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'Love me, or leave me?' The strange case of Orhan Pamuk

About the author
Murat Belge is editor of Iletisim Publishing House and Yeni Gündem and is Head of the Department of Comparative Literature at Bilgi University.

Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most respected and critically acclaimed authors, will appear on trial on 16 December. He is charged with publicly denigrating Turkish identity, following an interview in February with the Swiss journal Tages-Anzeiger, where he made a statement about the one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds killed in Turkey. According to Article 301 of the new Turkish Penal Code, this crime is punishable by six months to three years of prison.

When this interview was translated and published in Turkey, and the Turkish media helped create a clamour against the speaker of these blasphemies, Turkish prosecutors probably felt that their career demanded them to intervene. The prosecutor for the city of Istanbul, after questioning Pamuk, decided not to start a case. The prosecutor of Şişli, however, had a different view and prepared his file. This is the court that Pamuk is now summoned to.

Though this trial is a new “event” in Orhan Pamuk’s life, it is not the first time he has been harassed by the Turkish media. In this period when everything in Turkey has to fall in line according to its position vis a vis “entry to the European Union”, Pamuk has gradually been pulled into the inner circles of this fight.

Origins of the “anti-Pamuk sentiment”

In this age of “mass culture,” Orhan Pamuk belongs to that rare breed of good authors whose books sell at the rate of “best-sellers”. When sales of his book The New Life scored above 100,000 in the mid-1990s, a columnist in a mainstream (nationalist) paper published an article entitled “They are lying!” in which he accused Orhan Pamuk and his publishing house of fabricating these figures as a publicity stunt and an advertisement for the book.

The writer was sued and eventually sentenced to pay a fine for this libel; but, in the meantime he also quoted passages from an article by an aged historian, who cited examples from Pamuk’s works in which he apparently said critical and/or ironic things about the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Atatürk. For certain people among the Turkish establishment this is enough to brand anyone as a “traitor”. Many others, including certain novelists, attacked Pamuk, not only on this account but many others as well. Some claimed that he did not know Turkish, others said he was a very bad novelist, but all of them agreed that he would do anything to ensure a commercial success for his latest work.

The literary world of Turkey has been divided since into those who hate and those who do not hate Orhan Pamuk (the range of emotion in the second grouping varies greatly though there is greater harmony in the first). The number of fans and admirers begins to rise steeply as we move from the writers’ to that of the readers’ circle.

More articles by Murat Belge on openDemocracy:

“Between Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome” (December 2004)

“Bombs on Istanbul” (November 2003)

“The Turkish refusal” (May 2003)

“Turkey – normal at last?” (November 2002)

“Inside the fundamentalist mind” (October 2001)

For these articles and more see openDemocracy’s debate on the “Future of Turkey”

But it is not a question of literary taste only. As mentioned, the case of Orhan Pamuk has been drawn into the struggle about the European Union. This is mainly because everything is eventually drawn there, but there are certain reasons that make it more understandable that Pamuk should be part of it.

From the point of view of the nationalists in Turkey the world is now divided into “us” and “them” and it is obvious that a man like Orhan Pamuk stands closer to “them” than to “us”. Pamuk is not a “political writer”; but he is aware of the role expected from an intellectual and is willing to play it. Consequently, he has taken a human and democratic attitude in the many problems Turkey is facing. Including the Kurdish one. This is not an attitude approved by the nationalist front in the country and he has been attacked by a motley chorus on every occasion when he voiced a critical comment on the current policies.

This has led the nationalists and also those members of the “Orhan Pamuk Haters’ Club” among the literati to the conclusion that Pamuk adopts these critical postures because he wants to reach the Nobel Prize in literature. This syndrome of the “Nobel Prize” is peculiar to Turkey through the nationalist front: convinced that all the world is united in a series of conspiracies against Turkey, they contend that such a prize can be given to a Turkish writer only if he assumes the outside world that he is and will remain a traitor to Turkey.

This year, Pamuk’s candidacy to the prize was reported in the Turkish media (accuracy uncertain), but it went to Harold Pinter. Pinter is well-known in Britain as well as the rest of the world as a consistently oppositional writer. But it is unlikely that his controversial position is interpreted in his country as the revelation of his desire to get the Nobel Prize. Such an assertion was not heard about other critical writers in other countries – for instance no one thought of Sartre’s endeavours for the Nobel when he condemned French presence in Algeria and on other occasions. But in Turkey, or among the nationalists in Turkey, the Nobel is conceived as yet another instrument to wrong Turks. Yaşar Kemal, another Turkish writer who was a candidate has also often been accused of cherishing similar aspirations.

It is difficult to understand the logic of this argument since writers are usually people who have their own opinions and who are accustomed to express these opinions, without an overdue attention to the distribution of “prizes” in the world. There is no reason to make Turkish writers an exception in this respect.

Anti-Pamuk sentiment has flared up and subsided on various occasions, usually following his statements published abroad, since that first challenge about being a liar (concerning number of sales) brought the literary enemies of Orhan Pamuk to the same camp as the nationalists. One could almost say that this was turning into a regular pattern. However, the latest statement about the “million Armenians” and “30,000 Kurds” caused a reaction which went well beyond the borders of that pattern.

With the help of support by the media (mainstream included) the reaction turned into mass hysteria, with groups organising noisy demonstrations to rant and rail against Pamuk and the governor of a certain town even began to search for his books in bookstores to burn them. Pamuk was actually threatened with death during the hate rallies organised by the far right. He was abroad as the hullabaloo started and understandably felt obliged to delay his return for a few months.

It was in this context that the prosecutor, not of Istanbul but of Şişli, decided to open a case and start a trial against Orhan Pamuk. The media, on the other hand, as usual, tried to re-establish some balance after the first volleys and to extinguish at least some of the fires they had started.

Pamuk’s statement

What was so offensive in Orhan Pamuk’s statement? A response claiming to give a full account of that would take us away from our present issue and so let’s suffice with a brief summary.

The question of the Armenian massacre, although ninety years have passed by, is the hottest issue in Turkey at the moment. In fact, it has grown more flagrant than it used to be before the 1970s, because generations have grown up without having the least information about it, unless they were told about Armenian atrocities against Turks. The assassinations conducted by Asala from the 1970s onwards contributed to this feeling of victimisation and being the object of an international campaign of slander. This quite widespread “innocence” has been the strongest ally of those nationalists who actually approve of what was done but for strategic-political reasons believe that it has to be denied completely.

In the prevailing political atmosphere in Turkey, any question that pops up, especially any topic that shows Turks in a not very favourable light, is used as new fuel in the anti-EU campaign. The question of the Armenian massacre is very handy in this context. Therefore Pamuk’s statement and the utterance of the figure “million” acted as the desired spark to explode this barrel of gunpowder.

The second part of the statement, about “30,000 Kurds killed”, would normally not have been as explosive as the first. It has become customary in Turkey to refer to Abdulla Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the largest Kurdish armed group, the PKK, as “The Murderer of 35,000 people” and as people prefer more exaggerated numbers, this has been climbing towards 45,000. If that is the case, obviously the proportion of the Kurds in the total is much greater. Apparently, anger was aroused because in this formulation by Pamuk the Turkish casualties were not given the necessary respect.

But Pamuk’s assertion angered two groups of people independently from the clamour caused by these figures. He added a phrase about being the only one to reveal such facts, which was not quite correct, as so many people have been talking about these topics. He also told his interviewer, getting annoyed at his style of asking questions, that he sounded like a Turkish journalist. This irritated many in the Turkish media and probably provoked their strong reaction which in turn vented itself in urging the readers to a strong protest against Pamuk.

Turkey, its "traitors", and the rest of the world

Such tension has to be shortlived since people cannot sustain it without losing their health. So now there is relative calm. Since the initial furore Pamuk has recently appeared on a TV channel (for the first time since the incident) and has made some appeasing remarks which have found friendly echoes from the press. But the situation remains interesting as well as precarious.

The interesting point is the relationship of Turkish society with the subject of success (“international success” in particular). The majority of citizens are usually quite happy with some cup in football or other athletic fields (as in many other countries); but the intelligentsia feel the need for artistic or scientific, that is, some intellectual prowess. There is not evidence of an overpowering Turkish presence in such areas.

In the past, the Turkish political system and the political elites who supplied the cadres to run that system were not happy with the handful of intellectuals who attained some international degree of renown. Nazim Hikmet, the best known and widely respected Turkish man of letters, was seen as a traitor in the country. Few intellectuals could escape prison for over sixty years and some had to meet worse fates (like Sabahattin Ali killed as he tried to escape from the country).

Within the relatively democratised climate of the present time, Hikmet (and others) are honoured within Turkey as well. But what will happen with the living representatives of Turkish intellectual life?

Orhan Pamuk is now the obvious “success story” – translated into fairly odd languages and receiving important awards all over the world as well as being mentioned in the context of the Nobel Prize. At the same time, he is the writer and speaker of words which, according to our nationalist ideology, should make him the object of national hatred. The fascist movement of the day has duplicated the old American slogan of “Love it or leave it”; in the case of Orhan Pamuk the alternatives may be more drastic: are we to accept and love him, or to reject and hate him?

For the ordinary citizen, who is naturally inclined to like his work anyway, it is more difficult to give up that feeling of success which Pamuk can always bring to his country. For the nationalist front, however, that success is undesirable because it is conferred as the prize of defaming the Turkish nation.

This front, at the present phase of its struggle, is not in need of “success stories”. The particularly elitist and “patrician” Turkish establishment, now threatened by democracy as the inevitable consequence of the partnership in the EU, is trying to fight off this danger by instigating nationalist hysteria in the street. Therefore it needs a “wounded national pride”, “lethal international conspiracies against the country”, or “evil plans to ‘divide the country.’”

As any event is used and abused to contribute to this paranoia, there can be no guarantee against Orhan Pamuk once more being branded as the scapegoat. There are those who, even if they belong to the nationalist camp in broad terms, are in favour of entry into EU, and for those either such campaigns in the street, or the kind of trial coming from above, are detrimental to the Turkish cause. For the hard core, however, anything that will help Europe to reject Turkey, such as Turkish justice condemning Orhan Pamuk, is highly desirable as a valuable step on the road leading away from Europe, into God knows where.


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