Turkish literature class brings history to light

Zerrin Sayar standing in bookstore (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Zerrin Sayar joined the class to see how people perceive Turkish novels. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

 As described in the novel, Sayar’s father (who in the novel is called Ferit) took the newly minted Turkish citizens and put them on trains bound for Turkey that traveled through Berlin.

“The hardest part” she told her classmates, “was to find names” and backstories for each of the refugees.

“I remember asking him, ‘Why did you do it?’ I mean, he was only 25. And he said, ‘As a human, there was no other choice.’”

Sayar’s account “was certainly unexpected,” said Heba El-Shazli, who teaches the biweekly class on “Understanding the Politics of the Middle East through Literature: Turkey,” but it was a great addition.

The class is part of a series of a courses El-Shazli teaches on Middle Eastern literature at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, each of which focus on novels from a different country in the region. The class isn’t part of any formal degree program. The students attend because of their interest in the region.

Adult students raising their hands to be called on by a teacher standing next to a map of the Middle East (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Heba F. El-Shazli teaches classes on Middle Eastern literature at Politics and Prose in Washington. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

El-Shazli, a government professor who teaches at two universities in the Washington area, says the courses grew out of her love of literature. “Through literature you really can get a window into the soul of a society,” El-Shazli said. My goal is to use the novels to explore the politics, economics, history and society of each culture.

Many of the attendees are retired and have postgraduate degrees and international backgrounds.

“I love that they bring their expertise in,” El-Shazli said. “It makes the discussion richer.”

El-Shazli’s next course will be on Egypt and the work of Naguib Mahfouz.