Wednesday, February 13, 2008

As in Life, in Art

In early February, Lebanese diva Fayrouz performed in Syria for the first time in 30 years. Times coverage notes that folks from all political persuasions in both countries scrutinized all details of the enterprise, from her timing to her piece selection. Some Lebanese thought the singer betrayed her home country by performing in a neighbor widely thought to be at fault for much of Lebanon's current political turmoil. Syrians said her appearance signified a call to cool tensions. Political dissidents there said this performance was a political critique aimed at prominent government audience members, while others noted that her work is often co-opted as a nationalist soundtrack across the Arab world.

Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow, which I'm still reading, sketches a parallel situation. A Turkish poet named Ka returned from political exile in Frankfort to travel to Kars, a backwater village whose crumbling architecture attests to all the groups who have come -- and gone -- from power in Turkey, to write about a rash of devout young women committing suicide after being banished from school for refusing to remove their head scarves. (The issue remains a political spark in Turkey; last week, Turkish parliament moved ever closer to lifting the head scarf ban.)

Ongoing power struggles between Islamic fundamentalists and ardent secularists make Kars a discursive minefield. People balance on small, safe spaces while what remains unspoken makes each pleasantry fraught with over-thought meaning.

Ka arrives as Kars prepares for a performance by a legendary acting duo, who perform an old work, "My Fatherland or My Head Scarf," glorifying secularism in front of an audience including military officials and religious high school students. Pamuk sets the scene by writing, "this desperately old-fashioned, primitive, twenty-minute play had such a sound dramatic structure that even a deaf-mute would have no trouble following it."

After the main character removes her head scarf, a gesture that frightens secularists fearing conflict and offends the religious, she prepares to burn it.

By now Funda Eser had removed her scarf and tossed it like so much laundry into a copper basin.... By a strange coincidence, they'd put the gasoline into an emptied bottle of Akif liquid detergent, a brand much favored by Kars housewives at the time, and this was why everyone in the auditorium ... took it that the freedom fighter girl had changed her mind: seeing her plunge her hands into the washbasin, they all relaxed.

Then she sets it on fire and differing perspectives parade by faster and faster, a dizzying array for a reader new to Pamuk's literary world to keep disentangled. In the end, the male lead, playing a soldier, parades down the aisles with a military entourage. They turn, face the audience, and shoot rounds of live bullets into the crowd.

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