Spoiling the taste of Turkish delights: Orhan Pamuk faces persecution for speaking plainly about his homeland
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 January 2006)

The most admired novelist in Turkey, Orhan Pamuk, says in Istanbul: Memories of a City (Faber), that it's only natural to worry about what foreigners and strangers think of us. But when this anxiety reaches the point where it causes pain, it can cloud our view of reality and become "more important than reality itself." Opinion acquires the emotional force of violence.

Pamuk wasn't writing about his own life, but in the last year he's been a victim of that psychological process and the humiliation it produces. For months the Turkish government prosecuted him for a Soviet-style crime, defaming the nation. His offence was to utter what many consider the truth about atrocities committed by modern Turkey. Last February he told a Swiss newspaper: "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and the nationalists hate me for that."

He was charged under a section of the criminal code ("insulting Turkishness") that allows for sentences up to three years. The trial began in December, was suspended until February, and was cancelled on Sunday when the justice ministry finally dropped the charges.

In the meantime, the great national novelist stood at the centre of national controversy. Turkey wants to be admitted to the European Union but many politicians in the EU have argued that a country rigid enough to charge Pamuk for his opinions was hardly European enough to meet EU standards.

What could Turkey do? Let Pamuk's insults stand and invite further defamation from other intellectuals, perhaps even an unfettered discussion of the Armenian genocide (on which the first academic conference in Turkey was held last September)? Or continue to persecute him and perhaps be shut out of the EU? Pamuk's nationalist enemies managed to keep his prosecution case alive for months.

The case was a harsh reminder to Pamuk that he's a serious artist in a country that's still just nominally democratic. He considers himself part of the West because his literary influences are European and he's often endorsed by European critics, readers and publishers. Yet the prosecution pulled him back into a pre-modern swamp of Turkish pride and shame.

These events cast fresh light on his charming and absorbing book. Combine the facts of the criminal case with the feelings delicately expressed in Istanbul: Memories of a City and you understand that the painful tension in his life, and Turkey's, remains the struggle between East and West.

Pamuk's generation of middle-class Turks took for granted the Westernization program put in place by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk between 1922 and his death in 1938.

A general-turned-dictator, Kemal determined to modernize the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.

He was hardly a pious Muslim; in fact, it's said that alcohol, prohibited by Islam, killed him. He withdrew Islam's status as state religion and decreed that men could no longer wear the fez or women the veil. He gave women legal equality with men. He installed the Latin alphabet in place of the Arabic and ordered Turks to adopt Western-style surnames; for himself he picked Ataturk, meaning Father of the Turk. Many Muslims fought him, and still fight his successors. Pamuk shows no particular affection for Kemal's Westernization, which he sees as culturally reductive and stunting, an erasure of the past with nothing "to fill the spiritual void." In his own family's life religion was reduced to "a strange and sometimes amusing set of rules on which the lower classes depended." It was like background music. Although 95% of Turks were Muslims, Pamuk's relatives appear to have seen Islam as the superstition of the poor, to be tolerated at best; what he learned of it came mainly from the servants. His family was well-to-do for a time, thanks to a railroad-building grandfather whose fortune was being gradually depleted by the incompetence of Pamuk's father and uncle. The extended family lived together in a five-storey apartment building, so that Pamuk's quarrelsome uncles, aunts, and cousins could mingle intimately and torment each other with vicious gossip every day of the year. Even so, Pamuk retains happy memories; he's good on minor but exotic details, like his grandmother drinking sweet tea with a piece of hard goat's cheese in her mouth. Pamuk's family had to move elsewhere for a while, but today, aged 53, he's back in the old building that they named Pamuk Apartments.

At Istanbul, Europe meets Asia, the dividing line between the two continents being the 27km Bosphorus Strait, visible in the old days from Pamuk's home. Today an Islamist parliament wants simultaneously to protect Turkish national pride from people like Pamuk (he's only one of several writers who have been charged with having "publicly denigrated Turkish identity") and simultaneously achieve prosperity in Europe.

Pamuk's own background contains a similar conflict. His people, the children of Ataturk, were Western but not Western. As a child he noticed that every apartment in the family building contained locked glass cabinets with silver sets, snuff boxes, and crystal glasses, none of which were ever touched. There were unused desks with mother-of-pearl inlay, and Art-Nouveau screens behind which nothing was hidden. He remembers looking at the medical books of his doctor uncle, untouched by human hands since their owner emigrated to the United States 20 years before.

He began to see these as rooms furnished not for the living but for the dead, shrines to a fading ideal. They were museums of modernization, designed to demonstrate "to a hypothetical visitor that the householders were Westernized."

These little monuments to cosmopolitan intentions embodied the melancholy and wistful sense of failure that Pamuk felt and still feels in Istanbul, where past glories have long since departed and contemporary existence makes little sense. Everyone knew Westernization as freedom from the laws of Islam, he says. No one understood what else it was good for. Apparently, they still haven't found out.

Every family had a piano, the one essential piece of furniture, but in all the years of his childhood and youth he never heard anyone play. In each apartment it stood as a purely symbolic object, a sign that the residents were Western enough to own this most European instrument, even if it was so silent that as a little boy Pamuk believed that its sole purpose was to display family photographs.

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