Forming a Religious and Cultural Identity: “The Confused” in Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve
Published in 2016, Three Daughters of Eve is a novel by Turkish writer Elif Shafak. Set across Istanbul and Oxford, from the 1980s to the present day, this novel is a sweeping tale of a dance between belief and doubt, tradition and modernity. The book centers around Peri, a wealthy, middle-aged housewife, her childhood in Istanbul and her time as a student in Oxford where she becomes infatuated with her philosophy professor, Azur. It focuses mainly on her categorizing her identity, on her attempt to balance belief and doubt, but, most importantly, it is a novel that endeavors to challenge short-sighted dichotomies about God, religion, and religious people.
Peri could be defined as a liminal character; someone whose existence is a perpetual purgatory; hence her life has always been shrouded by doubt and confusion. She witnessed multiple external conflicts throughout the years: considering her childhood spent in Istanbul as a young Muslim girl in the 1980s, to her short stay in Britain at Oxford University when she was nineteen, and, finally, as an upper class thirty-five-year-old housewife back in Istanbul. These conflicts cocooned around her, and they always followed the same pattern: an extremist, dualistic perspective over faith which left her completely stranded in the middle of these spiritual crossfires.
As a child, the conflict between her parents Mensur and Selma—the former a secularist and the latter ultra-religious—has caused a rift in her family, and she was left to mitigate the disputes the best she could, but she was unable, and more importantly, unwilling to take sides. This conflict, which only worsened throughout the years, extended until Peri’s teenage years and it reflected an individuality crisis, one that was mirrored in Istanbul’s society as well, and which affected Peri’s sense of Self. This dissension created a hostile environment in the household, and while Peri was in search of her identity, she could never cling to a constant in her life; her truth was always elusive.
As Pamela Ebstyne King claims in her article: “the Self is central to the developmental task of adolescence for identity” (p. 197) and, from this point of view, Peri experiences the feeling of doubt and confusion which is common for teenagers and emerging adults, especially in her case, where the familial context was so precarious. Throughout her life, Peri was tormented by “the baby in the mist”, a mysterious figure who appeared in different contexts to warn her about certain situations, and whom only Peri could see. When she told her mother about this, she was convinced that she was possessed by jinns ̵ evil spirits who occupy this world just as humans do, but who were created by God from a smokeless fire and so therefore cannot be seen by humans, even if jinns can see them. While her mom was confident that her daughter needed a thorough spiritual cleansing, her father told Peri to ignore this appearance altogether ̵ and this is just an instance that proves just how contrasting her parents’ views truly were and how powerfully they impacted Peri from a young age. So much so that during her formative years, unsatisfied by the two paths opened by her parents, Peri started to create a third path ̵ that of the drifter. The drifter is one who continuously seeks a home, a place to grow roots and settle. Even though Peri had a sense of belonging to her nation, she never felt accepted by this cultural sphere which was incredibly traditionalist. When she arrived in Oxford, she was forced to face the other, to get out of her comfort zone.
Geographically, Istanbul itself is divided between two continents and between two main religions: Christianity and Islam. In the 1980s, when Peri was just twelve years old, she witnessed a traumatic scene when her eldest brother, Umut, was arrested for being the leader of a communist revolutionary group. This scene is particularly important because it reflects the ideology of sameness imbued by the Turkish government: “We are all Muslims and we are all Turks. Full stop. Same religion, same nationality, same everything” (Shafak, 27). However, as the years passed and globalization came about, this dogma could no longer be applied, even if those who still latched onto tradition did not want to have any contact with alterity. When forming a cultural identity, in the case of those exposed to otherness, especially teenagers and emerging adults, the issue of dominance arises. Peri has lived all her life in Turkey, surrounded by a familiar culture and she desperately wanted to adhere to it, but the constant division felt by her in her family, and, ultimately, in her nation, turning her into a rover instead.
When Peri arrives for the first time in Oxford she is so stunned by this different, open-minded culture, that she enters a phase of exploration under professor Azur’s influence. Thus, Oxford becomes her homeland. In this process of acculturation, Peri is situated somewhere between assimilation, which refers to individuals who reject their original cultural identity and embrace their new culture as the basis of an entirely new cultural identity; and integration, which happens when the original cultural identity is combined with elements of the new culture. In the end, the cultural crisis is so acutely felt by Peri that her search for a homeland is abruptly interrupted and she returns to her fatherland, Turkey. Peri is confronted with cultural identity confusion, as she becomes “de-cultured” (Giddens, 2000), “delocalized” (Thompson, 1995), and “unrooted” (Friedman, 2000) and this is the reason why she nurtures this perpetual, relentless search spanning across counter-cultures. These extreme tectonic shifts are caused by the clash of traditionalism and modernity in the context of a globalized world.
If, back in Turkey, Peri had her parents pulling her in two opposite directions, in Oxford she has new friends: Shirin, who is an Iranian, atheist, rebellious woman, and Mona, an Egyptian-American, faith-centered woman. The three of them jokingly called themselves the Sinner (Shirin), the Believer (Mona), and the Confused (Peri). Bosco Bae mentions in his article Tania Luhrmann’s notion of “interpretative drift”: “the gradual transition from the suspension of disbelief to a period of ambiguity and ultimately a submersion into a framework of thought, interpretation and commitment […] in this God becomes/is a real entity” (p. 9), and this longing for stability pushes Peri to start writing in her “God-diary” from a very young age. Peri, yet again, became a liminal figure, someone who is stuck in between, and, thus, she began to quarrel with God (Shafak, 33).
As a little child, her perception of God is very innocent, as it is expected. She sees God as a “Lego set” because He comes in many shapes and colors so she can create an all-loving God or an all-punishing God, depending on her preferences. As she grows up her perception becomes gradually more complex and she becomes very confused about her relationship with God. She convinces herself that there should exist a third path for people like her, who are always drifting and never adhering to something clear and constant. She wishes to change God because by doing that, everyone would benefit eventually. As she mentions, we know virtually next to nothing about God, yet when the questions arise both atheists and theists prefer answers over questions, certainty over confusion.
Under the influence of professor Azur, in Oxford, she begins to embrace her confusion, because to him “curiosity is sacred and uncertainty is a blessing” (Shafak, 202). Professor Azur teaches a God-seminar, where students from all kinds of religious backgrounds are put together in a room, and his secret intention is to conduct an experiment on them. All are welcome to express their opinions as long as they are backed by research and those who are easily offended are asked to leave the seminar. God should be approached in unusual ways, through indirect channels like philosophy, physics, mathematics, and so on. Those who are pleased by certainty and are complacent with the idea of the ultimate truth are intellectually stagnant and, in time, they mentally regress. However, those who are willing to embark on a journey of finding God and, on the way, of finding their Self, those who value questions more than answers, those are the ones who will progress intellectually and spiritually – this is professor Azur’s life philosophy.
The intellectual roots of Professor Azur’s belief system are embedded mostly in Sufism, but also in history, science, and literature. Sufism is the mystic part of Islam, which is concerned with the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven and the mystic, or the Sufist, is more preoccupied by the ebbing wave than by the water which it has left behind (Lings, 13). In other words, Sufism can be described as the interiorization and intensification of Islamic faith and practice. Professor Azur was influenced by many Sufi poets and philosophers, such as Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Hafez, Fariduddin Attar, and others. Thus, Azur becomes the binder of those three perspectives and by symbolically embodying education he shows us the importance it has in forming a cultural and religious identity: the three modes of belief […] are not modes of justification […] but instead they note the function of beliefs in relation to identity and community (Bosco, 11). In a way, all three of them are drifters even if Mona and Shirin have found that sense of stability. Both Shirin and Mona come from Muslim families, as Peri does, but one rejected religion while the other accepted it. Shirin embodies the atheist rebellion, those who cannot and will not be suffused to such a dogmatically framed thinking, while Mona engages in spirituality, accepting religion with all her heart.
There is this contrasting opposition between Mona and Selma in the novel. On the one hand, Selma is the personification of blind faith as she never questions her creed, never doubts it; it becomes a refuge from her conjugal unhappiness and misfortune. She never asks questions because she already has all the answers. And then there is Mona, a hijabi student to whom Islam became a form of empowerment; the hijab for Mona is not a symbol of oppression, but of independence and she has confidence in herself because she is at peace with her religious identity. Being a Muslim for Mona came with many difficulties as her hijab became an object of ridicule and people often assaulted her for wearing it. However, she still advocates for feminism, for being a modern Muslim woman and, finally, for being free to choose one’s own path.
When it comes to Peri, she has always alternated between the two extremes, but she never truly accepted any fixed and final belief system. Shirin encouraged her to get out of her comfort zone and explore the forbidden acts of life, which would be called sinning by her traditionalist parents, but Shirin called them liberating acts of self-expression. Mona empowered Peri to search beyond the edges of possibilities. However, it was professor Azur who helped her reach her inner Self and unlock her dormant potential of which Peri was unaware. He became her shelter from all the external conflicts that, like Plato’s chariot allegory, pulled her apart: :”Remember, daring to ‘know thyself’ means daring to ‘destroy thyself’. First, we must pull ourselves apart. Then, with the same pieces, we will assemble a new Self” (the letter from Azur to Peri, p. 251). Professor Azur never tried to change her nature, instead, he wanted to fabricate a new seamless material out of the shreds that were left behind by the world; he wanted to mend her, heal her.
Peri’s liminality hinders her process of becoming; her cartography of uncertainty is what melted her waxen wings, ultimately leaving her to crumble. She turned her back on Azur when it came to testifying for him in court, and by doing so she turned her back on the truth. Her perpetual search for identity proves extremely problematic, and her refusal to embrace a dualistic worldview over life is what condemned her to live trapped in an estranged Self. She becomes what she has always despised: a housewife. She threw away all her dreams of becoming someone, of an academic career because she was afraid to face herself. Peri’s inability to face her Self was fueled by her inability to cope with the Other. The shards of her existence were scattered by the dualistic perspective which stifled her inner flame, while interfering with her potentiality of becoming, turning Peri into a broken reflection of what she could have been.
Salma Al Refaei
Bosco, Bae. Believing Selves and Cognitive Dissonance: Connecting Individual and Society via Belief. University of Pretoria, Religion and the Individual: Belief, Practice and Identity, Davis Douglas, Thate Michael (ed.), 2016.
Friedman, T.L. The lexus and the olive tree: Understanding globalization. New York: Anchor, 2000.
Giddens, A. Runaway world: How globalization is reshaping our lives. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Jensen, L. A., Arnett, J. J., & McKenzie, J. (2011). Globalization and cultural identity developments in adolescence and emerging adulthood. In Schwartz, S. J., Luyckx, K., & Vignoles, V. L. (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 285-301). New York, NY:Springer Publishing Company (Requests:www.LeneArnettJensen.com).
King, Pamela Ebstyne. Religion and Identity: the Role of Ideological, Social and Spiritual Contexts. In Applied Developmental Science, 2003.
Lings, Martin. What is Sufism?. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1975.
Shafak, Elif. Three Daughters of Eve. Penguin Books, 2017.
Thompson, J. B. The media and modernity. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1995.