What makes a superhero? Is it the myth or the man?
Superheros have always existed in a microcosm where the problems of their city don’t have greater ramifications. The Batman had Gotham, Superman had Metropolis, even Spiderman only had NY, somehow none of the bad guys ever thought to take on, I don’t know, Seattle.
In Shadow on the Wall the world is bigger and it’s meaner. Elih, Turkey (google it for a giggle) is a real place, but my version of it has nothing to do with the modern city. Instead, my Elih is based on the very real issues going on in the world around us. The bad guys here aren’t black and white, they aren’t just insane or hungry for power. They have motivations and their own painful reasons for everything they do.
But really, at the end of the day, all these stories are the same. A man (or woman) is called to make the world a better place. That call may come from personal trauma (The Batman, The Crow), a sense of responsibility (Wonder Woman, Spiderman), or some kind of otherworldly event (The X-Man, Superman), but in the end they are called to do something great and they do it.
But do they really want to?
Recai Osman becomes The SandStorm in Shadow on the Wall. He has many of the characteristics of what has appealed to bloggers this week about The Batman and Iron Man. He’s just a guy. Punch him and he shall bleed. What he isn’t is overwhelmingly smart (Tony Stark) or bent on revenge/redemption (Bruce Wayne). Actually Recai is pretty OK right were he is. His family was wealthy and he grew up with boarding schools and an international education. His mother killed herself when he was young and his father, suspected of playing a role in her death disappeared. But instead of feeling the need to defend or defy his parents he just languishes in the belief that he simply isn’t good enough.
He’s raised competing in traditional Turkish wrestling matches (Karakucak) and after his education was conscripted to join the Turkish Military. For two years he served in the elite Egirdir Commando, a unit of the Turkish Military based on the intense training provided soldiers in the Egirdir Mountain Commando School and Education Center. His training didn’t just comprise of Mosno’s push-ups like The Batman. No, he was in a militia which specialized in rock climbing and gorilla warfare with the Kurds.
Recai has the sexy mystique of Gambit, with his green eyes and red beard, he’s not the usual Turk. His accent is unique, a combination of his mother’s Kurdish, his English education and years of travel and while he doesn’t have Wolverine’s temper he’s certainly not above a drink or two with a beautiful woman. He is flawed, he is drifting, he is just a man.
The main elements which separate Recai from the others we’ve discussed this week are willingness and religion.
Recai is not a willing superhero. He almost dies a countless number of times before it even occurs to him that perhaps there’s a reason for his continued existence. The evil of the world is played out before him in the most intimate and terrible way possible and his answer isn’t to buy an awesome-sauce Batmobile, but to go on a Hajj in the desert. He runs away. Throughout the book he makes excuses for not doing what he knows is right.
Recai: “I don’t need a lecture right now.”
Hasad: “Since when do I lecture? I’m an old man who’s been shoveling shit around these jihadis for the last three years while you played in the desert. What could I have to say that would matter?”
Recai: “You are lecturing,” Recai moaned.
Hasad: “Pointing out that you are a spoiled child is not lecturing. It’s a basic truth.”
What he does have, which many superheros also share, are supporters. Not just the masses in the streets cheering his name, no, the inner working of the superhero machine requires there be gears which keeps it running. Hasad and Maryam are Recai’s. Hasad is his sense of duty while Maryam is his sense of justice. Without them, he would be adrift right up to the end and I wonder if he would ever be able to truly accept his role.
The second issue is one which is tricky to talk about succinctly. Religion is a huge factor in Shadow on the Wall. Primarily because the book is set in an Arab country where Islam is the predominant religion. Turkey, however, is a bit different from the conceptions westerners have of places like Iran and Saudia Arabia. Turkey has a secular religion, and despite some religious tensions embraces diversity. The character Hasad is a perfect example of this. He is a Bangladeshi Jew who has lived in the desert of Turkey for over twenty years. For most of his time there, his religion was simply one part of who he was. And that brings us to the bad guys.
This is one of the reasons I picked Turkey as the backdrop for Recai’s story (that and, again, if you haven’t googled it, do it now – Elih, Turkey – you know you want to). Turkey is unique. It is predominately Islamic but also open to the Christians who live there. It is a place where ethnicity can be an issue but where people have learned to live together. I’m not an expert on Turkish politics or history, but I felt setting it here created a much more level playing field for Western readers than say, Pakistan or Palestine.
Shadow’s Elih Turkey was once a beautiful and thriving city, with culture and diversity until, upon Baris Osman’s disappearance, it falls into the hands of a greedy man. Again, not a completely original story. The current situation in the city can be laid directly at the feet of Mayor Yilmaz. What differs here, is that the mayor is not the villain you are looking for. The villainy in Shadow is less overt, less concrete and so easy to relate to that reviewers have even said they found themselves rooting for the wrong team.
It’s the oppressive interpretation of the Qu’ran which has led to the decay of Elih. Mayor Yilmaz uses fundamentalist and sometimes flat out inaccurate justification from the Qu’ran and the Hadiths to defend his actions. Actions which are motivated by greed and personal gain. The rules apply to the poor but not the wealthy, in public but not in private. The religion of Mayor Yilmaz is not the religion of Islam. It is a bastardization, an insult to the beauty of what most Muslims believe.
Recai’s call comes from the imballance of the world. Does one follow the laws of man or the laws of God? I hope as readers delve into Shadow on the Wall they will be able to see that while I am critical of Mayor Yilmaz’s Islam, it is not Islam itself which is under fire. In fact, the strength Recai needs in order to follow the demands placed upon him come from the steady and unwaivering goodness and faith of Maryam: a devout Muslim.
Recai is just a man. A man who has been singled out for greatness. Be it God, Allah, or even the Spirit of the Desert, the imbalance of the world requires someone stand up and shoulder the responsibility of making things right again. This duty falls to Recai and while reluctant, he is just the man to become the myth.
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