Parallelizing the Past to the Present

A Book Review of My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

In his book My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk tells a story of miniaturists in sixteenth century Istanbul that provokes reflection on contemporary events in the world. [1] While the connection between the ideologies in the 16th and 20th/21st centuries are implicit, Pamuk’s book offers a metaphoric reading on political, cultural, social, and religious interactions and ideologies of modern-day Turkey.  In My Name is Red, Pamuk aims to educate readers about important themes in 16th century Ottoman Istanbul, and more importantly to show us how those themes can find sympathy and similitude in other historical contexts, particularly in the 12th-13th centuries, when many of the “old masters” referred to in the novel lived. The entire book is an experiment based on collective memory and the politics of nostalgia, as it delicately balances cautious adherence to the past and fearless innovation for the future.

The main conflict in My Name is Red is centered on the disagreement on whether it is legitimate for the Sultan to copy the new styles of the Venetians in miniaturist paintings or not. The Sultan commissions “Enishte,” an expert in Venetian style, to compose a secret book glorifying the Sultan and his reign. To do this, Enishte must work with the Sultan’s workshop of miniaturists, led by Master Osman, a strict adherer to traditional Ottoman and Persian painting methods. 

The difference between the two opposing views sharpens as the novel progresses: the traditionalist view considers it sinful to copy the Venetians and disregard the style of the miniaturist “masters of old,” while the more liberal or progressive view sees no harm and in fact encourages the adoption of the new Venetian style. The translator of My Name is Red, Erdag Goknar, writes that “Pamuk ‘translates’ post-1980s Turkish dilemmas through the medium of an Ottoman context.”[2] Although the connection is not explicit, that these two styles are at odds with each other in the book is representative of (or, to use Goknar’s term, “translates” to) the two main conflicting ideologies in modern-day Turkey: neo-Ottomanism and secularism (or Kemalism). 

The Sultan’s and Enishte’s desire to emulate the Venetians as much as possible and to apply the Venetian ideologies to their Ottoman artwork represents the tension between secularism/Kemalism in modern-day Turkey. Likewise, Master Osman’s contempt for the Venetians represents neo-Ottomanism.

Interestingly, although Enishte is seen by his ideological opponent Master Osman as a threat to tradition, he is depicted as someone with deep respect and belief for the tradition of Islam. This is shown by his love for Surat Al-Imran, his study of Ibn al-Qayyim and Al-Ghazali, his refusal to obey Satan when approached by him in a dream, and other acts indicating his piety throughout the book. This commitment to the Islamic tradition does not materialize in Master Osman, who is more of a cultural traditionalist. As details unfold, it appears that Pamuk positions Enishte as someone who sees his innovative art as a contribution to the tradition of Islam instead of a rebellion against it.

But what is the tradition of Islam?  “A tradition consists essentially of discourses,” writes anthropologist Talal Asad, “that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. […] An Islamic discursive tradition is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.”[3] Enishte was attempting to innovate the “Islamic practice in the present” by combining the Ottoman artistic history (from the Islamic past) with the new Venetian style. 

Master Osman is on the other side of the debate, but there are some nuances. For example, he is not completely against the idea of innovation in the present style although he may seem so at first. He says, “Attempting to combine two separate styles [Ottoman and Venetian], my miniaturists and the barren mind of that deceased clown [Enishte] had created a work devoid of any skill whatsoever. But it wasn’t that the illustration was informed by two different worldviews so much as the lack of skill that incurred my wrath.” If we understand Venetian style to correspond to secularism, and traditionalism to neo-Ottomanism, we can infer that Pamuk is making the argument that it is not a problem that modern-day Turkey is shaped by two very different worldviews, but that it is the “lack of skill” when approaching these views that causes the issue.

Pamuk uses Enishte and Master Osman to convey the ideas of both ends of the spectrum. But if Pamuk is trying to deliver a message to his readers, which one does he want us to accept—that of Enishte or Osman? Modernity or tradition? Kemalism or neo-Ottomanism? Perhaps the lines are not meant to be so neatly drawn, but it seems that Pamuk does not try to raise one of the characters above the other. They are both respected, wise, proud, and at the same time, they are equally flawed. And at the end of the day, their power comes from the sultan. Additionally, their followers (the workshop miniaturists) are neither loyal to either one of the characters nor to any particular art style or ideology. They are loyal only to whoever pays them more. Perhaps Pamuk is trying to show us that the proponents of either of the two main modern-day ideologies have the same characteristics.

This juxtaposition warrants a discussion on cultural memory. Almost ironically, Master Osman is quite the dynamic character. At the beginning, he wants to maintain fidelity to tradition in his workshop. However, once he sees the hundreds of paintings in the Sultan’s treasury, he realizes that the old masters themselves – who were said to have their own styles – were also trying to gain legitimacy by copying what they thought to be even older styles. After examining the paintings, Osman says, “I now understand that by furtively and gradually re-creating the same pictures for hundreds and hundreds of years, thousands of artists had cunningly depicted the gradual transformation of their world into another.” The artwork that Master Osman sees in the treasury was collectively created by hundreds of people across hundreds of places, indicating a change in ideology, policy, and perhaps most importantly, cultural memory across time. Pamuk is trying to show us that modern Turkish art and literature is simply a re-imagination, preservation, and construction of cultural memory of what Turkish society was in the past. He is also showing us that this process of renewing cultural memory is not new in itself; it has been going on centuries before, during the time of My Name is Red, and has been going on for centuries prior to the artworks of the “masters.”

M. Hakan Yavuz has written extensively on Anatolian memory construction and describes cultural memory as what a group of people collectively imagine their shared past to look like. He particularly emphasizes how this memory can change based on what a society (or a select few people in power) envisions in their future, particularly in the context of neo-Ottomanism and how it is constructed in what he calls “opportunity spaces.”[4] These are spaces from which things that shape cultures or ideologies are produced; historical stories, music, or art by miniaturists are some examples. A major part of the conflict in My Name is Red was based upon the traditionalist belief that miniaturists like Master Osman had about the need to adhere to the styles of the past. But when Master Osman reveals to us that this perception of tradition is actually a cultural memory that may not be accurate, we realize that Pamuk is questioning the validity of the neo-Ottomanist call to an ideal past. 

My Name is Red is a complex novel with multiple layers and perspectives. Pamuk draws out the complications between neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism. His conciliatory approach offers a middle path for Turks today who see their differences as irreconcilable, and encourages them to question their ideology, what their ideology is built upon, their cultural memories and cultural nostalgias, their art, literature, and films, and other opportunity spaces. Above all, he prompts them to question him: his narrators, messages, and his legitimacy as an author. 

While this book is specific to the Turkish intellectual conflict, it is also representative of the conflict Muslims face worldwide. We, as an ummah, are split between our own Osmans, Enishtes, and the miniaturists in between who just follow the promise of money–between adherence to tradition, innovation, and just doing what it takes to survive without deeply considering broader implications. Sh. Abdal Hakim Murad discusses these sides of the intellectual conflict in one of his lectures, suggesting that “embracing technology,” modernity, or innovation should be done cautiously. He emphasizes the importance of focusing on how to “ride the tiger of modernity,” indicating that the maneuvering or handling of these intellectual concepts is more important than fully accepting one side over the other. This is similar to what Pamuk seems to suggest in the novel. As implied by the above quote by Master Osman, expressing two different worldviews in one society (or, as he says, “illustration”) is not the issue. Our real aim should be figuring out how to navigate this space – how to “ride the tiger” – skillfully.

Works cited

  1. Pamuk, Orhan. My Name Is Red. Random House, Inc, 1998.
  2. Goknar, Erdag. “Orhan Pamuk and the Ottoman Theme”. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma, 2006.
  3. Asad, Talal. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Occasional Papers Series, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1986.
  4. Yavuz, M. Hakan. “Social and Intellectual Origins of Neo-Ottomanism: Searching for a Post National Vision.” Political Science Department, University of Utah, 2016.

About the author: Ayah Aboelela is a Computer Science Major and Arabic Studies Minor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and a fellow at the Boston Islamic Seminary. She has pursued research in various computational fields, such as bioinformatics and artificial intelligence. With her computational background, she plans to apply her experience to linguistics research in graduate school, with a focus on the Arabic language. She is fascinated by Islamic history and is an enthusiast of Muslim fictional literature. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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