10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is about Istanbul. It was a liquid city. Nothing was permanent. Nothing felt settled. (Shafak 306). A city with vibrant colours, magnificent skyscrapers, and energetic souls, or so seen by the people dwelling far from the city. Individuals thrown out of their own family find refuge in Istanbul. They collectively fall under the umbrella of breaking conventions of society in moral bounds. Hence, the families severed ties with the disrespectful, punishing them for a lifetime. They leave them to rot in the streets, hungry, exploited, and to suffer long-term misery until they learn to stand for themselves, some never did. Political changes and cultural shifts in Turkey exacerbated the lives of the residents, constantly demanding them to adapt to changes around them. People were torn between the disintegrating eastern culture and the new western culture moreover everything was in flux except the growing fear which inflated in the hearts of Turkish people.
In Istanbul, there is an association between all personal experiences and the political situations of the country which has resulted in individuals suffering in the streets, unemployed citizens, until street robbers. Through Leila’s personal experiences, Shafak depicts many crucial historical events and societal tensions of 20th century Istanbul, including Bloody Sunday in 1969 and the Taksim Square Massacre in 1977. In Anatolia, hundreds of peasants held a march against poverty and unemployment as a result political forces attacked and arrested people. There was an attack on leftist demonstrators. Casualties included students of Istanbul universities. Police and militant force unleashed powerful weapons and outnumbered common people accosting Government. There was violence everywhere and as Shafak says, “Istanbul made killing easy, and dying even easier”. (Shafak 188).
Istanbul is politically divided and the author frequently questions these political divides on individuals. The act of questioning is significant which creates a space in the novel to make the readers think about or doubt about faith without dissolving it. It is also a space to spot diversities and empathize with lives even if we may not understand its complexities.
Shafak juxtaposes the changes in societal circumstances in Turkey with the changes in Leila’s circumstances. Leila’s family is Kurdish. They settled in a house, clearly abandoned by an Armenian family. Society becomes more “westernized” as Leila’s father becomes more religiously conservative. Many cultures of Turkey, including superstitions such as avoiding peaches during pregnancy so the baby won’t be covered in fuzz while it is born, coexists alongside marvels such as bridges, the fourth-longest bridge in the world that spans across Asian Istanbul to European Istanbul. The circle that captivated an old Yazidi man is a lost dream for a girl in an Eastern town.
People living in Istanbul, especially the outcasts suffered from the corrupt system. They were accustomed to massacres, political uprisings, violation of law, bribing police officers, discrimination. Leila tries hard to pull herself out from these miseries of Istanbul but the roots go deep that the field pulls her back to the black hole. D/Ali rescued her and gave her sweet memories to relish. But sooner, Istanbul’s political instability caused commotion and curbed the lives of common people, including D/Ali. Istanbul is a place to find hope. Though the other few were dragged and trampled to death like Tequila Leila. “Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong”. (Shafak 202).
Cultural differences: East Vs West
The country’s political status remained the same since Leila witnessed the abysmal treatment of fellow people in the newspaper at her young age. Leila never dreamt of herself being one among them in the group in near future. She, for the first time, felt like belonging to a larger group. Bitter Ma despised the group as it spoiled their odds of earning a decent sum when Americans visited Turkey. “Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change.”
Turkey, under the influence of western culture, is modernized. Leila is allured by modern western culture. She feels a stronger inclination towards western music, their culture, and their practices. She dyes her hair and imprints a tattoo on her ankle. On contrary, her father becomes deeply devoted to his religion which pressed him to draft rules in his house. He rearranged his lifestyle. He is so deeply rooted in religion that he ceased to stitch dresses that exposed women’s bodies. Istanbul embraced the western culture, while Leila’s father built a wall disconnecting the entire family to the growing modern world.
Leila’s water family
Leila’s five friends, as Shafak presents them as her ‘water family’ ties the novel together as one whole piece. Shafak constrained herself from diving deep into their personal stories. Although, she gives voice to each character in the chapters titled with their names. She intentionally structured the narration in this manner to keep the readers’ minds focused on one single soul Leila who is subjected to various discrimination’s on all grounds. The five characters, combined to form a strong force who in the latter part of the novel becomes the super squad of five. They wished to give decent farewell to Leila, unlike her family.
Nalan, the leader-like figure among the five pushes the narration forward in the second part of the novel. She is not the narrator, she is the driving force who fills the vacuum that Leila left. Sinan, Leila’s childhood friend, conquers his fear with great fortitude by tossing Leila’s body into the sea. His character reflects the social and cultural restrictions, a man confronts in Turkey. A man is obliged to fulfil his responsibilities as a son, a husband, and a father. Social systems and cultural practices disrupt his ambitions to pursue a good education, lead a life of his choice.
The third one, Zaynab is a dwarf. She escapes her family but her biological disorder burdened her backs. Girls like Nalan and Zaynab are constantly at threat of molestation and sexual harassment. Transvestites like Nalan are taken to detention centres when foreign delegates visited Istanbul for conferences. Police officers exploited them sexually and physically in the guise of cleaning the cities. Jameelah, the prostitute is exhausted with religion and family, and Humeyra abandoning her husband sought refuge in Istanbul. The third part of the novel takes readers to the beginning of the story. Shafak cleverly connected all the loose ties in the end.
Many disliked the second part of the novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, wherein the author brought life back by tying the present with the past in the last part of her novel, “The Soul”. The story ends with five friends sharing Leila’s apartment, each holding memories of their past with Leila. Leila is a sex worker, dauntless and fierce, outcast by her family and bulldozed by social evils. Through her journey in a hopeless life, she made a ‘water family’. Her fond memories dwell in the hearts of five who are one of the other outcasts of society in Istanbul. “Her memory surged forth, eager and diligent, collecting pieces of a life that was speeding to a close…. Time became fluid, a fast flow of recollections speeding into one another, the past and present inseparable”.