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MY NAME IS RED, by Orhan Pamuk, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, is a wonderful dip into cultural Islam. An historical novel set in Istanbul during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III, 1574-95, and somewhat beyond into the reign of Sultan Ahmet I, it concerns the fate of miniaturists and illuminators whose art form began during the Timurid Dynasty, 1370-1526. Early fifteenth century Herat (of present day Afghanistan) had been the center of Islamic painting, and Bihzad was considered its greatest master.

Miniaturists depicted battles and coronations, royal circumcision festivities, epics poems, love fables and feats of conquest in a very prescribed manner. They were not representational. Faces and tree leaves, for example, were treated equally as design and ornamentation rather than as facsimile. And they never dared illustrate the Koran. Adhering to set styles, the emphasis was not on content or individual creativity, but on form. The vantage point was uniform, as seen from on high, upon a minaret--the way Allah would see the world--not utilizing perspective. Portraiture was prohibited for fear that a human likeness would replace Allah as an object of worship--idolatry, in short. Light, the Koran says, belongs to Allah, nature belongs to Allah; it is for mankind to love, to view without competing: If you study nature, you will find Allah. Thus miniaturists were considered the most likely to burn in hell. Never mind that their works were commissioned by pashas and sultans and kept locked away from the eyes of ordinary men (in this case deep within storerooms of the Topkapi Palace), they still tempted fate.

The novel takes place at the cusp of miniature painting's demise. The influence of Infidel art, the Renaissance, is already being felt, especially the portraiture of Frankish artists. The very idea of distinguishing the sitter--and even making portraits of women!--within a landscape that diminishes (vanishing points) is an affront to Islam. "To God belongs the East and the West," the book quotes the Koran, and this suggests its polemic: With the Renaissance the historical tide turns finally and forever away from the arts of the East. A cultural clash that apparently echoes today.

The book opens with a murder: "I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well...I was happy; I know now I that I'd been happy. I made the best illuminations in Our Sultan's workshop..." Master gilder Elegant Effendi has been killed by a fellow artist. He and three other miniaturists had been secretly at work on a book (commissioned by the Sultan) using the new Frankish methods. The book, both radical and blasphemous, was to include a portrait of the Sultan himself.

Each chapter of MY NAME IS RED is written in the voice of the person presented, for example Chapter one, quoted above: "I Am A Corpse". The concept took getting used to, but this way of building the story from multiple points of view serves well both a murder mystery and a complex cultural debate.

And it is thickly plotted: At the time of the murder, an Islamic fundamentalist cleric, or hoja, is on the rise, preaching brimstone and hellfire: "A cleric by the name of Nusret...had made a name for himself during this period of immorality, inflation, crime and theft. This hoja attributed the catastrophes that had befallen Istanbul in the last ten years--fires, the plagues that claimed tens of thousands, the endless wars with the Persians, at the cost of countless lives, as well as the loss of small Ottoman fortresses in the West to Christians in revolt--to our having strayed from the path of the Prophet, to disregard for the strictures of the Glorious Koran...tolerance toward Christians, to the open sale of wine and to the playing of musical instruments." (Sound familiar?) Add coffee-drinking, opium use, and tolerance of sects like wandering dervishes--beggars with a penchant for hashish, and buggery--and you are pretty much where we are today. (Did I hear Mullah Omar calling?)

I wanted to read about Islam from a context freed of all the baggage of current events, but the bags are old and deep. I thought to learn of the greatness of Muslim culture outside a strict study of its religion, but the two don't separate easily. Turkey, within the safety of history, seemed a less threatening place to begin, though to be sure the images of dreaded Janissaries, Royal Executioners and Torturers are fully up and running in these pages. I turned to the novel for the way it can wash over a reader, taking her or him into the world of flavors and scents, darkened streets, shuttered houses, veiled women, lentil soups, the call to evening prayers, the Golden Horn; dogs barking, beggars begging, children yelling--all the daily doings of life alongside Islam.

Beyond murder, art and behavioral taboos, there is lust, and even a love story here. Enter Black Effendi, our protagonist (though he shares the stage), newly returned to Istanbul after a twelve year exile during which he fought Persians, oversaw commissioned manuscripts and acted as itinerant secretary to higher ups. His Uncle, Enishte Effendi, has recalled Black after having sent him packing for the rather innocent crime of making known his feelings for his maternal cousin, Shekure, Enishte's desirable daughter. As a boy, Black had lived in his uncle's house, but his Enishte found the nephew unworthy. Shekure in turn had not requited the melancholy Black's love. Or did she? She kept a miniature painting he'd given her all during his banishment. Even after foolishly marrying a handsome army officer (presumably now dead at the hands of the Persians) with whom she had sons, Orhan and Shevket. Left alone with her young sons in her father her-in-law's house to fend off the advances of Hasan, her husband's brother, Shekure flees to her father's home in order to escape the dangerous impropriety. Life then, as now, was hard for Muslim women; one false move and she could fall fast and far.

Enishte is behind the secret book in the Infidel style that costs Elegant his life. He has commissioned Black to write the text. No sooner is Black inside his uncle's house than Shekure initiates a clandestine communiqué. Again, a Muslim woman must take care, she cannot simply say hello to a man. She cannot be out and about, either; a household slave takes care of outside chores. Shekure, who is indecisive and an over thinker, wants a man in her life again--it has been four years. Equally important, she needs protection for her sons. She begins to flirt in earnest with Black, but also, curiously, with her brother-in-law Hasan. By flirt, I mean through letters and secret signals, mostly conducted via an intermediary, Esther, a matchmaker and cloth seller who, as a Jewess, is free to roam the streets of Istanbul as long as she wears the identifying pink garment.

The love angle and a second murder step up the intrigue. Add the growing menace of the holy roller cleric with his band of religious police, the illicit book and encroaching Western power and things begin to brew. Lost? The plots do come together, but it's no joke, the term byzantine.

The writing is at times droll, as with chapters in the voice of the irreverent coffeehouse storyteller who speaks in various satirical characterizations, like a dog, a gold coin, a woman. In "I, Satan," tartly funny, the storyteller speaks as the devil, reiterating the book's thesis: "I had the urge to say, 'It was Satan who first said 'I'! It was Satan who adopted style. It was Satan who separated East from West.'" Satan's problem, of course, is pride, and the sin of pride becomes the special temptation of the artist: to create an individual style that threatens competition with Allah.

The words of Master Osman, Head Illuminator of The Sultan's Workshop, who blinds himself rather than yield to the new Western ways, explain: "When a painter renders the fury and speed of a horse, he doesn't paint his own fury and speed; by trying to make the perfect horse, he reveals his love for the richness of this world and its creator, displaying the colors of a passion for life--only that and nothing more."

Before writing this piece I went to look at some books of miniatures from the period involved. They are delightful works. I'd say, in Western terms, a cross between Christian Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and the very early Pre-Renaissance Sienese paintings, only more earthly and less cramped for all their small size. There is a joy, and pleasure in the miniatures I have seen, a celebratory quality. Again Master Osman: "In an album of collected pictures I saw a red-lipped, thin-waisted Persian boy holding a book on his lap exactly as I was holding one at that exact moment, and it reminded me of what shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world's beauty belongs to Allah."

If the Crusades were a problem for Islam, and the Renaissance ushered in a way of seeing that canceled out miniaturists and illuminators who served Allah, what does the modern, product oriented world, do? The Turkish portraits of Sultans that followed the Renaissance are silly and thin copies, bad imitations of the Frankish style. The miniaturists in the novel know they are the last of a kind. Black, in conversation with the murderer and the other miniaturists muses: "'Everybody secretly desires to have a style,' said Black smartly, 'Everybody also desires to have his portrait made, just as Our Sultan did.' 'Is this affliction impossible to resist?' I [the murderer] said? 'As this plague spreads, none of us will able to stand against the methods of the Europeans'"

To which the worldliest of the miniaturists, Butterfly, eventually replies: "An artist should never succumb to hubris of any kind, he should simply paint the way he sees fit rather than troubling over East or West."

And here we are, East and West, at war once again. This time? A Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Mecca? Where infidels are not even invited to breathe. Or five hundred years of resentment dumped on America by handfuls of radical morons with the stain of hatred permanently on their lips?

I'm with Butterfly, or his creator, Orhan Pamuk, the writer of books.

©J Stefan-Cole,
November, 2001

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