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Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer, whose trial on charges of "insulting Turkishness" was dropped earlier this year, has won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature for his book Snow which is a metaphor for chaos. Excerpts of Maureen Freely's interview with Pamuk from Granta 93: God's Own Countries.
Last December — three days before he went on trial for 'publicly denigrating Turkishness'— I interviewed Orhan Pamuk. Over the past three years, I have translated three of his books. We have known each other a lot longer than that. I grew up in Istanbul, on the campus of what is now called Bogazii University. Pamuk attended Robert Academy, which in those days was on the same campus; I went to the sister school on the neighbouring hill.
So the Istanbul that Pamuk describes in his books is the lost city of our youth. We met at two in the afternoon in his office-cum apartment which is located on Susam Sokak, which means Sesame Street. Like all the other places where Pamuk spends his days, it is a temple to the book. Directly ahead of us there was a mosque with two minarets and a dome crowned by a crescent.
As I looked through the mosque's two minarets, Pamuk told me how, when the mosque was lit up for evening prayers during the month of Ramadan, he could see right through its beautiful large arched windows to the sea. There was a cloud hanging over Pamuk that day. From the outside, the case against him made no sense at all. Inside Turkey, it was fraught with significance. Even the date — December 16, 2005 — had anominous resonance to some: Pamuk's trial had been scheduled to begin exactly a year after the EU agreed to set a date for accession talks for Turkey.
Why would Turkey want to play into its enemies' hands? Most European observers thought it must have something to do with Islam. Though Turkey's ruling party was officially pro-Europe, it was also overtly Islamist. Did this strange action against Pamuk signal a turn to the East? The burning question was not whether Turkey should face East or West, but whether it was now mature enough to allow for more diversity of opinion and confident enough to face up to its historical ghosts.
In Turkey last year, the matter was complicated by the the rise of anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim sentiment in the same countries. It was further compounded by more general fears and anxieties about modernisation, especially in the more traditional parts of Anatolia—which Pamuk himself explored in his novels The New Life and Snow, and which he has called the 'Dostoevskian feelings of love and hate towards the West'.
Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most celebrated novelist was born in 1952 and has dominated the literary scene in Turkey for the past twenty-five years. But it was only with the publication of his third novel, The White Castle, in 1990 that he became available in English. It attracted a small but dedicated following that grew with the publication of The Black Book in 1995 and The New Life in 1997. In 2003 he won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his sixth novel, My Name is Red.
Though he had by then won several prestigious European prizes, it was this book that won him a place in the literary pantheon. His two most recent books, Snow and Istanbul: Memories of a City, have confirmed that place and brought him admiring readers throughout the world. But the better he has done in the outside world, the more controversial he has become at home. This is partly due to a powerful ambivalence about Turks who do well in the West, but also due to Pamuk's controversial and widely covered views on human rights, the Kurds and Turkey's power elites. His high profile in Europe and the United States meant that he could sometimes say things that might land a lesser-known writer in deep trouble.
But whenever he was interviewed in the West, journalists were inclined to dramatise the political context, especially after 9/11. Sooner or later, these pieces would end up in rather dubious translations in the Turkish media. The increasingly nationalist right-wing press would go on to quote from them out of context and accuse him of making Turkey look bad abroad. It was in their interest, too, to present Pamuk as an anomaly and a lone voice. This was hardly true: as Pamuk himself had pointed out on numerous occasions, there was a long tradition of dissent in Turkey.
But in recent years, there had been a gradual easing of sanctions and it was in the same spirit that Pamuk made his infamous remark to a Swiss journalist who interviewed him in Istanbul in February last year. The conversation turned to Turkey's EU bid and its attitude to freedom of expression. Knowing that there was soon to be a conference on the Ottoman Armenians, he remarked that 'thirty-thousand Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands' and went on to suggest that the time had come to break the silence.
This was the last straw for Turkey's nationalists with some columnists going so far as to brand Pamuk a traitor and to invite 'civil society' to take steps to silence him. During this time Pamuk stayed abroad for a few months, returning from New York when the hate campaign seemed to be dying down. Then, last summer, he was called in for questioning by two public prosecutors. One decided that there was no case to be made, and the other charged him under Article 301 of the new penal code for 'publicly denigrating Turkish identity'.
The news caused a furore in Europe, and it quickly became clear that it had done irreparable damage to Turkey's dreams of joining the EU. Though the tabloid press scared many of his potential allies into silence, the nationalists had a less pronounced effect on public opinion. The majority of Turks still wanted the country in the EU. But as the debate raged on, so too did the hate campaign against Pamuk. This was the state of play, then, when I walked into Pamuk's office on December 13, 2005. My first question was how it had affected his work.
Pamuk: Unfortunately, I have hardly been able to write for the last three months. I am still trying. But I know my imagination. I need certain things to write with some pleasure and intensity. But now, I'm expected to be clarifying, clarifying, clarifying my statements. This lost spirit of irresponsibility is what I'm hoping to gain back. No author wants to lose the respect, the interest or the love of the nation. Especially when the nation in question is so troubled with its self-image. That's why I always try to clarify, clarify, clarify. And why I fight back when they spread disinformation and lies about me, hoping to damage my reputation here.
I always make it clear that what I am criticising are these laws that prohibit freedom of expression — and the culture that tolerates them, that allows this suppression to continue.
Freely: How do you hold your own in such a climate? I have an office, and a home, and every day I wake up early and try to write for three, four hours, where no one can reach me, and write something, for the novel I'm trying to finish. How did you get involved in politics?
Pamuk: As a teenager, I was interested in leftist ideas. But then I was, as they would say, an 'apartment boy'. Now we all live in apartments, but in my childhood the apartment was a novelty, a Western, modern thing. The other word was 'pudding boy', which means a boy who will not be brave and strong and love his sword and fight through the streets. I preferred reading Virginia Woolf to politics. Even when I was 17 or 18, I could see that politics, the more radical it was, the more communitarian it seemed. Which was not the kind of thing that I wanted to do. I always said, I will write novels.
I had good Marxist friends who would come to my house and see lots of books. This won me some respect, but after a while a sort of a resentment, too. Probably they thought that a book-reading person like me who was not interested in politics was wasting his talents. Naive, proud sentiments like this are, I believe, quite typical in poor countries. But for me, Turkey with its Ottoman legacy was not just a poor country. So eventually I gained respect for being committed to writing novels.
I shouldn't have had anything to do with politics. But then there was the war that the Turkish state waged against the Kurdish separatist guerrillas. The state wanted to hush freedom of speech, they thought it would serve them better if we had a quiet country. After The New Life, which came out in Turkey in 1994, people began to ask me to do things. I think the dramatic moment that everyone remembers took place after a Kurdish newspaper was bombed during the war with the separatist guerrillas. Many of us went out to Beyoglu and distributed newspapers there.
I was on television with all the others, and that was the beginning of my political persona. Once I'd done that, the establishment denounced me as a sort of enemy. This was the beginning of the character-killing campaign. It continued from that day to today.
Freely: Throughout Pamuk's ordeal, I had been working on a retranslation of The Black Book. Set in Istanbul in 1980, nine months before the most brutal coup in Turkey's recent history, it follows a young husband as he combs the city for his missing wife, whom he suspects of having gone into hiding with a relation who also happens to be Turkey's most celebrated and controversial columnist. But I couldn't help wonder how long it had been since Pamuk had been able to walk these streets in peace?
This was why I found it particularly appealing when Pamuk suggested that instead of staying inside all afternoon, we follow Galip's steps through the old city and see how much had changed in the twenty-five years since he'd walked these streets. Walking through the flea market that now dominated the square we headed for Sahaflar, the old second-hand book market just next to the entrance to the Covered Bazaar. 'I used to spend so much time here,' Pamuk said. 'I'd come here with my mother's car, and park it around Sleymaniye Mosque, and I bought so much.'
As we continued through the market, he pointed out a bookshop that was once run by a famous sheikh. 'I mentioned this in The Black Book,' Pamuk said. 'His name is still on the door, I think. He was a great bookseller, but when I was a teenager, I'd go in and ask, do you have such and such a book? And they would not have the book I was looking for.' After passing another beautiful Sinan mosque (Sehzade Cami) we arrived at Vefa Bozacisi, where Atatrk had once come to drink its famous fermented-millet drink. Before we went in, we stopped to buy a bag of chickpeas.
It was, he said, unthinkable to drink boza without first speckling it with chickpeas. 'You don't have to drink it if you don't like it.' I liked it. It was smooth and thick and nutty, with a slight kick to it. There was a small amount of alcohol in boza, Pamuk told me,'The Ottomans pretended that 20 bottles was equivalent to half a glass of wine. This meant they could say it did not really count as alcohol.' But for him it seemed to be the wrong time of day for drinking boza. 'I like to have it at night, after dinner.
That's what I'm used to. Do you want another one?' By now it was dark outside, and a cold wind was getting colder. Pamuk suggested going to his house for some tea. We took a taxi and headed towards the district of Nisantasi, where Pamuk grew up and lives now. Pamuk Apartments was built by Pamuk's family in the early 1950s after deciding that their old stone mansion was too Ottoman, and therefore not in keeping with Atatrk's Westward-looking dream.
Pamuk: I think something changed with that with The Black Book — that everything interesting you've done since stems from what you started there. Is that how you understand it? In 1982 I published my second novel. At that time there was horror going on in Turkish prisons. And no freedom of speech at all, except that if you wrote a historical novel or a novel which didn't say much about politics, it was permissible. Around that time, in 1985, I met Harold Pinter.
He came on a human rights mission to Istanbul with Arthur Miller and other foreign observers. I was their guide. The military proposed a constitution, the whole nation was going to vote for it. Ninety per cent was in favour… But that was not a free referendum by Western standards. One of my cousins called me to say that some Swiss newspaper people were looking for a person who could criticise the proposed constitution on TV. My cousin didn't know any left-wing intellectuals, so he asked me if I did.
Anyway, I said okay, I will find someone. With a friend, for two days, we went to see other friends—professors who had been kicked out of university but were not in jail. These were all good guys but then they were making the right decision not to talk, because if they talked they would get into trouble.
My friend said, okay, Orhan, you talk. But at that time I was not politically outspoken. They were looking for someone working in human rights. So I did not talk in the end. But Galip, my hero, does. I was going to include a football match with a major European team. Everywhere my hero Galip went, the whole nation would be there, listening. In those days, Germany–Turkey games would end 7–0. I thought that would be good to demonstrate the national defeat, the anger, the frustration…
While Galip searched for someone to make a political comment, not only could he not find them, but on the radio, the whole of Istanbul would be listening to the score. One to zero, three to zero, five to zero… So The Black Book began as a sort of quest novel, set in a big city. I began to write the novel in 1985, and it was published in Turkey in 1990, and in between I managed to invent this texture.
I got the idea of changing Istanbul to an ocean of signs, some of which my hero can read, some of which he cannot understand. And if he doesn't understand them, all the better, because it adds a layer of mystery. Later I read that this was called a 'palimpsest', but I did not know that word then. But one year after I wrote The Black Book, a Turkish director whom I admired and who is dead now, mer Kavur, came to me and said, let's make a movie. I told him many stories. But he didn't like them.
So finally I told him a story from The Black Book — the one about the photographer. I based it on Attar's The Conference of the Birds. He said, let's make that into a film. We worked together on the script. But each time I came back to him with my pages, he'd say, 'Orhan you have a tendency to'—he was French-educated — 'surcharge.' That stayed with me. Because he was saying, don't surcharge. Don't overload! This was a movie and you had to be quick, lean. I learned so many things about writing from Kavur. But that word surcharge stayed with me. I am a surcharge person. I try to avoid overloading, but character, I think, is destiny and so I continue to overload.
Galip in my book is in search of something, and he finds it in himself. It's a very Sufi thing: don't look for worldly things, it's all inside. I read all these Sufi texts in the early and mid-1980s in Turkey and the United States. My whole Sufi experience was nothing but reading Rumi with Borges and Calvino in mind. But once I had a taste for it… For Turks, novel writing was a whole political and perhaps ideological package. Reading Balzac, reading Western classics, had a leftist, modernist, occidentalist connotation here, while reading old Sufi or Islamic classics was something very conservative.
Freely: You mean it got lost between the cracks of the two ideologies? Today you can go into a bookshop and find all sorts of religious and modern books. But in my youth a bookshop would either be Western, modern and left-leaning, or Islamic and conservative. The country was more divided culturally then. For the likes of me, religion was almost a hidden thing.
Except for this or that religious uncle or neighbour. And the old guys did
not wish to interfere with modernity. They were never propagating their
religion. And what about Sufism? In my circle Rumi went hand in hand with the
spiritualists. I later learned that spiritualism was perhaps a cover for a
modernised version of moderate non-parochial sects. Unless you were protected
by some powerful institution, you couldn't be involved in sects safely. All the
religious sects that survived had connections with people in power.
People outside Turkey don't understand how the two definitions fit together. Yes. The bureaucrats are always upset when some American or European says it is an Islamic country. Because we Turks are very proud that we are the only 'secular' Islamic state. It's part of our identity. It's part of nationalism, too, unfortunately. Because we can divide establishment conservatives into two now. There are the Turkish anti-Western nationalists. And the Islamists, they are also nationalists. The Islamists are taking us into Europe, while the ultra-nationalists are using the prestige of secularism and Atatrk as a way of blocking Turkey's road to the EU.
Freely: In Istanbul you also made the point that when you
were growing up, even in secular households there was still a morality of
asceticism, of humility.
The Renaissance was about Italian princes who, cruel and repressive though they were, also opened a new way of seeing things. Some of this I explored in My Name is Red , and I shall also be touching on this culture of ostentation in my new novel, The Museum of Innocence. At the trial three days later, Pamuk had no chance to speak and no choice but to listen. For the better part of an hour he stood in the middle of the small, airless, crowded courtroom while six nationalist lawyers explained how he had impugned their Turkishness.
There were nasty scuffles between them and the dozen EU parliamentarians who had come to observe the proceedings. Though the judge did not accede to their request that the court be cleared of Europeans, he seemed unable to control their behaviour. He was also unable to decide whether or not to let the case proceed, and in the end he ordered a postponement while he sought the opinion of the Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, in the corridors outside, 200 people who had not made it into the courtroom were hemmed in by a ring of riot police. Among us were many leading Turkish writers and human rights activists.
Another group had planted themselves outside the court with a banner denouncing Pamuk and six other Article 301 defendants as 'missionary children'. Though the banner got a lot of play on Turkish television, the motley crew of fifty-somethings standing behind it was so unimpressive that one Turkish writer next to me joked, 'Where have all our fascists gone?' They seemed to have the protection of the riot police, who did little to protect the rest of us, least of all Pamuk. He was rapped on the head by one agitator on his way into the courtroom and, though he was able to leave the building unscathed, his car was pelted with eggs and stones by a professional-looking rabble.
The case against Pamuk was dropped on January 22, 2006, almost certainly because of fierce pressure from Europe, although the hate campaign goes on. Many other Article 301 defendants are yet to be tried. The law still stands and the nationalist agitators continue to enjoy mysterious privileges.
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