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The Turkish trauma

Jörg Lau talks to author Orhan Pamuk about freedom in Turkey, the trauma of its people and the dwindling enthusiasm for the EU

Orhan Pamuk, 52, Turkey's most famous author, spoke in February with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. Since then he has met with unmitigated hatred in his home country. His books were burned at a nationalist demonstration in Bilecik, a district administrator ordered them to be removed from libraries, and his photo was ripped apart at a rally in Isparta province. Hürriyet, Turkey's largest newspaper, has called Pamuk an "abject creature". The International PEN Foundation has demanded that the Turkish government condemn these attacks. For security reasons, Pamuk has cancelled a tour to Germany, where he was to read from his new novel "Snow". Jörg Lau, editor of Die Zeit, met the author in New York and persuaded him to accept an interview.

Orhan Pamuk. Photo: Matthias ZeiningerOrhan Pamuk. Photo: Matthias Zeininger
Jörg Lau: Mr Pamuk, your new book "Snow" is a political novel. It is populated with revolutionary Islamists, Turkish and Kurd nationalists, disillusioned left-wingers looking for God, and girls who are committing suicide because they are prevented from wearing head scarves. Although you show no bias to any one position, you have come under considerable political pressure. Life seems to be imitating your writing in a strange way.

Orhan Pamuk: I'm not writing a political novel to make propaganda for some cause. I want to describe the condition of people's souls in a city. The city is called Kars and it is situated in the outermost north-easterly edge of Turkey, but it is a microcosm which to some extent stands for Turkey as a whole.

"Snow" was initially very well received in Turkey. So why is everyone so upset now?

My publisher initially had misgivings about publishing the book in its current form. Remember that in 2002, we had much tighter restrictions on freedom of expression than after Erdogan pushed through the liberal reforms with an eye to the EU. So we showed the manuscript to a lawyer but I took no heed of his suggestions. The first edition was 100,000 copies which was a considerable financial risk for the publishers. I was quite proud that the book was not banned or censored. There was some controversy but not the sort of hostile voices making themselves heard now.

What sparked the controversy?

Some of my secular readers were furious that I showed so much empathy towards a young girl who wears a head scarf of her own free will. I can understand that, especially when it comes from women. Women are the most hard hit by political Islam. My detailed descriptions of the cruelties of a military coup offended some nationalists. And some didn't like that I sympathised with the Kurds. But these are all just elements of our complicated history.

Why does the book take place in the poor, cold Kars and not in your home city of Istanbul?

In Kars you can quite literally feel the sadness that comes from being a part of Europe, and at the same time the sparse, hard-fought very un-European life. My novel deals with the inner conflict of Turks today, the contradictions between Islam and modernity, the longing to be part of Europe - and the fear of it at the same time.

So it's about conflict?

Well, on the one hand Turks have a legitimate need to defend their national dignity – and this includes being recognised as part of the West and Europe. But then there's also the fear of losing one's identity in the course of westernisation. The opponents of this process have always tried to denounce westernisation as a poor imitation. But they are also able to ingnite every possible political passion – from nationalism to Islamism.

You believe that these movements have a common emotional basis?

That these political movements flourish on the margin of Turkish society has to do with poverty and the fact that these people feel poorly represented. Another factor, one often underestimated by the West, is that the fall of the Ottoman Empire left behind such devastating sadness that it was long impossible to come to terms with the experience. The reaction to this traumatic loss of empire was to retreat into oneself. Faced with the challenge of Western thinking, people tend to focus on themselves and chant like a Sufi: we are different, we will always be different and we are proud to be different.

This trauma of Turkish loss is completely absent from the German perception. We do not see the Turks as the grieving heirs of a world empire.

No you see them – now I'm oversimplifying – as street sweepers and cleaning women. This ignores the fact that from the 16th to the 19th centuries, all the cultural and material wealth of the Middle East was flowing towards Istanbul. Turkey has a highly-educated secular elite.

And your family is one the wealthiest and well-known in this class.

But I still don't really fit into the scheme of things. I chose art over the positivist-rationalist life of an engineer that my family intended for me. I wanted to be a painter at first, then I opted for an architecture degree. And with writing I've finally found my calling.

Has your success made your family change its mind?

My parents were right to be worried about me. In the mid-seventies, it was absurd to think that a young Turk could ever establish himself as an author. Today my books are translated into 35 languages and they sell very well. Sometimes I joke that the hardest part was getting published in Turkish. I spent seven years writing without getting a word into print.

These days it's impossible to ignore the impression that Turkey's enthusiasm for the EU is waning. Why now, when membership is getting ever nearer?

There is a very obvious upsurge in nationalist sentiment. Everybody's talking about it, also in Turkey. The phenomenon is still hard to judge. Is it just a lot of noise from one marginal group or is it a widespread unease coming to light? And haven't we seen similar developments elsewhere? Countries which push hard to join the EU foster nationalism. The opponents seize their last chance and spread fear: You will lose your identity. Can this phenomenon be traced back to the collective unconscious or to the resourcefulness of populist politicians? Whatever it is, the fact that my comments on events in our history (more) provoked so much anger proves that there is a nationalist upsurge.

You once said that the wonderful thing about the European idea is its ability to make liberals out of fundamentalists.

The politics of our ruling party, Erdogan's AKP, confirms this statement. Erdogan's huge popularity is largely based on his pro-European course. The average Turkish citizen longs to join the EU and at the same time, he longs to see his traditional Turkish identity strengthened.

But surely people can't publicly tear up images of critical authors and burn their books and then expect to be called a European! Your novel and the reactions to it have been cited by conservative commentators in Europe as a reason better not to let the Turks in. Something along the lines of: "Do you want to be in the same club as the people in this book?"

It is an appalling distortion to apply my realism to my political convictions. I see the future of Turkey in Europe as a prosperous, tolerant, democratic country among others. My novel is about a specific period in time. In the ten years which have passed since that period, the country has changed a lot. If you lay aside for one moment the reactions to my comments about our past, it's clear that we are living in a different Turkey today.

With its self-critical assessment of history, your book is a typically European novel.

My book has many voices, and I do not comment on them individually. Dostoyevsky was the master of this form of writing. Many of my characters hold ideas which run counter to my own. The challenge is to also make the voices representing opinions I find repugnant sound convincing, whether they belong to political Islamists or to the military vindicating a coup.

The hero of your book is a dyed-in-the-wool secular writer who overcomes his writer's block as soon as he leaves his exile in Germany and returns home, opening himself to a repressed religious longing.

The hero of the book does have a genuine longing for religious experience. But his concept of God is very Western. He is interested in the individual experience, not in the communal experience envisaged by Islam.

You also show that Islam has become a new home for many ex-left-wingers in Turkey.

In the 80s I witnessed die-hard Marxists take refuge in political Islam when their belief system collapsed. This gave them free reign to nurture their anti-Western, anti-state passions. And of course they were part of a group again. My hero also wants to belong somewhere, but he's not willing to sacrifice everything he's learned to love in the West.

In your book an Islamist asks,"Is there another God in Europe?" That is the question about the compatibility of Islam with individualism, secularism, the division of power.

Well, it was Turkey after all that started to develop an Islam like this. It is what Islamic hard-liners disdainfully refer to as Islam-lite, in the belief that they represent "the true Islam".

There are some very likeable Islamists in your book.

I'm not interested in a blanket condemnation of all Islamists as evil, as is often the case in the West. At the same time I am critical of the Islamist perception of the secularists as undignified imitators of the loathed West. I want to destroy the clichees cultivated by both sides. This is what I perceive as the task of a political novel.

What is the state of the political dialogue between the two sides in Turkey?

Traditionally we have had a highly inflexible system of political representation. The prospect of EU membership has shaken everything up. In every camp - the left, the right, the Islamists and the Kemalists - stereotyped thinking has been abandoned. Now pro-European Islamists are ruling Turkey. At some point they understood you can win elections with pro-European politics, because voters feel that will improve their living standards.

Have westernised intellectuals underestimated the power of religion?

In Turkey, the secularists have not underestimated religion, they have just made the mistake of believing they could control everything with the power of the army. But, you know, I don't feel it's my task to put forward general ideas on these subjects.

But your characters certainly have a passion for big ideas.

You're right that the people in my novel are groaning under the weight of ideas. Overburdening oneself with strong ideas is a very Turkish passion. This nation has been rehearsing the transition from one civilisation to another for 200 years, and I can safely say that it is a tortuous experience. "Snow" deals with the difficulties of living with these big, abstract ideas, of surviving them and finding happiness. You know, I've had enough of big ideas. I've been over-exposed to them in my over-politicised country. Literature is my reaction to this, an attempt to turn the game around, and invest it with a certain humour, a certain distance. I want to tell the reader: Don't take everything so dammed seriously. Isn't life beautiful? Pay attention to life's details. The most important thing in life is happiness, and the possibility to survive in this intolerant society we have created. Now I'm starting to preach... (laughs).

One character defends the military coup to the writer: We only kill the fanatics so you can continue dreaming about Europe in freedom, so that things don't go the way they did in Iran.

I have heard this line of argument many a time. I take the political dilemma which this cynical argumentation expresses very seriously indeed. My way of dealing with it is to pose moral questions in my novel. My next book, by the way, is about my childhood in Istanbul, and focuses on the beauty of the everyday. (Here a short essay by Pamuk about Istanbul on the BBC site.)

It sounds contemplative.

I don't want to become part of the dogged political culture I spend so much time criticising. I want to use my literature to awaken a sense of what a privilege it is just to be alive.


The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 14 April, 2005.

Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952 in Istanbul. He studied architecture and journalism before starting to write. He is the recipient of major Turkish and international literary awards, and his work has been translated into more than thirty languages. Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul.

Translation: lp.

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