The Hijab as a Metaphor for Otherness and the Creation of an Ineffable “Third Space”

  • Kamakshi P. MurtiEmail author
Original Article


Why have debates around the Muslim hijab become increasingly acrimonious? Islamophobia has led to the rise of far-right groups, with calls in Europe and the US for banning headscarves and minarets on mosques. In India, sectarian violence continues unabated since 1947, with hate speech becoming progressively overt. The first half of this paper examines why the Muslim hijab has become the lone metaphor for debates about identity formation, to the exclusion of veiling prevalent in other religious and cultural contexts. How would Muslim migrant writers find these debates helpful for their situation in their countries, whether original or adoptive? How can marginalized writers resist discrimination and exclusion from mainstream life? The second half of this paper focuses on the belief in the transformative power of Sufism that the Turkish-German writer Zafer Şenocak shares with the mystics Yunus Emre and Jalaluddin Rumi, and the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. For Şenocak, Sufism allows a religiosity that is not only compatible with, but also perceivable in sensuous experience. Sufism thus serves as a “third space,” a term defined by the renowned culture critic Homi Bhabha as an ambiguous, ineffable area that develops when two or more individuals/cultures interact.


Hijab Sufism Third space Ineffable Otherness 

The disputed mosque [Babri Masjid] was

razed to the ground with a barbaric savagery

reminiscent of the crude traditions of settling

scores in medieval history. The demolition of

the Masjid has delivered a lethal blow to the

image of a secular and democratic India.

The Hindu , December 7, 1992

A screaming mob of thousands of Hindu

militants stormed a 16th-century mosque

here today and demolished it with sledge-

hammers and their bare hands, plunging

India into a political and religious crisis.

The destruction of the mosque, which has

been a focus of tensions between Hindus

and Muslims for several years, raised the danger

of a renewal of the conflicts between the

groups that have claimed tens of thousands

of lives in the last four decades.

The New York Times , December 6, 1992

Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh and

native of India, was fatally shot outside his gas

station by Frank Silva Roque, who mistakenly

believed Sodhi was Muslim. […] Waqar Hasan,

a 46-year-old Pakistani immigrant, was shot to

death in his convenience store. Mark Stroman,

who allegedly said he was angry with people of

Middle Eastern descent after the 9/11 terrorist

attacks, was charged with Hasan’s murder.

Stroman was also charged with the Oct. 4 murder

of Vasudev Patel, a 49-year-old native of India,

at a gas station convenience store in Mesquite,


Southern Poverty Law Center,

Mesa, Arizona, Sept. 15, 2001

“… a lethal blow to the image of a secular and democratic India,” is a powerful statement indeed and a lethal blow to the image of a secular and democratic USA. Soon after the Babri Masjid massacres, and compounded by 9/11, so many questions began surfacing, insistent questions, many of them leading back to my own childhood.

A Child’s Induction into Islamophobia

My earliest memories of the Muslim “other” are anchored in the school I attended: Loreto House, a Roman Catholic school. The school was also considered to be better than the so-called indigenous ones in the Indian city of Kolkata. “You will learn to speak English there,” my parents told me expectantly. Suspending their religious beliefs, both Hindu and Muslim families sent their daughters to this school. I vividly remember how my burqa-covered Muslim classmates hurried through the school gates. As soon as our school watchman closed the gates behind them, they cast off their burqas, revealing our school uniform. Veiled Catholic nuns—our teachers—greeted us and led us to the assembly hall. I remember my friend Fatima enquiring: “Why don’t they take off their burqas?” On festival days and within the confines of the school compound, my Muslim schoolmates displayed the most exquisitely tailored ghaagras! I recollect telling my mother, a woman steeped in south-Indian Brahmin tradition, that I wanted to be reborn a Muslim—then, I could wear all those lovely clothes!

My other contact with Islam was our Muslim tailor or darzi. The adults in my family treated him and his son like outcasts. The father and son were allowed to enter the verandah of our home. There was this widespread belief that Muslim men regularly kidnapped and raped Hindu girls. Accordingly, when our darzi took the measurements of the females in the family, my grandmother was always there to ensure that “those Turakas” did not molest us! The word for ‘Muslim’ in Telugu is “Turaka.” When the darzi brought Id offerings (usually biryani, sabzi, and sweets) in a tiffin carrier, my mother politely took the food from them. But, then, grandmother invariably asked the sweeper to throw the food away! “These turakaallu!” (these Muslims), she would scold.

In the 1950s, memories of the Hindu-Muslim riots were still very present in our circle of relatives and friends. Religious and sectarian intolerance manifested itself through remarks about the way “they” dressed, the “garish colors” they wore (bright green was the color most ridiculed—it was called “turaka patsa” = Muslim green). I also remember my grandmother talking disparagingly about those “purdah females.”

Islamophobia in the Twenty-first Century

Islamophobia shows no signs of waning in the present century. On the contrary, there is every indication that the hatred and violence that this phobia foments is on the rise the world over. I asked myself the following question: “What recourse do we as scholars and researchers have to raise awareness about the destructive nature of such hatred, such violence?” Comparativism had been a tool that I had systematically used in four decades of research and publishing. I knew from past experience that a cross-cultural methodology would allow new ways of perceiving and organizing the world. Additionally, I used “womanism” as a frame of reference to understand what veiled women aimed for: the conception that both femininity and culture are equally important to the woman’s existence. It was from within these in my opinion not contradictory methodological frameworks that I renewed my search for a raison d’être behind the resurgence of Islamophobia, when September 11, 2001, heralded my next visceral encounter with an overt Islamophobia.

The inability of most people in public spaces to differentiate between a Muslim and other non-Christians led to my great-nephews carrying their passports at all times, even though they were US citizens, one of them born in this country. They could easily be profiled and crucified as the Islamic “other.” On a cold spring morning in Middlebury, Vermont, I hurriedly finished my daily walk and dashed into the nearby supermarket to get fresh hot rolls. As I headed for the baked goods aisle, a little boy pulled a lollipop out of his mouth, looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back. The clerk at the checkout counter greeted me with a welcoming beam, and sportingly laughed at my lame joke. I came out feeling connected with the world. That same evening, I returned to the supermarket to pick up some groceries. As I threaded my way through the aisles, the usual chatter died down; I felt the many stares, some of them blatantly hostile. A little girl looked up at me, stabbed a chubby finger at her forehead, pointed at mine, and grinned. I grinned back, peeled the red dot off my forehead, and placed it on hers. The clerk at the checkout counter kept his head down. I cracked another silly joke and observed the clerk’s face cautiously relax into a reluctant grin. I came out saddened, not overly surprised at the way the planet had suddenly been sucked into a black hole (Murti 2013).

Three months after 9/11, I traveled to India to visit my brother, hoping to obtain some rational explanation for this ubiquitous hatred and fear. Family friends were visiting my brother when I arrived at his home. The conversation suddenly turned to Muslims. The woman began ranting and raving about “those Turakaallu,” about how they were being given “special privileges” by the Central Government, and how they were ruining “our Hindu sanskriti” (= culture). How had I erased all memory of caste- and race-based intolerance in India? It had been alive and well for decades. Bookended by two Muslim countries, India’s majority Hindu population had very little tolerance for the Islamic “other.” The man talked about the “ugly black burqas” that Muslim women wore, which according to him was an affront to Hindu womanhood! The wife nodded approvingly. I asked them about the veil that was common in north India, worn by married Hindu, Jain, and Sikh women. They thought for a moment; then, the man muttered: “those north-Indians! Such barbarians! So uncouth!” revealing yet another layer of prejudice! My brother later confessed that this kind of hate speech was becoming the rule rather than the exception.

As I flew back to the USA, I still shook with rage at the hate speech that the couple had spewed. Here were two educated people—he a chartered accountant, she a teacher at a local college—showing such rabid bigotry. Their remarks about the Muslim burqa resonated. Clothes, clothing, are a visual reminder of what the Muslim represented. 9/11 had given birth to a particularly virulent form of Islamophobia. It was fueling the politics of fear. And the hijab had become a powerful metaphor for fueling this fear.

To Veil or Not to Veil, and the Creation of an Ineffable “Third Space”

Thesaurus provides the following definitions for the word “ineffable.”
  1. 1.

    Ineffable: incapable of being expressed or described in words; inexpressible (ineffable joy)

  2. 2.

    Ineffable: not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable: the ineffable name of the deity


Colleagues offered me a third possible definition: “An invitation to creative activity.” These words resonated and reminded me of Mircea Eliade and his notion of sacrality as expressed through and incorporated in various symbolisms of the natural world. Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane” had been criticized for a lack of methodological foundation. However, I found his efforts to find cross-cultural affinities in myth to be immeasurably useful in my own work. As Wendy Doniger observes, “Eliade argued boldly for universals where he might more safely have argued for widely prevalent patterns.” (Doniger 1972).

Eliade’s conviction that religious elements survive in new, “camouflaged” forms in secular culture provided yet another dimension to the concept of the ineffable (Ellwood 1999:118). My mind’s eye saw men and women who believe in the sacredness of the ineffable, but who have been rendered voiceless, silenced because of their beliefs. The ever-intensifying Islamophobia in today’s world has led to the silencing of minority populations: migrants, refugees, asylum seekers. It was time for me to talk about this intolerance, this hatred with my students.

I wanted to expand my own limited knowledge of Islam in South Asia. Consequently, I applied to my college for permission to teach a course entitled “To veil or not to veil.” However, my home base being the Department of German Studies, I had to create a compelling argument for studying Islam in a region that was not part of traditional German studies. And suddenly, there it was, the word that belonged to my childhood, a word that I had almost forgotten: “Turaka” = the derogatory, Telugu word for Muslims. I asked myself what the etymology of the word was. An older cousin explained that Turaka was the Telugu localization for the Sanskrit word “Turushka” which referred to people from the Middle East. The Turushka were the people of Turkistan. In Sanskrit and Persian sources, they are known as the Indo-Scythians or Turks, who, under Kanishka and other kings of the people, held northern India.

Turaka, Turkey—here was the connection that I could pursue. My familiarity with Turkish-German writings had shown me how some of these writers had been searching for a “third space” outside the polarity of “we” and “other.” It seemed logical to believe that there were similar attempts by South Asians, both in their home countries and in the diaspora, to escape the box within which the war of identity politics was consistently waged.

Interviews with Turkish and German Muslims

In the wake of World War II and within the context of rebuilding a destroyed German infrastructure, guest workers poured into Germany predominantly from Italy and Greece, the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. Turks entered Germany in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up. And in 2005, they already formed the largest minority group. In fact, a fourth generation of Turks was already appearing. Today, there are some four million Germans of Turkish origin.

I received a generous grant from my college to travel to Turkey and Germany in order to prepare for the course. My central question focused on the hijab and why it had been singled out as a metaphor for debates about identity formation, to the exclusion of veiling prevalent in other religious and cultural contexts. I spent three months in Turkey and three months in Germany. Interviews I held with covered and uncovered women in both countries showed me how the hijab in its various forms had been instrumentalized to delineate European modernity. In addition, it allowed decisions to be made about the woman’s body, as the abortion debate in the USA continues to show. Worryingly, my identity as an Indian woman gave me easier access to more conservative Turkish families. Indian cinema was very popular in Turkey, and there was a perception of shared moral values. Given the patriarchal leanings in the country, I established my own “authentic” credentials of a traditional Indian mother, inventing four sons and a magnanimous husband on whose behalf I was visiting these families. If I wished to talk to the women in a family, I needed the approval of the patriarch. I had formulated a few very general questions for each interview. I changed the questions depending on variables like the respondent’s educational background, the men and other figures of authority present during the interview, and—most importantly—the confidence and trust the respondent placed in me as the interviewer. My analyses of the interviews were informed by the many theoretical insights afforded by an increasingly visible number of contemporary feminist theorists and gender scholars.1

My conversations with the women in these families revealed the primary motivating reason for many Turkish immigrant families to leave Germany and return to Turkey, rejecting Germany’s offer of citizenship. A gradual, perhaps predictable change had taken place in the terms used to describe the Turkish immigrants: the initial label “guest worker” had gradually changed to “Muslim.” And a facile equation of “Muslim” with “terrorist” was enabled. The hijab became a convenient visible tool for creating this demonic Islamic “other,” an “other” that included a perceived oppression of women.

Article 4 of Germany’s constitutional law or Grundgesetz says the following about religious freedom (print version last amended on 23 December 2015) (Basic Law n.d.):

“Article 4 [Freedom of faith, conscience, and creed]
  1. (1)

    Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable.

  2. (2)

    The undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed.

  3. (3)

    No person shall be compelled against his conscience to render military service involving the use of arms. Details shall be regulated by a federal law.”


But how this principle applies in the workplace is being contested over and over again. The wording of the article means that workplaces are prohibited from discriminating against someone on the basis of religion, and cannot generally ban someone from wearing a headscarf out of religious reasons. Still, courts have interpreted this differently in various rulings, some allowing certain limitations.

The label “Muslim” in its new equation with terrorism is increasingly being used to exclude migrants and non-ethnic Germans from German society. As Joseph Twist points out, this process began after 2000 when Germany’s citizenship laws changed from jus sanguinis, i.e., citizenship through parents or ancestors, to incorporate an element of jus soli, i.e., birthright citizenship (Twist 2015). Thus, minority subjects could no longer be “othered” by their passports alone. But it intensified shortly afterwards due to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The seamless transition from the label guest worker to Muslim has also sparked a fierce debate about the record number of refugees who have been arriving in Germany over the last two years, most from Muslim-majority countries. For example, after forming the seventh largest immigrant population in the United States of America (USA), Pakistanis are no longer eligible for the diversity visa, a special immigration lottery that allowed families from countries with low rates of immigration into the USA to qualify for the move.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is seeing its popularity soar amid the influx, with calls for banning headscarves and minarets on mosques. In October 2017, it became the third largest party in Germany, claiming 94 seats in the Bundestag. Alice Weidel, serving as leader of the party, told the newspaper Tagesspiegel in 2017 that not only should full-body veils like the burqa be banned, but also should the headscarf—or hijab—be prohibited from “public spaces, and on the streets.”

In “New Thinking in Islam: The Jihad for Democracy, Freedom and Women’s Rights,” Katajun Amirpur (2015), a German-Iranian professor of Islamic Studies at Hamburg University, argues that the West’s impression of Islam as a backward-looking faith, resistant to post-Enlightenment thinking, is misleading and damaging. Amirpur reveals a powerful yet lesser-known tradition of inquiry and dissent within Islam, one that she states is committed to democracy and human rights. By examining these and many other similar figures’ ideas, she attempts to reveal the many ways she and others reject fundamentalist assertions, and instead call for a diversity of opinion, greater freedom, and equality of the sexes.

Afsaaneh Najmabadi’s book with the provocative title Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity suggests how employing the hijab or gender as an analytic category could provide insight into structures of hierarchy and power (Najmabadi 2005). She is convinced that efforts to improve the legal and social status of women could be a common denominator for both secular and religious feminists. She explains that, for the past two centuries, Iranian (and Islamicate) modernity and its historiography have regarded the veil as the gender marker of cultural difference between

“Iran (Islam) and Europe. This dominant view has ignored the veil's other cultural effect, namely, its work as a marker of homosocial homoerotic affectionate bonds among both women and men.”

The hijab has proven to be easy prey to the delineation and consolidation of Eurocentric modernity, functioning as the backdrop of backwardness against which the enlightened nature of modernity can be further accentuated. In disengaging the hijab from other locations of cultural contest, its value has been reduced to the one-dimensionality of cultural difference. I concur with Najmabadi’s remark that dressing up for modernity has been fashioned through undressing women (Najmabadi 2005:133). Simplistically constructed dichotomies between the West and Islam allow for only two positions: veiling and Muslim (regressive and terrorist) or unveiling and Judeo-Christian (progressive). This type of polarization disregards the possibility of “third positions or spaces” where the so-called regressive culture wishes to define its modernity outside of a Judeo-Christian-gendered frame of reference.

When the Judeo-Christian West questions the modernization attempts and experiences of Muslim countries, it forces the latter into a posture of defiance and defense. Najmabadi talks about how dress provides a visual marker of difference between USA-Europe and the Muslim world. Men’s public appearance also becomes important in identifying them as belonging to the modern, or invoking a sacred tradition that simplistically erases European colonialist history. In India, for example, the business community is strongly dictated by a Euro- and US-centric capitalism and has adopted Western clothing, whereas Indian politicians across the spectrum have turned to ethnic clothing that mostly frames a ubiquitous jingoism. And in the name of both globalism and nationalism, clothing the Indian woman’s body has become increasingly sexualized.

I find Najmabadi’s notion of a homosociality that woman had owned and experienced prior to a heterosocial space thought provoking. She points out the fallacy of a narrative of emancipation that sees the veiled woman as belonging to a pre-modern period where she was silenced and absent. European modernity insisted on removing this veil, ostensibly to give the woman a voice and presence. Najmabadi argues that female homosociality was now forced into a heterosocial space that changed woman’s language and body. She says further that a language that had been unfettered, had had the ability to be explicitly sexual, now underwent a process of “sanitizing” whereby its sexual markers were removed.2 A veil had been drawn over language. As woman moved from a homosocial female world into a heterosocial public space, the physical veil was replaced by an invisible metaphoric veil, or hijab (hijab-i ‘iffat = veil of chastity). This internal veil re-casts the female mind, admonishing it to educate itself in order to contain its “unruly” sexuality. Moreover, such education trains the woman to discipline herself and keep “her place.” Najmabadi concludes:

This newly conceived woman, with a veiled language, a disciplined body,

and scientific sensibilities, could claim a place in the public space; she

could be imagined as a citizen.3

Najmabadi’s words are best exemplified by a 50-year-old woman who had accompanied her father to Germany in 1973 when she was seventeen years old. Her father sent her back two years later to Turkey for an arranged marriage. She had recently re-married after the death of her first husband. Her second husband was a “hacı,” i.e., one who had completed the “hac” (pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medina. Traditionally, the wife of a hacı was obliged to wear a “çarşaf,” a head-to-toe black covering with only eyes and nose exposed, outside the house (Çarkoğlu 2010). At home, she wore a caftan with just a head scarf because, as my interpreter explained, all the males present were close family members (father, husband, and brother, i.e., apart from her husband, such members as would meet the incest taboo). Our visit coincided with her brother’s wedding day. The family was busy with preparations, but warmly invited my interpreter and me to join them. My transcript of the interview provided very useful insights into the woman’s life. I have used “interviewer” and “interviewee” to preserve anonymity:

Interviewer: What were your experiences in Germany?

Interviewee: I was very happy there. I could wear exactly what I wanted. [Points to her legs] You could see way up there! My skirts were so short!

Interviewer: Why did you return to Turkey?

Interviewee: Ask my father! (She disappears into the kitchen)

Interviewee’s father: Girls have to get married. I didn’t want her to get corrupted! She is a good girl. Look at my son! He stayed in Germany and had schooling in Mannheim. Now he is getting married. I worked until 1988 in Germany. They laid me off due to my ill health. I still have a work- and stay-permit for Germany – go back and forth.

Interviewer: [to Interviewee’s husband] Were you also in Germany?

Interviewee’s husband: Yes, but since 1990 work conditions are very bad in Germany – lots of unemployment. So I came back.

Interviewee’s father: I changed career from mechanic to linoleum and tile layer in a mosque. I also did some translation work

Interviewee: [returns with tea and snacks] Please eat and drink our tea! This is a happy day!

[My interpreter and I leave after about fifteen minutes. At the front door, I ask Interviewee: Have your expectations of a return been met? You wear a çarşaf now when you go out. Isn’t the headscarf enough?

Interviewee: It is my will. Now I’m working for Allah. It is now my idea, my belief. Come again! I welcome all religions. Everyone is free to choose … Allah is great that way.

Interviewee’s stepmother: Why are you asking all these questions?

My interpreter: She is interested in the position of women.

Interviewee: We are strong women! I dress and live as I wish.

Nilüfer Göle says of the act of veiling that it “cannot easily be explained ether by its enforcement by male members of the family, the impact of rural traditionalism, or the effects of religious education” (Göle 1996:90). The complexity of this act is captured in the above interviewee’s comments about her mode of dressing in Germany and Turkey: “I could wear exactly what I wanted.” and “It is my will [to wear a çarşaf]. Now I’m working for Allah … I dress and live as I wish” represent two of the many perspective on un-/covering. The short skirts that she wore in Germany conformed to Western fashion dictates that were framed by the male gaze. Had she worn a çarşaf in German streets, she would have been subjected to the hostility of a gaze the voyeuristic power of which had been thwarted. Laura Mulvey explains in a different context (in her discussion of Hollywood films):

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (33)

The interviewee’s marriage to a hacı does not necessarily reverse the above gaze. It merely reserves the passive “to-be-looked-at-ness” to a single gaze that is nevertheless equally objectifying. The çarşaf ensures this exclusive possession. Both modes of dressing—mini-skirt or çarşaf—await the objectifying male gaze. Göle quotes Muslim women who have told her:

The veil is not just a concrete thing, a piece of cloth. It is indeed the attempt to reduce the attractions of any woman to the lowest possible degree in her behavior, conversation, and in ways of sitting and standing. [... ] It is necessary to veil so as not to become the object of men's gaze. […] Beauty must be kept hidden in order not to cause disorder and intrigue. (93)

I asked myself then, and continue to do so now: “Are male-dominated societies prescribing both modes of dressing? And in both cases, why is the female held responsible for the moral integrity of the male?” I particularly liked my interviewee’s statement about being empowered by Allah, a higher power that places her beyond the reach of profanely imposed norms.

Zafer Şenocak’s “Ineffable Third Space”

The Muslim hijab brings into focus the situation of Muslim minorities the world over. It is not just this White House that is obsessed with devising inhumane methods to keep Muslims and others out. Walls are appearing the world over—walls of immigration, of racism, of misogyny, of xenophobia, of religious intolerance. Immigrants are being re-imagined as the “other.”

How would Muslim migrant writers find any of these debates helpful for their situation in their adoptive countries? And how can migrant writers resist discrimination and exclusion from mainstream life? My attention to the work of a Turkish-German migrant writer—Zafer Şenocak—may offer some insight into some of the strategies these migrant writers use to cope with the kind of jingoism that has led to the forming of Germany’s Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) or the popularity of France’s Marine Le Pen, who continues to advocate the rejection of immigrants, rejection of the European Union, closed borders, ultra-nationalism, and economic protectionism. Şenocak’s strategy is to discover a “third space” (Şenocak 1997).

The renowned cultural critic Homi Bhabha explains a “third space” in a way that resonates with me (Bhabha 2006). According to Bhabha, the “third space” acts as an ambiguous area that develops when two or more individuals/cultures interact. It

challenges our sense of the historical identity of culture as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by the originary past, kept alive in the national tradition of the People.

According to Bhabha, such a third space initiates new signs of identity and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation. Bhabha explains that the hybrid identity is positioned within this third space, as “lubricant” in the conjunction of cultures.

Şenocak finds his “third space” in Sufism (Şenocak 2001). One of the deep teachings of Sufism is, as I understand it, about mirrors. Everything you see “out there” reflects your inner state. I believe that is the reason why marginalized migrant writers such as Zafer Şenocak have chosen mirrors, the Aina-Khana (the palace of mirrors) of Sufism. The migrant writer’s account of the history of mainstream culture is mirrored, albeit fractured, and leads to self-reflection. The narrator does process the emotional impact of history, inexorably as a fractured gaze.

In Turkey, I had witnessed the Sufi ritual of dancing and the kind of spiritual playfulness that it provided. Zafer Şenocak injects the rhythm of Sufi poetry that lends itself so vibrantly to dancing into some of his poetry, a rhythm that attempts to regain through the wholeness of a Sufi “Aina” (mirror), an identity fractured by border crossings:

Meine Texte stehen auf drei Beinen: Erinnern



Bekanntlich ist das Stehen auf drei Beinen nicht immer eine stabile


Für mich aber ist mehr das Verrücken und Fortschreiten von Bedeutung

als das Stehen.

Das Fortschreiten auf drei Beinen ist eine Bewegungsform zwischen

Gehen und Sich im Kreis Drehen, Tanzen und Stolpern.

Oft genug sieht es lustig aus.

Auf das Gleichgewicht achten und dennoch manchmal auch den Sturz

wagen, das ist Erfinden, Erinnern und Spielen. (ZE 93)

(My texts stand on three legs:




It is well known that standing on three legs is not always a stable matter.

But for me displacement and progressive motion are more significant

than standing.

Progressive motion on three legs is a form of movement between walking

and going around in circles, dancing and stumbling.

Often enough it appears comic.

Pay heed to one's balance and yet at times

risk the fall, that is invention, remembrance and play.) 4

Zafer Şenocak was born in Ankara in 1961 and moved with his parents to Germany at the age of nine. Not surprisingly, given his many provocative interventions in debates on inclusion and exclusion, he is more widely acclaimed among German Studies scholars in the USA than in Germany. He says of his writing:

If one wishes to understand my texts one ought to probably read [the

Qur'an] or at least familiarize oneself a little with the life story of

Mohammed, or with the historical traditions, with Anatolian mysticism. I

do this […] because it is my history. After all I can only write about my

own history. (Cheesman and Yeşilada 2003:76)

I suggest that Şenocak sees in Sufism not a mere tolerant response to contemporary Islamic fundamentalism or the intolerance of the Judeo-Christian world. Sufi mystics seem to provide him a link to a more ambiguous and diverse Islamic past from which he can draw inspiration. At a time when Islam is more often than not held to be synonymous with terrorism and brutality, Şenocak appears to believe that Sufism offers an ambiguity, rather than closing down religious meaning as institutionalized religions tend to do. Sufism thus possibly contributes towards a deconstruction and re-evaluation of Islam. My own reading of Şenocak convinces me that he is exploring a religiosity that is not only compatible with, but also perceivable in sensuous experience. Perhaps the transformative power is in the ineffability of the ritual—here the dance.

In Şenocak’s work, the erotic and the ascetic wed one another in capricious gestures. His poem about his texts standing on three legs— remembering, inventing, playing—provides what B. Venkat Mani calls “identitarian discomfiture” (Venkat Mani 2007).

In an interview published in “” with the provocative title “Between the Sex Pistols and the Koran,” Şenocak says:

Twenty years ago, I was working on a translation of the lyrical works of Yunus Emre, a thirteenth century Anatolian mystic. […] Yunus Emre’s view of the other is very different from the view one finds in religiously motivated texts by Muslim scholars. The borders between belief and non-belief and between the religions was porous, the perception of others was not clouded by the personal rhetoric; much more it was an alienated view of his own person. […] Yunus Emre anchored me in another time and world. It was as if someone from my childhood was guiding me through the translation, a childhood in which Islamic culture, as lived and conceived, played a huge role.

Yunus Emre is considered by many to be one of the most important Turkish poets. Little can be said for certain of his life other than that he was a Sufi dervish of Anatolia. Şenocak says of Emre’s poetry that it expresses a deep personal mysticism and humanism and love for God. He was a contemporary of Rumi (n.d.), who also influenced Şenocak. What attracted Şenocak to Yunus Emre was the fact that the latter traveled and taught among the rural poor in Anatolia, singing his songs in the Turkish language of the common people. Şenocak credits his father for leading him to Sufism:

My father introduced me to mystical texts. He occupied the realm of faith in my world. A man who spent his entire life waging battle against modernity with his faith, and yet completely different from the zealots who regard only their world as valid.

Yunus Emre lived in thirteenth century Anatolia during the Mongol invasions and the Crusades from the west, when the rule of the Seljuk Turks was at its most vulnerable. Social unrest was widespread, and Yunus Emre is said to have been very concerned about the state of the society, especially the condition of the poor. Pinar Akhan says of the mystic (Akhan 2017):

Yunus Emre was from a poor background and spent most of his time in deep contemplation. But at the same time, he was very concerned about the state of the society, everyone’s sorrow was Yunus Emre’s own sorrow.

It is compelling to use Bhabha’s term “third space” to describe Emre’s travel to one of the Sufi schools in Anatolia and his lifetime search for self-realization.

Knowledge should mean a full grasp of knowledge:

Knowledge means to know yourself, heart and soul.

If you have failed to understand yourself,

Then all of your reading has missed its call. (Yunus n.d.)

Yet, another poet comes to mind as a purveyor and occupant of Bhabha’s “third space,” one whose religious syncretism—Bāul mysticism and its lyric poetry, Buddhism, Vedanta philosophy, the Upanishads—is framed by his conviction that hidden truth or wisdom lies in a union with the transcendent realm. Like Şenocak, the Bengali poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore turns to Sufism at a time of social upheaval and oppression. Tagore’s experience of the British Raj and its exploitative and brutal nature led him to create his Utopia: Santiniketan (abode of peace), where he founded a school whose central premise was that learning in a natural environment would be more productive and pleasurable. Just as Şenocak talks about his father’s influence that led him to seek other modes of spiritual being, Tagore says:

My father was a passionate fan of Hafiz. He used to recite the couplets of Hafiz and explain it to me. The image of Iran was drawn through these verses on the canvas of my mind. Sitting at the tomb of Hafiz suddenly I realized a flash of light releasing from the gleeful eyes of the poet of Shiraz and having travelled through many ages reflected upon my heart. It seems as if we both were co-drinkers in the same tavern savoring many cups of the wine of Gnosticism. (Tagore 2003)

The Turkish poet Zafer Şenocak migrated in the year 1970 at age eight with his parents from Turkey to Germany at a time when the latter had barely recovered from a tremendous social and economic upheaval. The impact of World War II had been as violent and disruptive as that wrought in the thirteenth century by the Crusades and the Mongols. However, a new kind of upheaval began in the 1970s when the immigrant labor mainly from Turkey, Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia that had helped rebuild Germany were perceived to have run out of their usefulness. And when these immigrants not only saw no reason to leave, but were joined by their families, immigration became a touchstone of German political debates. These debates around national identity and citizenship have intensified after the 1989 reunification of the two Germanys. It is against this backdrop that Şenocak’s turn to Sufism can be comprehended. Sufism gave Şenocak a “right to argue and intervene equally and effectively in cultures of origin and residence in the contemporary contexts of transnational connections.”

Şenocak replaces the linearity that characterizes Hegelian progressive history with a dizzyingly spiraling upward movement replete with going, turning around in circles, dancing, and stumbling. He searches for that precise moment between maintaining one’s balance and daring to trip and fall that defines that triad of remembering, inventing, and playing. The Sufi mystics and Sufism (“Tasawwuf”), the Jewish mystics and Kabbalah—it is here that Şenocak seeks to revitalize what threatens to become a mere trace in his ear:

The mystics appeal in the background. Kabbala and Tasawwuf, the

neighborhood of a region, yesterday's voice of diverging languages.

Something remains in one's ear. A residual hearing. (Şenocak 2001:96)

Sufi whirling is a form of Samâ or physically active meditation. The immediate goal of Samâ is to reach wajd, which is a trance-like state of ecstasy. Ultimately, the dervishes hope to achieve the unveiling of mysteries and gain spiritual knowledge through wajd by relinquishing one’s ego, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, a movement that has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the solar system orbiting the sun. Şenocak’s triadic “remembering/inventing/playing” finds its equivalent in the integration of reason, form making, and imagining as a total esthetic in Sufism.

Şenocak’s writerly behavior creates a playful symbiosis of the erotic and the ascetic that goes to the core of my understanding of Sufi beliefs.

It is in this sense, reminiscent of a kind of Jungian synchronicity, that I read Şenocak’s work, especially Tongue Removal (2001) (Zungenentfernung). The four segments into which Tongue Removal is divided—Memory Fragments (Gedächtnisfragmente), Focal Points of Alienation (Brennpunkte der Entfremdung), Hybrid Angels (Hybride Engel), and Beyond the National Language (Jenseits der Landessprache)—bring the issues preoccupying Şenocak into instant focus in an apparently unrehearsed sequence. I submit that the arrangement of the four segments adopts the playful imagining and imaging of various forms of the cosmos. It is this seemingly random and capricious refracting of an absolute consciousness inherent in most mystical thinking that Şenocak captures in both poetry and fictional prose. In the chapter entitled “One carries the homeland within oneself,” he says:

Perhaps it is the ability to leave a place, especially a metropolis, that is the actual pre-condition for feeling at home there. Whoever wants to experience the homeland as uniqueness becomes homeless in the metropolises. In Islamic mysticism the human being is described as a guest in the world. The human being suffers at being expelled from paradise. Just an exile.

The struggle that Şenocak maintains throughout his writing he expresses as follows:

The question now is how open we can be without losing ground. The counter question is how we can pull down the shutters without suffocating in our narrowness. (Şenocak 2001:39)5

For Şenocak, it is in the disruption of dichotomies that the birth of a unique “Schreibmythos” (writing myth) emerges, at the point of rupture between rationality and mysticism. Mystical texts have to be separated from a facile connection with the erotic, rejuvenated in such a way that they regain their creative warmth that merges the erotic and the ascetic into the sublime. Şenocak says:

My writing myth had been born. It emerged at the point of rupture between reason and mysticism, at the central railway station of Eros, where going and coming is the elixir of life for all those who have long ceased to wait for the arrival of angels. (Şenocak 2001:100f.)

These points of rupture between reason and mysticism, these third spaces that this writer has found, will hopefully open up several more “ruptures” for thoughtful, deliberative dialogs around the world. The following verses by poets separated by centuries are imbued by the same spiritual energy that embodies Sufism:

If you could get rid of yourself

Just for once

The secret of secrets

Would open to you … (Jalaluddin Rumi, 1207–1273)

Step out of yourself, the universe will respond within.

These swelling waves will break into a dance within

And the soul will be moved. … (Rabindranath Tagore, 1861–1941) (Samantaray 2013)

I climbed up a tree

Became its trunk.

Birds flew over me

On their wings my leaves… (Zafer Şenocak, 1961-)6

Rumi’s words are a synthesis of all three poets:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,

there is a field; I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about. 7

Some Tentative Thoughts About Healing

In 2005, I began using the pedagogy known as “Deliberative Dialog” for teaching contentious issues in the undergraduate classroom. Scott London explains this form of teaching as follows:

"Deliberative dialogue differs from other forms of public discourse — such as debate, negotiation, brainstorming, consensus-building — because the objective is not so much to talk together as to think together, not so much to reach a conclusion as to discover where a conclusion might lie. Thinking together involves listening deeply to other points of view, exploring new ideas and perspectives, searching for points of agreement, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open. [...] a question cannot be solved, but it can be experienced and, out of that experience, a common understanding can emerge that opens an acceptable path to action." – ( London 2005 )

This pedagogy has helped me as an educator to foster greater awareness of the myriad ways in which ungrievable8 groups can choose empowerment from behind “veils” of silence. My students were willing and able to question and transcend the binary categories of traditional/modern, Islam/West, reactionary/progressive, and ignorant/educated that continue to inform our discourse in the West.

My own hope is that those third ineffable spaces that those distant Sufi poets inspired, spaces that writers like Şenocak and Tagore have attempted to occupy, will be available to many more for healing this fractured world of ours (Tagore n.d.).


  1. 1.

    To name a few: Ahmed 1992 and 2011; Esposito 2003; Fernea 1998; Göle 1996; Heath 2008; Kandiyoti 1988; Mernissi 1987 and 1994; Moghissi 2000; Najmabadi 2005; Oestreich 2004; Wierschke 1996, Wadud 1999 and 2006.

  2. 2.

    Ibid, 152.

  3. 3.

    Ibid, 152.

  4. 4.

    All translations from German into English are the author’s, unless otherwise indicated.

  5. 5.

    Şenocak, Zafer. Zungenentfernung. Aus der Quarantänestation. Munich: Babel-Verlag Bülent Tulay, 2001, 39.

  6. 6.

    (Ich stieg auf einen Baum,

    wurde zu seinem Stamm.

    Vögel überflogen mich.

    An ihren Flügeln meine Blätter.)

  7. 7.
  8. 8.

    Judith Butler (2009) explains her use of the emotive adjectives ‘grievable’ and ‘ungrievable’ as follows: “To say that a life is precarious requires not only that a life be apprehended as a life, but also that precariousness be an aspect of what is apprehended in what is living.” (Butler:13)



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Middlebury CollegeMiddleburyUSA
  2. 2.FairfaxUSA

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