Set against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks, Birds Without Wings traces the fortunes of one small community in south-west Anatolia – a town in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully for centuries.
When war is declared and the outside world intrudes, the twin scourges of religion and nationalism lead to forced marches and massacres, and the peaceful fabric of life is destroyed. Birds Without Wings is a novel about the personal and political costs of war, and about love: between men and women; between friends; between those who are driven to be enemies; and between Philothei, a Christian girl of legendary beauty, and Ibrahim the Goatherd, who has courted her since infancy. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, it is an enchanting masterpiece.
- -Taken from the back cover
Chapters: 102 total, with 6 in the Epilogue and 1 as a Postscript
I had just spent three hours wandering the mosaic halls of the Topkapi palace and harem, lost in the history and enchantment of Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire, when I discovered a book: Birds Without Wings. After reading the back cover, I decided it sounded odd but interesting, so I bought it, tossed it into my suitcase, and promptly forgot about it until four months later when my father casually mentioned it, bringing it once more to my attention. For my last week at AIS, my last week in Kazakhstan, my flights back to the USA, and my first few days in Virginia, I read that book.
When I got to the end, I closed it almost reverently and just sat there and contemplated what I had just read for a few minutes. I think it might be one of the most interesting books I have ever read. In some odd way it reminds me of Atonement – not in its story or characters or anything like that, but just in how much I enjoyed the writing. I get a lot of flak from certain friends about my love for Atonement and other depressing books, but it’s not just the story that I love, it’s the author’s style, too. When I read Atonement, I was nearing the end of my time at university, and there I was with a bachelor’s degree in English and no idea whatsoever as to what I would do next. As the song says, “What can you do with a B.A. in English?” When I read Atonement, I could hardly contain my excitement. I’m sure I annoyed my roommate because I was so giddy I could barely sit still, but the reason is that I wanted to write like that. I wanted to write something as intriguing and diabolical and disturbing and beautiful as Atonement.
Reading Birds Without Wings had the same effect on me. I feel challenged and inspired, and all I want to do is write something even half as good.
The story is divided into many chapters, and each chapter is anywhere between 1 paragraph and several pages long. Each chapter focuses on a different character. de Bernières makes sure to number each chapter from each repeated character so that the chapters may maintain their series within the book. For example, there are 15 chapters narrated by the character Philothei, and a title for one would be “I am Philothei (9).”
The story also has 22 chapters about Mustafa Kemal, and these are written in the present tense. The chapters follow the life and progression of Kemal as he evolves into Atatürk.
The book explores the changes that took place in Turkey as it transitioned from the Ottoman Empire into the country we know today. One of the most significant changes that it reveals is the relationship between Muslims and Christians. In the fictional small town of Eskibahçe, Muslims and Christians live side-by-side in an ironic harmony. They are friends, yet they tease and taunt each other. To each group the other is made up of infidels, yet the Muslims ask the Christians to pray on their behalf and light a candle before the icon of the Virgin Mary in the church. Likewise, the Christians repeatedly seek out help from the local imam, and one of the young Christian girls even takes the veil for a time.
It is understood in the town that a man may not change his religion, yet a woman may when she marries. Thus, the town is full of intermarriages, and the novel focuses on the romance between a young Christian girl named Philothei and her suitor, the Muslim Ibrahim.
There is another romance that occurs in the story, and that is of Rustem Bey, the town’s aga (or lord), and the mistress Leyla he brings back to Eskibahçe after his wife commits adultry and is forced out of his home. Leyla pretends to be a Circassian and therefore a Muslim like Rustem Bey, but she is actually a Greek and culturally a Christian. She keeps this a secret throughout the book and laments that none of the other Greeks and Christians in the town can speak her native Greek.
The novel explores several major themes. It looks at religious and ethnic tolerance, nationalism, imperialism, politics, and prejudice. At the beginning of the story, the people are very content living together; however, the decisions of those in power and the outside world eventually overwhelm the town and radically transform it.
Be that as it may, one day we discovered that there actually existed a country called “Greece” that wanted to own this place, and do away with us, and take away our land. We knew of Russians before, because of other wars, but who were these Italians? Who were these other Frankish people? Suddenly we heard of people called “Germans,” and people called “French,” and of a place called Britain that had governed half the world without us knowing of it, but it was never explained to us why they had chosen to come and bring us hardship, starvation, bloodshed and lamentation, why they played with us and martyred our tranquility.
- -Chapter 1 “The Prologue of Iskander the Potter”
Philothei and Ibrahim are madly and naively in love, and everyone knows it, but circumstances and historic changes in the Ottoman Empire eventually drive the two apart as Ibrahim leaves to serve in the army in a war against Greece.
Their friends, Nicos and Abdul, more commonly known as Mehmetçik (“red robin”) and Karatavuk (“blackbird”) for the sound of the bird whistles each owns, have grown up together as best friends and brothers, also ignoring their differing religions. When the war begins, both boys wish to sign up, but only Karatavuk is taken because Mehmetçik is of Greek ethnicity. Since the war has been declared a jihad or holy war against the Christian Greeks, the Turks in power cannot trust Greeks to fight for them. The Ottoman Empire is dead, and now there are Turks and Greeks living on the Turks’ land.
“I think we will be divided,” said Mehmetçik. “Suddenly it matters that I am a Christian, where it mattered only a little before.”
“We won’t be divided,” replied Karatavuk firmly. “We have always been friends. We have always been together.”
- -Chapter 50 “The Exchange”
Nationalism overtakes the country, and suddenly neighbors turn on neighbors, friends on friends, and it becomes clear that the peaceful tolerance that existed under the Ottoman Empire has vanished forever.
There are several characters that I enjoyed in this story. While the focus is on the romance between Philothei and Ibrahim, my favorites were Rustem Bey and Leyla, as well as Mehmetçik and Karatavuk. While all four characters are not without their faults, they are written with such depth that they are living and breathing on the page. Rustem Bey, for all of his wealth and power, is extremely self-conscious and unsure of himself. Leyla, a prostitute-turned-mistress, exudes confidence and plies him with the adoration and devotion he needs, yet she too reveals her insecurities.
The two boys Karatavuk and Mehmetçik are naive, personable and perfect models of their respective religions.
Points of Interest:
As I said before, the author’s style stuck out to me as I read this. Here are a few bits and pieces that I loved:
The local imam interrupts a stoning and is outraged. He rebukes the Muslims in the crowd, but before he does so, he speaks to the Christians who have joined in.
The imam pointed to other Christians, one after the other. “Do you follow the prophet, Jesus of Nazereth, peace be upon him? Well, do you?”
Charitos and the other Christians murmured that they did, and Abdulhamid commanded, “Go and find your priest. Ask him what the prophet Jesus said when he prevented the stoning of an adulteress. Leave this place! Go and ask him. Father Kristoforos will tell you what you ought to know already. Go now, and do not condemn yourselves any further.”
- -Chapter 19 “The Telltale Shoes”
It would be too simple to say that Rustem Bey was looking for romantic love, because in reality he was looking for the missing part of himself, and these are not often the same quest, even though we sometimes think they are.
- -Chapter 25 “Tales from the Journey to Smyrna”
I was very bitter about this death until I started to die it properly.
- -Chapter 85 “I am Georgio P. Theodorou”
[She] said, “This is the language of your forefathers that the Christians in this place have gradually forgotten,” and I said, Are there no words in my own tongue?” and she said,”Silly girl, of course there are, but Greek is the best language for love.”
… eventually I realized that what Leyla Hamim had told me was true, that these words were the most perfect of any language in the world, and of all the words in the languages of the world, they were the most beautiful, and they were also the words that most meant what I was meaning to say.”
- -Chapter 87 “I am Philothei (14)”
It’s a beautiful story. I felt emotionally spent at the end of the novel and just a bit chilled. There are things spoken of within this book that remind me of my dear home in Kazakhstan, and that makes me feel uneasy.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
1 star – Avoid
2 stars – Wait for the movie
3 stars – Borrow from a friend or library
4 stars – Worth your money
5 stars – This book will change your life
Rating: R for language and mature themes
Adapted from Novel Book Ratings