Murathan Mungan’s “Çador”: When the past leaves us behind
“To forget the smile on a woman’s face is like seeing a crumpled sun.”
Written in a poetic, almost musical style, Murathan Mungan’s Çador is short as a novella but has the profound density of a novel. This is the story of Akhbar and the women of a nameless country. It could be Afghanistan, it could be anywhere else in this world. Akhbar left his home to go abroad because he wanted to discover another life and be free from all responsibility. While he was far away from his family and friends, his country was destroyed by a war and a strict new Islamic order was established.
The day Akhbar comes back to see his family, he knocks on the door of his childhood home, expecting to look at the face of his mother. A strange woman opens the door, her face invisible behind her burqa. She sends him away. The same scene repeats itself at the former house of his big sister and of his girlfriend. Losing one reference point after another, a feeling of panic starts to invade Akhbar and gradually increases during his desperate search for his past. Nobody seems to know where his family is living now. The only information he gets is that his brother died as a soldier in the Islamic army. The pieces of Akhbar’s identity slowly fall apart, leading him into an existential crisis.
Missed opportunities, death, identity, home and past are some of the most present topics of Murathan Mungan’s novel. Another significant issue the writer highlights is the scary disappearance of women under the burqa. Not only does this garment cover the female body, it also suffocates the female mind. Even though women are still somehow present in society, as Akhbar sees them accompanied by men walking on the streets, they are nevertheless invisible. While he feels observed by the eyes under the burqas, the faces under this thick garment remain unaccessible to him. All women look the same. Many of them are called “Fatima”. In terms of individuality, there is nothing left.
In Çador, Murathan Mungan manages to capture the atmosphere of exile so convincingly that at a point we almost start to feel Akhbar’s anxiety in our own body. It is like living through the nightmare of another person: One day you decide to create yourself a new life in another country. You think that during your absence nothing will change; that everybody will wait for you to come back; that your childhood will be protected by your family. Then you once again stand on the doorstep of your past. And it is home that has turned into exile. His lost past becomes Akhbar’s burqa which he has to wear like an eternal burden. With every person that is being taken away from him he disappears more until nothing is left of him. The only hope left are his own memories. Like the second-hand bookseller he comes across, he can keep his beloved, their lives and their stories hidden in his heart.
You think you can leave the past behind. But what happens when it is exactly the other way around? It might be the past that leaves YOU behind by simply wiping out your existence. All of a sudden, your whole life becomes an illusion.