Raffles Reads: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World

By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)

Wondering what to get for your loved ones for Christmas? To us, books certainly make great gifts. And you’re in the right place—Raffles Reads is a new column which aims to promote reading culture among Singaporean students. The books, reviewed by Raffles Press writers, have been provided courtesy of Times Reads.

10 minutes, 38 seconds.

That’s how long Turkish sex worker Tequila Leila remains conscious for after death. She may have stopped breathing, but her mind remains active, her eyes still seeing. We’ve always thought of death as an instantaneous process, but what if the line between ‘Dead’ and ‘Not Dead’ is actually more of a spectrum?

This is the intriguing premise explored in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak, whose first part follows Leila’s stream of consciousness, minute-by-minute, as she recalls her life and the people who shaped it.

“People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath. But things were not clear-cut like that. Just as there were countless shades between jet-black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest’. If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”

Split into three parts—‘The Mind’, ‘The Body’, and ‘The Soul’—10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World tells the story of a sex worker’s life in 20th-century Istanbul, raising an important question in the process: what does it mean to have lived? 

This story is really two stories: the story of Istanbul, and the story of a girl born in Van, who moved to Istanbul to work in a brothel.

“Istanbul was a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters. In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls—struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive.”

Shafak’s descriptions of 1960s Istanbul are vivid and colourful. They tell of an unseen Istanbul hidden from foreigners, of a street lined with brothels; they tell of a Turkey on the brink of cultural change. Just as Shafak’s line between life and death is transient, so is the line between cultures here: Turkey, located at the meeting point of two continents—Asia and Europe—is, quite literally, caught between East and West. Other cultural clashes also exist: on one hand are religious conservatives like Leila’s father, a well-to-do Muslim tailor who practises polygamy, on the other, more liberal-minded folk like the Lady Pharmacist, brothel madam Mama Bitter, and communist revolutionary, D/Ali. Through Leila’s eyes, the reader bears witness to this clash of cultures, set against the rich backdrop of Istanbul. Historical events—Turkey’s military involvement in the Korean War, the rise of pro-Communist sentiments in university students, the opening of Bosphorus Bridge—are name-dropped in the narrative, grounding this book firmly in its historical context. 

Yet, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds is also the story of Tequila Leila, born Leyla Afife Kamile, and the struggles she faces as a Turkish woman: born to her father’s concubine but raised by his first wife, sexually groomed from the age of six by a trusted, older male family member, and forced into an arranged marriage when the truth came to light. She escapes to Istanbul, where she is robbed on her first day, and sold to a brothel. Leila is a character who comes alive on the page. Her thoughts are poignant, her actions bold.

“Because she’s impatient, that one. She wants life to run fast. But she’s resilient too; she can guzzle the sour and the bitter, like downing tequila shots. I gave her that name.”

Mama Bitter, on Tequila Leila’s name

10 Minutes 38 Seconds’ supporting cast is no slouch either. The stories of Leila’s five friends—Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122, and Hollywood Humeyra—shine bright, each one a societal misfit in their own right. Sinan is Leila’s quiet childhood friend, who leads a double life; Nalan, a trans woman; Jameelah, an African sex worker; Zaynab122 suffers from dwarfism; Humeyra fled her abusive husband to become a singer. 

Leila and her friends are marginalised for being square pegs, unable to fit into the round holes of their Islamic society. Abandoned by their families and outcast by society, all they have is one another. Though the book is set primarily in the late 20th century, feeling like you don’t belong is still very much prevalent in our times, and modern readers will relate strongly to the characters’ feelings of alienation.

Family is another important theme in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds. Leila is estranged from her family, who disapprove of her job. And when Leila’s body is found in a city waste bin, they refuse to collect it. Instead, it is Leila’s friends who, when denied by state officials, hatch a plan to steal back her corpse from the godforsaken Cemetery of the Companionless. The six friends consider themselves to be ‘water family’, and believe that under unhappy circumstances, the blood of the covenant can be thicker than the water of the womb.

“While it was true that nothing could take the place of a loving, happy blood family, in the absence of one, a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot. It was therefore possible for your friends to have a treasured place in your heart, and occupy a bigger space than all your kin combined.” 

Finally, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds asks these philosophical questions: what is it that makes a person—mind, body or soul? At what point can someone be said to be fully dead: when the mind shuts down, when the body decomposes, or when the soul has found peace? 

And what is it that makes life worth living, something worth fighting for?

“Just because you think it’s safe here, it doesn’t mean this is the right place for you. Sometimes where you feel most safe is where you least belong.”

Leila’s life may be one of heartbreak and hardship, but amidst the pain, there are moments of pleasure—her friends, and meeting and marrying the love of her life, D/Ali.

Ultimately, it’s the people we love and who love us that give meaning to our lives.

“Leila did not think one could expect to have more than five friends. Just one was a stroke of luck. If you were blessed, then two or three, and if you were born under a sky filled with the brightest stars, then a quintet—more than enough for a lifetime.”

Written in beautiful prose and filled with similes that make you stop and think, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is a story of Istanbul, and the story of a woman. It is the story of life, and how life continues on, even after death.

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