As a lost child in Turkey I found refuge on an imaginary mountain | Elif Shafak

When I felt misplaced in my new world, the legends of Mount Qaf gave me a place of endless possibilities and uncensored words

I was born in France to Turkish parents. A small flat in a tower block, sunlight through the curtains pierced by swirls of cigarette smoke. The strong smell of Gauloises, Turkish and Syrian tobacco packaged with French style. Immigrants, students, workers … leftists, mostly. Reading Althusser and Fanon but not so much De Beauvoir, passionately arguing about the revolution they believed was soon to come. When I think about my first home that’s how I see it in my mind’s eye.

Shortly afterwards my parents broke up. My father stayed in France and my mother brought me to Turkey. To her, this was the motherland. To me, it was a new country. Some of my earliest memories are interlaced with a sense of placelessness.

We arrived in my maternal grandmother’s neighbourhood. A two-storey, sea-green house that looked like a child’s drawing of home. Red roof, blue door, a fenced garden with fruit trees – apple, pear and sour cherry. It was a deeply conservative, deeply patriarchal environment. Life revolved around families, and families revolved around fathers, the acknowledged heads of households. Many fathers – although certainly not all – centred their being upon an abstract code of honour and discipline. There was an order to things, but it kept eluding me. Back then air pollution in Ankara had reached dangerous levels and we would go to school under veils of smog, wearing homemade cloth masks. There were long queues in front of grocery stores. It was also a time of political violence. On streets, public squares, campuses and schoolyards different political factions clashed. The elderly buried the young.

It was around that time that I first came across a mysterious place in a book I was reading. A land of undisturbed peace, justice, equality, freedom. An elsewhere. It was called “that which lies behind Mount Qaf”. When I asked the people around me I was surprised to find out that they had all heard about this place, though none claimed to have ever visited it. Tradition said Mount Qaf, invisible on any map, was at the centre of this world. Others saw it as the abode of spirits and djinn – creatures made of smokeless fire. With the possible exception of Alexander the Great, it was said, many a traveller had failed to find its whereabouts, but one still had to keep trying. Little did I know back then that so many generations from the Middle East to Central Asia had grown up with the stories of that bountiful land that lies “beyond the limits of the mind of the philosopher Avicenna”.

The legends about Mount Qaf emphasise the importance of knowledge, about yourself and the world around you. The seekers of other places and better worlds are seekers of wisdom. The 13th-century Persian cosmographer and geographer Al-Qazwini was one of the earliest scholars to write about it. He was endlessly curious about what he saw as terrestrial beings – seas, rivers, valleys – and supra-terrestrial beings –angels, djinn and ghuls. In line with the depiction in the Qur’an, he said the mountain circled the entire world while its green emeralds gave the sky its peculiar blue colour.

It is not only Muslim communities that were drawn to the allure of Mount Qaf. The same story echoed across cultures, from Christian art to medieval Jewish philosophy. Armenian tales refer to “Mount Qaf in the Kingdom of Stars” and talk of an extraordinary bird – Zumrut – that made its nest on top of it. In The Conference of Birds the Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur wrote beautifully about the King of Birds, calling it Simurgh. In Attar’s story, birds from all over the world, eager to meet their ruler, set off on a long and perilous journey; along the way many lose heart, others are scared or tired. In the end just 30 birds remain. Only when they arrive at their destination do they realise that “simurgh” means 30. What they were looking for was inside them all along.

Al-Qazwini’s legendary creatures later on became one of the inspirations behind Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings. Attuned to Sufi stories and remarkably knowledgeable in folklores of the world, he lovingly embraced and explored this idea. As Hernan Diaz demonstrates in Borges, Between History and Eternity, the author returned to this theme in a poem composed of 30 lines: “No one is the fatherland – it is all of us.”

For me, however, the other side of Mount Qaf had nothing to do with nationalistic fervour or territorialism. Just the opposite, I was drawn to it as a place of endless possibilities and uncensored words – a source of diversity, creativity, imagination. It held the keys to Storyland. It provided a sense of empowerment to the powerless. That is why in numerous Middle Eastern stories – including the Arabian Nights – the protagonists ask the same thing from the magic carpet: “Carry me to Mount Qaf.”

Every novel is a journey into elsewhere. From James Joyce’s Dublin to CS Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, whether it is about an actual place or a purely imaginary one, literature is a bold attempt to remap space and spatiality. Lost and confused though they themselves might often be, storytellers are passionate literary cartographers trying to render the invisible more visible and bring closer that which seems to be afar. It is our way of saying that there is no “us versus them” – the Other is, in truth, my brother, my sister. The Other is me.

Readers know this. That is why, every time we start a new book, get under the bed covers, sit in our favourite chair or seek refuge in the local library and open that very first page, there is a part of us that faithfully repeats the old mantra: “Carry me to Mount Qaf.”

• Elif Shafak is a novelist and political scientist


Elif Shafak

The GuardianTramp

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