Word: Kismet

Hilal Isler
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  • Originally from the Turkish and Arabic 
  • Title of an 1877 novel by George Fleming (a.k.a. Julia Constance Fletcher)
  • Name of a 1990s robot built by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal

Kismet is destiny. Providence. It’s the writing on the wall, what’s in the stars. God’s plan. The plan can favor and anoint, high-fiving you into a charmed life of prosperity, or it can doom and sink and maim you. It is your karma. Dumb luck. 

I learned about kismet as a child. I grew up bilingual; Turkish was my first language even though my parents left Ankara in 1975, even though I was born in Australia. The immigrant cliché of arriving in the West with two suitcases and a hundred bucks sewn inside a jacket applies here. My parents’ command of English was not strong. As new immigrants, they relied on a Turkish–English pocket dictionary with a soft yellow cover. I remember its scritta pages, thin as a Bible’s—and much like a Bible, the dictionary had utility beyond that of a book. It was book as compass, book as security blanket, book as teacher; a portable Rosetta stone, helping them locate meaning and express it in this strange new place. 

Kismet first entered the English language in 1834, but it wasn’t popularized until 1876, as the title of a book. Kismet is a Victorian novel by George Fleming, the pseudonym of American writer Julia Constance Fletcher. She had learned about the concept of kismet when she visited Egypt, and noveled around it, her tale centering on a group of white travelers falling in and out of love, floating down the Nile in their dahabeahs. The book is an ode to the mysterious workings of the heart, to the surprising antilogic of destiny. 

Kismet is given credit for bringing my parents together. When I think about it now, as an adult, I find it difficult to believe. But they insist it is the truth. It is a fact that my mother saw my father for the first time across a crowded cafeteria, that she froze, pointed, and said to her friend: “It’s him.” Never mind that she didn’t know who he was, that she had sworn off men, that he was definitely younger than she. She felt a flash of recognition at the sight of him, and this could not be ignored. She told her friend she would marry this man, whoever he was.

Three months later, it came to that. Dad was waiting for a bus and so was she. He was “pulled to her”—that’s how he describes it. Pulled as if by strings, like a marionette. He gathered his courage, struck up a conversation, missed his stop, missed all the stops. He wanted to ask her about forever that very night. It was so strong, he insists: the witchy, urgent recognition of his kismet, here at last, contained so beautifully within another person. 

More than a century after Fletcher’s novel, another American woman would name the principal creative work of her life Kismet. Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, a researcher at MIT, built a robot to explore the nature of emotion. In 1999, her robot landed on the cover of Discover magazine. MEET KISMET, the headline read. a giant step closer to robots that walk, talk, think—and have feelings. 

It’s not clear to me why Breazeal chose this name, whether it was some kind of wink at the idea of playing God, the idea that an external power is the true animating force behind matter. “Kismet is not conscious,” Breazeal wrote in a 2002 book, and so the robot didn’t really have the capacity for feelings. 

My family’s God also did not have feelings. He was a power uncorrupted by such banal, fleeting disturbances as those brought on by sentiment. A creator beyond feeling. The word emotion itself—from the French émouvoir, “to stir up,” and from the Latin emovēre, “to remove”—implies a displacement from something still and essential. A break in sanity, serenity interrupted, a movement away from what is core and wise and true. Allah would never.

It could be a coincidence that Fletcher and Breazeal and my mom were all interested in the concept of kismet, but there could also be another reason. Maybe kismet is on the minds of women more than of men because it plays a more determining role in their lives.

The word kismet is a feminine word in Arabic: qisma (قِسْمَة). It means “fate,” yes, but the original definition is of allotment: a carving up, a division, a distribution. It seems to warn women and girls: Qisma will cheat you out of an equal share. This is not a political statement; it isn’t radical to say this. It just is. Anatomy is destiny, as Napoleon said. 

One’s physiology seems to determine kismet more than most other things, automatically ordaining a girl’s oppression, seeing to it that her subordination is lifelong, is internalized. She is born an Eve, meant as a gift to Adam, and we all know how the story plays out. All Eves must pay a price for eating that apple, and keep paying it in perpetuity, our enduring, shared kismet one of a punishment that regenerates continually, transcending time, geography, culture.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir lists the many ways in which women have been marginalized and oppressed. The Laws of Manu, she observes, one of the first written law codes of Asia, defined women as “vile being[s] to be held in slavery.” She also references Leviticus’s view of women as “beasts of burden owned by the patriarch,” and notes that Aristotle, too, insisted on the limitations of women. “The principle of movement which is male in all living beings is better,” he said, “and more divine.” When the pagans mythologized on human origin, de Beauvoir remarks, it was Pandora whose shoulders they burdened with the weight of humanity’s suffering, her curiosity that was faulted for the world’s loss of innocence and its subsequent eternal state of anguish. And in pre-Islamic Arab culture, infant girls were unwanted, tossed into open ditches, buried alive, their destiny set by the parameters of their anatomy alone.  

The fact of anatomy itself seems arbitrary: a single sperm out of two hundred million enters a particular egg at a particular time. Even before this moment, kismet is chance. It is a glance across a crowded cafeteria. It is waiting for a bus at the same shelter at the same time. It is a singular, weighted choice that suddenly makes all else possible, a moment of coincidence, a word derived from the Latin prefix com-, meaning “with”  and “together,” and incidere, “to fall upon.” The coincidences that constitute kismet depend on a supreme falling together of things, an orchestration most divine. 

My mother outmaneuvered her kismet: she was born the last of five children in the Anatolian town of Konya, the orthodox capital of Turkish Islamism. She had two older sisters who read at an eighth-grade level, but Mom wanted a different life for herself, pressuring her parents to send her to the boys’ science high school so that college might be an option. My grandparents relented eventually. This was a secular republic, after all: a nation cobbled together from the pieces of the broken Ottoman Empire into something more modern. From now on, Turkey’s kismet would be in her own hands, a compass needle magnetized to a future that was open and less bound by superstition, less anchored in fatalism.

In Istanbul, and later in Ankara, on her own for the first time, my mother wasn’t stuck behind a stove, apron strings squeezing off her access to pursuits both rich and intellectual. Sovereign, beholden to no man, she built a career, purchased a plot of land, managed her own money: a single Muslim woman, immune to the kismet chokehold that had suffocated the ambitions of all the women in her family who came before her. My grandmother might have been nearly illiterate, but my mother would earn a PhD. This was kismet undone, kismet kicked apart, my mother and other women of her generation seizing the wheel, squaring Allah with a look and shoving him out of the driver’s seat. 

In ancient Greece, writers relied on the gods to tell their stories. Perhaps surprisingly, the term deus ex machina, “god from the machine,” originated in the theater, where the actors playing various deities were introduced to the stage by a machine (a wooden crane). This surprised the audience, making an otherwise unsolvable situation solvent, and allowed a character in peril to be rescued; it was a playwrights’ apparatus for coincidence, for kismet. 

Many of Euripides’s tragedies rely on deus ex machina for their resolution. Critics at the time weren’t too thrilled about this, the device signaling for them the laziness or ineptitude of the writer. A fair assessment, yet perhaps the surrendering of plot—even the plot of one’s own life—palms up, to an unseen power, wasn’t lazy as much as wise. What was it but a sign of wisdom, knowing when to push in life and when to just allow?

After that fateful bus ride, my parents became inseparable and eloped quickly, my mother in a borrowed gown, and emigrated weeks later, delivered across the world and to a brand-new life. The gods in the machine had, in a single afternoon, shifted the plot abruptly and for good. This is how kismet moves, a slow climb, a leap; my parents’ kismet was something to be shared now, as lovers, as immigrants, as friends. 

My mother, that young girl who wasn’t encouraged to seek or to find, did both anyway, pushing against the limits of her inherited kismet, reengineering it with one willed act, then another, determining through effort and imagination, and surrender, too, a new kismet: a prospect in part of her own design, in part a demonstration of divine grace, a patch of God’s great wilderness and space, where the idea that we might meet—mother, daughter, orbiting each other for all time—could be realized at last.

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