AS THE HEADSCARF girl polarised the conversation, I returned to Snow, my favourite novel by Orhan Pamuk. Elsewhere in this book of postponed redemptions and veiled subversions in a place caught between devotion and denial, there’s a staging of the play ‘My Fatherland or My Headscarf’, in which a woman takes off her headscarf and burns it, an unsettling sight for both the republicans and the Islamists in the audience. “When the angry girl tore the scarf off her head, she was not just making a statement about people, nor about national dress; she was talking about our souls, because the scarf, the fez, the turban and the headdress were all symbols of the reactionary darkness in our souls, from which we should liberate ourselves and run to join the modern nations of the West. Although few could make out her words, everyone heard one taunt back very clearly: ‘So why not take off everything and run to Europe stark naked?’”
In Snow, the poet Ka returns to the Turkish city of Kars, where multiple passions are at play: secular, republican, religious, rebellious, mystical and aesthetic. The poet is a diarist and a detective, a lover and a conversationalist, an intruder and a flâneur. Ka seeks answers in a desolate city of snowstorms where the visible leads him to buried mysteries, and the ones that concentrate his scarred mind most are the suicides of girls with headscarves. An act of defiance? Or of submission? Or of death assisted by newly resurgent fanatics and the permanent establishment of enforced secularism? It’s a city where Kemal Atatürk’s vision of enlightened secularism is the reigning religion, and where the republican ideal abhors the symbolism of enslaving faith such as a headscarf. The poet is lost in a maze of arguments, and even the pursuit of love can’t save him.
The novel closes with the staging of another play, ‘A Tragedy of Kars’, in which the woman is faced with the decisions of a lifetime—“about baring her head and about committing suicide.” The man, a republican, asks her why she wishes to kill herself. “The main reason for suicide, obviously, is pride. At least, that’s why women kill themselves,” she says, and clarifies: “A woman doesn’t commit suicide because she’s lost her pride; she does it to show her pride.” When asked about the suicide of her friends, she tells him that “the moment of suicide is the time when they understand best how lonely it’s to be a woman.” The republican says that “here in Kars, there’s no such thing as free choice.” Women commit suicide “to escape all forms of punishment,” says the woman who intends to kill herself. And the man declares, “I want my death to be at the hands of just such a woman.” Before the curtain falls, there will be blood on the stage.
Snow, set in a place that is wary of storytellers, is mostly narrated by a writer called Orhan, who’s in search of the lost poems of Ka. The one who seeks answers in Snow is bound to get trapped in new questions about freedom and faith in a country where the enforcer alone pretends to know all answers. The secularist and the Islamist, both fundamentalists in the true sense of the word, are pursuers of certainty, whether it’s defined by the Book or the barracks. The headscarf girls have been condemned to live in someone else’s argument. By suicide, did they become the sole arbiters of crime as well as punishment, freedom and pride? Answers are whirling beneath the scarf the actors wear in the play, still incomprehensible to the audience. In Pamuk’s political novel, politics is what Stendhal says, which he also uses as an epigraph: “Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.”
I returned to Snow at a time when very ugly matters were sanctified by faith and politics, and the headscarf revealed more than what it concealed. We heard the hecklers and haters, convenient secularists (different from pseudo-secularists) and outright zealots who are still struggling to come to terms with their inner Taliban in a Hindu India; we heard everyone except the headscarf girl herself. That’s what happens when we are living outside a novel. When we are living in a country where the ghetto is a pre-requisite for the perpetuation of the ‘minority conscience’. When the secular ideal is subordinated to the ‘communal exceptionalism’ of the victim. Is it what we may call the radicalisation of the secular mind? If religion is a forbidden wear on the campus, religionists must learn to resist their natural impulses, and some secular states play vigilantes to ensure that they do. Secularism is vulgar only when it is defended by those who are tainted by religion’s worst instincts. Still, we don’t know what the headscarf girl thinks, for some men have taken copyright over her thoughts. That’s religion’s worst crime.
In Snow, in the play within, punishment ceases to seek a crime that fits the script of the enforcers. In life, even in a constitutionally labelled secular country, there are no such resolutions as the story is still controlled by the enforcers.