Volume 19 • Issue 6 | June 23-29, 2006

The Penny Post

Poetry light on young Islam

By Andrei Codrescu

I’m reading “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish novelist. His protagonist is a poet who returns to Turkey after years of exile in Germany. In the ‘70s, he’d been a leftist intellectual student who managed to escape from Turkey before being arrested. On his return, nearly two decades later, he finds that the new radicals are young Islamists who are burning with revolutionary passion just as he did. It’s a different kind of passion, though. The Marxist faith of the young poet was not that far removed from the secular rule instituted in Turkey by the army. Both Marxism and the westernizing imposed by the military are connected to the European enlightenment. The new radicals are enthralled to God, to Islam, to tradition, a much older and more difficult faith.

Pamuk’s brilliant strategy is not to condescend to the new radicals. On the contrary, he is attracted to their youth and their desire for purity and sacrifice. They remind him of his own. But the devil is in the details. A number of young women in the town of Karst have committed suicide because they weren’t, ostensibly, allowed to attend school wearing the traditional headscarf. The symbol that the young Islamists have deemed worth dying for, turns out to be a cover for other ills — mistreatment at the hands of fathers and husbands, poverty, unemployment. But even those causes are insufficient to explain the tragedies, so the media and the police come in for close examination, too. The media makes the suicides a cause celebre, prompting other unhappy young women to consider suicide. Police repression and army rule in Turkey, intended for decades to stem the spread of radical Islam, come in for their share of blame.

But interestingly enough, the two constant elements that link everyone in the small town, are sexual taboos and television. The poet himself is at sentimental loose ends, as he courts the ex-wife of an old friend. The young men from the religious school who confide in him are in love with various “scarf girls.” The friends of the girls who died are deeply conflicted by their sexual desires that, they believe, can be controlled only by wearing the headscarf. The young people are trying to resist what is an overwhelming wave of sexual images produced by the televisions they never stop watching, and by the cult of movie stars whose every gesture is familiar to them. One imagines that, left to their own devices, these young people would eventually find a balance between their beliefs and the modern world. But that is exactly what no one is willing to do: the state forbids the symbols of Islam, television mocks them, the army invalidates their elected officials and shoots some of the students in cold blood. Circulating among the earnest young seekers are various shadowy terrorists representing a tangle of nationalist grouplets, some of them invented by the secret police.

In Pahamuk’s world, modern Turkey is a hopeless mess drifting inevitably toward an Islamic state brought about by misunderstandings, intolerance, indolence and a lack of opportunities. The poet tries to stay out of the mess in the name of an abstract ideal he calls “poetry,” but this is hardly an escape. He is a modern, Western-educated poet, who is far from understanding the traditional, sentiment-and-cliché-filled poetry of traditional religious verse. In the end, the battlefield of poetry is as relevant to understanding young Islamist radicals as religion or the economy. The young are driven by sentiment while cynical and power-hungry interests use them for cannon fodder.

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