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What's behind the veil? The Ottoman fiction of Ismail Kadare.


Ismail Kadare (b. 1936) is the most famous Albanian writer of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Inside Albania, his works remain popular for their practical role in the construction and preservation of the modern Albanian national culture, and for their skilled evocation of the historical tribulations, controversies, and occasional triumphs of the Albanian people. In addition, Kadare has become a significant figure today on the intellectual scene in Europe, due to his long sojourn in Paris, the translation of his books into a multitude of languages, and his artistic concern with historically sensitive issues in the Balkans, which have featured prominently in international affairs for the past decade and a half. Rumors abound that he has already been a serious contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Another, and more concrete reflection of the cumulative weight and continuing relevance of his works points to the fact that he received, in June 2005, the inaugural Man Booker International Prize for contemporary fiction.

Writing in a variety of modes, including poetry, short stories, nonfiction, one play, several sets of memoirs, and a wealth of novels, Kadare has succeeded both in gaining a great deal of exposure for his native land and in developing a coherent and compelling artistic treatment of a welter of important historical issues. Kadare's first major prose work, The General of the Dead Army (1963), became an international hit. He has gone on to achieve critical acclaim with other novels such as Chronicle in Stone (1971), Broken April (1978), The File on H. (1981), and The Pyramid (1991). His main thematic concerns include Albania's experience under communism, the role of women in traditional societies, the nature of myth and mythmaking, the roots of the dispute over Kosovo/Kosova, the classical Greek heritage of today's Europe, the construction of the Albanian national identity, and the historical experience of the Balkan peoples in the Ottoman Empire. (1)

Kadare forms the point of departure for the present work from the context of this last thematic concern. This essay aims to introduce readers to one of Kadare's richest and most artistically satisfying texts on the Ottoman period, and to suggest a framework for understanding the story and assessing its significance. "The Caravan of Veils" uses potent and contested images, and a gripping plot to drive home the nature of authoritarian rule. Amidst Kadare's diatribes against dictatorship and imperialism, and his critique of a Muslim social practice, the careful readers also find a meditation on the vicissitudes of power. Furthermore, the work prompts readers to take up challenges like those recently expressed by the Spanish writer and Arabist Juan Goytisolo, who decries the "daily inanity" of the Western tendency to "confuse the headscarf with the veil, with the chador, and even with the burka of Afghan women." (2) This view of Islam results from outdated and ignorant, but persistent, imagination, (3) and there has never been a more pressing time than the present to push for more clarity and understanding. The significance of the symbol in this story goes beyond the realm of historical fiction or metaphor: it challenges readers to confront what they really know about one aspect of Islam.

The Story: "The Caravan of Veils"

Kadare's tale, "Caravan of Veils," has unfortunately not been published in English translation. (4) The title in Albanian is "Sjellesi i fatkegesise--Islamo nox," which literally translates to "The Bearer of III Tidings--Islamo Nox." The literary journal Nentori first published this long story, almost a novella, in 1984. Like most of Kadare's other stories, novels, and poems about the Ottoman Empire, it is both dramatic and highly atmospheric. But it stands out as one of his most outstanding Ottoman works, if not one of the finest works in his entire corpus, due both to the richness of its historical perspective and to its unwavering focus on a protagonist for whom readers can develop a genuine affinity. (5)

Hadji Milet is a thirty-something caravan driver for the Supply Department of the Sheikh-ul-Islam, the government office that represented the highest religious authority in the Ottoman Empire. He has taken his mules to many parts of the empire before, delivering various religious items to remote villages and army encampments. But now, he has been instructed to travel to the Balkans--Christian Europe, for him--for the first time. He will transport a highly unusual cargo: a half million veils, produced by Muslim women in tailors' shops in ten Asian and African cities of the empire, all by government decree. A recent power struggle in the Ottoman government had seen high-ranking Albanians (6) fall from grace. In the wake of the pendulum-like power shift, conservative elements had managed to promulgate the ferace ferman, or "decree on veils."

Hadji Milet's caravan, slated to make stops in eighteen European cities, will be the first of many to deliver the means of imposing Islamic social practices on the non-Muslim women of newly conquered Rumeli, as Europe was called in Turkish ('from Rome'). Hadji Milet, awed by the power of the state for which he works, never imagined that women anywhere would be able to expose an "improper part" of their bodies, and thereby cast the shame of nakedness over the whole empire. For Hadji Milet, Allah created men and women to be as different as day and night. The attitudes towards the edict vary among other Ottoman Muslims. Some women, for instance, express joy that the European women will no longer be able to make fun of them, while others lament their fate. In describing the general spirit of the time, Kadare states that the edict
 was impressive and oppressive at the same time, like a great
 party at a funeral. All the women and girls in the western part
 of the Empire, all the Albanians and the Greeks, all the Serbs
 and Romanians, all the Bosnians and Bulgarians, would have
 to drape their countenances from now on with a veil, as soon as
 they reached their thirteenth year of age, just like all the other
 women who were Muslim. (7)

Leaving the capital one day before sunrise, with a cold wind blowing off the Sea of Marmara, Hadji Milet travels a short distance to a government han, or inn, at a place called Orman Ciftlik. All persons traveling on government business must spend the night at this caravansary, located one day's journey west of Istanbul, whether they are just leaving or approaching the capital.

Traveling solo and unwittingly embarking upon a personal journey of discovery akin to a Bildungsroman, a psychological novel, the intense beauty of the Balkan sky and landscape strike Hadji Milet. Despite being confronted with unfamiliar languages, the potential hostility of the newly subjugated population, and the first church buildings of his life--which he compares to witches, hunchbacks, and whores--he is at once happy and ready to entertain doubts about his mission. Through a succession of powerful images, Kadare traces Hadji Milet's evolution of thought and feeling upon encountering the Balkan topography and, right afterwards, the human landscape in the form of unveiled women.

At first he simply muses "about what portion of the sky could be covered up if someone sewed together all the bundled veils that he was bringing with him." (8) Then Hadji Milet's mood darkens, as he sees himself "dragging along behind him a long veil, a heavy black curtain, with which he wrapped up lakes and open fields," and that brings him the curses of "the whole world." (9) Upon meeting a group of women at a well, however, the caravan driver toys with an image of nature altogether more felicitous and dangerously at odds with the piety he had expressed earlier. The eyes of women make him question his idea of the natural order of things. The world now has two suns: "one great sun, like the one we are familiar with, and another one, split up into countless thousands of pieces and distributed onto the foreheads of women in pairs, like pearls." (10)

Although he has little actual contact with the Balkan women of various nationalities, he is amazed at their beauty, their accessibility, their quiet and fearless hospitality, their laughter, and what he assumes about their ability to give and receive real love due to their freedom. His own thoughts revolve constantly around competing images of, and references to, light and dark, and he finds himself complicit in the multiplication of darkness on account of the goods he carries. He feels as if he is pulling a "black curtain, heavy as lead," (11) all the way up over the continent as far as Vienna. After five weeks he reaches the lands of the Hungarians, completing his deliveries. His hopes that his return journey will lead him past some women who are still unveiled and that he can see his wife and children soon only break the odium of his task--alternating with his guilty provincial reassertion of faith in Islam and the sultan--and the tedium of his rain-swept, bug-infested lodgings.

His journey takes him to Durres, Shkoder, Sarajevo, and Belgrade, among other places, and his return trip also goes via Sarajevo and Shkoder. At the outskirts of that latter city, he finds a han on a rainy evening, and he joins a number of other guests around a common table for an evening meal served by the owner.

Several of the guests turn out to be powerful officials and inspectors from Istanbul. Grotesque in appearance, and amidst the earthy, sodden atmosphere of the inn, they find out that he brought the veils. The entire city, they inform him, is in an uproar on account of his goods. The authorities begin to weigh their options for enforcement of the firman, or decree, while the women and girls start to move through town by back alleys, gardens, and little-used gates.

In a reference to the fictitious intelligence service at the heart of the earlier novel The Palace of Dreams (1981), readers learn that a Bosnian hodja, or religious leader, had sent the Padishah, or sultan, a dream, the interpretation of which prompted the ruler to issue the edict on veiling. Kadare plumbs another familiar theme, too: the association of sexuality with authenticity and opposition to political oppression strongly represented in his later works such as "The Albanian Writers' Union as Mirrored by a Woman" (2005) and the novel The Successor (2003). He represents Albania itself by the subjugated women of this tale, underscoring his frequent protestations in his fictional and nonfiction writings against the isolation imposed on Albania by imperialist powers, especially from the East. Meanwhile, with his head swimming from all the compliments paid him by these high-ranking and pious men," (12) Hadji Milet desperately looks for a way to free himself from the temptations and doubts that his Balkan experiences have engendered.

As he travels south through the length of Albania on his return trip, the weather worsens drastically. The gradual disappearance of women from the towns he traverses supplements winter's trials. His sense of guilt grows to towering proportions, until he convinces himself that he bore the plague and had become "a fiend who blacked out the moon." He believes that all the non-Muslim inhabitants of the entire peninsula, in all ten of their languages, now direct their opprobrium at him, "There had always been two kinds of blackouts, solar and lunar eclipses, and now a third kind had been added--the blacking-out of women. The world had come completely unhinged." (13)

Whereas he had sung from joy on his trip into the Balkans, upon his exit he screams curses about the decree and wishes for its revocation. After an anguished night at the government han of Orman (Ciftlik, Hadji Milet is arrested. His disquiet during both stays at the inn had been noticed by the commandant, who determined to turn him over to the police so that they could investigate the hostile acts that must lie at the root of his obviously guilty conscience. Hadji Milet languishes in prison for about four months. The authorities subject him to a moderate level of torture, and deliver both graphic threats of much harsher punishments and appeals to his conscience, but he refuses to talk. His family makes countless frantic and fruitless appeals to the authorities. Finally he dies, alone in his cell, with a black cloth coiled around his face, and his body is pitched into "one of the mass graves outside the capital ... interred with executed criminals, orphans gone mad, and the corpses of the anonymous dead." (14)

The story's final scene depicts a meeting of the sultans council of advisors in the palace. The Sheikh-ul-Islam reports that over twenty million veils have now been delivered "to the Balkans lands and beyond." In a testament to the sultans great power and divine mission, all the women of Greece, Albania, Romania, Cyprus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro now wear the veil, as well as those in portions of Poland, the Crimea, Hungary, and Austria. Only the silent realization of nearly all present that the Albanian viziers, now fuming silently along one side of the table, would one day return to high office mars the lugubrious mood of celebration. When the pendulum of power would again swing their way, "their reddish beards would give off an angry light like fire," (15) and their decrees would undermine the current arrangements. There would indeed be another chapter in the interminable cycle of rise and ruin that marks life at the summit of supposedly monolithic empires.

Kadare and The Turks

In addition to the story under examination, Kadare wrote a number of other Ottoman short stories and novels. Among the longer fictional works, the 1978 novel The Three-Arched Bridge (translated in 1993) is arguably the most artistically satisfying. Beautifully translated from Albanian into English by John Hodgson, the novel winds together several intellectual preoccupations, and retains the appeal of a strong plot, even if the characterization that distinguishes Broken April and The Palace of Dreams remains absent. Historically-minded people find interest in each of Kadare's other "Turkish" novels, but some readers find The Castle (1970) too dry and crammed with military detail, while The Niche of Shame (1978) revels too much for some in the grotesque and in voluminous semi-documentary disquisitions about Albanian and Ottoman history.

Actually much more than an "Ottoman novel," the Three-Arched Bridge takes a sober and empirical approach to the spreading power of the sultan, stressing both the complicity of local Christian potentates and the gradual and multi-faceted--rather than dramatic and military--nature of Ottoman encroachment. But, beyond these contributions to an understanding of Balkan history, it consists also, like No Andric's The Bridge on the Drina, of a study in the construction and life of a bridge. Kadare explores the symbolism of the bridge spanning a river called "Wicked Waters" in great detail, but he also alters the powerful myths of foundation sacrifice through immurement to investigate the nature of the modern era of capitalism. The connection between the themes of the bridge and of the Ottomans (using the Balkans literally and figuratively as a bridge to Europe) asserts that "blood" or exploitation and victimization establishes every "order" or social system.

As an Ottoman novel, The Three-Arched Bridge proves rich in its portrayal of the nascent conflict between the Turks and the Albanians. In geo-strategic terms, the monk Gjon notices how the "shadows" of the new "forest of minarets" lengthen over the Albanian lands. (16) The symbol on the flags and banners of the advancing forces, a moon, provokes wonder and fear because it rises gracefully into the sky, a force of nature above all lands, and it has the power to lull victims into a dreamy sense of false well-being. (17) It is cold, and can be tinged with blood, but it certainly seems to be more powerful an emblem than any wolf, cross, or eagle.

Kadare's unusual description of individual Turks, who begin to penetrate and traverse the neighboring states well ahead of any advancing army, raises the highest state of alarm. Whether itinerant musicians, merchants, diplomats, spies, peripatetic mystics, or other envoys of various types, they fill the Albanians with anxiety by their "sticky and shapeless" songs that slither past and induce drowsiness, (18) with reptilian (19) and whip- or hammer-like language, furtive and languid movements, "deceitful" courtesy, and above all their loose clothing: "It is no accident that their silken garments, turbans, breeches, and robes have no straight lines, corners, hems, or seams. Their whole costume is insubstantial, and cut so that it changes shape continually. Among such diaphanous folds it is hard to tell whether a hand is holding a knife or a flower." (20)

The final element of this eerie description becomes the most relevant to the subject at hand: "But after all," the monk asks rhetorically, "how can straightforwardness be expected from a people who hide their very origins: their women?" This is another specific reference to the practice of wearing hijab, or clothes that cover most of the head and body in public, which crops up in other works as well.

The advent of the Turks means much more than political subjugation to Kadare, more than imperialism and the removal of the sovereignty of the Albanian clans and princes. In their wake, the monk sees "the scorched remains of men and their chronicles.... The plains left without speech. And above all I saw the long night coming, in hours, for centuries." (21) Kadare claims his powerful restatement of the challenge primarily forges the Albanian personality and national character.

Both Hadji Milet and various high-ranking officials mention the spiritual well-being that veiling will bring to Europe. They refer to the benefits for women specifically, but also for the whole community. Readers may safely assume, therefore, that Kadare raises the specter, whether historically attested or not, of the possibility of mass, forced conversion of women to Islam. The author's intention here would seem to point out the danger of denaturing Albania, changing the basic points of reference of its culture. If imperialism cuts Albanians from their European moorings and runs roughshod over their culture, then assimilation--the real bugbear behind the references to conversion--and their extinction as a distinct people will ensue. Kadare paints a grim picture of the imperiled national existence of Albanians elsewhere as well. Neither the Turks, nor Muslims (22) nor even imperialists, who also manifest themselves as Venetians, Byzantines, Normans, Serbs, Greeks, Stalinist Soviets, and Maoists, represent the only mortal threats to Albania. For instance, mass emigration from the homeland, especially of youth and professionals, rates at the top of his list in 1991, in his testimony before the United States Congress. (23) Elsewhere he notes with derision the inroads made by vapid and crass consumer culture in Albania in the 1990s, and the erosion of the everyday social fabric under the communist dictatorship.

Importantly, from a historians point of view, however, one has to test Kadare's hypotheses on the possible massed, forced conversion of Christians and on sumptuary laws. With regard to conversions, various types of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, like Jews, enjoyed the status of zimmis--subjects who suffered discrimination, mostly extra financial obligations and limits on social practices, but whose physical existence and revealed monotheism, or status as an Abrahamic faith tradition, the Muslims respected. Moreover, during the initial wars of conquest and during the suppression of rebellions, when populations in effect unacknowledged the sultan's sovereignty, destruction of life and property, and the discourse that enveloped them, often took on characteristics of what one would call religious warfare. Furthermore, the periodic appearance of rebellious provincial rulers outside the central government's control, and the use of auxiliary or irregular military units resulted in rogue behavior, some of it with negative consequences for religious groups, stood beyond the control of Istanbul. Many Europeans, of course, did convert to Islam during the Ottoman centuries. In Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, and on the island of Crete, a variety of factors came into play, including existing divisions in Christianity, geographical remoteness, conflicts of local populations with outside Christian states resulting in neglect or mistreatment, the desire of rural populations to have the right to bear arms for self-protection, and Ottoman pressure on the landowning classes.

Historians of the Ottoman Empire assert that two sultans nevertheless considered converting Europeans en masse. One of these was Selim I in 1517. Selim I (r. 1512-17), known as Yavuz, the Grim or the Brave (24) became known for unseating his father on the throne, enshrining the practice of fratricide, and, most importantly here, extending Ottoman control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. These exploits thus massively strengthened his claim to be caliph, in the face of similar assertations by the Abbasids and by Persian rulers. Historian Leften Stavrianos also names Murad IV (r. 1623-40), a fearsome, traditionally-minded reformer, as another ruler who considered forced conversion, while historian Mark Mazower mentions the eccentric Ibrahim I (r. 1640-48). (25) At any rate, the sultans' plans met with serious objection from within the Ottoman government. Religious leaders rejected it as an untenable break with the zimmi tradition. Financial considerations also played a role, since conversion would entail losing the special tax revenues provided by non-Muslim subjects. Stavrianos contends that such plans for conversion would have succeeded "given the defenselessness of the Christians and the prestige and attraction of Islam at the time," (26) while historian Justin McCarthy suggests that forced conversion would have brought much grief to the Ottomans, and that the peace allowed by relative toleration was pragmatic and wise for the Ottoman government. (27)

One of the fields of Ottoman studies making the greatest strides today is social history, with scholars such as Donald Quataert and Suraiya Faroqhi examining, for instance, trends in sartorial and sumptuary laws that give a picture both of how Ottoman society evolved in a material sense, and how notions of hierarchy and propriety were linked to the interests of the religious and economic elite. Sumptuary laws could affect both genders and all ethnic and religious groups. In general, women received more diversity and adornment in their clothing than men, but they had stricter religious standards of modesty to uphold. The government and religious authorities (Sheikh-ul-Islam and the ulema) sought to encode markers of social status, both rank and religion, in clothing, but it appears nonetheless difficult to recreate these today simply because of the scanty sources. As one historian has bluntly stated, "the Turks did not write about women." (28) The twin burdens of universal patriarchy and Western orientalism mean that many potential sources on women's life in the Ottoman Empire are silent or skewed.

Sometimes authorities prescribed non-Muslim women to wear certain colors, and, in Persia, they occasionally had to affix certain symbols to their chadors or even appear in public without coverings, sometimes called "naked," in an effort to humiliate the men of their family. More concretely, records exist of a significant number of Ottoman decrees dictating women's clothing and permissible public behavior, beginning with the household of Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-66). They became especially frequent in the eighteenth century, where Faroqhi, for instance, lists five instances or periods of such legislation. Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909) even banned the carsaf, a very important type of head covering, in 1892, shortly after it first appeared. Another historian, A. Afetinan, lists eight such episodes of sartorial regulation for women ranging from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. (29) It has been noted, moreover, that in Ottoman Armenia, Greece, and elsewhere, "non-Muslim women dressed like Muslims," and their clothing shared the regional variation and social distinctions discussed below. (30)

The events of 1703 possibly inspired Kadare to write "The Caravan of Veils," although the story itself is not dated. In late 1702, Daltaban Mustafa Pasha replaced the fourth of the five major Koprulu grand viziers, Amcazade Huseyin Koprulu, partially because the latter had been unable to reverse the military losses that had resulted in the Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699. Sultan Mustafa II (r. 1695-1703) then attempted, in 1703, to concentrate a great deal of power in his own hands through a set of political edicts known as the "Edirne Event" (Edirne Vakasi). (31) The Koprulus, of Albanian origin, were generally vociferous centralizers and powerful pillars of the traditional regime, but the departure of the last Albanian from this high position may symbolize for Kadare a shift in the internal Ottoman balance of power away from Ottoman interests. In addition, Amcazade Huseyin Koprulu had acted decisively to improve life for, and retain the loyalty of, the many or mostly Christian Balkan peasantry. (32) This interpretation would certainly mesh with the ending of the story, which invokes the cyclical nature of power relations in the empire, and reveals the Albanian notables awaiting their return to favor. Indeed, Mustafa II soon found himself deposed and disgraced.

Upon Reading This Tale Today: Analysis of the Symbolism of the Veil

An examination of the significance of veiling, which, next to the harem, constitutes the most visible, abiding, and often volatile issue in terms of non-Muslim public opinion about life for women in Islamic societies. The concept of the "veiling" of Muslim women proves an elastic one, at least as used in most non-Muslim countries. Strictly speaking, a veil, a kind of head covering, shields one's face and hair from view to some degree. In religious texts, the standard word for veil, hijab, comes from the Arabic, and literally means "curtain." (33) Many synonyms exist in daily use in the various languages of the world's different Muslim communities for items of clothing that fulfill the religious and social functions of the veil. The English term "veil" itself connotes an exceedingly wide variety of head coverings. In the following paragraphs, an attempt will be made to elucidate the main types of such head-coverings and their regional linguistic variants. But, essentially at this point, the need arises to underscore another, broader meaning of the term hijab: separation or partition. The purpose of veiling, whether it originates in pre-Islamic tradition, certain interpretations of the Koran, or political considerations, purports to emphasize women's distinctiveness, and to hold them separate from men or from public life. The veil, therefore, relates to the kind of physical isolation called for in the institution of purdah, a Persian term indicating the domestic confinement of women, their isolation behind curtains or in separate rooms. Haremlik, a rough Turkish equivalent of this concept, refers to the women's quarters of a usually upper-class residence, closed to nearly all males and especially to outsiders. The term hijab also has other meanings, important in Muslim theology, such as "illusion" or "that which separates a person from Allah." Women's issues, such as the veil, hold great importance in Islamic societies today because of their situation at the intersection of family, faith, and politics, and hence, they measure a given society's stresses and attitudes towards change. In today's climate of competition between moderate Muslims and Islamists of various sorts, the public face of women becomes very much a barometer, a "wind sock" or a "canary in the coal mine," about the general political drift of a country. (34)

To understand the veil, one must also bear in mind the origins of the practice and the extreme variation in its application. First of all, although widely assumed to be standard Muslim practice rooted in the Koran, veiling existed in many areas before the arrival of the Islamic faith: Persia, the Byzantine Empire, the modern-day lands of Saudi Arabia and Syria, and probably the homeland of the Mongols. One can argue, however, that the practice may have spread into some new territories by the expansion of Muslim and Arabic civilization. The custom is also not uniquely found in Muslim lands, since Hinduism and, especially, Judaism maintain some tradition of veiling. In classical Greek and Roman society, veils, sometimes accompanied by a stephane, or decorative metal headband, held importance at least for upper-class women. In addition, in early Christian societies, veiling may have been a requirement for women in some places. (35) In later Christian societies, women in mourning, and Roman Catholic nuns often practiced it. Syncretism between certain doctrines of new faiths and pre-existing practices is, in fact, common in both the Christian and Muslim worlds, and also lies at the root of other controversial practices, such as female circumcision and polygamy, in the latter. Possibly, the ancestors of the Ottomans in Central Asia did not use the veil as specifically asserted by the Young Turk sociologist Ziya Gokalp in 1920. (36) He also wrote that the "ancient Turks were not only the world's most democratic ethnic group but also its most feminist." (37) Elsewhere, it has been claimed that outside influences sapped early Islam's enthusiastic liberation of women. With increasing asceticism via the "conceptions of the Iranian and Greek Orthodox religions" came a stronger emphasis on women's inequality. (38)

Not surprisingly, a Koranic basis exists for the practice of veiling. People often cite two sucas (sections or chapters) in particular as forming the justification for the practice. Sura 33:59 endorses partial coverings of women, while Sura 24:31 enjoins women to act with physical modesty in public and to keep their "adornments" or "ornaments" hidden except from close relatives or slaves. Hardly categorical or definitive, numerous interpreters have operated on these passages, however, in many different contexts. Nonetheless, Muslims consider the Koran to be the literal and direct revelation of Allah, thus even contested passages carry great weight. But disagreements among scholars of and within Islam continue. One observer has summed up this issue: "While modesty is a religious prescription, the wearing of a veil is not a religious requirement of Islam, but a matter of cultural milieu." (39) This modesty remains an important consideration for many Muslim women, and usually consists of covering all of one's body save the face and hands, although, as in the past, the practice admits great variety in approach. Traditional and conservative supporters of the veil also base many of their arguments on the hadith, the thousands of traditional sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and recountings of his activities. They exist in many collections made by scholars over the centuries, and various schools of interpretation analyze them. Most Muslims regard them as amplifications of the Koran and as sources of inspiration. Still, some Muslim religious thinkers, in our day as well as in earlier periods, have dismissed the need to separate women from men in this way. Veiling did not become widespread until the rule of the Abbasids, beginning in the eighth century AD. The growth of the Arab states and the spread of Islam as a religion probably extended pre-existing local traditions of veiling. Meanwhile, in certain places, powerful Muslim men have used curtains or veils to hold themselves distinct from others.

Another point of great variation involves the determination of which women should be required to wear the veil. Many historians, chroniclers, and travelers have noted that usage varies not only from country to country but within a given society as well. Initially, upper-class women in towns and cities possessed the right, not an obligation, of wearing the veil. Therefore, as a general trend, the majority of women--slaves, peasants, and Bedouins--were both less likely to be required to wear a veil and less likely actually to do so. (40) Hard physical labor made the wearing of elaborate head-coverings impractical, and women would sometimes simply turn their heads when encountering an unfamiliar man. Variations also arise according to age. Since the veil is primarily intended for women of child-bearing age, whether married or not, girls and older women often received exemptions from its use. There existed also a variation in whether married or unmarried women should be covered. Sometimes the donning of the veil served a particular function, as in fulfilling a requirement for travel to a local religious shrine or to Mecca. The degree of severity of a woman's "separation" by veiling could be increased not just by reducing the amount of her body exposed such as the face, wrists, and ankles, but also by "double veiling," or wearing various layers of similar or varying garments.

Veils were intended to be worn outside the home. Ample examples record noblewomen refusing to wear them, as part of their negotiation of a more independent identity, just as groups of women declined to wear them for fear of running afoul of strict sartorial policies sometimes imposed by local rulers incensed by public ostentatiousness.

The issue of Christian use of the veil appears even more complicated. In many Muslim-governed areas, authorities simply did not require non-Muslim women to wear head-coverings. But many traditional societies, in the Balkans and the Caucasus, for instance, already called for various kinds of coverings, ranging from cloths and veils to more elaborate wire headbands made of coins. One need only think as well of the Spanish mantilla and the various caps, tiaras, and hats found across medieval Europe. Where Christian and Jewish women wore veils, they sometimes consisted of different colors from those of Muslim women. In some non-Arabic societies, pre-Islamic head coverings included embroidered ribbons, headbands, caps, and tiaras. In addition, in Persian and Mongol societies, head-coverings often reached great levels of ornateness, involving crowns and feathers.

There also exist male head coverings that serve different social and religious functions in Muslim societies, such as the well-known kaffieh or kaffiya (headscarf), the similar ghutrah, the turban, and, in earlier periods, the fez and tarboosh. The Austrian historian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall reports that in early modern Ottoman society, men's head coverings signified an extremely important and positive symbol, "because the right to cover one's head by wrapping was prohibited to slaves." The Romans had maintained a similar distinction. Furthermore, the Turks traditionally had no word for freedom other than serbestiyet, which Hammer-Purgstall translates as Kopfgebundenheit or "the condition of having one's head covered." (41)

Turning now to the issue of the various types of women's head-coverings, one faces a bewildering variety of terms. The complicated issue of nomenclature arises because of the number of languages Muslim communities use in the Middle East, the Balkans, and South Asia, and because usage also changes over time. When sources and government decrees and religious theological studies often prove scarce, then scholars must attempt to recreate the sartorial landscape from contemporary traveler's reports and artworks.

Veiling is part and parcel of the general issue of outerwear for women, and specific items of clothing correspond to specific zones of the body to be covered: the hair, the face, and the body. Items that only cover the hair would be simply cloths or headscarves, sometimes being the only kind of head covering worn in Muslim societies by Muslim and non-Muslim women alike. Face coverings sometimes became part of larger garments, but women often wore separate items of clothing in combination with other coverings. The Turkish words yasmak (two cloths tied around the head, leaving space for the eyes) and pece (a single piece of cloth only covering the face below the eyes), as well as the Arabic words nigab (Jordan), boshia (Kuwait), shaylah (United Arab Emirates), and izar (Lebanon), refer specifically to this type of veil proper. The carsaf in Turkey and chador in Iran, and some approximate Arabic equivalents as the Iraqi abaya and the North African milaya consist of larger garments meant to cover all or much of the body, and often take the form of a cloak, shawl, draping gown, or cape extending from the top of the head to the chest or waist. The burqa (alternately, burka or burqu), found mostly in South Asia, makes up a final, dramatic kind of women's outerwear. Draped from a woman's head to her heels, tent-like, it usually contains a grill for the eyes and nose. Such explications prove necessary because the word "veil" becomes traditionally so loosely defined that it covers "a wide range of outer coverings." (42) Other regional variants of traditional head coverings also exist: bukhnoq, ayer, dupatta, and other outer garments such as the thoab and rapoosh also perform similar social or religious functions of modesty. In Bosnia, they call the veil over a woman's face a zar, while the large coat or cloak often worn with it is a feredeza.

Proper contextualization--not justification, but the scholarly imperative to examine a phenomenon on its own terms-of the use of the veil can show ways its wearers find it advantageous or adaptable to their own needs. These observations range from the practical and convenient--by shielding the wearer from intense sun and dust, providing privacy for the nursing of babies, and obviating the need for expensive clothes or elaborate make-up--to the potentially subversive, by covering up revealing fashions or Western-style accoutrements that would otherwise be forbidden in public. (43) Naturally, a new language of both beauty and flirtation becomes possible even with veils, as shown from the many press photographs and memoirs of today highlighting the combination of modern jewelry and coiffures with traditional clothing of women across the Muslim world. The frequency of Ottoman governmental decrees also reminds one that women's fashion served as a constantly creative and mutating challenge to patriarchy in an earlier era. Ultimately, an understanding of the phenomenon of veiling involves more than just attempts at weighing one's freedom of choice in clothing against the power of tradition or patriarchy. It must be understood that the term "veiling" implies an entire spectrum of covering, and that Western or democratic or capitalist societies also have orthodoxies and restrictions. Moreover, an important continuum of adaptation and flexibility can be found within any set of guidelines.

The problem of veiling in Kadare's "Caravan" can be fruitfully examined from three different perspectives. First, Kadare sees the issue of the extension of Ottoman power, being carried out by the suppression of indigenous Albanian, and other Balkan culture. Having already conquered the Balkans militarily and maintained political hegemony for a considerable length of time, the Ottoman authorities, basically reduced here to the abstract forces of Turkish ethnicity and Islam, now seek to impose a new cultural order by altering certain social practices. This will end up reinforcing Albania's isolation from the rest of Europe, and deepen the injustice of foreign rule. Hadji Milet's death, the cyclical nature of Ottoman politics, and the enfranchisement of Albanian potentates in the ruling system remain important features of Kadare's overall critique of authoritarian rule.

Second, from a literary perspective, readers must come to terms with the effects of the mission on the story's main character. Indeed, this long tale contains only one character developed in any detail: Hadji Milet. That the decree on veiling places him in such spiritual and, ultimately, physical danger reminds readers of the peril experienced by many other Kadare characters for conformity or simply the misfortune of being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Ottoman despotism, like other dictatorships, exacts a steep price from its hangers-on, middlemen, and factotums--in short, from average subjects or citizens.

Without a doubt, though, this story also operates on a third level, as a critique of a specific Islamic cultural practice. Kadare's novel The Wedding (1968) takes a similar approach. This dovetails with Kadare's focus, in evidence elsewhere as well, on obstacles to women's equality. It also gives the story increased relevance today with the sharp growth of Islamist movements (sometimes referred to as "fundamentalist" Islam) espousing conservative social teachings. For many people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, the treatment of women appears as a kind of barometer or code-word for a large number of other issues. Kadare's text could be considered irresponsible or even incendiary today, but he seems to have intended to examine the forced spread of veiling primarily as a metaphor for imperialism and assimilation. That it involved the denaturing or reorientation of Albanian society, and that it linked to other Ottoman, Turkish, or Muslim characteristics or practices that he finds undesirable are, however, arguably other aspects of Kadare's overall assessment of the role of Islam in the Balkans.

Muslims often understand the essence of "veiling" in terms of its purpose or effect: the fulfillment of a religious imperative to secure feminine modesty in public by means of covering, separation, or partition. Most non-Muslims, on the other hand, usually use the term "veiling" in an unspecific way to indicate a variety of methods of covering women's hair, faces, and entire bodies in public, and male non-Muslims, in addition, regard veiling as a method of oppressing women. Western popular understanding (though not necessarily in traditional Islamic thought and practice) connects it with a whole raft of other complex issues relating to gender roles in both traditional and Muslim societies including female genital mutilation or circumcision, arranged marriages, honor killings, confinement, chaperones, restrictions on property and inheritance rights, lack of voting rights, unequal divorce practices, and limits on public activity. Moreover, it attaches it to the supposed unfitness of Islamic societies for peaceful coexistence and democracy, such as the lack of separation between the religious and the political spheres and the contemporary use of jihad. Margaret Atwood's immensely successful novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), although targeting social practices of Christianity and not Islam, re-popularized the links between dictatorships, religious zealotry, and strict clothing regulations for women that included veils, wing, and wimples.

Advocates of the veil also make the practical arguments that it can help preserve the dignity of women by freeing them from male sexual harassment, and that it can serve as an important statement of cultural identity and ethnic or religious difference. Some analysts also see in its use important resistance to elite power in terms of anti-etatist political statements and creative contestations of popular culture such as fashion. Opponents counter that whatever its current usage or legitimization, the veil originated in the stark traditional belief about the impurity and inferiority of women, and that patriarchal power continues to deny them individuality and participation in public life.

The veil has been put to various political uses throughout its long history. One may be familiar with its value in the twentieth century as a symbol of nationalism or cultural integrity in the face either of assimilation by diaspora communities or of homogenization via globalization in traditionally Islamic countries. In the late twentieth-century revival of the use of the veil, not all the motives prove theological or political; however, historians have noted that men in the growing middle class in the newly independent Arab states of North Africa sometimes, in contrast to the post-revolutionary evolution of government views, come to "seclude and veil their wives" as a symbol of newfound prosperity and social status. (44) Modernizers such as the Egyptian scholar and jurist Qasim Amin (45) and the military and political figure Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the post-Ottoman Turkish state, (46) criticized veils. Nationalists and revolutionaries, during the various anti-colonial struggles in the Arab world, also stressed its importance as a unifying cultural symbol of anti-Western resistance, at once both politically revolutionary and morally conservative. (47) Veiled women could also sometimes serve more easily than men as couriers for underground movements.

A vast amount of literature contains references to veiling in the Balkans and Anatolia. Many of these works illustrate the chief points developed in this essay. For example, a recent novel by the British writer Louis de Bernieres offers a lyrical and relatively sanguine, if rather legendary, account of the development of the veil. In Birds Without Wings, a well-researched novel on the fate of the mixed Greek-Turkish population of southwestern Anatolia in the early twentieth century, de Bernieres has non-Muslim characters explain to each other why the Ottomans had tried to introduce the veil, usually to Muslim but at times also to non-Muslim communities. The author notes that Christian women had typically always kept their faces "unconcealed." (48) In addition, readers learn of the following limits on the extent of Muslim women's coverings: "no women veiled herself in the countryside because it would have been impossible to work, and the women who covered themselves in this town, small as it was, merely did so as a point of vanity, to indicate that they enjoyed a leisuresome life." (49)

De Bernieres also mentions that, from the male point of view, women wearing carsafs in public could be useful, because the possibility existed "for a man with an ugly wife to boast of her beauty in the coffeehouses." (50) This indicates more than just a pathetic male vanity, because an inverse of this calculation results in the veiling of a young Christian woman, Philothei. So enchantingly attractive, she sows discord in the community, causing the local imam and her father to prevail upon her to wear a veil. The Muslim man recalls that the sultan himself once extinguished fighting in his ranks by making beautiful newly arrived women refugees from Circassia take the veil. Philothei, doubtless modeling the behavior of many women forced into male-prescribed public modesty over the centuries, seeks advice from a worldly, older friend and dons an "exiguous veil so finely woven that it was almost transparent, embroidered with tiny stars and crescent moons." (51) She sports this garment believing full well that it enhances rather than neutralizes her beauty, and events do not prove her wrong; men swoon over her even more.


It remains to attempt a final historicization of the chief subject in "The Caravan of Veils." It seems most likely that the "veil" Kadare has in mind in this story refers to the yasmak. Today's omnipresent carsaf originated in Syria, but did not become widespread in Anatolia and thus, one presumes, the Balkans, until after 1870. (52) This older Turkish word denotes a two-part covering for the face and hair that leaves only a woman's eyes uncovered. It was not worn alone, but in combination with a loose jacket such as the Turkish ferace. The yasmak, usually made of a fine or filmy material, consisted of two separate pieces of cloth tied together behind one's head. Both Faroqhi and Afetinan underscore the prevalence of this combination of clothing items, which gave way in the late nineteenth century to the two-piece skirt-cape combination, imported from Syria, known as the carsaf. The carsaf extends from the top of the head downward and covers most of a woman's body. It was originally worn with a type of veil known as a pece. Made at first of very heavy cloth and covering the face only from the eyes down, the carsaf quickly evolved into thinner forms more similar to the original yasmaks.

The term yasmak is not now much used in Turkey, whereas people employ the word carsaf as a kind of multi-purpose term for coverings of the head, face, and shoulders. Today nearly all such coverings in Turkey, long unpopular due to Ataturk's ideology of modernization, are black, whereas in Ottoman times they consisted of many colors. Wearing a carsaf in Turkey today usually denotes a conservative political statement, although it has been argued that disallowing such coverings constitutes a human rights violation. At any rate, head-scarves known as bas ortusu remain common in Turkey, especially among rural women.

"The Caravan of Veils" is but one of Kadare's excellent Ottoman works. Kadare examines the Ottoman period so thoroughly for three reasons. First, this long period of interaction with the institutions and peoples of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful Muslim state in world history, had a profound effect on Albanian society. In the lengthy span of time between the fourteenth and early twentieth centuries, the strong majority of Albanians came to adopt Islam as their religion, and, to use Kadare's own sometimes shockingly stark terms, this vast force from the East sealed Albania off from the rest of Europe, thus cutting it off from its existing, natural path of development. According to Kadare, decades of tutelage under the Soviets and Chinese communists deepened this gulf, and this gap is only beginning to be bridged today as Albania moves--fitfully but hopefully--towards integration with the rest of Europe and accession to the Euro-Atlantic institutions of the European Union and NATO.

The second reason for such thorough treatment of the Ottoman period in Kadare's oeuvre would seem to be that it was a safe subject to research and write on during Enver Hoxha's severe dictatorship. Throughout the twentieth century, in authoritarian regimes of both left and right, writers and scholars alike have often turned to older historical topics to avoid censorship and controversy. Exposition of the Ottomans' methods of rule provided oblique criticism of the Hoxha government, and offered an artistic parallel to the analysis of communist practices, such as murder, censorship, rustication, and the erosion of authenticity and intimacy in daily life, in Kadare's other works over several decades.

Kadare focuses so heavily on this period for the final reason because he believes that many of Albania's domestic problems and foreign policy imbroglios originated as a result of Ottoman policies. The territorial division of Albania, with losses of land to Greece, Montenegro, and most importantly via Kosovo/Kosova to Serbia, occurred in the late Ottoman period. More longer-term developments include exposure to Greek ecclesiastical control and rivalries with other Balkan peoples, such as the Serbs, over positions of privilege in the Ottoman administration and military.

Kadare names specific events and trends that he feels lie at the root of misunderstandings between contemporary states as a responsible method of portraying the uniqueness of Balkan societies and politics. It does not indulge in the reductionism and stereotypes of some journalists, sensationalist novelists, and many politicians who ascribe current problems to warrior-like "Dinaric personalities" or to "ancient ethnic hatreds" or to immutable cultural or religious "fault lines." Furthermore, in a cautious, sober, and workmanlike fashion sometimes reminiscent of No Andric, Kadare also uses common experiences, in the form of common problems such as economic and imperial exploitation and shared cultural patrimony from epic songs to the symbolism of bridges, to underscore the common humanity of all the peoples of the Balkans. He often subjects states, religions, and social systems to withering critiques, but leaves room for individual characters to be encountered simply as human beings and accepted as such, even if their lot is far from happy.

(1) Although Kadare has long garnered high marks from literary critics, a wider circle of historians has only recently taken up the analysis of his works and their importance. The author of this essay is currently completing the first English-language monograph on Kadare. It will be published soon by the University of South Carolina Press as Understanding Ismail Kadare.

(2) Juan Goytisolo, "Die Welt nach dem 11. September. Antworten i1ber Antworten," in Glaserne Grenzen: Einwande and Anstosse, trans. Thomas Brovot, Christian Hansen, and Clementine Kugler (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004), 170.

(3) Juan Goytisolo, "Die islamische Bedrohung," in Glaserne Grenzen, 14.

(4) The author of this essay has translated the work in full from German, and hopes that it will appear in print soon.

(5) This emotional connection also seems to present itself to readers in the cases of Gjorg Berisha in Broken April and Mark-Alem in The Palace of Dreams. The strength of many of Kadare's novels, however, lies beyond the affective domain, in political and ethnographic detail, dissection of the process of mythmaking both ancient and contemporary, and a mix of subtle plots and austere, spectral prose that serve as vehicles for the author's literary and political preoccupations.

(6) Probably a reference to the Koprulu family, which held many important positions in the Ottoman government in the second half of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. There were five prominent grand viziers from this family, producing popular references to them as a "dynasty " or a "noble" family. They wielded great executive and military power and strengthened the empire through reforms that rejuvenated traditional institutions. They hailed from the Berat region of Albania and are said to have entered Ottoman service through the devsirme, or child levy, carried out among Balkan Christian communities.

(7) Ismail Kadare, "Die Schleierkarawane," in Die Schleierkarawane: Erzahlungen, trans. Oda Buchholz and Wilfried Fiedler (Berlin: Volk and Welt, 1987), 8.

(8) Ibid., 12.

(9) Ibid., 13.

(10) Ibid., 15.

(11) Ibid., 22.

(12) Ibid., 31

(13) Ibid., 36.

(14) Ibid., 43.

(15) Ibid., 44.

(16) Ismail Kadare, The Three-Arched Bridge, trans. John Hodgson (New York: Arcade, 1997), 2.

(17) Ibid., 161 and 166.

(18) Ibid., 149.

(19) Ibid., 183.

(20) Ibid., 46.

(21) Ibid., 183.

(22) Witness these remarks from his introduction to a major recent French study on Islam, in which Kadare criticizes both sides in the supposed "clash of civilizations" in the post-Cold War world: "[The study of misrepresentations] helps us understand that the civilization of Islam is not a doctrine of terror, as it can be presented by superficial propagandists working in the Bolshevik style--any more so than the Christian civilization of the West is really a realm of pornography; the West is not the kingdom of Satan, culpable for the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, as the propagandists of the opposite camp maintain, using this same Bolshevik method." From Ismail Kadare, "Preface" to the Dictionnaire de l'Islam: Religion et civilisation (Paris: Albin Michel, 1997), 6.

(23) U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Democratic Developments in Albania, Hearing Before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, One Hundred Second Congress, First Session, May 22,1991 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991).

(24) See Mark Mazower, The Balkans: A Short History (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 48; and Leften Stavrianos, The Balkans since 1453 (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1958), 107.

(25) Mazower, A Short History, 48. See also Lord Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire (New York: Morrow, 1977), 315. Kinross asserts that Sultan Ibrahim once intended to massacre all the Christians of the empire.

(26) Stavrianos, The Balkans since 1453, 107.

(27) Justin McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923 (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997), 73-74.

(28) Fanny Davis, The Ottoman Lady: A Social History from 1718 to 1918 (New York: Greenwood, 1986), 191.

(29) A. Afetinan. The Emancipation of the Turkish Woman (Paris: UNESCO, 1962), 31-32.

(30) Suraiya Faroqhi, Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 112.

(31) Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 43, and Davis, 91.

(32) Kinross, 364-365.

(33) Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 1991), 85.

(34) Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World (New York: Plume, 1995), 28.

(35) 1 Corinthians 11.

(36) Ziya Gokalp, The Principles of Turkism, trans. Robert Devereux (Leiden: Brill, 1968), 112.

(37) Ibid., 103.

(38) Ziya Gokalp, Turkish Nationalism and Western Civilization: Selected Essays of Ziya Gokalp, trans. Niyazi Berkes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), 254.

(39) Cyril Glasse, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 413.

(40) Fatma Mansur Cosar, "Women in Turkish Society," in Women in the Muslim World, ed. Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 132.

(41) Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, "Schlussrede," in Geschichte des osmanischen Reiches (Graz: Akademische Druck- and Verlagsanstalt, 1963), 9: x1-x1i.

(42) Dawn Chatty, "Changing Sex Roles in Bedouin Society," in Beck and Keddie, Women in the Muslim World, 403.

(43) Naila Minai, Women and Islam: Tradition and Transition in the Middle East (New York: Seaview Books, 1981), 117.

(44) Beck and Keddie, introduction to Women in the Muslim World, 9.

(45) See Amin's works in The Liberation of Women and The New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000).

(46) Contrary to popular wisdom, Ataturk did not ban the veil by law. He knew it was an extremely touchy issue and that outright abolition would spark considerable resistance. Instead he sought, as Roderic Davison notes, actively to discourage its use. This is a significant reservation on his part, since he did not shy from using decrees, laws, and force to change Turkish society in other controversial ways. Ataturk is remembered, for instance for latinizing the alphabet, giving women the right to vote, giving women equal rights within divorce and inheritance proceedings, turning marriage into a civil institution, providing education for girls and women, outlawing polygamy, declaring the state secular, instituting the idea of the "weekend," adopting the Gregorian calendar, requiring surnames, carrying out a census, decreeing the use of Turkish instead of Arabic in public calls to prayer and Koran readings, formulating a new civil code on Swiss, German, and Italian--instead of the Sheriat--model, banning the fez, modernizing communication and transportation facilities, and industrializing his country.

(47) Beck and Keddie, introduction to Women in the Muslim World, 9; Goodwin, Price of Honor, 30-31.

(48) Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings (New York: Knopf, 2004), 13.

(49) Ibid., 107.

(50) Ibid., 13.

(51) Ibid., 218.

(52) Davis, 187-89,197-200.
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Author:Cox, John K.
Publication:Indiana Slavic Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 2006
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