Show Hide image

Elif Shafak's Diary

Driving to Davos in the snow, getting angry at Trump, and finding solace in fiction.

There is something about snowfall at dawn that makes you appreciate silence. That is exactly how I feel as I watch the breathtaking scenery outside my window as we drive along the icy roads from Zurich to Davos. To the left and right, mighty mountains loom above dormant valleys and lilliputian villages where only a few lights shine in the distance. I wonder what particular demon keeps these villagers awake at such an ungodly hour when every­one else is deep asleep, not realising that I, too, might be one of their kind.

Nadia’s survival

Davos is topsy-turvy this year. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, gives a speech about the merits of globalisation while the US embraces protectionism and isolation. Left v right is no longer the main split in politics. There are new divisions, in which “tribalism” confronts “internationalism”.

In the evening, I attend a dinner organised by Tina Brown, the founder of Women in the World. Inside the venue, I meet a beautiful soul: a 24-year-old called Nadia. She is a Yazidi woman, the first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. There is the tiniest fluctuation in Nadia’s voice as she speaks about the unspeakable: how Isis fanatics raided her village, how they killed the men, converted the boys to Islam, kidnapped the women; how she was raped by a dozen men and sold as a sex slave, how she watched relatives and friends being murdered or enslaved and her lonely tribe exterminated.

At the end of the evening, Amal Clooney gives an account of the UN’s shameful inability to bring the perpetrators of the Yazidi genocide to trial.

The next day is frantic. I take part in four different panels on the rise of populism, the future of Europe and the demise of liberal democracy. The first session, broadcast on Euronews, focuses on the end of multiculturalism. The other speakers are the US historian Lonnie Bunch, the Belgian deputy prime minister, Alexander De Croo, and the campaigner Brendan Cox. The last session is on faith. I clash with a fellow panellist, a leading Muslim scholar from Morocco, over women’s rights and LGBT rights.

Home, sweet home

At Heathrow Airport, I join a long queue that I know only too well. Those in the shorter queue for EU citizens often don’t realise how privileged they are. Finally, having retrieved my suitcase, I step ­outside. The rain is calming, familiar. How I’ve missed this beautiful city!

“Welcome home,” says the minicab driver. Home. I like the sound of the word. What I don’t like is its singularity. Can we have homes? Multiple belongings? Can I be a true Istanbulite and a true Londoner simultaneously? Can I be from the Balkans and the Aegean and the Mediterranean and carry in my soul elements from Anatolia and the Middle East and yet be a European by choice,
by love, by the values I hold dear?

The driver tells me that he came to Britain from Pakistan 17 years ago. We chat non-stop, his broken accent encouraged by my broken accent.

Time and place

A few days later, I am at the Women’s March in London. The woman in front of me, a stranger until an hour ago, hands me her balloons with a smile. Another holds a sign bearing the slogan, “Same shit, different century”. I should have carried a sign, too: “Same shit, different country”.

I have seen this before, in my motherland. Turkey provides a blueprint for what happens when a government confuses “democracy” with “majoritarianism” and turns authoritarian, undermining the separation of powers, the rule of law and freedom of speech. Pitting one half of society against the other worked to the benefit of populist demagogues.

In my solitude

For the next few days, I stay at home in my pyjamas and constantly read fiction. Like all introverts, I miss my solitude. It is an honour to be a judge for the Man Booker ­International Prize this year. There is a pile of books on my desk that tips over every now and then.

It is a subject that preoccupies me endlessly: the difficult marriage of literature to politics. If you are a novelist from a ­wobbly or wounded democracy, such as Turkey, Pakistan or Nigeria, you do not have the luxury of being apolitical. More and more European authors will begin to feel the same urgency.

In other words

I am at the BBC to record the radio programme Free Thinking with Pankaj Mishra and Douglas Murray. As always, Philip Dodd interviews his guests with insight, knowledge and wit. When I come home, my eight-year-old son asks me how it went. “Good,” I say. “We talked about anger.”

“Oh,” he says with a gotcha smile. “Did you tell them you’re angry at Trump?”

My son’s words shake me. It was anxiety and anger that brought Donald Trump to power. And I know, deep in my soul, that the response to him – and to the Erdogans, Putins, Modis, Dutertes, in both the East and the West – should not be unbridled anger and anxiety. I long for a new language.

The dream is over

The next day is publication day. My new novel, Three Daughters of Eve, is out. It is an odd feeling to finish a book. You spend weeks and months with a novel, working day and night, surrounding yourself with fictional characters, dreaming about them. Then, suddenly, it is over. You respectfully part ways. The book has a life of its own.

At the local Waterstones, I peek at my novel on the table, smiling as though at an old friend whom I know I won’t be seeing for a while. I always feel depressed when I’m between novels. Maybe that’s why I keep writing: to stay sane.

Elif Shafak’s “Three Daughters of Eve” is published by Viking

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

Show Hide image

The New Statesman Cover | Wanted: An opposition

A first look at this week's magazine.

March 31 - April 6 
Wanted: An opposition