Allah's Disempowered Daughters
Upon reading this book, it at last becomes apparent what has always been missing – from the western reader's perspective – from even the best novels from the Islamic world. Although it has never been possible to exactly put a finger on it, these novels lacked an insight into the fundamental mindset, the spiritual substructure, woven of myths and legends, of the people about whom we are reading.
On close examination, it is not really surprising that we seldom learn about these things; after all, authors and readers generally share these mindsets and do not need to subject them to any deeper examination. It takes someone like Nedim Gürsel to draw back the veil on this key fundament. On the one hand, Gürsel is writing as an author with Muslim roots for a Western audience; on the other, he writes as a westernised author for Turkish Muslims who themselves tend only to have a fractured, at best restorative relationship with their own tradition.
Born in 1951, Gürsel spent his childhood in Turkey, but his youth and years of professional training in Paris, where he now lives and works as a lecturer at the Sorbonne. And almost all of the five of his books that have been published in German testify to how Gürsel immerses himself in the Ottoman-Islamic culture of times gone by, among other things because to him, it is no longer a self-evident tradition. This is evident in the first of his novels to be published in German, which was about Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul, and in his re-telling of Anatolian legends in Seven Dervishes.
Largely autobiographical account of childhood
This is particularly true of The Daughters of Allah. The novel cleverly links what is for the most part the autobiographical story of the author’s childhood with a portrayal of the lost collective realm of imagination. The book covers a whole range of topics from religion and history to the nation and the wound left behind by the creation of modern Turkey – a wound that remains an open gash to this day.
The key figure in this narrative is the grandfather. As a child, Nedim grew up in his grandparents' house, which meant that he benefited from a shift in the generational and socialisation structure of modern Turkey, which his contemporaries, who were no longer exposed to Ottoman influences, did not experience, and which enabled him to gain the particular insights and impressions that we as readers now so admire.
The grandfather was called Haci, or 'Mecca pilgrim'. In truth, he only got as far as Medina, and that as a Gazi (which quite literally means "conqueror"). He was a veteran. In the First World War he fought for the tottering Ottoman Empire, and Medina was the last stop on the Berlin–Baghdad railway line, which had been built with German support and was an important target.
When has this subject ever been touched upon in Turkish literature? By dredging up this story, which has long been suppressed in Turkey, Gürsel succeeds in processing a whole bundle of traumas. As a devout Muslim, the grandfather believed he was defending Islam against the European superpowers, embodied by Lawrence's British-Arab troops. At the same time, however, he was fighting against none other than the descendants of the Prophet.
Gürsel cites his grandfather's records, which he can only decipher with the help of a specialist in Ottoman handwriting. It is not possible to tell where the thoughts of the grandfather, who loses an arm in Medina, end and Gürsel's thoughts begin. But what we read here is borne of a profoundly humane spirit; a kind of narrative reconciliation of Islam and pacifism, for the very reason that the problematic aspects of this reconciliation are not kept secret: "When he murmured to himself 'you have not killed them; Allah has killed them', he wondered whether he should not critically question this and similar verses of the Koran, but then he regretted this impulse. Only Allah could know what was best and what was right."
But there is much more to Gürsel's book than this. The evocation of a childhood spent listening to stories on his grandmother's knee results in a re-telling of the popular myths of Islam, first and foremost the legends concerning the Prophet. Gürsel writes: "And if I have stolen, then I have stolen from shared Arabic lore without taking a wrong turn." The "stolen" stories come from the "official" Mohammed "biography" by Ibn Ishaq from the eighth century. Gradually, these recollections of childhood lead to a kind of religious re-enchantment: even a writer imbued by the ideas of the French Enlightenment cannot resist the charms of the stories once told by his grandmother.
As Western readers, the appeal for us lies elsewhere, namely in the fact that we are learning about these legends at all – stories that only a specialist might otherwise be privy to. For in truth, they have greater influence on the majority of Muslims' perception of Islam than the Koran and the hadiths, which are highly inaccessible to most Muslims.
The power of myths and folklore
From a literary point of view, this re-telling of myths that are widely known in the Islamic world does, however, have a small drawback: Mohammed is swathed in such an overpowering aura of goodness, beauty and – last but not least – success that although the text is full of curiosities, it offers little in the way of suspense.
With the Daughters of Allah that give the book its title – the pagan goddesses of pre-Islamic Mecca mentioned in the infamous "Satanic Verses" – Gürsel is setting a counterpoint. The story of what happened when Islam drove the joyful world of the pre-Islamic pagans from the temple – the Kaaba – is retold from the perspective of those who lost the religious struggle.
The fact that religious zealots in Turkey took legal action over these passages is, however, surprising. Perhaps it did not suit the faithful that the pagan goddesses were suddenly given a voice. Ultimately, however, the novel maintains an affirmative relationship to the religion of the childhood evoked by the narrator.
The book's central message is that although faith can be misused by fanatics and nationalists – and Gürsel supplies numerous examples of this – it is nevertheless an integral and ultimately positive component of Turkish identity. For this reason, the novel could to a certain extent be viewed as part of the religious-imperial renaissance that has characterised Turkey since Erdogan took office, and which also includes the rediscovery of the Ottoman heritage that provides Gürsel with the material for his work while drawing on the story of his own life.
© Qantara.de 2013
Nedim Gürsel: The Daughters of Allah published in German as "Allahs Töchter", translated from the Turkish by Barbara Yurtadas. Published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2012.
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de