Beyond Secularism: Orhan Pamuk's Snow, and the Contestation of 'Turkish Identity' in the Borderland

Ülker Gökberk


This paper explores the multifaceted discourse on Islam in present-day Turkish society, as reflected upon in Orhan Pamuk’s 2002 novel Snow. The revival of Islam in Turkish politics and its manifestation as a lifestyle that increasingly permeates urban environments, thus challenging the secular establishment, has occasioned a crisis of ‘Turkish identity’. At the core of this vehemently contested issue stands women’s veiling, represented by its more moderate version of the headscarf. The headscarf has not only become a cultural marker of the new Islamist trend, it has also altered the meanings previously attached to socio-cultural signifiers. Thus, the old binaries of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity,’ ‘backwardness’ and ‘progress,’ applied to Islamic versus Western modes of living and employed primarily by the secularist elites and by theorists of modernization, prove insufficient to explain the novel phenomenon of Islamist identity politics. New directions in social and cultural theory on Turkey have launched a critique of modernization theory and its vocabulary based on binary oppositions. I argue that Pamuk participates, albeit from the angle of poetic imagination, in such a critique. In Snow the author explores the complexities pertaining to the cultural symbolism circulating in Turkey. The ambiguity surrounding the headscarf as a new cultural marker constitutes a major theme in the novel. I demonstrate that Snow employs multiple perspectives pertaining to the meaning of cultural symbols, thus complicating any easy assessment of the rise of Islam in Turkey. By withholding from the reader a clear guide to unequivocal judgment of right and wrong, the author transcends the parameters of Turkish modernist ideology.

Pamuk situates his story in Kars, a border city in North-Eastern Turkey. This location at the geographical and cultural margins of Turkey emerges in the novel as a complex site of contested ideological, political, and metaphysical positions pertaining to the question of Turkish identity. It represents a space where Islamic faith in its esoteric and exoteric forms is carried out over against state-imposed laicism. I argue that it is the other-worldliness of the locale that instigates such a reflection. The protagonist Ka, a Turkish poet who has briefly returned to his hometown, Istanbul, after twelve years of exile in Germany, embarks on a journey to Kars. A member of the secular Istanbul bourgeoisie, Ka seems to be afflicted by an ailment common to his social stratum, a vacuum of spiritual values. Even though Ka travels to Kars with a journalistic mission, he soon becomes entrapped in this alien world of Sheiks, head-scarved girls, and former communists turned political Islamists. The novel oscillates between the Ka’s perspective as a detached observer and his personal quest to find transcendence. By employing multiple perspectives, Pamuk complicates any easy assessment of the rise of Islam in today’s Turkish society. I complement this reading of Snow with a brief excursus to Pamuk’s recent memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, permeated by the author’s critique of the modernist ideology of the Republican era. This critique sheds light on Pamuk’s opaque discourse on faith in Snow. These two books by the Nobel-prize winner have been his most disputed ones among the Turkish secular intelligentsia. I conclude with a reference to these critical commentaries.

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