Translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe, ‘Women Who Blow on Knots’ by Ece Temelkuran won the Edinburgh First Book Award earlier this year and I bought my copy during my visit to the city last summer. It tells the story of four women embarking on a road trip across North Africa from Tunisia to Lebanon during the Arab Spring. They are Tunisian activist and dancer Amira, Egyptian academic Maryam who is obsessed with Dido, Queen of Carthage, an unnamed Turkish journalist who narrates the story and the mysterious elderly Madam Lilla who has connections with the Russian mafia and intelligence agencies. It is Madam Lilla who invites the three women to accompany her on the trip although her real intentions for travelling to Lebanon only become clear much later.
Despite winning the Edinburgh First Book Award, ‘Women Who Blow on Knots’ is actually Temelkuran’s second novel but it is the first of her books to be translated into English. The title is taken from a verse in the Koran which refers to women practising witchcraft and the novel has rightfully gained attention for its refreshing depiction of modern Muslim female characters from diverse backgrounds and the sense of camaraderie between them which emerges during their journey. Temelkuran’s experience as a journalist fired from her job at a Turkish newspaper during a political crackdown by the Erdogan regime in 2012 appears to be a key source of inspiration and closely mirrors the situation of the unemployed narrator.
I was less keen on some of the digressions into magical realism and mythology and I found the tone a bit uneven in places – heavily intellectual in some parts while very light and frivolous in others – although it definitely succeeds in showcasing the diverse cultural influences in the region. The road trip element of the story is suitably pacy and the plot strikes a good balance between exploring the different personal motivations of each of the four women for embarking on the trip and the nuances of the political context of the Arab Spring.
Overall, ‘Women Who Blow on Knots’ is a striking and empowering novel which offers something genuinely different from the typical fictional depictions of the region often seen in the West and will hopefully lead the way towards the publication of more translated fiction in a similar vein written by women. Although the over-arching narrative might have benefitted from being more tightly written, there is still a lot to admire here, particularly in Temelkuran’s originality when it comes to the characterisation of her protagonists.