Turkish Islamic novel meets modern-day soap opera
Huzur [hoo-ZOOR] n. tranquility, calm
In a famous 1978 essay, the Islamist poet İsmet Özel suggested that the traditionalist, conservative character of contemporary Turkish Islam stemmed from the traumas of Westernization. “The flood waters [of the Republic] bore everything before them,” he wrote. “The storm appeared intent on leaving not one tree standing. . . . [T]he only thing religious people did in the name of religion was grab hold of anything they could . . . and try to prevent its destruction.”Huzur Sokağı
Şule Yüksel Şenler
Timas Publishing Group
First published in 1970
Özel could be accused of exaggeration, but the perception of trauma he describes is very widely felt in Turkey, and it may explain one striking characteristic of Turkish conservative thought that he doesn’t mention: the curious premium it places on the idea of huzur, or tranquility.
Yearning for huzur crops up throughout the republican generations. The early twentieth-century novelist, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar—a writer acutely aware of everything that had been lost as a result of modernization—used it as the title of one of his most famous books. It appeared again in the popular Islamist slogan of the 1970s and 1980s: “huzur İslam’da,” or “tranquility is in Islam.” Today, a Turkish street would not be complete without at least one building called Huzur Apartmanı. But the full implications of the word, the mix of coziness and familiarity, but also order and purity, are perhaps most obvious in Huzur Sokağı, Tranquility Street, a cult 1970 novel that has now been turned into a hugely successful TV series.
Written by a woman who claims to have introduced Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to his wife, Huzur Sokağı (the second word is pronounced sok-AA-eu), is probably the most famous example of a wave of evangelical conversion novels that became popular in the late 1960s. It was a time when political Islam, with its almost-Marxist rhetoric of injustice and oppression and its vision of the Islamic life, was on the rise.
The book tells a simple story. Wealthy, secular Feyza falls in love with Bilal, the devout son of a widow, and he with her. But Feyza’s modern ways mean Bilal cannot bring himself to marry her. Instead, out of duty rather than love, he marries a religious woman who dies giving birth to a son. In the meantime, Feyza has married a wealthy businessman. Then she divorces, dons a headscarf and brings up her daughter as a model Muslim. The next 300 pages describe how the pair somehow contrive not to come together. Then, shortly after Feyza’s daughter marries Bilal’s son, Feyza is shot dead by one of her ex-husband’s criminal accomplices.
Huzur as a word has strong connotations of interiority and of peace of mind, but there is very little sense of inner life in Huzur Sokağı. In part, it is the writing. Evangelical zeal never mixes well with psychological realism, and the novel is almost cartoonish in its reductionism. Bilal is a figure of impossible perfection: just, wise beyond his years, and so charismatic that a single word is enough to convert his godless classmates to the path of righteousness. The conversions speed up as the novel progresses, like concentric circles of toppling dominos. His mother is “a heroine of kindness.” Even the stray cats in Tranquility Street are miracles of uprightness, patiently and silently waiting their turn when an elderly neighbor of Bilal’s brings them scraps of meat in the evening. Secular Turks, on the other hand, are presented as lumber for hell fire. The boys are arrogant and loud. The men are criminals. The women, their eyes “as cold as snake’s eyes,” are “excessively free and easy” with their “excessively short skirts” and “excessive amounts of make-up” and their fondness for the hairdresser’s, the tailor’s, for poker parties and other “places of enjoyment.”
But there is another reason for the lack of interiority in Huzur Sokağı: it represents belief almost exclusively as a badge of communal belonging. The emphasis is already there in the title; it is the street that brings tranquility, not any particular character’s inner struggle. That idea of a besieged community, depending on solidarity to defend the purity of its way of life from outside contamination, runs through the whole plot. You see it most clearly in the event that sets the plot in motion, the construction of a new five-story luxury apartment in the street.
Built on an empty parcel of land that local children used to play football on, the building goes up right opposite Bilal’s window, and it upsets him deeply. The building will “undermine the tranquility” of the street, he tells his mother. Until now, the life of its inhabitants has been characterized by what he calls “the blissfully harmonious tranquility” that comes from Islamic observance. The people he predicts will move into the flats will know nothing of this. For all their wealth, their silver cutlery, their chandeliers and their opulent sitting rooms, their lives will be devoid of huzur. The parties, the laughter, the “madly enjoyable life they lead,” all of it will be a mask to hide their inner restlessness, their huzursuzluk.
How does Bilal react? He responds with a call to communal action. He calls his neighbors to the mosque one evening and asks them to swear to defend the purity of the street. And they do. “We swear. We vow. Forty years later, our street will be the same,” they say. And when the new owners of the new flats arrive with their removal vans (“Watch out, that table is lacquer, lacquer do you hear?”), all the women of the street have barricaded themselves in the back rooms of their flats so that they will not be tempted by visions of Westernized wealth.
Watched by an estimated fifteen million Turks late last year, the first episode of the TV series looks as if it will plough the same furrow. The action starts in an upstairs room in a traditional house, with framed Ottoman calligraphy hanging on the walls and learned and pious books piled on a low table. (I say pious, but the film crew have actually placed a copy of Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human alongside the Islamic catechism and what looks like Erasmus’s On Folly.) We see young men sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor while an avuncular older man talks, his cheeks shining like buffed apples:
“In the eighteenth century, when the bourgeoisie got its hands on the system, it replaced a land-based system with an industrial one, and the moneyed classes—”
“You mean capitalists, hocam?” asks one of the young men.
“Capitalists,” the man nods, smiling at a shared enemy identified. “To work people like slaves; they cut them off from their values, from the soil, from the homeland . . . from religion.”
The scene shifts to a nightclub where four young women are getting drunk on what looks like raspberry juice. “Come on, Feyza,” one says. “You’ve been gloomy all evening. This is supposed to be a birthday party.” Conversation turns to the boyfriend of the girl celebrating. He has been cheating on her. “I’ve given up on fidelity,” she says. “Men are all the same. As long as a man earns enough to give me a good life, that’s enough for me.”
For a few minutes more, the screen shuttles from one side to the other of a Turkish social landscape as starkly dualistic as the one in the book. Black Turk, White Turk, devout Turk, irreligious Turk, poor Turk, rich Turk, moral Turk, immoral Turk, huzur, huzursuzluk. But the critics who lambasted the series for its moral reductionism were jumping too fast. The more you watch, the more you realize how much the screenwriters and the director have strayed from the original in order to make it palatable to a contemporary Turkish audience.
There’s the whole social side of things, for a start. The book describes real poverty. Despite being the product of a country that is much more economically divided than it was forty years ago, the series presents the inhabitants of Huzur Sokağı as solid, respectable, middle-class—wealthy even—living in the sort of pristine Ottoman villas with clapperboards and overhanging upper stories that you could not buy for love or money in Istanbul today.
And then there is the changing significance of the headscarf. The book was written at a time when wearing one was a real source of social stigma. Only village women wore headscarves. Educated women simply did not, and to put one on was to condemn oneself to a life lived lower down the social ladder. The situation today is different. A headscarf still definitely denotes something and a few jobs (judge, for instance, and deputy) remain barred to women who wear them, but many of the political obstacles have gone. You can wear a headscarf and go to school; you can wear a headscarf and go to university; you can wear a headscarf and be invited to appear on one of the interminable political debates that take up so much screen time on Turkish TV in the evening.
All that background alters the symbolic force of the climactic event in Huzur Sokağı: Feyza’s decision to put on a headscarf. In the book, the price she pays is much higher, but the benefit is presented as being much greater. Almost alone, the author implies, that single thin piece of material assures her salvation. “‘Can I not have a clean heart without covering my head?’” Feyza asks her old nursemaid just before she makes her decision.
‘No, you cannot,’ comes the reply.
‘How about the people who perform their religious duties but commit wicked acts?’
The normally mild old woman loses her temper. Such people are a fabrication of secular newspapers out to slander the reputations of sincere believers, she says. Much stronger than the almost evangelical Christian idea of being reborn, though, is the emphasis on social acceptability. Donning a headscarf means moving from ignominiousness (kepazelik) to the state of being upright; the word the author uses, mazbut, has connotations of uprightness but also discipline and orderliness. Not to cover your head is to shame yourself in the eyes of the community.
The old nursemaid puts it very clearly to Feyza in a story about a wealthy secular businessman who visits a carpet shop with his wife:
‘How much is the carpet hanging on the wall?’ asked the businessman.
‘Not for sale,’ says the shop owner.
The businessman loses his temper: all goods on display are for sale. ‘So how much is the woman standing next to you?’ ripostes the carpet seller.
There are characters who express very watered-down versions of this sentiment in the TV series, but they are presented as bigots, not paragons. This is the biggest difference between the book and the series. In the book, the headscarf is presented as a fail-safe pass to a community where all is tranquility and regularity and order. In the series, it provides no such guarantee. One of the least sympathetic characters, and the biggest impediment to Feyza and Bilal’s love, is the headscarf-wearing wife of Bilal’s landlord. She wants her daughter to marry Bilal, and she will do anything to ensure she gets her way. She manipulates Bilal’s mother, bullies her daughter, and spits venom at Feyza every time she sees her. She is an embarrassment to her husband and daughter. Her neighbors avoid her in the street for fear of calling down on themselves another of her sarcastic barbs. Huzur Sokağı, in the TV series, is a misnomer: the worm of discord has eaten right in to the heart of the community.
So where is tranquility to be found? For İsmet Özel, back in 1978, the answer was simple. Contradicting the vision of Huzur Sokağı, he said that today Muslims “have become the West and the West has come to us. The world we live in has neither the decor, nor the understanding, nor the conditions of tradition. What traces remain are not enough to prevent us becoming individuals in a capitalist world.” The only option was to turn for succor directly to the Qu’ran.
The television series Huzur Sokağı makes no pretense to theological seriousness. But in its depiction of two communities distinguished only by dress codes and one woman’s search for individual truth, it comes much closer to the spirit of İsmet Özel’s insight than the book it is based on.