How I found this book: I learned about Orhan Pamuk when I came across an article in the New York Times about a Turkish author who had written a book about a museum and was now planning to start a real museum based on the museum in his book. Since reading that article, I began noticing Orhan Pamuk’s name everywhere. Turns out he won a Nobel Prize a few years ago…
Silly songs: Having discussed Moxy Fruvous songs in my Canada post, I can’t resist pointing out here that as much as I love They Might Be Giants, my favorite silly song about Turkey is not “Istanbul, not Constantinople”, but rather “Pachalafaka” from The Muppet Show.
A major goal of my book-from-every-country adventure is to learn something about the culture of each country. I can’t imagine a book much more suited to that than Snow. As a novel Snow felt like a slow read at times- I didn’t find the characters particularly engaging and the love story was unconvincing- but as a means of learning about the complexities of Turkish politics and culture it was great. I learned a lot about the conflict between European/secular and Islamic religious influences in Turkey. (As you might be able to deduce from the title, it was also a great book for reading in a summer heatwave without any air conditioning.)
The premise of Snow is that a poet who goes by the name Ka travels to the city of Kars in eastern Turkey and then is trapped there by the snow (“kar” in Turkish). Ka is in Kars as a journalist covering a recent string of suicides by young women apparently because they are forbidden to wear their headscarves to school. In the course of Ka’s journalism he talks to many residents of the city with different perspectives on the ‘headscarf girls’ and on the role of religion in general. Snow covers so many aspects of Turkish culture- religion, class, geography, history, politics- that I’ve decided to pick out just a few interesting aspects to discuss.
- Headscarves: As an American, taught from an early age the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, I’m uncomfortable with the restrictions placed on wearing headscarves in Turkey (and in other countries, such as France). Reading Snow helped me understand a bit better why those restrictions might exist, as well as reinforcing the argument against them. The director of the university who enforced the headscarf ban argues that the ban is a way to prevent the students from being forced into wearing headscarves by cultural pressures. It also seems that secularists in Turkey are terrified by the example of Iran and trying to prevent their country from moving in that direction. At the same time, the restrictions on headscarves, make the scarves into political objects as well as religious ones. And does the headscarf present such a threat that it is worth excluding religious women from higher education? Doesn’t that just reinforce gender inequities?
- Coffeehouses: A substantial portion of the book takes place in coffeehouses as Ka meets with a variety of Kars residents. Doing a bit of reading, I’ve learned that coffeehouses actually originated in Istanbul. Each coffee house has its own atmosphere and its own politics. They are public gathering places (although primarily for men), a part of everyday life, and I love the sense of community they promote. Sadly, four years after the main events of the book, the narrator reports that the coffeehouses have become mostly empty because more people are staying home and watching satellite television.
- Armenians: The city of Kars is quite close to the Turkish border with Armenia and Pamuk does some fancy footwork in his writing to show that he supports acknowledging the Armenian genocide without getting in legal trouble in Turkey. For example, he points out that foreign visitors might be surprised to realize that the Kars museum of Armenian massacres is about killings by Armenians, not of Armenians. (Sometime after the publication of Snow, Pamuk did get in legal trouble for saying in an interview, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians”, though the case was eventually dropped.)
- Extremism: There was a blurb on the back of my copy of this book saying that Snow demonstrates the terrible aspect of extremism. When I read this, I assumed it referred to Islamic fundamentalist extremism, but in fact it is much more complicated than that. Snow is a book that is much more about appreciating complexities than about providing answers, but the main message I took from the book was a reminder that extremism begets more extremism- that religious extremism and secular extremism each promote the other.
- Thrown in for good measure: a piece of Islamic science-fiction.