December 15, 2005

Pamuk's Trials

Don't miss this interesting piece from Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk:

Last February, in an interview published in a Swiss newspaper, I said that “a million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds had been killed in Turkey”; I went on to complain that it was taboo to discuss these matters in my country. Among the world’s serious historians, it is common knowledge that a large number of Ottoman Armenians were deported, allegedly for siding against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, and many of them were slaughtered along the way. Turkey’s spokesmen, most of whom are diplomats, continue to maintain that the death toll was much lower, that the slaughter does not count as a genocide because it was not systematic, and that in the course of the war Armenians killed many Muslims, too. This past September, however, despite opposition from the state, three highly respected Istanbul universities joined forces to hold an academic conference of scholars open to views not tolerated by the official Turkish line. Since then, for the first time in ninety years, there has been public discussion of the subject—this despite the spectre of Article 301.

If the state is prepared to go to such lengths to keep the Turkish people from knowing what happened to the Ottoman Armenians, that qualifies as a taboo. And my words caused a furor worthy of a taboo: various newspapers launched hate campaigns against me, with some right-wing (but not necessarily Islamist) columnists going as far as to say that I should be “silenced” for good; groups of nationalist extremists organized meetings and demonstrations to protest my treachery; there were public burnings of my books. Like Ka, the hero of my novel “Snow,” I discovered how it felt to have to leave one’s beloved city for a time on account of one’s political views. Because I did not want to add to the controversy, and did not want even to hear about it, I at first kept quiet, drenched in a strange sort of shame, hiding from the public, and even from my own words. Then a provincial governor ordered a burning of my books, and, following my return to Istanbul, the Şişli public prosecutor opened the case against me, and I found myself the object of international concern...

...The hardest thing was to explain why a country officially committed to entry in the European Union would wish to imprison an author whose books were well known in Europe, and why it felt compelled to play out this drama (as Conrad might have said) “under Western eyes.” This paradox cannot be explained away as simple ignorance, jealousy, or intolerance, and it is not the only paradox. What am I to make of a country that insists that the Turks, unlike their Western neighbors, are a compassionate people, incapable of genocide, while nationalist political groups are pelting me with death threats? What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk worldwide? When I think of the professor whom the state asked to give his ideas on Turkey’s minorities, and who, having produced a report that failed to please, was prosecuted, or the news that between the time I began this essay and embarked on the sentence you are now reading five more writers and journalists were charged under Article 301, I imagine that Flaubert and Nerval, the two godfathers of Orientalism, would call these incidents bizarreries, and rightly so.

That said, the drama we see unfolding is not, I think, a grotesque and inscrutable drama peculiar to Turkey; rather, it is an expression of a new global phenomenon that we are only just coming to acknowledge and that we must now begin, however slowly, to address. In recent years, we have witnessed the astounding economic rise of India and China, and in both these countries we have also seen the rapid expansion of the middle class, though I do not think we shall truly understand the people who have been part of this transformation until we have seen their private lives reflected in novels. Whatever you call these new élites—the non-Western bourgeoisie or the enriched bureaucracy—they, like the Westernizing élites in my own country, feel compelled to follow two separate and seemingly incompatible lines of action in order to legitimatize their newly acquired wealth and power. First, they must justify the rapid rise in their fortunes by assuming the idiom and the attitudes of the West; having created a demand for such knowledge, they then take it upon themselves to tutor their countrymen. When the people berate them for ignoring tradition, they respond by brandishing a virulent and intolerant nationalism. The disputes that a Flaubert-like outside observer might call bizarreries may simply be the clashes between these political and economic programs and the cultural aspirations they engender. On the one hand, there is the rush to join the global economy; on the other, the angry nationalism that sees true democracy and freedom of thought as Western inventions...

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Posted by Gregory at December 15, 2005 12:43 PM | TrackBack (1)

Given that my wife is an Armenian-American whose grandfather fled the genocide in Turkey, I was interested in this piece right up to:

"But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret C.I.A. prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world."

Anyone who has to legitimize their differences with the Bush adminstration on Iraq by speaking of the latter's "lies" is just a silly novelist, not anyone I need listen to, because his other conclusions are probably just as hyperbolic.

Posted by: Salt Lick at December 15, 2005 03:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It sounds to me as if the "drama we see unfolding" is very much "a grotesque and inscrutable drama peculiar to Turkey."

It is a truism that the national character of any country will reflect its history. Turkey's history, of which the Armenian genocide was an important chapter, certainly does have individual elements analogous to elements in the history of other developing (or developed) countries. But in the way all of its elements have combined over the years it is uniquely Turkish.

Turkish sensitivity over the Armenian genocide long predates the formation of the EU, let alone the Turkish candidacy for membership. It may be tempting to look for commonalities between Turkey and other nations like India and China, but frankly yielding to that temptation in this case looks to me like an evasion. Whatever tensions might exist between the desire of Turks to join the global economy and the pull of Turkish tradition do not explain popular attitudes, or government policy, toward an episode of Turkish history of which there is so little to be proud. The question is a simple one of whether the truth about that episode is to be faced, or not.

Posted by: JEB at December 15, 2005 07:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Some provocative commentary by Martin Kramer channeling Bernard Lewis.

And speaking of novels, try Louis de Berniere's masterful "Birds without Wings."

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 15, 2005 09:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret C.I.A. prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world."

That's right. How can we expect others to follow our highest ideals when we do not adhere to them ourselves?

It doesn't matter what excuse you make for our actions re: torture, rendition, etc. Even if you believe the excuses to be otherwise - valid reasons, valid exceptions to our way of doing things - you must accept how such actions appear to other cultures (or at least how other cultures will use those instances as excuses of their own).

As for AL's link, all I can say is that at least the EU is asking that Turkey address the holocaust it perpetrated. That's more than the US has ever done.

Finally on an historic note, I find it offensive that Pamuk lumps the deaths of a few Kurds in with the deaths of at least a million Armenians (there were several lesser pogroms pre 1915 in which Armenians were killed and had property confiscated). The Kurds circa 1915 were the henchmen of the Turks. The Turks found that they were not as efficient as they would like to be in killing off and displacing Armenians, what with the British and all on the sea coast.

So the Turks hired the Kurds, who in their typical bloodthirsty style, slaughtered tens of thousands of Armenians; particualry in the South, places like Orfa (my grandmother's village).

The history of the Kurds has been one of terrorism and cut-throat banditry. I've always been surprised by how this bunch of bloody theives has warmed the American heart; ignorance and shallowness, I guess.

Posted by: avedis at December 16, 2005 01:42 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret C.I.A. prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world."

This strikes me as disingenuous. It's not as if Western perfidy and cruelty were news to anyone in the Middle East.

Posted by: David Tomlin at December 16, 2005 02:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hey I realize this is OT and all, and I wouldn't want to interrupt such a stimulating discourse, but I think Al Queda has just been defeated in Iraq.

OK, sorry, Please continue.

Posted by: Chuck Betz at December 16, 2005 03:18 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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