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A Tale Of Identities Colliding From A Writer Who's Held 5 Passports


There's a story Zulfu Livaneli likes to tell, a short one that somehow manages to capture the remarkable sweep of his life. He calls it his passport story.

ZULFU LIVANELI: My first passport was a false passport - I mean a fake passport.

SHAPIRO: Livaneli is a Turkish author and musician. Today, he's famous enough to fill a 500,000-seat amphitheater. Back then, not so much. And he ran afoul of the country's military-backed regime.

LIVANELI: I was in military prison in '72, '73. And then I escaped with - from Turkey with a false passport. I was not known then, thanks God.

SHAPIRO: He made it to Sweden, where he got passport No. 2.

LIVANELI: A refugee passport, which is terrible because you cannot move. You cannot travel. I mean, and they had no respect. Then you have to go to police station each week or something.

SHAPIRO: After a few years in exile, he was granted amnesty and made it back to Turkey, where he got passport No. 3, a regular Turkish one. His music career took off - so did his writing career and his film career. He's a director, too. He was named a goodwill ambassador to UNESCO, which came with a perk.

LIVANELI: I got the highest passport, the red passport of the United Nations, so with the immunity and everything.

SHAPIRO: And eventually, he was elected to parliament in Turkey, which gave him passport No. 5. The passports were different colors, and each came with its particular set of baggage.

LIVANELI: I'm the same person. You know, I'm always the same, my ideas and everything. But I received different kind of attitudes according to colors of this paper taken out from my pocket (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Livaneli's novel, "Disquiet," was just translated into English, and it centers on a modern-day refugee from Syria. The story unfolds in a city that has as many identities as Zulfu Livaneli has passports.

LIVANELI: It's Mardin. It's an ancient town. And Armenians, Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish - I mean, all these kind of people are there. You can see minarets and synagogues and the churches - Orthodox churches, early Christianity churches. I mean, it's a very interesting town, amazing town.

SHAPIRO: And relevant to the story that you set out to tell, it is near the border with Syria. And so it is very much a border town.

LIVANELI: It's a border town. And there is refugee camp there. We have almost 5 million refugees in Turkey from Syria. Some of them stay there. That's why I wanted to tell story from that magical town.

SHAPIRO: The main character in your book, Ibrahim, is sort of pulled between that town, where he grew up, and the sort of cosmopolitan bustle of Istanbul. And he says he feels like a tourist...


SHAPIRO: ...In his own country. And so for you, as a well-known writer and musician who has traveled the world and particularly Turkey, have you ever experienced that feeling that he describes?

LIVANELI: Yes, because we have a deep identity crisis here. Our past is East and the Eastern country with Islamic country. But we had a revolution in the beginning of the century, in the 20th century, and we became a secular country. And we grew up in Western culture. In schools, I mean, the Western writers, you know, struggle between the lifestyles. I mean, we have many countries within one country. And that's why...

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're saying that the experience is not unique to an individual, the experience is intrinsic to Turkish identity.

LIVANELI: Yes, it's Turkish identity. And people now, especially under the last government, people are really polarized, and they hate each other and - because they want to interfere there to their lifestyles. Some people - I mean, millions of people like to have alcohol or entertain themselves, I mean, with a girl and, you know, boy at the street, and they kiss each other. But in some towns, when you go to the East, I mean, this is impossible. They blame you, I mean, if you live like this because it's really a polarized country now.

SHAPIRO: The central narrative of the story is a search for a refugee, a Syrian refugee in Turkey. And you yourself have experience as a refugee.


SHAPIRO: How did that help you reflect on the experience of this present-day refugee character?

LIVANELI: Yeah. I was in Sweden, but Sweden was very nice. I mean, there were not many refugees at that time and workers. But that time, I lived five years there. And I learned a lot being a refugee and live in a different culture. That's why I found myself in a real isolated - like a moon station. Then I thought about my country - past and the future and the other cultures. So this created me. I can say this is really, really important part of my identity.

SHAPIRO: Did you see that version of yourself in this character of this female refugee from Syria who you created for this novel?

LIVANELI: Not the same situation, I think. But what happened? I mean, this book sold a lot. But we have 5 million refugees. And, of course, there are racist people in Turkey. They are afraid of the Syrians. They don't have common language. They don't have anything in common. And they say, OK, they are taking our jobs. I mean, they are criminals or something like that. You know this kind of racist people. But after this book, it made a great impact on Turkish society. And so many people wrote me that we understand these people now. They are suffering as well. So I think this was kind of the function of the literature these days. It worked really well.

SHAPIRO: Zulfu Livaneli's new novel is called "Disquiet." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

LIVANELI: Thank you, Ari Shapiro. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.