Memories of A Moderate Muslim Woman

By Teo Sagisman

I lost both my parents at what I consider a young age.  My religious background is that of a secular Turkish Muslim but I now consider myself a spiritual seeker more than religious.  I lost my father when I was only five years of age.  My paternal grandfather, originally from Eastern Turkey, had migrated to Istanbul in the early 1900’s.  His last name, Sagisman, I later discover belonged to a list of Jewish converts to Islam (Dönmeh) who followed Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) a 17th-century Jewish Kabbalist who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah but was eventually forced by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV to convert to Islam.  After Sabbatai’s conversion, a number of Jews followed him into Islam and became the Dönmeh.  Since the 20th century, many Dönmeh have intermarried with other groups and most have assimilated into Turkish society.  Although a few still consider themselves Jews, the Dönmeh are not officially recognized as such by Jewish authorities.   

My father was a secularist who dedicated his life to service in the Turkish army, which upheld the ideals of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, who recognized the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. Dad was a young colonel at the time of his passing. My mother, Nezahat Candas, came from an Anatolian family in Ankara (Ancient Angora), which practiced a form of Islam not yet spoiled or corrupted by 20th century politics.  Their version of Islam was innocent and lacked political agendas of today’s divisive environment.  I was thirty-four when she passed at the young age of sixty-nine, even though I miss her immensely, I consider myself lucky to have spent the amount of time I had with her.  

My maternal grandparents were devout Muslims who wanted their daughters to have an education in basic Islamic principles.  To that end, they hired a Quran tutor for my mother and her sister so that they could learn the tenets of the Islamic religion.  These lessons with the local imam began, I believe, when my mother was about fifteen and her sister, my Aunt Aysel, was eleven.  My mother immediately rejected the idea of covering her head, a choice that she was free to make.  She received no argument or pressure from her tutor and imam who understood and accepted her decision.  He explained that modesty lies within the one’s heart and actions, not how one dresses.  My grandfather was also supportive of both his daughters’ resistance to wearing the hijab and he never insisted.  The current societal pressures of donning a headscarf did not exist in the Turkey of my mother’s time; women were given the option without worry of pressure from neighbors or society in general. 

Growing up in a Muslim country with a single mother was strange at times.  When my father passed in 1970, my mother was a beautiful and vibrant forty-year old living in a Muslim society that monitored the behavior of attractive young widows.  My mother was always vigilant about her encounters with men even those she allowed into our home to make repairs. 

Our apartment keeper, Sehriban, was a tough-ass rural Anatolian migrant woman who chewed tobacco and wore traditional Anatolian clothing.  Sehriban worked hard to chase away predatory married Muslim men who sometimes stalked my mother.  From the moment Sehriban met our family and learned that my mother was a widow raising two young sons, she determined to ensure our protection.  Aunt Sehriban would spread the rumor that our father was with the (MIT) Turkish Special Services, a governmental agency that was the Turkish equivalent to the Soviet KGB.  The Turkish Special Service members enjoyed notorious reputations at the time, working to quell the communists and Kurdish separatism that threatened the very existence of Ataturk’s Republic.   

I remember the time when my mother and Aunt Sehriban laughed joyfully about a certain married merchant who approached Sehriban about the single woman who lived in her apartment with her young boys.  Sehriban told him not to fuck with my mother, as her husband was a colonel who went underground to fight the communists and separatists on behalf of the government.  She told him that there was a chance he would go missing if he messed with my mother.  Sehriban gleefully relayed how the fearful merchant ran for his life.       

A few weeks after my father’s passing my mom decided to get a driver’s license so that she could drive the family car. My father had signed up to purchase a primitive Turkish made car through the army’s loan program, paying on it in advance for years before the car was finally delivered.  Unfortunately, a few weeks after the car arrived, he died never able to enjoy his clunker Soviet style car named “Anadol”.  Pissed off at one guy’s remarks about women not capable of driving, my mom wanted to make a special point of learning how to drive so that we could all enjoy the car in his honor.  

During the 1970’s in Turkey, there were only a handful of women drivers as most women were seen as incapable of such a task by the macho-minded men mostly guided by the Islamic principles.  I remember the time after she received her license, how people used to stare at us while she was driving.  Curious kids would run behind us screaming, “look at the woman driving, look at the woman driving!”  They may as well have screamed “space aliens.” I realize that in mother’s determination to drive, she was making a point; she was capable of caring for herself and her children, and the macho-minded Islamic society was going to have to accept her independence. 

The present religious climate in Turkey is very different from the one my mother encountered and challenged.  There is a sense of resentment between the religious and secular groups.  Forget about the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim strife that dominates so much of our news. In present-day Turkey, the secularists resent the Islamic rise of power and the Islamic government is slowly eroding the rights of a secular republic.  A secular Muslim can be hateful towards conservative Muslim women who may chose to cover, and conservative Muslims often belittle and demean those who choose not to wear a headscarf.  When taking all these in consideration, I have realized the importance of moderation and the need for moderate women everywhere—women like my mother.  Instead of following religion and culture blindly, sometimes the rules need to be bent and customs tweaked. 

Even though my mother read the Quran daily and performed her daily prayers, she never pressured her sons to do the same.  She never forced us to go to a Mosque or told us we were going to hell for Islamic theological reasons.  She raised us with basic moral values that did not include a passage from Quran with every other sentence.  She bent the rules occasionally to adapt the realities of life and yet still kept her faith, which was a very important part of her life.   

On one occasion, when she came to United States for a visit, I remember her meeting my girl friend Heather and her dog Zen.  In Islam, dogs are frowned upon.  Many devout Muslims somehow consider the dog dirty creatures.  This may be due to the Prophet Muhammad’s personal dislike towards the dogs.  After meeting Zen, my mother told me that in order for her to perform her prayers in my house, the dog had to go.  She said, “the angels won’t come to the house!”  I think it was superstition speaking on her behalf.  I agreed to her wishes without difficulty as Heather and Zen had their own apartment.  A few weeks later, Heather and I had to go out of town on an overnight trip and I asked my mother if she could watch over Zen.  She reluctantly took him as she was always eager to help me, especially if she knew I was in a bind.   

We returned to find Zen lounging in bed with my mother, and she reacted as if we had caught her in bed with a strange man!  She said that she bathed had him, made him a floor bed surrounded with stuffed animals in her room, talked to Zen about not disturbing her while she prayed, and pronounced him good company.  My mother no longer understood dogs as unclean nor could they keep her from creating a pure space to perform her prayers.  Afterward, Zen was a part of her life along with her prayers.  She took him for walks everyday and insisted he stayed with her during her visits.  She saw him as an angel on earth contrary to most Muslim’s belief.

On another occasion, I took her to a café to have lunch.  We ordered her first American style pizza covered in sausage, pepperoni and cheese.  She loved it and helped me devour every little piece.  For those of you who may not be familiar with Islamic tenets, it is a huge sin for a Muslim to eat pork or pork products.  By some accounts, you are condemned to hell!  As you guessed, the pepperoni and sausage was made of pork.  After enjoying her pizza, she asked about the unidentified meat she had just eaten.  I paused and tried to weigh my response, fearing how she would respond to knowing she had consumed pork.  Not wanting to lie, I blurted out that the delicious meats were indeed pork!  She was silent for a moment and I still remember the big smile on her face as she waved her hand in the air, like she always did when she wanted to say screw it, and said, “That was very tasty.  My God won’t count this as a sin!”   

My mother was a great example for me and later in life, I would appreciate her strength and her need to question the rules.  My mother believed that God endowed us with a mind and will of our own and that mind was meant to question the rules society, tradition, culture, and religion force upon us.  This, my friends is moderation in religion and in life, and any one of us could learn from her open, curious, and practical approach to life.

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