The Nobel laureate says he cannot keep quiet while Turkey’s President attacks freedom of speechby Sameer Rahim / October 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has never been afraid of speaking out. In 2005, he broke a national taboo by speaking to a Swiss newspaper about the killing of one million Armenians during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, he was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness” in a case that brought him international attention. In 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the committee praising a writer, “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” During those years, Pamuk told me when I met him in London, he felt he became “too political,” asked to comment about events in his native land in a way western novelists usually are not. But the genial Pamuk also admitted that he finds it difficult to “keep my mouth shut” about the state of his country.
I asked him whether the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), has damaged Turkey’s secular identity. “Before Erdoğan came to power 13 years ago, everyone rightly thought secularism was under threat,” he told me. “Now, according to a newspaper poll, only 5 per cent of the population are worried about Turkey’s secularism, but 67 per cent think he is too authoritarian.” Erdoğan won a landslide parliamentary victory in 2002 with support from mainly poor and religious Turks. Since then he has intensified his grip on power. Last year he became the country’s President and began turning the ceremonial position into a political power base. Pamuk is disturbed by Erdoğan’s manoeuvres. “He has violated Montesquieu’s rules over the division between the judicial, legislative and executive powers. He does this without even hiding his manipulations.”
Pamuk is most worried about Erdoğan’s attitude to freedom of speech. “He is pressuring journalists and newspapers too much,” he said. “This is not acceptable.” As a Nobel prize-winner and internationally renowned writer, Pamuk is freer to criticise the government than ordinary Turkish journalists. I sensed he was speaking on their behalf. Turkey, he said, is not a “full democracy.” The President “wants to control everything,” even though, as the inconclusive national elections in June showed, the AKP’s support is dwindling. Sixty per cent of Turks did not vote for Erdoğan’s party, and even conservative nationalists are uncomfortable with the powers he now claims as President.
Born in 1952 in a wealthy area of Istanbul, Pamuk grew up in the westernised Turkey created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In his seven acclaimed novels, Pamuk ranges from the Ottoman-set My Name is Red (1998) to a powerful analysis of Islamism in modern Turkey in Snow (2002), two themes that now dominate his country’s cultural and political landscape. In January, Erdoğan was mocked for welcoming the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to his palace with soldiers in Ottoman regalia. Pamuk has in the past compared the President to an ageing sultan.
Pamuk’s characters often yearn for the Ottoman era, and his fiction explores how such feelings can be exploited by politicians. Snow, set in the eastern city of Kars, follows a poet investigating the suicides of religious girls forbidden by their schools to wear headscarves —a long-standing controversial issue in Turkey. The novel, published before the Islamists came to power, seems prescient. “We need to make distinctions here,” Pamuk told me. “In Snow, I described two kinds of Islamist: one is a fundamentalist terrorist called Blue who is an extremely bad guy. Then there is Muhtar, also an Islamist, who would probably have voted for Erdoğan if his party had existed then. The fact that both are using Islam in politics does not mean they are the same: they are very different. There is a difference between a conservative and a fundamentalist.”
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In the last two years, the ban on headscarves in Turkish public buildings has been repealed—a measure fiercely protested against by some secularists. Pamuk, however, supports the move. “Just two weeks ago we had the first minister appointed who wears a headscarf [Ayşen Gürcan, in charge of family and social policies]. I don’t see this as secularism in Turkey being destroyed: 65 or 70 per cent of Turkish women wear headscarves and if you don’t let them enter government and social life, it is discrimination. If I criticise Erdoğan for violating secularism, it is when he uses offensive language about feminism or alcohol.” But although the President is famous for his undiplomatic language—in 2011 he said that his enemies accused him of being Georgian, and “they have said even uglier things: they have called me Armenian”—Pamuk claimed he wasn’t successful in “implementing all the things he preaches about. The nation fights back.”
Pamuk sympathised with the environmental protests that erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. Erdoğan wanted to replace the city’s only remaining park with a shopping mall, a symbol of the city’s rapid economic improvement that some believe has damaged Istanbul’s ambience. The protesters were “a very determined but naive green movement,” said Pamuk, that were later joined by “the usual suspects, the marginal leftist parties” and secularists opposed to the government. “I was happy to see liberals expressing themselves,” said Pamuk, “but those who said it was some uprising to overthrow the government were exaggerating; it was nothing like that. Maybe there were some angry people throwing stones, but they were neither realistic nor justified.” The recent improvement in Turkey’s economy, Pamuk believes, encourages such movements. “The more middle-class people there are, the more they demand middle-class freedoms.”
Pamuk’s latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, explores the expansion of Istanbul and the resurgence of conservative nationalism from the perspective of a poor immigrant from the east who works as a street-vendor. Mevlut is not especially religious or political but he votes for the Islamists because he is attracted by their claim to revive the Ottoman glory days. Mevlut is something of a relic himself. He goes from street to street selling boza, a fermented wheat drink popular with the Ottomans. His customers pay him not so much for the drink, but for the nostalgia it evokes. Mevlut, Pamuk told me, knows exactly the part he is playing. “This is a self-conscious situation—boza sellers know that their sales are highly related to romantic ideas of the Ottoman past.” I asked whether he drank boza. “In my childhood I liked boza very much,” said Pamuk, “but now I’m not sure whether I like it because of its taste or because of the ritual… I’ve never met anyone who really loves it, or drinks it everyday.” As Istanbul modernised, Pamuk told me, the mystique of boza-sellers increased, as the old world they represented faded away.
Boza is a mildly alcoholic drink but many conservative Muslims who drink it—and sell it—deny it is intoxicating. This was what made it so popular in the Ottoman era and why it should have become redundant when Atatürk legalised beer and wine. Pamuk said he loved the irony that this “was a beverage invented by Muslims to enjoy alcohol. There is a lot of bad faith in denying there is alcohol in the drink. In fact, I got into a slight controversy when the book was published in Turkey in December. TV journalists asked boza-sellers whether Pamuk had helped sales. They replied yes, but Pamuk is spreading misinformation by saying there was alcohol in boza.”
Mevlut’s attitude is that “just because something isn’t strictly Islamic, doesn’t mean it can’t be holy too.” This reflects Pamuk’s view. “It’s a political thing and also a very private thing,” he told me. “What is our identity based upon? If it’s Islam then we shouldn’t be drinking boza. But if it’s based on layers of national history then you should drink it, because it reminds you of that history.” Mevlut feels a deep connection to his country’s past: the “unintelligible Ottoman writing on a broken fountain with its brass taps long dried up.” Pamuk, whose writing is suffused with the Arabic and Persian words that Atatürk tried to ban, told me that “in every civilisation there is an aura of dignity that comes from old things, whether that comes from your religion or someone else’s… It’s hard to evoke that sense of belonging through history without objects, architecture, pictures and texts.” In the 1970s, he said, Istanbul was “a kind of open museum,” that has now been banished, “irony of ironies,” by the conservatives, in the name of economic progress. “The past is always political,” Pamuk told me. “Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition has taught us that. The past is an immense sea which we edit to a glass of water—or boza!”
Pamuk’s great subject is the effect of westernisation on his country: a subject he shares with post-colonial writers such as VS Naipaul, a fellow Nobel Prize winner. Pamuk told me that although he had “learnt a lot from Naipaul,” the countries they wrote about had significantly different histories. India and Africa were “wounded by imperialist western colonisers, but Turkey was never colonised. Turkey’s westernisation was self-imposed. This meant becoming western had a prestigious utopian ring. Naipaul focuses on these betrayals. He has a good eye for irony and looks down upon the vanity of post-colonial nations, the new rulers who may be even worse that the colonising Englishman.”
Five years ago there were serious discussions about Turkey joining the European Union. Pamuk thinks it is a shame that never happened. “It didn’t work out,” said Pamuk, “and I’m not only going to blame Europe for that. We Turks didn’t do our homework on free speech. Cyprus was still a problem, and Turkey did not meet the Copenhagen criteria. Some of our nationalists didn’t want Turkey in the EU either, at most only 55 per cent of Turks wanted to join.” Have attitudes changed now the eurozone is in trouble? “Yes, the dream has faded a bit with all the economic difficulties. For the time being it is off the agenda.”
Europeans often look to Turkey as a model for how west and east can integrate. “It would be vain for me to say we are a model,” Pamuk said. “I am a lover of my country, but my job is to be critical of its institutions. I’m not a utopian: I simply believe in free speech, I believe in respect for minorities and I believe in having a full democracy.”
I sense Pamuk sometimes tires of political questions. At heart he is an aesthete. “I am not by nature a political person,” he admitted. “I was criticised by the previous generation of more socially committed writers for being a bourgeois writing about bourgeois life.” But he feels compelled to speak out. “When someone asks your opinion about something, what can you say: ‘Sorry, I only write novels’? You can’t say that.”
I mention one of the epigraphs he chose for his political novel Snow, a quotation from the 19th-century French writer Stendhal: “Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair.” Pamuk corrected me: “Yes, but the quotation goes on another line: ‘a crude affair, though one impossible to ignore’.”