A Dignified Story Of The Balkan Tragedy and Nation Building

A Dignified Story Of The Balkan Tragedy and Nation Building

Book Review by Ergun KIRLIKOVALI

Can you hear the silent cries? Of a lonely baby here? A grandmother there?

Can you feel the pain of broken families? Lost siblings and parents? Destroyed lives? And little dreams?

Can you identify with those subtle impressions of turbulent yesteryear?

So close to your heart and soul, and yet, so far to your tired mind and daily grind…

Then, in the middle of vast nothingness, profound suffering, and unrelenting deficiency… you come across hope, magnanimity, and dare I say, renewal!

I am, of course, talking about countless weary Turks today who trace their lineage to the infamous Balkan Tragedy.

You touch the little dreams of these tormented people, and “Puff!”, they turn into magnanimous giants… “What a heart!” you conclude, “after all that torment, all that pain, all that loss, not a single manifestation of depression or rebellion or, god forbid, hate…”

These are the sentiments that tossed me like tumbleweeds into a forgotten past of a sad geography while I was reading Forty Thorns. Frankly, I was not quite ready for what awaited me in the unassuming pages of this heart wrenching literary fiction.

In one episode when the main character, Adalet, was describing the sights and sounds of that last “escape train” from Bulgaria in October or November of 1912, my heart was pounding so hard that I thought it would escape my chest.

Adalet, the main character, in her 80s

I was reading as fast as I could, perhaps not paying due attention to the genuinely brilliant story telling that the writer, Judy Light Ayyildiz, generously put forth, with the hope of coming across some evidence of personal value. When I read the lines where Adalet hears voices of a baby, I thought this was my eureka moment… my moment of truth… and I began to review an oral history that I hold in my own mind:

” This little baby boy grabbed my attention. He was crying but there was nobody around to care for him. What was his story? I approached and picked him up. I noticed a piece of crumpled, old paper, pinned on his tiny baby clothes, with some faint words scribbled on it, apparently in haste: ‘Akif’s son Ratip. Born in 1911. KIRLIKOVA’. I didn’t know what to do. So I handed him over to the Ottoman Official whose name tag read….

Alas, I did not have any! I still owe the writer a debt of gratitude, though, for bringing me so close to that eternally elusive moment.

Yes, unbeknownst to Adalet, and probably to most readers, there was another inconspicuous rider on that train: a one-year-old baby with no parents, relatives, or even acquaintances accompanying him. A solo traveler who was totally left in the care of the Ottoman officials. That one-year-old, orphan baby boy was my father and I was desperately looking for clues in Forty Thorns about my dad’s presence on that train. Of course I totally understand that Adalet, the main character, was too concerned about the well being of her own family to worry about a homeless, orphan baby boy, one of perhaps hundreds, even thousands, on that train. I might read the book again to see if I have missed any clues as it is a fantastic reading, after all.

When I retire, in about, say, a million years from now, I plan to tell my parents’ story. On one side, my father, a one-year-old baby from the village of KIRLIKOVA of 1912, which was located in the borderline area of rolling hills where Bulgaria meets Greece today—but neither apparently meets humanity. And on the other, my mother, half the members of whose family were also slaughtered, in yet another Balkan town, Skopje (Uskup in Turkish), and by another Balkan Christian group, Serbians.

My mother’s story is similar, but involves no train as it was not deemed safe enough; just on foot alongside ox-pulled-cart caravans and through roads least travelled, for safety reasons—some safety; half the family could still not escape painful death at the hands of marauding Christian revolutionaries.

Judy Light Ayyildiz, the author

We, Turks, do not tell our tragedies; we just want to forget about them and move on with hope towards the promise of rekindling and rejuvenation. While this attitude may be understandable, that does not make it right. Besides, Turco-phobes and/or Islamo-phobes are quick to deliberately misinterpret this dignified Turkish silence as admission of guilt or wrongdoing. This millennium-old cultural trait, thus, is unfairly and dishonorably used against Turks. So, I thank the writer, Judy Light Ayyildiz, for telling her mother-in-laws’ compelling story, which happens to be my father’s story, give or take a little, and quite possibly yours, too, and in fact, the story of most Turks today.

I am not surprised that Forty Thorns has just won 1st Place in Literary Fiction and also become a finalist in Historical Fiction given by the International Book Awards. (See the link )

Those who scream genocide of this or that today would be eternally ashamed to level such charges against Turks if they knew about half the cruelty and deaths Turks suffered at the hands of Balkan Christian nationalists during the many Balkan Wars (1877-1913) and Anatolian Christian nationalists during armed revolts (1882-1922,) World War One (1914-1918,) and, finally, the Turkish Independence War (1919-1922.) It may be said that from 1877 to 1922, Muslims, mostly Turks, were subjected to unspeakable tortures, sheer brutality, appalling mortality, and forced migrations, all of which are still conveniently ignored in the West. The fact that Turkish suffering is untold may explain why it is still largely unknown today. This wonderful novel, Forty Thorns , is only the tip of the iceberg of that period of history.

Judy Ayyildiz and her mother-in-law, Adalet


I am moved by the incredible resilience of those Turks during nation-building years.

How can one create something out of nothing?

And so consistently?

Who are those people with true grit?

Well, read the book to find out.




Balkan Turks fleeing death and destruction at the hands Of Balkan Christian nationalists (1912)


(Photo: courtesy of https://www.eraren.org )

After reading Forty Thorns, I felt I knew nothing about matters of suffering and loss, as I have not experienced anything even remotely close to what Adalet and her family, friends, and others have gone through in the way of torment, disappointment, adversity, scarcity, tragedy, and more. Still, eventually, some sense of triumph. Well, sort of.

I feel I am doing this book injustice by this review as I have dwelled so much on suffering and loss and not enough on renewal and nation building during the Ataturk years of the Republic of Turkey.

One must read with compassion to see how women and children are empowered and educated in those years of grinding poverty, endless wars, and utter exhaustion. I will defer this task to the book. The reader will appreciate what I mean as the story sadly unfolds.

Finally, I do not want to spoil the fun by telling who did what, but I feel compelled to quote this poignant Turkish poem on page 328, composed by the main character, Adalet, with riveting simplicity and profound impact, with heart and soul, for which I am humbly proposing this new English translation, to make it even more heartrending, just like the way it truly is in its magnificent original Turkish:

My Joyful World is torn apart,

Shrunken on its axis.

The candle of love went out,

My heart became a shrine-keeper.

May your candle of love never go out…

Ergün Kırlıkovalı

President, ATAA

The Assembly of Turkish American Associations
[email protected]