Please select your preferences to subscribe.

Dutch-Turkish novelist depicts her journey to secularism with no inhibitions

  • Thomas Erdbrink, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-08-14 15:37:49 BdST

bdnews24
Dutch-Turkish writer Lale Gul at the office of her publisher in Amsterdam on June 21, 2021. Gul’s autobiographical and sexually frank tale of a woman breaking with her conservative Muslim culture, and her strict parents, is a best seller in the Netherlands. Photo: Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times

Perhaps naively, Lale Gul thought she could continue living with the same people on whom she had based her bestselling novel: her strict Dutch Turkish migrant family.

But just weeks after the February publication of her book — the autobiographical tale of a young woman breaking with her conservative Muslim culture — “a war broke out” in the family’s tiny apartment in a migrant neighbourhood in Amsterdam, said the author of “Ik Ga Leven,” or “I Will Live.”

After years of building frustration erupted into open conflict that March evening, Gul, 23, fled her house in the middle of the night and has not returned since.

Looking back, Gul admitted that after writing an unbridled book revealing her journey to secularism, the thought that her parents would simply not hear about it was maybe a little foolhardy.

They did hear about it, as has most of the country. The novel quickly became one of the most read in the Netherlands, and she was in demand for TV interviews.

The publicity made it impossible not to address the book with her family, but she wanted to stay with them.

“Even after the book came out, I was still trying to negotiate with my parents. I wanted to make it work, try to combine their lives and my own life,” she said on a recent afternoon in the 17th-century canal house where her publisher has an office. “Despite everything, they are my family.”

But in her family’s view, what Gul had done was beyond repair.

The main character in her book, whose life closely mirrors Gul’s, breaks all the rules her parents and their interpretation of the Muslim faith set for her. She goes around unveiled, works in a restaurant, drinks and has wild sex with her secret boyfriend, a Dutch man from a family supporting an anti-migrant party.

“It’s all me in the book,” Gul said, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m done hiding. I don’t believe in God and the religious and cultural rules that were set for me.”

Gul’s truth, written without mercy for anyone involved, shocked her conservative parents, who had migrated from rural Turkey to the Netherlands decades ago.

Although she was raising her children in one of the most secular countries on earth, Gul’s illiterate mother was determined to make sure the family would live as if they had never left the Turkish village where she had been born.

Regular mosque visits were scheduled, and the mother made sure her two daughters — Gul has a younger sister — were always veiled. All their friends were Turkish. On weekends, Gul went to a school run by a Turkish-Islamist organization to study the Quran.

For her brother, 21, there were many exemptions to the strict rules imposed on her and her sister, 9. As the book tells it, he was allowed to have girlfriends, and no questions were asked when he went out. Gul, however, was constantly tracked by her parents, who would make frequent video calls to her cellphone to see where she was.

At times, her mother would call her a “prostitute” when she wore makeup.

“For men, many rules don’t apply,” Gul said. “For women, their ‘honour’ is more important than their lives, my mother used to say. But for young men it’s fine to play around before marriage. To me, that’s a massive double standard.”

The most controversial parts of her book were quickly translated by the Turkish diaspora in the Netherlands. Angry messages from uncles and aunts in Turkey followed not much later, saying Gul had broken the family honour and insulted Islam by writing steamy sex scenes and mocking Turkish culture.

Gul’s brother, who requested that his name not be used, said that his family prefers not to react to the issues raised in Gul’s book for privacy reasons.

Reviews offered both criticism over her unorthodox usage of the Dutch language and praise for the insights she delivered about the lives of those who are often unseen in Dutch society: women from Islamic communities who have doubts about the beliefs of their family but have to deal with those in silence.

“Nobody seems to share my problems, it seems,” Gul writes in her book. “They obey the rules. There is nobody I know who also struggles with wearing the veil. Nobody I know also secretly has a white boyfriend. Nobody who I know also prefers to lie on the beach in a bikini in summer. Nobody fights every day with her conceivers. I see few allies.”

These perspectives of a lonely female rebel not knowing who or where to turn to are new in Dutch migrant literature.

“For the first time, a young woman gives us insights into the problematic sides of migration,” said Ozcan Akyol, a Dutch Turkish novelist. “Lale comes from a conservative Sunni Muslim family, who are also fierce Turkish nationalists, but she is born here, in the Netherlands. The description of her life is a revelation to many here.”

As a result of her frank depictions, Gul has received dozens of anonymous death threats.

Her final night at home started with her father and mother screaming at her, saying she had dishonoured the family. Gul started screaming back. Then neighbours, mostly fellow migrants from Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere, came rushing in, soon filling every corner of the apartment.

They hadn’t come to mediate; instead, each took a turn excoriating Gul over everything she had done wrong in their eyes.

“I just sat there,” Gul recounted. “They expected me to fall to my knees and apologize for all the rules I had broken.”

Among the neighbours who had come to tell her off was a childhood friend, a young woman also of Turkish descent. Gul said her friend had been beaten up “over a dozen times” by her brothers for having had secret boyfriends.

“I thought she would connect to my book,” Gul said. Instead her friend criticized Gul for bringing their problems into the open. “‘Keep everything between the four walls of your apartment,’” Gul remembered her friend telling her. “‘Don’t present it all to the whole of the Netherlands.’”

By 2 am, Gul had had enough: She stuffed some clothes in two shopping bags and left. Her experiment of trying to become a secular person while living with her conservative Turkish Muslim family had failed.

The mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, with whom she had been in touch, helped Gul find temporary housing.

While Gul’s departure was abrupt, her coming out as a secular person was a long, fraught struggle.

In elementary school, her Dutch teachers told her that, in their view, God didn’t exist. The school also introduced her to the local library, and she started reading voraciously all sorts of Dutch literature. Her mother would take away these books when she decided it was time for her daughter to study the Quran.

Then, when the family got internet access at home, a whole new world opened up, and Gul started reading about left-wing secular parties in Turkey as well as other schools of Islamic thought that differed from her parents’ beliefs.

Inspired by her discovery that there were other ways to experience Islam, one day Gul asked her Quran teacher why she should wear the veil, while boys of her age could dress the way they wanted.

The teacher was infuriated.

“‘Stop exposing yourself to nonsense spoken by riffraff who have an identity crisis and are ashamed of their faith,’” Gul recalled the teacher answering. “‘Repent or else you will automatically become an apostate.’”

Gul said it amazed her when left-wing Dutch parties, supportive of gay rights and other liberal policies, came to the same Quranic school to hand out campaign flyers urging the students’ conservative working-class parents to vote for them.

“In Turkey, these people vote for President Erdogan, and in the Netherlands they vote left,” Gul said. “It’s a bizarre marriage of convenience. Why didn’t those Dutch parties stand up for my individual rights?”

After her book came out, some Dutch writers who also came to the Netherlands as migrants from Islamic countries, or their parents did, were critical of the literary merits of her effort.

“The two main ones were both Muslim men,” Gul said of her critics, adding that she was not surprised by negative reactions to her story from men who undoubtedly had very different immigrant experiences than what she had lived through as a woman.

“They had the luxury of having been able to negotiate with their families, they could shift between Dutch culture and the faith of their parents, because men get that space in our culture,” she said. “My only option, as a woman wanting to change that environment, was to radically break with it.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company