Booze, Hair and the Treasured Artifacts of Kemalism

"You should drink a little bit of alcohol"

"I should?" I replied - a glass of raki already in my hand as Elif Hanim served a fish platter for us. With intent eyes she continued by way of explanation, "of course - in order to be modern."

Well that justifies it then, I thought sarcastically - though I put on my diplomatic face as the food did look very nice. If the command was not stark enough she then said "I have friends who do five prayers a day - and they still drink. Just don't be deeply Muslim."

Like many Muslims in my age-group and circumstances, I do have the occasional drink - but there is a certain obligatory guilt, spoken or not, that comes with it in lieu of a greater desire for a pure lifestyle (or at least, a desire to desire a pure lifestyle.) To many, it is just part of what is known as the Jihad al-Akbar, or 'Greater Jihad,' fought against worldly desires with the aim of achieving a higher state of serenity within what Nursi might call the 'book of the universe.'

According to this middle-aged Turkish woman however, it was one step away from Islamic Revolution. Inner serenity is all very well, but how is it manifest at the polls? Those yahoos with beards shouting in the streets don't seem very serene. Forget it, what you need is a drink.

The women was obviously a staunch Kemalist, though I was shocked to hear the beliefs uttered in such an blatent manner.

Kemalism is an ideology, or cult, about which I have great misgivings because of just these kinds of corporate and Unitarian understandings of concepts like modernity and religion. For most Kemalist friends, religion is not the be-all-and-end-all of life, and it is as simple as that. But the secular republican and nationalistic elements of Kemalism produce this jadedness by counter-acting one another, as Turkish nationalism is as much defined by professed faith as much as any Central Asian origins.

The resulting belief is that being a little bit Muslim is fine, but not so much that it takes precedence over imbibing the characteristics of the enlightened western culture of the early 20th century. Unfortunately, this includes enlightened western Orientalism.

What was particularly poignant during this alcohol = modernity lecture, was that sitting opposite (and slamming religion at every turn of the conversation), Elif's son was pouring himself another raki through hands long-scarred by the disease that had seen the end of Mustafa Kemal himself: Cirrhosis.

As another friend pitched in rather tactfully support my liberalism in the guise of a compliment to Istanbul, the lady continued to probe me with another concern raised by the fact of my Muslim-ness.

"Don't you marry a woman with a headscarf," she stated blankly. I'm not sure if my Turkish failed me or whether I was giving her a chance to rephrase, I think it was somewhere between this and wishful thinking. "Would I marry a woman with a headscarf?" I asked aloud, "I'm just happy with a woman who is smart and open-minded."

She shot back: "If the hair is closed, the mind is too."

For as many times as people ask me why Europeans hate the Turks, they will never believe the first Orientalists I ever met were from among them.

Image from http://zenfloyd.blogspot.com/2010_05_01_archive.html

1 comment:

  1. The protection of Human Rights and Freedom of Religion are the benchmarks of what secular liberal society is supposed to be about - and not paranoid phobias about headscarves and dry zones.

    This is something that Ataturk's children really need to get into their unscarved, de-topified heads. Or is it really about finding reasons why other people deserve to be treated like shit?