Commuting between biases of the West and Islam
Writer says literature is fluid, adaptable and open to interpretation and Islam should be, too
July 07, 2007: Toronto Star
ISTANBUL–We live in an increasingly polarized world. Every day, the number of people who believe in a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West escalates. Islamic fundamentalists and Western Islamophobics might seem to be poles apart. But they are not. They share the same bigotry toward the unfamiliar and the same spiteful aspiration to exclude everyone who doesn't echo their views.
Hardliners in one country produce more hardliners elsewhere. The world regards grey areas and thresholds with suspicion. And that, perhaps, is where the work of a secularist Muslim woman writer becomes difficult.
I find grey areas and thresholds central for my work as a novelist. In a world where identity politics rides roughshod, literature, by contrast, thrives upon ambiguity and flexibility. The desire to transcend the boundaries of the self lies at the heart of literature.
The threshold is important for my work because writing fiction for me is not necessarily telling "my story" to other people. Just the opposite, it is the ability to journey from "me" to "other" ... the urge to cross boundaries.
Rather than taking sides in imaginary dualities, I prefer to carve a zone along the frontier to enable seeming opposites to blend. And if that terrain proves too hard to grasp, then I choose to commute between seeming opposites. I want my fiction to blur mental and cultural boundaries.
My first novels were written in Turkish, but my most recent ones – including The Bastard of Istanbul, which was published last year – were written in English. Being multicultural and multilingual is a necessity for me, as much as it is a choice. I find this difficult to convey to my ultranationalist critics who maintain that a Turkish author should stick to only Turkish language. I was criticized for abandoning my native tongue and then, last September, I was put on trial for "insulting Turkishness" because of words uttered by my fictional characters. I was quickly acquitted.
Amidst this troubled framework, one fact that is frequently ignored is how heterogeneous and dynamic is the Islamic world. There is a noteworthy difference between exoteric, orthodox, mainstream Islam and esoteric, mystical, heterodox versions of Islam. The second path has always been more flexible, more individualistic and more open to women.
It is sad that in contemporary world politics, all these subtleties are lost and Islam is thought to be a monolithic bloc. Failing to see the nuances increases the sweeping generalizations about Islam that only serve to increase the distance between us and them, between West and Islam. The less we know about the "others," the easier it becomes to make generalizations about them. The more we generalize and distance the "others," the more we fear them. Today, there is a considerable degree of fear of Islam in the West, and a fear of the West in the Muslim world.
When I was a child in the '70s, I experienced the two different readings of Islam first-hand, from my two grandmothers. Both women were Turkish and came from similar class backgrounds. Both were Muslims. Yet my father's mother was a follower of the religion of fear.
She taught me about the patronizing, paternal and celestial gaze of Allah always watching me, making notes of the sins I committed. I came back from her house slightly traumatized, unable to go to the bathroom for fear of being seen naked by Allah, ashamed of the body given to me.
But when I moved to the house of my other grandmother, I entered an iridescent universe replete with folk Islam and superstitions. This was a woman who poured melted lead to ward off the evil eye and taught me not to step on the thresholds where the djinni (fiery spirits) danced at night. For her, Allah wasn't a God to be feared but a God to be loved. Indeed, the celestial gaze watched us constantly, she agreed, but it also blinked from time to time, just like any other eye would.
"Sure, the religious authorities are rigid, and yes, some teachings are constraining, but do not worry," she would say, "for they are bricks, you are water. They will stay put, you will flow."
She is the one who taught me all about water. From her I learned that love and faith – and literature – could all be like water, so fluid and changeable. They could adapt to particular situations and acquire new interpretations. And so could religions – including Islam.
In a world moulded by identity politics, literature can be as fluid and adaptable to particular situations as water. While politics thrives upon differences, generalizations and exclusions, literature builds understanding and empathy among people by concentrating on connections and similarities.
Elif Shafak, a novelist based in Istanbul, is the author of The Bastard of Istanbul, published in 2006.