–As he prepared to accept a peace award in Frankfurt–acclaimed Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk spoke to Maureen Freely about why he had to break his nation’s biggest taboo.
FRANKFURT–Five years ago–Orhan Pamuk wrote a novel about a poet who is ensnared in a political intrigue from which there is no escape. Nine months ago–Turkey’s most famous novelist was pulled into just such an intrigue.
It began with an off-the-cuff remark in an interview with a Swiss newspaper. While discussing curbs on freedom of expression in Turkey–Pamuk said that "a million Armenia’s and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it."
He was soon to be reminded why. Although most of the world acknowledges the Genocide as a historical fact–the official Turkish line has been that "only" a few hundred thousand died during the internecine conflicts of the First World War. To suggest otherwise–or even to use the word "genocide"–is to insult the nation’s founding myth and therefore Turkey’s honor.
The day after his interview appeared–the Turkish press launched a fierce attack on Pamuk–branding him a traitor–accusing him of having used the virtually illegal word "genocide" (although he had not) and inviting "civil society" to "silence" him. Following several death threats–he went into hiding abroad. He returned to Turkey late last spring–hoping it had all blown over. It had not. Last August–an Istanbul public prosecutor charged him with the "public denigration of Turkish identity." The trial is set for December 16.
If convicted–Pamuk faces three years in prison.
When the story broke in early September–it made headlines all over the world–with writers–politicians–academics–and human rights groups joining the writers’ organization PEN to condemn the prosecution. The governmen’s of Europe were aghast–with the case raising serious questions about Turkey’s attempt to join the EU. As his translator–I was only too aware that this was a bitterly ironic twist for Pamuk–who has long been a supporter of Turkey in Europe and European-style social democracy in Turkey.
Like many of his friends–I suspected that his prosecution was the work of nationalists in the judiciary who want neither. Thanks to another law–Pamuk was obliged to keep his own views on the matter private. He faces an even longer prison sentence if he talks about his case before it comes to trial.
Meanwhile–all of Turkey is arguing about the Armenia’s. Last month a group of Turkish scholars broke 90 years of official silence–braving court orders–death threats–and fierce condemnation in the right-wing press to hold a conference in Istanbul. For the first time–Turks dared to ask Turks what happened to the Ottoman Armenia’s. This had a huge impact on public opinion. Although many maintain that the Genocide was a fiction created by the nation’s enemies–it is at least no longer dangerous to question the official line.
It was in this context that Pamuk decided a week ago to give his first interview on Turkish television since his life became a novel.
It provoked strong and varied responses–with many applauding his defiance and others wishing he had been more defiant still. In one right-wing newspaper–selected quotes were rearranged to suggest that Pamuk had retracted his original statement–although in fact he reiterated it.
In some reports–there was also the suggestion that he had softened his statement in hopes that it might lead the authorities to drop his case. A similarly worded article that had no byline found its way into the Guardian and other newspapers across Europe last Monday.
And so the noose tightens. What to do? Speak out and risk a longer sentence? Or stay silent and let parties unknown feed the world lies?
As Pamuk was awarded the German Peace Prize in Frankfurt–he was in no doubt the time had come to speak out–about the Armenia’s–about the law under which he has been charged–about curbs on free expression in Turkey and–last but not least–about his case.
"It goes without saying that I stand by my words," he told me. " And even more–I stand by my right to say them." He went on to point out that the right to free speech was guaranteed by the Turkish constitution and that more and more people in Turkey were keen to exercise that right. "I am very encouraged by this conference. I’m very grateful to courageous scholars such as Halil Berktay–Murat Belge–and Taner Akcam who have been researching this subject thoroughly and honestly for so many years and who spoke the unsayable truth. Most of all–I’m pleased that the taboo–what happened to the Ottoman Armenia’s–is beginning to crack."
It was–he warned–going to be a long and painful process. "We are confronted with an immense human tragedy and immense human’suffering we did not learn about at school. So it is a fragile subject."
Which brings us to the word "genocide." It is–he reminded me–a contentious subject even among the Turkish historians who believe there was planned and systematic slaughter. Those whose primary aim is to educate the Turkish public point out that to use the word is to shut down any possibility of a national debate.
"I said loud and clear that one million Armenia’s and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey–and I stand by that. For me–these are scholarly issues," said Pamuk. "I am a novelist. I address human’suffering and pain and it is obvious–even in Turkey–that there was an immense hidden pain which we now have to face." He went on to remind me that the biggest obstacle right now was Article 301. This is a new law and how it found its way into Turkey’s new and supposedly EU-friendly penal code is a subject of heated speculation.
Earlier this month–Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was tried under the same article by the same public prosecutor who brought the case against Pamuk. He was found guilty and given a suspended sentence.
"Dink is the most prominent representative of Istanbul’s Armenia’s and after his case and mine it is obvious that if we are going to enjoy freedom of expression in Turkey–Article 301 should be reconsidered," said Pamuk. "This law and another law about ‘general national interests’ were put into the new penal code as secret guns.
They were not displayed to the international community but nicely kept in a drawer–ready for action in case they decided to hit someone in the head. These laws should be changed–and changed fast–before the EU and the international community puts pressure on Turkey to do so. We have to learn to reform before others warn us."
But what has Pamuk himself learned from the last nine months? "In the beginning I felt very isolated," he admitted. "But I’ve seen so many people back me–in Turkey and in the international community. I am flattered and honored to be the focus of all this concern. It is thanks to their support that I can defend freedom of speech."
This–he said–was the burning issue in Turkey–and it was–and would continue to be–a subject dear to his heart. In his speech at the ceremony last weekend–he argued that the novelist’s most important political act is the imaginative exploration of the "other," the "stranger," the "enemy who resides in all our minds." Politics in the art of the novel is the author’s identification with the downtrodden and the marginalized. The Kurd in Turkey and the Turk in Germany.
And the prize? "I hope it is not just a political gesture but also a celebration of my years of humble and devoted service to the novel. I have been writing novels for 30 years–like a clerk. Though–unfortunately–not in the last month. I hope I can return to my desk soon." But Pamuk is not looking for a pardon: "I’m going to face this case."
In this regard–at least–he hopes to part ways with Kar–the poet in his novel "Snow." Pulled into a political intrigue and feeling "trapped on all sides," Kar’s response was to try to run away. "He was an unhappy person who was forced to be cynical," Pamuk said. "But I am a happier person. I embrace the responsibility that has fallen on me and will pursue this to the end."
Pamuk: a life in writing
Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul on June 7–1952 and apart from two years in New York–he has spent his life in the same district of the city and now lives in the building where he was brought up.
His first novel to appear in English was called "The White Castle," about an Ottoman astrologer who buys a Venetian astronomer as a slave.
His novel "My Name is Red," set in the 16th century–tells of murder and artistic intrigues among the Islamic miniaturists in the Ottoman court. Its success–by Turkish standards–was astronomic and his publishers opened a case against a newspaper which refused to believe published sales figures of 100,000 copies.
His seventh and most critically acclaimed novel is "Snow." It deals with what happens in the margins of the Western world. The Canadian author Margaret Atwood called it "an engrossing feat of tale-spinning and essential reading for our times."
His books have been burned at a nationalist demonstration–and his photograph was shredded at a rally. Hurriyet–Turkey’s largest newspaper–called Pamuk an "abject creature."