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from the December 2005 issue

Women Writers, Islam, and the Ghost of Zulaikha

In the history of Islam, perhaps no woman has been as widely (mis)interpreted as Zulaikha—the beautiful and perfidious wife of Potiphar in the story of Joseph. It was she who tried to seduce Joseph into the whirl of adultery and unbridled hedonism. It was she who upon being rejected by Joseph accused him of raping her, thus causing him to be incarcerated for years in the terrible dungeons of Potiphar's regime. And it was she who has over and over been blamed, condemned, and vilified by conservative religious authorities in the Islamic world. Throughout the centuries, in the eyes of the conservative-minded, Zulaikha has stood out as a despicable symbol of lust, hedonism, and, ultimately, feminine evil.

As wicked as Zulaikha might be in the eyes of the conservative Muslims, she was considered in a completely different way by the Sufis. For the Sufi mystic, Zulaikha simply represented someone purely and madly in love. Nothing more and nothing less. This ages-old discrepancy between the exoteric (zahiri) and esoteric (batini) interpretations of Qur'an is little known in the Western world today. Likewise, this hermeneutical tradition is not well known by the contemporary reformist, modernist cultural elite of Muslim countries either. Therein the novel as a genre being the vehicle of Westernization and mostly shaped by the privileged cultural elite, it is not a coincidence that the esoteric shadow of Zulaikha has not been able to reflect in the "Middle Eastern novel," much less in the Turkish novel—a country where the process of Westernization and modernization has been carried out to the furthest extreme possible by detaching from the past as quickly as possible and erasing the Sufi legacy completely.

Strikingly, for many Westerners and Turkish cultural elite alike, when "sexuality" and "Islam" come side by side, they constitute an impossible pair to consider favorably. Whenever, wherever these terms are matched, almost automatically the issue is problematized, if not traumatized. It then doesn't take too long for a gloomy picture to ensue—a picture bearing the hallmark of honor killings, virginity tests, polygamy, homophobia, and the erasure of the female body behind veils. While the importance of discussing these points can on no account be denied, it is equally important to recognize that this is not what sexuality is all about in the Middle East. Sex and sexuality in the Middle East is not only about customs and prohibitions, much less captivity and confinement. Sexuality is also about delight and joy, physical pleasure, emotional gratification and spiritual euphoria. Accordingly, there is a longstanding tradition of erotic narrative in the histories of Middle Eastern countries, beautifully written and rhymed—beautifully, and shamelessly.

To cite a few examples, the Book of Pleasure (Bah Nameh) was several times translated and widely circulated in the Ottoman Empire, just like The Perfumed Garden was widely read in Iran; not to mention The Thousand and One Nights, wherein sexuality was depicted and celebrated as a prolific force of life in numerous stories. The irony in hastily modernized Muslim countries like Turkey is that the cultural elites have lost their connections with old traditions of erotic storytelling. The Turkish cultural elite has been alienated from its own cultural background. Its members surely are well acquainted with Balzac and Flaubert and Woolf, but they know little about folk Islam or Sufi literature or religious stories. Modernization alla turca embodied a rupture in time where the past and the future have been clearly distinguished from one another, and the latter has been valued at the expense of the former. Today in Turkey, in the name of generating "highbrow art," the old erotic sources of narration have been exiled from literature in general and the genre of the novel in particular. The novel, being the youngest of all literary genres in Muslim countries, has oftentimes embarked on its journey as the voice of the bourgeoisie at a time when there was only a scanty Muslim bourgeoisie; it was the vehicle of Westernization and modernization. Thus the novelists were right from the start cut off from Eastern narrative traditions of eroticism.

The second path along which love and pleasure were revered in Muslim countries was the path of the Sufi. For the dervish, as Ibn Arabi stated, there was no religion more sublime than the religion of love. The Islamic mystic would "follow the religion of Love, whichever way his camels take."

Significantly, it was against this background that notions like hell and heaven, sin and virtue lost their meaning. As voiced by Omar Khayyam: "Hell is a spark from our fruitless pain, Heaven a breath from our time of joy." The Sufi exaltation of love at the expense of defiling the teachings of the orthodox-minded resonated with longstanding stories of love deeply embedded in Middle Eastern cultures, such as the tales of Layla and Mejnun, Salaman and Absal, the Moth and the Candle, the Nightingale and the Rose, and, especially, Yusuf and Zulaikha.

When I was a child, I experienced the two different rereadings of Islam firsthand. As the child of a single mother, there was a time when I grew up with two different grandmothers. At the first glance these two women were so alike: they were both Turkish, they came from similar class backgrounds, and both were Muslims. Yet, my father's mother was a follower of the religion of fear. The Jalal side of Allah appealed to her more than anything else. She taught me about the patronizing, paternal, and celestial gaze always watching me from above to then make a note of all the sins I committed down here. 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 shortly after, I moved to the house of my other grandmother and thus entered an iridescent universe replete with folk Islam and superstitions. This was an old woman who poured melted lead to ward off the evil eye, read the coffee cups and taught me not to step on the thresholds where the djinn danced at night. She was a follower of the religion of love. 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. Those times of blinking were the moments of freedom when we were invisible to God. "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. Love and faith could be just like water, so fluidlike. I doubt if I have entirely managed to follow the path of the water in love and faith, but eventually, that was the model my fiction writing followed.

Unfortunately, by interpreting secularism as a complete disenchantment with cultural and political life, and mistrusting anything, everything, associated with Islam, the Turkish cultural elite was also cut off from this tradition of folk Islam.

Within this framework of ruptures, how can a Turkish woman novelist approach eroticism and sexuality in her writing? Gender is indeed a rift that runs deep in Turkish society, but so is age. Though the society is young, the established morals revere the elderly and attribute wisdom and authority to old age. Correspondingly, when developing strategies to deal with sexuality, Turkish women writers, just like Middle Eastern women writers in general, have interacted with the existing codes on gender and age jointly. Eventually, three main tactics have emerged.

First, the woman writer systematically refrains from writing on sexuality until she is "old." Only when she is old and safe, does she start to write unreservedly on these issues. Thus, we have numerous examples of women writers waiting until they are in their sixties, then publishing books unlike anything they have written before, almost pornographic.

Second, the woman writer does write on sexuality, but at the same time desexualizes herself. The less reserved and "seamy" her writing, the more reserved and "reputable" she attempts to become. Here the writer defeminizes and desexualizes herself. The openness of the text is counterbalanced with the "chastity" of the author. This particular model of defeminized women also perfectly fits neatly into the pattern of comrade-women in Turkey, which the Kemalist reformists have systematically encouraged.

Third, the woman writer chooses to speed up the flow of time because it is easier to be respected as an old woman in a patriarchal society than as a young woman. Thus, we end up with women in their thirties acting as if they were in their sixties. In the Middle East women age quickly, leaping from the category of "virgins" to "old women," as if there is nothing in between. The quicker the jump, the more esteem and authority a woman writer earns in the eyes of the society.

Finding myself amid these three basic strategies, I decided to choose none.

In the name of hastened Westernization and modernization-from-above, countless cultural edifices have been razed to the ground throughout Turkey's political history. Concomitantly, while culture has been modernized, language has been Turkified. As a writer who happens to be a woman and attached to Islamic, as well as Jewish and Christian heterodox mysticism, I reject the rationalized, disenchanted, centralized, Turkified modern language put in front of me. Today in Turkey, language is polarized and politicized. Depending on the ideological camp you are attached to, e.g. Kemalists versus Islamists, you can use either an "old" or a "new" set of words. My writing, however, is replete with both "old" and "new" words, and plentiful Sufi expressions that had been systematically excised by the conventional cultural elite. Today in Turkey the Kemalists or leftists have little interest in the past, and the conservatives who seem to be interested in history have little tolerance for critical opinion. I believe it is possible to transcend this polarization. I believe it is possible to be a leftist writer who takes religious philosophy seriously. I refuse to pluck words out of language and memories out of collective identity. I refuse to accept the ongoing memory loss in Turkey.

Accordingly, I sometimes liken my fiction writing, both in language and content, to walking on a pile of rubble left behind after a catastrophe. I walk slowly so that I can hear if there is still someone or something breathing underneath. I listen attentively to the sounds coming from below to see if anyone, any story or cultural legacy from the past, is still alive under the rubble. If and when I come across signs of life, I dig deep and pull it up, above the ground, shake its dust, and put it in my novels so that it can survive. My fiction is a manifesto of remembrance against the collective amnesia prevalent in Turkey.

This is how I started to develop my own path, a fourth path in dealing with sex and sexuality in my writing. Instead of postponing writing on sexuality until I am old, instead of defeminizing or desexualizing myself to be better respected, instead of accelerating the flow of time and aging rapidly, I prefer to pull above the ground those long-forgotten traditions of eroticism and homoeroticism, as well Sufi narratives, to then inject them into the genre of the novel. The ghost of Zulaikha haunts my writing, and it is a good ghost, I know. My fiction is a tribute to the marginalized interpretation of the most controversial woman in the history of Islam.

My writing is a tribute to Zulaikha.

Read more from the December 2005 issue
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