فصل 17

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فصل 17

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

My Fatherland or My Head Scarf

a play about a girl who

burns her head scarf

After Ka had finished reading his poem, the emcee bowed with an exaggerated flourish and, making the most of every word in the title, announced the evening’s main event, My Fatherland or My Head Scarf.

From the middle and back rows where the boys from the religious high school were seated came a few shouts of protest, one or two whistles, and a fair amount of booing; a couple of the officials sitting up front clapped approvingly. The rest of the packed hall waited to see what would happen next, their curiosity tempered with a fair amount of awe. The light sketches the troupe had performed earlier in the evening—Funda Eser’s shameless parodies of familiar commercials, her rather gratuitous belly dancing, her impression with Sunay Zaim of an aging woman prime minister and her corrupt husband—had caused remarkably little offense, going down rather well even among the officials in the front.

Most of the audience would also enjoy the next offering, though they soon had enough of the taunts and endless disruptions from the religious high school students. At times you couldn’t hear a thing being said onstage. But this desperately old-fashioned, primitive, twenty-minute play had such a sound dramatic structure that even a deaf-mute would have had no trouble following it.

  1. A woman draped in a jet-black scarf is walking down the street; she is talking to herself and thinking. Something is troubling her.

  2. The woman takes off her scarf and proclaims her independence.

Now she is scarfless and happy.

  1. The woman’s family, her fiancé, her relatives, and several bearded Muslim men oppose her independence and demand that she put

her scarf back on, whereupon in a fit of righteous rage the

woman burns it.

  1. The neatly bearded, prayer-bead-clutching religious fanatics, outraged by this show of independence, turn violent.

  2. Just as they are dragging the woman off by her hair to kill her, the brave young soldiers of the Republic burst onto the scene and save her.

From the mid-thirties through the early years of the Second World War (when it was known as My Fatherland or My Scarf ), this short play was performed frequently in lycées and town halls all over Anatolia, and it was very popular with westernizing state officials eager to free women from the scarf and other forms of religious coercion. But after the fifties, when the ardent patriotism of the Kemalist period had given way to something less intense, the piece was forgotten. When I caught up with her years later in a sound studio, Funda Eser, who played the woman that night in Kars, told me of her great pride in re-creating the same role her own mother had played at Kütahya Lycée in 1948, and of her disappointment that the events following her own performance denied her the righteous exultation her mother had enjoyed. Ravaged though she was by drugs, fatigue, and fear, and vapid though her face had become in the manner so common in actors, I nevertheless pressed her to tell me exactly what had happened that evening. Having also interviewed quite a few other witnesses, I can describe it now in some detail.

Most of the locals in the National Theater were shocked and confused by the first scene. When they had heard that the play was entitled My Fatherland or My Head Scarf, they assumed it would be a consideration of contemporary politics, but aside from one or two octogenarians who remembered the original from the old days, no one expected to see an actual woman onstage wearing a head scarf. When they did, they took it to be the sort of head scarf that has become the respected symbol of political Islam. And as they watched this mysterious covered woman wandering up and down the stage, it was not immediately clear that she was meant to be sad: Many in the audience saw her as proud, almost arrogant. Even those officials well known for their radical views on religious dress felt respect for this woman. And so when one alert student from the religious high school guessed who was hiding underneath the head scarf, it was to the great annoyance of the front rows that he hooted with laughter.

In the second scene, when the woman made her grand gesture of independence, launching herself into enlightenment as she removed her scarf, the audience was at first terrified. Even the most westernized secularists in the hall were frightened by the sight of their own dreams coming true. Fear of the political Islamists was so great they had long ago accepted that their city must remain as it had always been. I say dreams, but not even in their sleep could they have imagined the state forcing women to remove their head scarves as it had done in the early years of the Republic; they were prepared to live with the practice, “so long as the Islamists don’t use intimidation or force to make westernized women wear scarves as we’ve seen in Iran.”

“But the truth of the matter is this: All those fervent secularist Kemalists in the front rows weren’t really Kemalists after all, they were cowards!” This was what Turgut Bey told Ka after it was all over. It wasn’t just religious extremists who objected to a covered woman baring her head; everyone else in the room was frightened that this spectacle might enrage the unemployed men witnessing it—not to mention the youthful horde milling at the back of the hall. And so when one of the teachers in the front row did rise from his seat to applaud Funda Eser as she shed her scarf with elegance and determination, a handful of youths in the back jeered this poor and forlorn teacher with catcalls. Mind you, according to some witnesses, the teacher was not making a political statement about modern womanhood but rather succumbing to dizzy admiration of

Funda’s plump arms and famously beautiful throat.

As to the Republicans in the front rows, they weren’t too happy with the situation either. Having expected a bespectacled village girl, purehearted, bright-faced, and studious, to emerge from beneath the scarf, they were utterly discomfited to see it was the lewd belly dancer Funda Eser instead. Was this to say that only whores and fools take off their head scarves? If so, it was precisely what the Islamists had been saying all along. Several seated near him recall the deputy governor shouting, “This is wrong, all wrong!” While a number of others joined the chorus— perhaps to curry favor—Funda Eser persevered. Still, most people in the front rows, however anxious, continued to watch with quiet appreciation as this enlightened Republican secular girl stood up for the freedoms they all hoped to enjoy, and while a few protests did issue from the religious high school boys, no one felt intimidated by them. Certainly not the deputy governor, flanked on all sides by other top officials who saw little to fear in the antics of a few boys from the religious high school who ought to have known better. This retinue included Kasım Bey, the courageous assistant chief of police, who in his day had made life so difficult for the Kurdish PKK; a number of army officers in civilian clothing, accompanied by their wives; the branch manager of the ordinance survey office, joined by his wife, two daughters, four sons in suits and ties, and three nephews; and the city’s cultural director, whose main job was to seize banned tapes of Kurdish music and send them to Ankara.

It could be said that all these officials put their faith in the plainclothes officers planted throughout the hall, the uniformed officers lined up along the walls, and the soldiers they’d heard were waiting backstage.

Their only real concern was the fact that the performance was being broadcast live; although it was only going out locally, these grandees could not help feeling as if all of Ankara—indeed, all of Turkey—were watching them. The great and the good in the front rows, like all those behind them, could not quite forget that the scenes playing out before their eyes were simultaneously appearing on television; this alone can explain why the vulgarities and political provocations and nonsense they witnessed seemed to the audience more elegant and magical than they really were. Some were so concerned to know whether the cameras were still running that they were turning their heads every other moment just to check; like the ones in the back continually waving at the camera, and the others periodically shouting “Oh, my God, they can see me on television!” the front row found this prospect so unnerving that they could barely move, even though they were sitting in the most secluded corner of the hall. As to those citizens not in attendance, the city’s first live broadcast did not inspire in most a desire to see the stage on-screen; rather, it made them long to be in the theater, watching the television crew in action.

By now Funda Eser had removed her scarf and tossed it like so much laundry into a copper basin. She then sprinkled it with gasoline—carefully, as if adding detergent—and plunged her hands into the basin as though stirring the wash. By a strange coincidence, they’d put the gasoline into an emptied bottle of Akif liquid detergent, a brand much favored by Kars housewives at the time, and this was why everyone in the auditorium— everyone in Kars, for that matter—took it that the freedom fighter girl had changed her mind: seeing her plunge her hands into the washbasin, they all relaxed.

“That’s the way to do it!” someone shouted from the back. “Scrub out all that dirt!” There was a ripple of laughter, annoying some of the high government officials in front; still, everyone in the hall thought they were watching a woman doing laundry. “So where’s the Omo?” someone shouted.

He was one of the religious high school boys: although their noise was beginning to annoy some people, no one was very angry. Most of the audience, including the officials up front, were just hoping that this dated, provocative piece of Jacobin theater would end without incident.

Quite a few of those I interviewed years later, from the most august official to the poorest Kurdish student, told me that most of the Kars residents in the National Theater had come to the performance hoping for one thing: to be transported from their everyday lives for a few hours and maybe even to enjoy themselves.

Funda Eser was doing her laundry with just as much relish as the happy housewife in the commercials; like all happy housewives, she refused to rush. But when the time came to remove the black scarf from the basin and shake out the wrinkles to prepare it for the clothesline, she unfurled it like a flag before the audience. While everyone was still exchanging glances, struggling to work out what was going on, she produced a lighter from her pocket and lit one of the scarf ’s corners. For a moment, there was silence. Everyone heard the breath of the flame as the burning scarf cast the entire hall in a strange and fearsome light.

Quite a few leaped to their feet in horror.

No one had expected this. Even the most steadfast secularists were badly shaken. When the woman threw the burning scarf onto the stage, for many the first concern was the theater’s 110-year-old fixtures; the filthy patched-velvet curtains, dating back to the richest days of the city, seemed in particular danger of catching fire. But the greatest cause for alarm was, rightfully, the sense that the trouble had only started. Now anything could happen.

From the religious boys at the back there arose a terrible din of boos, catcalls, and angry whistles.

“Down with the enemies of religion!” one shouted. “Down with atheists! Down with infidels!”

The front rows were still in shock. Although the one courageous teacher stood up again to cry, “Be quiet and watch the show!” no one paid him the least bit of attention. With the realization that the booing and shouting and chanting were not going to stop and that things were getting seriously out of control, a ripple of panic spread across the hall.

Dr. Nevzat, the branch health director, was first to head for the exit; he was followed by his sons in their suits and ties, his daughter, her hair neatly pulled into two braids, and his wife, in her very best outfit, a crepe dress in all the colors of a peacock. Sadık Bey, one of the rich leather manufacturers from the old days, who had come back to Kars to oversee some work, and his classmate from primary school, Sabit Bey, now a lawyer affiliated with the People’s Party, also rose to their feet. Ka saw dread in the faces of everyone in the front rows, but, uncertain what to do, he stayed in his seat: His main concern was that in the confusion he might forget the poem still only in his mind, waiting to be recorded in his green notebook. At the same time, he wanted to leave the theater, to join Ipek. ˙

At that moment, Recai Bey, head manager of the telephone company, a gentleman respected throughout Kars for his erudition, made his way toward the smoke-filled stage. “My dear girl!” he cried. “We have all enjoyed your tribute to the ideals of Atatürk. But we’ve had enough now.

Look, the audience is upset; we’re in danger of inciting a riot.” By now the scarf had stopped burning and Funda Eser was standing amid the smoke, reciting the same monologue I would later find in the 1936 Townhall edition of My Fatherland or My Scarf, the passage of which its author would profess to being most proud. Four years after the events I describe in this book, I had an opportunity to meet the author, then ninety-two years old but still very energetic; during our interview, while most of his energy was consumed in scolding his naughty grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) who wouldn’t sit still, he nevertheless found the strength to tell me how sorry he was that of all his works (including Atatürk Is Coming, Atatürk Plays for High Schools, and Our Memories of Him), it was My Fatherland or My Scarf that would be forgotten. Unaware of its revival in Kars, or indeed of the events it precipitated, he went on to tell how, during the thirties, this play had had the same remarkable effect on lycée girls and state officials alike—it had moved them to tears and standing ovations wherever it was performed.

But now, no one could hear anything above the booing and catcalls and angry whistles from the religious high school boys. Despite the guilty, fearful silence at the front of the auditorium, few could hear what Funda Eser was saying: that when the angry girl tore the scarf off her head, she was not just making a statement about people or about national dress, she was talking about our souls, because the scarf, the fez, the turban, and the headdress were symbols of the reactionary darkness in our souls, from which we should liberate ourselves and run to join the modern nations of the West. This provoked a taunt from the back rows that the entire auditorium heard very clearly.

“So why not take everything off and run to Europe stark naked?” The comment brought laughter even from the front rows and some

applause around the hall. But finally those in front were disconcerted and scared. Like many others, Ka chose this moment to stand up. Noise was coming from every mouth by now, and the voluble shouting persisted in the back rows; some who had headed for the door were now looking back over their shoulders. Funda Eser continued reciting the poem almost no one could hear.

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