December 2008

Beth Harrington

nonfiction

Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed by Ayse Onal

When the subject of honor killings comes up it is usually in the context of the post-9/11 world struggling to gain an understanding of a fundamentalist mindset so extreme that it incites its community members to violence even against their own families. Anecdotes focus on young girls and women who are slain by their fathers, uncles, brothers, and even sons, for infractions that range from adultery to immodest behavior or attire. Frequently, they are told from the viewpoint of the woman who is portrayed as a victim who simply wanted to follow her heart’s love or enjoy freedoms that Western women take for granted. In Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed, prominent Turkish journalist Ayse Onal takes a detour from this trend and brings readers the narratives of the men who carried out these murders, interviewing them from their prison cells.

There is Murat who is incited by his uncles to kill his mother after she is discovered to be having an affair with her step cousin, only to be shunned by his family and meted with a lengthy prison sentence after doing so. Remziye escapes death at the hands of her family twice and is eventually granted a safe haven along with her husband and child in Austria, only to die under suspicious circumstances in a car accident. For the elderly patriarch Advil, born in the mountains of Kosovo, the perverse amalgam of love, bloodlust, and honor costs him his adolescent romance and extinguishes the lives of two of his children in separate incidents.

Honour Killings is not a book that should be read in one sitting. This is not because the book is slow-paced or boring. In fact, it is gripping for all of the wrong reasons. Each of the ten stories is eerily similar to its predecessors while the details and nuances specific to the people involved are different. Nevertheless, as the reader keeps turning the pages, the content becomes almost gratuitously harrowing as the inevitable fatal conclusion comes closer and closer while the reader remains powerless to stop it.

What saves Honour Killings from becoming an excruciating exercise in depression and morbidity is the transcendent presence of Ayse Onal as the journalist and de facto narrator. She is, first and foremost, a compelling writer whose insight and wisdom extend beyond the situations she is reporting to incisive, clear-eyed observations about human nature. Even as a Westerner, it is surprisingly easy to identify with these characters in all of their desire and rage and, ultimately, tragedy. Onal also shows an astounding amount of compassion for the men she interviews, despite clear modernist sensibilities. In her depiction, these men are often traumatized by crimes that they felt they had no choice to commit. She writes in the book’s afterword, “It cannot be said that the fate of Haci, who keeps a photograph of the younger sister he killed in his shirt pocket and cries every time he looks at it, is any less of a tragedy than the fate of the murdered girl herself.”

One flaw -- and it is a very minor one -- is that the author focuses solely on killings committed in Turkey. As one of the most progressive and secularist societies of Muslim countries (although reading this book may change one’s opinion on this matter), honor killings are officially banned in Turkey. Therefore, it might have been interesting to see how attitudes towards these crimes differ in societies with fundamentalist legislature (Saudi Arabia and Taliban-era Afghanistan) or in instances in which the perpetrators remain free. However, such a fault is easily overlooked in light of Onal’s stated difficulty in gaining access to prisoners and the incredible courage she showed in her willingness to bring exposure to such a gruesome topic.

“Everyone who remains silent about these atrocities are accessories to crime and I did not want to stay silent,” she writes in the book’s afterword. Thus Honour Killing is a shrill indictment not of individuals but of a culture where the value of one’s reputation supersedes that of human life. It asks the reader to challenge how a society can be so unwilling to yield to the dreams and desires of individuals in the name of a loving God. And how can humanity possibly consider itself to be a civilized species when such atrocities are condoned by so many.

Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed by Ayse Onal
Saqi Books
ISBN: 978-0-86356-617-2
256 pages