The beginning of Snow, a novel written by Orphan Pamuk, relates the experience of people riding on a Turkish bus. The passengers are nervous, danger ahead…. True, it is heavily snowing, as it should in a novel with this name. However, as if in a palimpsest, I descry a sub-text referring to broader issues, the fact that the rest of the book is about the vicissitudes of Islam, at least most of it.
In Amsterdam, in times still adventurous, I decided to take a plane to the south-western tip of Turkey and, from then on, merely travel by dolmus. I’d read about this kind of transit: small taxis on short distances, also stopping at request. However, it only leaves the station of departure when fully booked. A bit like shabbes in the Shul – no tenth man, no go… So, adventure is what you get, time enough to meet people with whom you can mostly talk only by hand; time also, to finish the book you brought from the Netherlands; and of course observe habits and buildings. Time is on your side, Man!
The real adventure, however, turned out to be the quality of both drivers and their driving style. In my very first dolmus I was under the impression that this was just my bad luck. Next time better. After the quorum of travellers had uneasily assembled in the small vehicle – a contraption which must have dated from a time when Ford told the client that you could get his cars in any colour you liked, a Ford that is, if only it were black – off we went. Mine was indeed black and this was a black trip indeed.
The little bus took some time to gather speed, but once the driver had managed to whip its horse powers into top gear, it never slowed down again till the next stop. This meant that at a breath taking speed we were constantly closing in on rocky overhangs; now and then speeding at only twenty centimetres along steep ravines; then again, taking curves on the wrong side of the road, no idea what would come around the bent from the other direction…
Inside about my tenth dolmus, we were once more rounding a mountainous curve on the wrong side. I was the only foreigner, my co-passengers never paid any attention to this, just hanging against the well-worn backs of what were once real benches. I was gathering breath again when, of a sudden, with screeching breaks the dolmus came to a stop right after having taken the bend. At the very edge of the next abyss were already gathered three other dolmuses and a private car. All passengers had exited and were now looking down into the chasm. Our little company followed suit.
Down there, a complete wreck which could hardly be recognized as a former dolmus, with all around it what must have been corpses and their luggage. I was the only Westerner; I was the only one of those forty or so beings trying, once again, to find my breath, sickness spreading in the innards. All these other people were coolly watching the mess below, mumbled a little, then went back to their respective vessels of transit – and drove off. As did we. At the same reckless speed as before.
What for me had been a shocking image of my own future to come, thanks to reckless driving, something to be dreaded, all these others seemed to consider as but a spectacle – as if they had been inspecting insects or something not really related to themselves. Something of course – yet off course.
Long ago, I started my intellectual career as a sociologist of religion. Knowing this, my reader will be surprised to learn that it took me till that tenth dolmus – and many more were to follow – to at least surmise a link between this radical road recklessness and the Islam, the religion generally practiced over there. All this came to mind, when I had begun the reading of Pamuk’s Snow.
And while reading on, a second insight struck home. Whereas their behaviour often appears to us as now completely fearless and irresponsible, then again lazy and unperturbed – thus also in manner of speaking rather exciting; after all, a lot of news now covering their acts of reckless violence we find ‘interesting’ to read about and to watch it – I tend to find people of the Muslim creed, and of some other denominations like for instance Buddhism, all with a fatalistic bent, intensely uninteresting and dull.
Especially Muslims tend to be repetitious, reiterating over and over again what must be clear to themselves as well as to unbelievers – that Allah is great, that it is all His will, et cetera, et cetera. What is worse, the indifference I have developed towards them – showing itself in the fact that at the Haarlem table we never had Muslims as our guest, even though there were many of my colleagues and students of that faith, and my wife’s work also brought her in daily contact with them – is mirrored in the indifference they themselves show towards this world. All, to them, all seems to be a given; it works; and whatever happens must be His will, not ours. So, interesting partners in conversation they do not seem to be.
Having denied Sennett’s truth in practice, though upheld in theory – that to be civilised is to embrace the stranger – last winter I decided to become a better man. My mother had left her house behind which, before it could be sold to strangers, would have to be emptied of all and everything, memories included. After having destroyed quite of lot of the larger furniture and bagged endless piles of bridge periodicals and nature journals and what not, I phoned a company run by Leyden University students who would move anything to anywhere, in my case two truckloads to the municipal trash mountains.
As I had found one little bookcase of my father which has some aesthetic quality, I asked one of the two helpers, the driver, whether he would also drive his truck to Haarlem and back, after they had finished with the rubbish, taking me and my bookcase with him. No problem. He had already seemed to be rather old for a student, so once on the road I asked him about this. He turned out to be a Kurd in exile in the Netherlands, living in The Hague, having already studied in Syria and now doubling his studies here in Leyden. He hated it, having real trouble with both the Dutch and the English language. I gave him bits about my own left-wing past.
We obviously liked one another; added to this came the fact that I have always supported the Kurdish cause, even though I have my qualms as to some of the tactics used by some Kurdish groups. Thus, home in Haarlem, the bookcase safely carried upstairs, our guest, my wife and I drank coffee and talked some more. He told us about his second Dutch wife, whom he married after a divorce; a bit about being an exile and so on. As the three of us got along real fine, I decided to invite the two to dinner. We wrote down our names, he his ‘Christian’ name, we our full names, plus our telephone numbers and then he left
Ever since, I have phoned him four times. He never phoned back. Each of those four times, I got a different man at the other end of the connection, never really confirming knowledge of my friend-to-be, merely stating that he would relay the fact that I had phoned. Each time I explained that my wife and I were expecting him and his wife for dinner. Thus ended the one and only chance I had to befriend a Muslim and receive him in our house. He – and those men I talked to on the phone – must have been both exile and underground, obviously finding it too tricky to have contact with someone who in his own past had been politically suspect or who might simply be ‘a wrong one’.
Back to Islam and the great psychological distance I always felt. One of the most interesting pieces I ever have read – shame on me: I forgot the author’s name, I only know she was a professor at Berkeley, methinks teaching English – was about the intellectual choices made by Islamic students. The author had first checked her own university, then went further and did some serious research. All those Muslim students, in her sample without exception, studied physical sciences, management studies or were in other types of ‘practical’ fields. Not one to be found in the humanities. She herself had never had a Muslim student. How come? is what she asked.
Her answer: As for Muslims all things ethical, all things aesthetical, all things social and political are always already known, a given as well as prescribed, Mohammedans are not really capable of seriously doubting and pondering. One might add: not really ready to take the role of the other, as George Herbert Mead phrased it nicely, and ideologically unfit for the weighing of different perspectives, as well as perhaps not able to choose not to choose one point of view and continue doubting. How could someone like that study literature, anthropology or philosophy?
Inshallah – God willing… Now, I very much am willing to accept the grandeur of the larger structures of this world, physical as well as social structures; I know, by now, that revolution is a silly notion: the large writ of things will not be rewritten by me and my fellow men. Yet, on the everyday level of life, it seems decisions have to be taken, and I would like to take part in that decision making, believing that together we may do things. In discussing these things, I do not want to be referred to Good Books of whatever sort, in which it has already been written what, for us ordinary mortals, the laws of the land should be like.
In Snow it is a woman who sums it up: “The Holy Koran is the Word of God, and when God makes a clear and definite command, it’s not a matter for ordinary mortals to question”, said Kadife. She sounded very sure of herself. “But do not assume from this that our religion leaves no room for discussion. I will say that I’m not prepared to discuss faith with an atheist – or even a secularist…”
The issue, of course being, how much is there left to ‘discuss’? Surely a problem, when things like sharia are thrown at one.
Although Pamuk’s Snow is certainly not my kind of novel – far too longwinded, written by a word-drunken author, who has, alas, in My Name is Red done this before, going on and on; too politicised, too repetitious, too much demanding of my wilful suspension of disbelief; the book was given to me as a present by a very good friend, so there you are… – what did strike me was the certainty with which a whole variety of Muslims in the book equate ‘atheism’ with all that stand for ‘The West’, including democracy, liberalism, literature, philosophy and libertinism. On the crucial questions, no shades of grey, of red, or even of black – even if there are many shades of Islamic faith, even if many Muslims become ‘Western’. In the end however, embracing uncertainty and fundamental doubt, they must abdicate from their creed. Snow’s protagonist is the poet Ka. Perhaps, Pamuk himself knows he is not poet enough – or, perhaps, he was simply very wise enough not to include the whole string of poems that were supposedly written by this Ka. From start to finish, I had the awful feeling that they could never be worth the reading.
Also do I have this constant impression that True Believers in such Severe Religions never laugh properly, certainly cannot make fun of themselves. They are too serious for that. A reason, by the way, why also Reformed Church people and the like never sat at our table. I also suspect such people never to write a good line of poetry, as all good poetry cannot be but wrought with irony and result from a clash of perspectives. And I am simply not good in discussing things with anyone who is constantly thinking that he is observed by some higher entity, judging whatever he is thinking and saying.
Sierksma La Roche 16.6/2018