Snow is melting in Turkey

Monday, 3 June, 2013

It’s hard to put a finger on the individual spark that lit the fuse in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, but the air was filled with a number of combustibles: Secularists point to the recent barrage of restrictions on alcohol; intellectuals highlight the number of journalists in jail (there are more reporters in prison in Turkey than in any other country in the world); activists complain about the country’s draconian anti-terror laws, and environmentalists are enraged by mega urban-development projects that involve the nihilistic destruction of nature. All in all, people have tired of Prime Minister Erdogan’s authoritarianism and they want him to know how they feel about creeping Islamism.

Snow Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, brilliantly captured the tensions at the heart of Turkish society in Snow. Early in the novel, the central character Ka is sitting in the New Life Pastry Shop in the east Anatolian city of Kars when an Islamist murders the director of The Education Institute, who had barred headscarf-wearing girls from attending class. Because the director was carrying a concealed tape-recorder, Ka is later able to get the transcript of the fatal conversation from his widow. In this excerpt, the killer pours out his mad idealism:

“Headscarves protect women from harassment, rape and degradation. It’s the headscarf that gives women respect and a comfortable place in society. We’ve heard this from so many women who’ve chosen later in life to cover themselves. Women like the old belly-dancer Melahat Sandra. The veil saves women from the animal instincts of men in the street. It saves them from the ordeal of entering beauty contests to compete with other women. They don’t have to live like sex objects, they don’t have to wear make-up all the day. As professor Marvin King has already noted, if the celebrated film star Elizabeth Taylor had spent the last twenty years covered, she would not have had to worry about being fat. She would not have ended up in a mental hospital. She might have known some happiness.”

Upon hearing this absurdity, the director of the Education Institute bursts out laughing. Pamuk describes the end of the transcript:

“Calm down my child. Stop. Sit down. Think it over one more time. Don’t pull that trigger. Stop.”
(The sound of a gunshot. The sound of a chair pushed out.)
“Don’t my son!”
(Two more gunshots. Silence. A groan. The sound of a television. One more gunshot. Silence.)

No fiction writer in recent years has come near Orhan Pamuk in his depiction of the spiritual fragility of the Islamic world and its rage against the “godless West”.

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