By Luke Frostick
Review of A Recipe for Daphne, a novel by Nektaria Anastasiadou
There is another side to Beyoğlu behind the touristy cafes, shopping centers, and bars. It is a much older one: a world of synagogues hidden behind high concrete walls, restaurants without signs on the street, and hammams almost as old as the Ottoman conquest. It is the romantic fading world of Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and old Istanbul Turks.
Nektaria Anastasiadou’s first novel A Recipe for Daphne explores one of these hidden communities of Beyoğlu, the Rum: a small and ancient society made up of proud holdouts of Istanbul’s Greek population.
The book starts with Fanis, an elderly Rum gentleman/silver fox spotting a beautiful young woman as he leaves his appointment at the German hospital. This woman turns out to be Daphne, who is of mixed Rum and Turkish heritage and has come from her home in America to visit the homeland. Fanis, still seeing himself as an eligible bachelor, considers Daphne a possible marriage prospect. Also interested in the new visitor to Istanbul is the shy, old-fashioned Kosmas, a patissier working in one of Beyoğlu’s legendary bakeries. The story follows Kosmas and Fanis as they vie for Daphne’s affections. Daphne is not initially interested in either of them. She has her own dysfunctional relationship to work through, while trying to find a way to unite her mixed Rum, Turkish, and American identities, but from that sharing the three central characters all get arcs of their own that intersect with each other throughout the novel. Although Fanis’s attempt to woo Daphne may well be a non-starter, he still has a lot of work to do confronting a tragic event from his past that has been haunting him. At the same time, Kosmas is trying to recreate the Balkanik, a legendary pastry lost to time.
With these three characters in play, it is kind of easy from the opening to see where the plot is going. It conforms quite closely to the structure of a romantic novel without any great surprises in store for the reader. The prose style is solid but for the most part unremarkable, although there are several points in the text where the writer shows a lack of confidence in her reader and over-explains subject material that could be left implicit. For instance, right at the end, when Fanis is inspecting Kosmas’s version of the Balkanik, he thinks to himself, “If the Balkanik pastry could be resurrected, then perhaps there was hope for their community.” By this point in the book, it has been made extremely clear that those invested in Kosmas’s quest see the pastry as a metaphor for the community and making it explicit on the second to last page was unnecessary.
Where the book is at its strongest is in the glimpse the reader gets into the Rum society. Anastasiadou clearly has a good understanding of the community. It is important to point out that the Rum community she is describing sees itself as different from modern Greeks. They distinguish themselves from Greeks in that they see themselves as the original Greek inhabitants of Istanbul rather than Greeks who have moved to the city in later years. As Fanis puts it, “in the end, though, we aren’t Greeks. We’re Rums. Grandfather from grandfather, all the way from Byzantium.”
The impression the author gives of a small, tightly knit, but also slightly stuffy community is compelling and full of fascinating little details. For example, the way they always refer to the main shopping street in Beyoğlu as the Grand Avenue rather than the modern name of Istiklal and the way the characters let each other know when they have accidentally left their crucifix pendant outside their cloths following a visit to church. The story offers glimpses inside places such as the Greek educational institutes on Meşelik Street that are normally closed to people who aren’t members of the Rum community.
One of the aspects of the Rum community that Anastasiadou wants to highlight in the text is the community’s fear of and exclusion from mainstream Turkish society. This is rooted deep into Turkish history. Although at its founding the new Republic of Turkey was ostensibly a secular nation, it was explicitly built with a Turkish and Muslim identity at its core. This left non-Muslim minorities such as Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Syriacs particularly vulnerable, in addition to Muslim groups in society that didn’t identify as Turks, such as Kurds.
Of course it would be inaccurate to suggest that modern or historic Turkish society was all hostile to the Rum. It is important to recall that the 1955 rioters were brought into the city during the pogrom and Turks including imams living in the area did try to protect their neighbors as best they could; this is still reflected in modern Turkish culture which celebrates their multicultural heritage. Anastasiadou correctly does not portray the whole of Turkish society modern or historic as hostile to Rum, quite the opposite. However, there are a few comments about broader Turkish society and politics which fall a bit flat. For instance, while discussing the new mosque being built in Çamlıca, Daphne remarks that the prime minister is turning into a sultan, which, while not inaccurate, verges on trite.
That being said, the book has a certain political relevance in the current political climate. The book is set in 2011, but is possibly more relevant in today’s context than it would have been in 2011. Back in the late 2009, then prime minister Erdoğan decried ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s minority groups as fascistic. Since then, you have seen in elite domestic Turkish politics a movement away from a more pluralistic interpretation of Turkish history. Erdoğan’s current ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi is now in an electoral coalition with the fascistic Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, which has hostility towards Turkey’s ethnic minorities baked into its political DNA. This has undoubtedly created a more antagonistic environment for non-Turks living in the country, has arguably encouraged high rates of harassment and has had other significant consequences. For example, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia and other less famous, but extremely important historic churches back into mosques can only be read as the state attempting to de-emphasize Turkey’s pluralistic history.
I want to be clear that the position of the current ruling party and the mobster fascists it has chosen to ally itself with do not represent the totality of views of the Turkish population and its views on minorities. One does not have to look far in modern Turkish literature before one comes across books such as the recently translated novel The Girl in the Tree by Turkish writer Şebnem İşigüzel, which directly deals with the pogrom, or books like My Grandmother by Fethiye Çetin, which wrestles with the legacy of the Armenian genocide. At this moment, however, when ultra-nationalism is on the rise again, literature like A Recipe for Daphne that shows Turkey’s diversity can be extremely valuable.
 Freely J. Freely B, Galata, Pera, Beyoğlu: A Biography, p. 163