I remember seeing her. What I can’t remember is not seeing her. For the moment I saw her she was everywhere. Perhaps, unlike the rest of us, she was made of fluid and did not fit into any corporeal frame meant for the solidified. Or perhaps it was her audience’s bountiful attention that had multiplied her into endless carbon copies of herself and pasted each of these far and wide so that she could be spied from every angle. Hence here we were, women and men, aged and young, staring at her, each in our own way, some furtively from the corner of their eyes, others in fixed insolence, watching her every move through hundreds of eyeballs melted into one greedy, gluey gaze. Not that we had never seen a transvestite before. We sure had, but we had never seen one ride the ferryboat with all the rest of us.

For if there were a couple of certain truths we, as good Istanbulites, knew without knowing about transvestites, it was, first and foremost, that they were all whores and, secondly, that they never took the ferryboat. If not driving their own cars or being driven away in the vehicles of others, they would take a taxi. That would be normal, a transvestite in a cab, or even, though not likely, on the minibus. But a transvestite traveling in the public ferryboat was definitely bizarre. Particularly at rush hour, as if she too were coming back from work, just like those bureaucrats dog-tired from serving a state machinery which can never be served well enough, or those teachers after a long day at school, or those mothers weary from yet another tea party and their even wearier children, all those sullen faces exhausted less from the burden of the day than from the burden of sensing deep down inside that tomorrow would be no different. The ferryboat in which we were all crammed chock-a-block was a palette of shades of gray, and so were the costumes and smiles we wore. We plowed in a smoky, sooty rage through the indigo waters of the Bosphorus, which tailgated us rolling thickly, patiently in foamy confidence, utterly oblivious to our color codes, looking mucilaginous, almost edible.

So the sea was indigo beyond reach and we shades of gray. And there she was sitting amidst us dressed from head to toe in vivid hues, all glitter and luster underneath a canary yellow wig, brandishing like the flag of a mad nation. Every so often she jerked her head back and heaved a sigh as if she hadn’t noticed any one of us, as if she were sitting here all by herself and was bored stiff of so profound a solitude. After each sigh she took a sip of the dark tea in the tiny glass cup that looked even tinier in those huge, manicured hands of hers. We watched her Adam’s apple bob up and down. We eyed the cherry lipstick smeared on the edge of the glass cup. We inspected this walking combination of femininity and masculinity in a society where the two could hardly coexist, let alone coalesce.


I remember her looking directly at me, if only for a few seconds, and then scrutinizing the folder on my lap. I was sitting right across from her, firmly and fondly holding my first novel, which had just that afternoon been accepted for publishing. The title of the novel referred to a mystical term insinuating “covertness,” the main story was secreted among layers within layers, and with so much concealment, I doubted if anyone would ever understand a thing. But the publisher must have been of a different opinion, for he had praised the novel to the skies and informed me of his decision to publish it in no more than four months. Now, as I turned back home from the publishing house, I kept assuring myself that basically and eventually what I had done was to follow in the footsteps of a certain tradition of disclosure — the way of telling things without saying them, disclosing without exposing, speaking through silences, just like the Sufis used to do in the past. When the society is not ready to hear what you have to say, advised the Sufi, say it to no one other than your soul and your soulmates. And yet not all mystics could have been capable of acting as it is told, for it was equally true that throughout the centuries, here and there, this or that dervish had uttered aloud many a thing hitherto kept at a whisper. Uttered and then silenced, either willingly or if not, forcefully.

My novel traced the trajectory of a heterodox hermaphrodite Sufi. Most of the stories buried in the plot testified to my way of manifesting, which perhaps had less to do with what I consciously wrote down than with what I unconsciously refrained from writing. My writing was my showcase, and yet it hid me well. Above and beyond all that, I kept assuring myself, the particular path of the novel impeccably suited what I most liked about fiction in general — the elusiveness of the text despite the supposed compactness of the context, and writing’s openness to multiple readings, none of them any closer to truth than others.

Halfway between the two coasts of Istanbul, the transvestite fished out a walkman from her pearly purse. Caring little to grant privacy to those who gave her none, she increased the volume to full blast and in next to no time, a familiar tune crept into the air: “Bolero.” As she leaned back listening to the world’s longest crescendo, for a fleeting moment the world’s sexiest smile crossed her lips. All of a sudden, past and present, she and I, the silences within my novel and her clamorous existence on earth got connected to one another, as if everything had fallen neatly in its place, each and every one of us transforming into personal scraps of repetitions along the protracted and yet equally abrupt social transformation that the Turkish state and society has undergone.


The year was 1928 when Maurice Ravel composed “Bolero.” The melody was unlike any other composed before then, in the sense that it was based on the technique of deliberate repetition — the tune is repeated 18 times without variation in the course of a single piece. Ravel himself would later define it as an experiment in a limited direction. “Before its first performance, I issued a public warning,” he would maintain. “I issued a warning that what I had written was a piece lasting 17 minutes and consisting wholly of one long, unbroken crescendo.”

In my mind’s eye, I see us all listening to “Bolero,” not now but sometime in the past, in the year 1932, for instance. If we were aged Turkish citizens then, in all likelihood we would have gone through turbulent days, witnessed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and then seen and probably supported the fabrication of a new, modern, secular nation-state, the Turkish Republic. I imagine us traveling along the Bosphorus in a public ferryboat. The journey in this ship lasts no less than 40 minutes. And as we sit still on benches sipping tea from tiny glass cups, out of the blue this music is broadcast and before we can get the foggiest sense about what’s going on, we are made to listen to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” over and over and over again until we finally disembark.

Among the ventures of the newly established Turkish Republic aiming to Westernize and modernize its citizens as swiftly as possible was an attempt to discourage them from listening to traditional music and instead encourage them to enjoy Western classics, starting with, why not, “Bolero.” Everybody hated it. Fortunately, the endeavor was halted shortly after it began, but its impact, and the spirit behind it, remained. Indeed, multifaceted and convoluted was the process of birthing the nation, especially in its reflections in daily life. At times, a piece of music composed in ecstasy, artistic frenzy, composed to serve the Muses, instead served nation-states, patriarchies and nationalisms. Now, as she swung her muscular leg in black gauzy stockings to the rhythm of “Bolero,” once an anthem of modernization, and then the melody of eroticism, was the transvestite aware of all this interplay or was it pure coincidence?

Traversing Zones

So little has been studied of Turkey’s militarist, masculinist, modernist genealogies. The path-breaking developments in gender studies and women’s studies, as well as in gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender studies, have been strikingly slow to inflect studies of the Middle East in general. Likewise, despite the salient contributions of several feminist scholars both in Turkey and abroad, the question of how individuals managed or failed to transcend gender zones in a society traversing civilization zones remains a marginal topic of research.

In the official discourse, the shift from the Ottoman Empire to republican Turkey has been repeatedly associated with the emergence of civil society, political equality, dynamism and above all, the release of the individual from the yoke of tradition. As such, the country is thought to have safely and successfully moved from traditional to modern, religious to secular, static to dynamic, as well as from a multi-ethnic empire to a supposedly monolithic nation-state. Last but not least, the whole process is thought to have gone hand in hand with a drastic transformation from a patriarchal society into one in which women were legally, politically and economically emancipated.

Modernization may indeed seem to constitute a radical break with the past. Yet, when it comes to gender and sexuality, perhaps there are more continuities than discontinuities. As Zehra Arat argues, one can find significant similarities between not only the Ottoman male elites and the republican male elites, but also between the latter and their political-ideological opponents since “they all manipulated the same images and metaphors in the presentation of their own ideology.” When patriarchal precedents are concerned, Turkish male (and female) elites seemingly situated at different ends of the ideological spectrum might be strikingly alike. “Fundamentally different ideological positions might not necessarily mean fundamentally different attitudes towards gender roles and patterns.” [1] If that is the case, perhaps it can be plausibly argued that the story of state, sexuality and modernization in Turkey resembles a song in a repeat track mode, or else, a melody full of repetitions.

Who the Man Is

In this tune of perennial repetitions, more than musicians, writers played a decisive role. Writing the texts and contexts of alla turca versus alla franga, as well as of manhood versus womanhood, fell upon the novelists. As a matter of fact, all around the world literature has played a pointed role in the processes of nation building. And yet, as Gregory Jusdanis points out, in cases of belated modernities wherein the leading force of nation-state building was not the civil society but the state, the role of literature was all the more vital. Most of the early Turkish novelists were bureaucrats with positions in the state apparatus and an aim to simultaneously reform and empower the state. Accordingly, all characters in their fiction were placed to symbolize something far bigger in the society at large. Never was a plot developed for the sake of poetic license, or a fictive character given a chance to de- velop as the text required. The novelist had to be fully in control of the text, especially since he had so little control over a society on the verge of a far-reaching transformation as the Ottoman Empire neared its end.

For the Ottoman male novelist, Westernization was a necessary phase. Provided that the private sphere was left intact, the whole society had to undergo it. In this respect, Turkish modernization relied heavily upon a fundamental duality which, according to scholars like Partha Chatterjee, resided at the core of numerous anti-colonial nationalisms: the distinction between the spiritual and the material. The material was deemed to be the domain of the outside, technology, science and statecraft. In this domain there was no harm in imitating the Western mode, alla franga, but in the spiritual realm things had to be kept alla turca.

Westernization meant the marriage of East and West, claimed the Ottoman male elite. Just like in marriage, here too it was crucial not to forget who the man was. It is no coincidence that, in many novels dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western civilization was symbolized by a woman — young, attractive, a potential seducer. Just as the West was feminized, Westernization too implied some sort of feminization. If a Turkish woman became too Westernized she would accordingly become too feminized, meaning too fixated upon beauty and carnal desires. The end result would inevitably be the loss of her virginity and chastity. And if a Turkish man were to become too westernized he would lose his masculinity. Hence the first “Other” of Turkish literature: the effeminate dandy.

A man with feminine traits was the antithesis of the hero in early Turkish novels. Such individuals would be ridiculed and made to suffer all sorts of catastrophes until they repented their “perversion” or, conversely, sunk deeper into their misery. True, in the following three decades there were radical alterations in Turkish society, but the primordial fear of the effeminate man remained firm. The Kemalist elite that built the modern state had come up with a new set of values. According to Ziya Gökalp, whose theory of nationalism provided the starting point for Kemalism and whom Kemal Atatürk himself claimed as his intellectual mentor, women, rather than men, were the beholders of the distinctiveness of Turkish culture. It was female language, rather than male, which had remained pure and untainted by borrowings from Arabic or Persian. Gökalp believed that equality between the sexes was intrinsic to the national character of the Turks, and that hereafter nationalism and feminism would emerge hand in hand. Hence the formula: state feminism.

Repeat Melody

State feminism portrayed its own model of “the Turkish woman.” She would not be a housewife or a baby doll. Before anything else, she would be educated. Gone were the days when women were expected to be delicate and fragile and beautiful. Ottoman women might have been in need of beautifying themselves in the eyes of men, but Kemalist women were definitely not. The new regime systematically encouraged the visibility of women and redisciplined, as well as de-sexualized, the female body. As Nilufer Gole indicated, Kemalism remained unique in its interference with family law, the sphere most resistant to Westernization. The image idealized and idolized by Kemalist feminism operating from above was a “comrade-in-arms.” [2]

Eventually, along with rights and reforms, what was introduced was a subtle de-feminization of daughters. While Turkey became the only Muslim country with a thoroughly secular structure and political culture, and women became more and more visible in the public sphere, not just the male elite but women writers, as well, constantly belittled femininity, which was deemed to turn a woman into a concubine, and a man into either a dandy or a gay or, most often, both. All the way through, femininity was devalued. Repeat melody.

During the 1970s, at a time when there was a vibrant leftist movement in Turkey, most revolutionaries adopted a negative position vis-à-vis femininity. As for homosexuality, that being regarded as a perversion and a byproduct of capitalism, the subject was too often neglected, if not ridiculed. Repeat melody. To this day, only a small number of intellectuals are willing to alter radi- cally these codes and codifications.

During the 1990s came the veiled university students, a movement which was instantly interpreted as a backlash against Turkish modernity, but was perhaps part of it. Among the things the Islamist women’s movement chose to communally attack was a theme that often went unnoticed: “femininity.” Just like the secularist elite and leftist revolutionaries, the Islamist movement too disparaged effeminacy in woman and maligned it if seen in man. Repeat melody.

The Shore

If you think the society is not ready to hear what you have to say…. Sufism was once a channel of expression for those otherwise silenced, an enclosed opening. The perfection of the human condition, al-insan al-kamil, embodied the completion of both masculine and feminine qualities together — an emancipatory idiom neither the Kemalist nor the Islamist elite heard, and if they ever did, barely tolerated. Turkish modernization required the mapping of gender roles and public-private zones, as well as the redrawing of the boundaries in between. The transvestite blurred these boundaries, just like the hermaphrodite, the dandy and the bisexual.

So the transvestite and I, we sit crosswise in the same ferryboat. I look at the way her unwritten body manifests. She looks at the way my body of writing secretes. I manifest the stories of others to hide mine. My novel created a hermaphrodite with two sexualities and recreated the transcendental cosmos of mysticism both to express and silence the writer’s bisexual voice eager to transcend zones. Suddenly, I am able to confess to myself, what the transvestite could do, I dared not.

Thus we reach the shore. The transvestite drifts away in a breeze of perfume followed by several men with sticky smiles of disdain. As the ferryboat empties we all flow in a deluge of perpetual repetition alongside underlying transformation, a long, drawn-out melody of modernization, both ossified and thawed in hues of gray, we flow until all colors liquify into one another and there remains only one tone, one tune left behind.


[1] Zehra Arat, ed. Deconstructing Images of “the Turkish Woman” (New York: Palgrave, 1998).
[2] Deniz Kandiyoti, “Contemporary Feminist Scholarship and Middle East Studies,” in Deniz Kandiyoti, ed. Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996).

How to cite this article:

Elif Shafak "Transgender Bolero," Middle East Report 230 (Spring 2004).

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