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A few of Elif Shafak’s favourite things

Elif Shafak: the coffee cup that reminds me of Istanbul

A globetrotting Turkish novelist picks the things that make her feel at home

A globetrotting Turkish novelist picks the things that make her feel at home

October/November 2019

Coffee cups symbolise my involvement in politics
I love the rituals that come with tea and coffee. I like to have a teapot and tea glasses on my desk when I write. Or one of my coffee cups. My favourite is a very small, ornamented one in dark blue, which is decorated with little flowers and comes with a matching saucer. In Turkey, coffee houses are hotbeds of political conversation – people come together in them to exchange ideas, to talk and debate. In the Ottoman Empire coffee was banned by several sultans: the authorities realised that when people had had enough coffee they dared to challenge the existing order. They are usually male spaces, but when I was a student in Istanbul, and later when I came back to the city to teach, it was important for me to take part in those discussions. I would love to see more women in Turkish coffee houses; it’s sad there are so few. These days, I live most of the time in England, but I still drink my tea and coffee like a Turk.

A yellow typewriter gave me the freedom to write
I was born left handed. At school I was converted to writing with my right hand and I found it very difficult to switch. I was a lonely child and an avid reader, but the last in my class to learn to write. To this day, I find writing by hand hard. Even signing books can be a trial. It was only when I bought my first typewriter at a flea market when I was 18 that my left and right hands were able to talk to each other. That typewriter was a shoddy old thing and would leave ink marks all over my papers. Soon afterwards I replaced it with a yellow one. I used it for a long time and it gave me a tremendous sense of freedom. Now, of course, I use a computer to write, but I miss that typewriter. I feel grateful to it.

Rugs make me feel at home
Whenever I move to a new city or a new house, I buy a small rug and put it under my desk to give me a sense of familiarity and continuity. Perhaps there’s a part of me that still remembers the stories of “The Thousand and One Nights” that I heard from my grandmother as a child: the world can change constantly but as long as you are sitting on a little rug, you are at home everywhere. Or, equally, you are a stranger everywhere depending on how you see it. My favourite rug was the one I bought at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul when I first moved there in my early 20s. Although my parents were Turkish, my mother moved around a lot, so I grew up in many different places. That little rug was important to me, a sign of belonging.

My headphones block out the silence
Many writers don’t like noise, but I find silence very disturbing, somehow sterile. In Istanbul, I got used to the sounds of the street, which is always busy, even at night. I liked to keep the windows open and listen to the street vendors, swearing amid the traffic. When the energy around me is high, my writing turns calmer. So now, when I’m working, I listen to music – usually loud, aggressive music on a loop. Sometimes I will listen to the same song 70 or 80 times. I like heavy metal, gothic or pagan music, and listen to it through big headphones that encase my ears. I enter into that space, and it’s like going into another dimension.

Rumi’s poems introduced me to spiritualism
I was born in Strasbourg and have lived in Ankara, Madrid, Cologne and Istanbul. One of the problems of a nomadic life is that you can’t keep your library together. Each time I move, I have to think carefully about what to take. But there are a couple of books that are always with me, and foremost among these is Rumi’s “Selected Poems”. I first read them when I was a student at the university in Ankara. In a sense, they changed the course of my life. I was studying science and I didn’t grow up in a spiritual family – although my grandmother was very superstitious. I am not a believer, but Rumi’s poems, which include elements of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and mysticism, opened up this world to me. Eventually they became one of the inspirations behind one of my novels, “The Forty Rules of Love”. I keep going back to Rumi’s book, because you can read it in so many ways: forwards, backwards, opening it at a random page and closing it again. It’s a book with multiple doors and many corridors.

Silver rings show the importance of details
I wear black most of the time; my clothes are often simple and plain. But I love accessories, particularly rings. They have to be big and silver, preferably inset with stones of bright blue or turquoise; this is my way of wearing colour. I like the little details that make each one different – dressing up is all about the details. I look at them and think about the energy and creativity of the silversmith – so much goes into such a small canvas. In a way it’s a bit like my work: a storyteller’s job is to use details to tell a bigger story.

As told to Samantha Weinberg