her lover, the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist.

Meanwhile, beautiful and bookish Armanoush Tchakhmakchian is preparing for a date with a law student. Her family makes a fuss. Though she has a nice time with Matt Hassinger, she knows that she’ll never fall in love with him or anyone else in San Francisco, given that a part of herself seems to be missing in the city. She looks for what seems lost in the chatroom Café Constantinople, where others of Armenian descent go to discuss aspects of their culture, particularly their long-standing enmity for the Turks. Baron Baghdassarian, who particularly loathes Turks, is her closest friend in the chatroom, and also Armanoush’s crush. Armanoush’s obsession with rediscovering her roots and, particularly, her Grandma Shushan’s childhood home, inspires her to go to Istanbul. Not long thereafter, Asya’s aunts tell her that they will have an American visitor—Mustafa’s stepdaughter—and that Asya will act as the family’s translator.

Armanoush never tells her family that she has gone abroad. Instead, she allows Rose to think that she’s in San Francisco, and lets the Tchakhmakchians think that she’s in Tucson. She briefly doubts the wisdom of these decisions but quickly warms up to the Kazancis, particularly Asya. Despite their different tastes, they develop trust for each other and introduce one another to their respective social circles: Armanoush introduces Asya to her cyberfriends, and Asya introduces Armanoush to her friends at Café Kundera.

At the same time, Auntie Banu looks to her djinni, and particularly Mr. Bitter, to uncover information about Armanoush. She learns about Armanoush’s ancestors’ experiences in Istanbul during the 1915 Armenian exile and genocide. She also later learns that Asya, who has always been regarded as a “bastard,” is the product of Mustafa’s rape of their younger sister, Zeliha. Auntie Banu becomes a witness to disturbing histories. The only other person who knows about Zeliha’s secret is her partner, Aram Martirossian, an Armenian Istanbulite. Auntie Banu uncovers a familial link between the Tchakhmakchians and the Kazancis: Grandma Shushan was the first wife of Riza Selim Kazanci and the mother of Levent Kazanci, whom Shushan abandoned to move to the United States.

Rose believes Armanoush to be in San Francisco; she calls her daughter’s cell phone and finds out that she’s in Istanbul. Rose and Mustafa fly there right away, despite Mustafa’s reservations. Once there, Rose enjoys the city and appreciates being the center of the Kazancis’ attention. Mustafa, on the other hand, is subdued. One night, Banu goes to him with a bowl of the ashure that their mother, Grandma Gülsüm, insisted on preparing for his arrival, as it’s his favorite dessert. Mustafa senses that his clairvoyant sister knows his secret and has brought him the dessert—which she’s sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and potassium cyanide—as the solution to delivering the family from its painful past. Mustafa eats and dies immediately. The family performs funeral rites on his body at their home. While viewing the body, Zeliha whispers to Asya that Mustafa was her father. Asya is stunned. Auntie Banu decides that she will give Armanoush the pomegranate brooch that had belonged to their father. The brooch was originally a gift from Armanoush’s great-grandfather, Hovhannes Stamboulian, to her great-grandmother, Armanoush.

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Chapters 1-3