Orhan Pamuk and Turkey’s future

Daria Vaisman
1 December 2006

Turkey's extraordinary and still unfinished year has appeared often to put it at the centre of international affairs. Sometimes it can feel as if all the currents of the modern world - from nationalism to freedom of speech, militarism to migration, religion to women's rights, terrorism to reconciliation with the past - flow through this country.

This is at once a tribute to Turkey's richness of experience and potential, and a challenge to understanding - for modern Turks even more than for their European and other neighbours. Many countries are asking questions of Turkey, but it is the Turks above all who need to find answers to their own predicament.

Daria Vaisman is Caucasus correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and a freelance writer based in Tbilisi and Moscow. She has written for Slate, the International Herald Tribune, Foreign Policy, the New Republic and other publications

Also by Daria Vaisman in openDemocracy:

"Turkey's restriction, Europe's problem"
(29 September 2006)

Each big story in 2006 - from the Danish cartoon crisis to the recurring Kurdish dispute, from the tense negotiations with the European Union to the delicate visit of Pope Benedict XVI - has reinforced the sense of a country in search of itself. This was true perhaps above all in the circumstances around the award of the Nobel literature prize to Orhan Pamuk on 12 October 2006.

Pamuk wrote (in his memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City) of a certain kind of exile: Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins - invariably, we're people who come from the outside."

The formulation is suggestive. To be an exile in a foreign country is one thing, but to be an exile on the street where you grew up takes something else. Orhan Pamuk (as openDemocracy's Anthony Barnett noted) stayed - in the city, even the house, of his childhood - and embraced the world from there.

Also in openDemocracy on Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul and Turkey's writers:

Cem Õzdemir, "My mother's city"
(12 February 2004)

Murat Belge, "Love me, or leave me?" The strange case of Orhan Pamuk"
(October 2005)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey"
(December 2005)

Orhan Pamuk (with Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie), "Freedom to write"
(28 April 2006) – an audio feature from the PEN World Voices festival in New York

Elif Shafak, "Turkey's home truths"
(25 July 2006)

Hrant Dink, "Orhan Pamuk's epic journey"
(16 October 2006)

Two worlds

Such is the strange experience of being Turkish nowadays: it is possible to be an exile simply by staying put. A Turk is both an artifact and victim of empire, able to feel connected to the great Ottoman past yet aware of the impossibility of ever returning to it. Modern Europe may view the ruins of Greece and Rome via a lens of triumphalism as much as nostalgia; but in Turkey, Pamuk writes, "ruins are reminders that the present city [Istanbul] is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to the same heights."

Europe's relationship to its own past is, as a result, less fraught than Turkey's. This is one reason why the tensions between the two cultural and political worlds carry such an electric charge. Nowhere was this more evident than in the decision by the lower house of the French parliament (on the very day of Pamuk's Nobel award) to propose making it illegal to deny that a genocide of Armenians occurred in Turkey during the first world war.

At the time, the connection between the legislation and Turkey's future choices - between EU membership and a more middle-eastern (and Islamic) state - may seemed little more than coincidence. But the symbolic import of the legislation is profound: "Europe" is here asking Turkey to swallow both its humiliation, and its sense of being a victim of a double standard, in order to join the European club. Will this be needed for the Turks to make their country's ruins into "museums of history" (Pamuk) and surrender hope for their return?

Pamuk himself is at the centre of the controversy. It was he who he told the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeige in February 2005 that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it" (comments which made Pamuk the most prominent target of the notorious "insult law" cases, in which individuals have been charged with "denigrating Turkishness"). Although Pamuk's case was eventually dismissed on a technicality, other writers - among them Hrant Dink, Elif Shafak, and Murat Belge - have since been tried under the same law.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, echoed the opinion of many Turks when he suggested that the timing of the French legislation was not accidental. It was "unfortunate", he said, "that the first time Turkey receives a Nobel prize comes with the legislation. The issue would not have appeared so political had the French not voted on the legislation the same day the award was given."

For Turkey, this is nothing less than hypocrisy. Europe, Turks say, demands that the country agree to a freedom of expression which the European Union itself does not uphold. Turkey is blocked from joining the EU because of restrictions on freedom of speech if which Europe itself is guilty.

"We are told to be tolerant of ideas that we don't like, and it's very ironic that we are hearing the contrary from a European country", said Muge Sokmen of Metis Press (which publishes Elif Shafak). "Freedom of expression is not a political thing", says Sokmen. "It is a means to control Turkey with the message they themselves do not want to be controlled."

From the Turkish perspective, then, the French law is another form of condescension - more EU-mandated hoops - much like a country club with ever-changing, arbitrary, rules designed to deny membership for every reason but for those stated.

In Turkey, the question of genocide presses a nerve. The combination of the French law, the Nobel award and Orhan Pamuk's track-record on the Armenian issue put him at the centre of the controversy. For all Turks (the religious, the secular strong-armed military; the liberal, secular Istanbullu), Pamuk's prize was double-edged.

The victory of a Turkish writer, writing in Turkish, is cause for celebration. Turks chafe at the suggestion that Pamuk's literary merits were not enough to win him the Nobel; Pamuk is an exquisite writer, many say, and to see his award as laced with politics (and anti-Turkey politics at that) is a further insult.

Yet even for his admirers the event was tinged with regret. Pamuk made himself famous, some say, only by virtue of his comments on genocide. Several expressed the thought that Pamuk had spoken out on the fate of the Armenians to achieve international fame.

For those on the conservative side, things are far clearer. Kemal Kerincsiz, the Turkish nationalist lawyer who helped bring criminal charges against Pamuk, said that Pamuk had not won the Nobel for his work, but "because he belittled our national values...As a Turkish citizen I am ashamed." For both sides if in different ways, suspicion remains that no matter his literary skill, Pamuk's prize is Europe's way of making a political statement.

The inside outsider

There is no way to resolve this contradiction - yet. If and when it can be, the route will start and finish in Turkey itself. This is the deeper significance of Pamuk for Turkey in 2006. As much as there is Pamuk the political figure or social gadfly, there is the literary Pamuk, who brought the bestseller to Turkey, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of his books in a country with a notably small reading public. His work is sold at shops and on street corners. He may have rejected the much-coveted position of Turkey's "state artist" in 1998 on political grounds, but that is what he has effectively become.

During his insult-law trial, Pamuk was accused by his critics of a fetishising orientalism - of seeking to exoticise Turkey to the west, of selling it (and himself) to the foreigner. It is an accusation that has been levelled in comparable circumstances (Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie and Azar Nafisi are among the targets).

In these cases, the provocation is what is seen as the arrogance of self-imposed exile. But Orhan Pamuk chose another path: that of an insider's outsider - someone who belongs and is attuned to a single, unique place while retaining the inner distance that enables its transformation into universal meaning, and thus opens the way to its renewed self-discovery.

It is in this sense that Orhan Pamuk is emblematic of Turkey's convulsive 2006. The Nobel award and all that surrounded it may be a sign of where Europe wants to see Turkey, but more importantly it is a sign of where Turkey is coming to see itself. Pamuk, in his self-imposed exile, committed himself to staying on to continue the conversation. In doing so, he offers a truth that will outlast the disputes and tensions of the political year.

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