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Orhan Pamuk: A Brave Voice in a Troubled Country

Caught in the cultural clash between east and west, Pamuk struggles to balance his political beliefs and astonishing international literary success in a way modern Turkey can accept.

Sometimes fate orders strange situations. For Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, perhaps this one extraordinary experience was a moment of triumph. The very same day he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the French Parliament passed a resolution to make denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide a crime. Just one day was enough for Pamuk to see his work receive worldwide acclaim and his politics views outside his writing become justified.

The Turkish novelist took the center stage of global attention thanks to his uncommon lyrical style, yes, but also due to his uncompromising politics. His work was already well regarded in literary circles worldwide prior to his unhesitating remarks during an interview in February 2005 with Swiss weekly publication Das Magazin regarding the killings of Kurds and Armenians in the beginning of the 20th century:

Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody dares to talk about it," Pamuk stated in Das Magazin, explaining later in an interview with the BBC that his objective was to defend freedom of speech: "What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past.

This is a fearless declaration of his stance about truth, considering that many journalists and writers in Turkey in the past have been imprisoned for expressing their opinions on such culturally sensitive issues. Indeed, a few have paid with their lives for their decision to come forward and talk about this matter. The most recent example is the assassination of Hrant Dink, a Turkish newspaper editor of Armenian decent, on 19 January 2007.

Another well-known Turkish novelist and a close friend of Dink's, Elif Shafak, wrote of the editor of the weekly newspaper Agos in an obituary published in Time magazine, 'Ode to a Murdered Turkish Editor': "Tuesday, Jan. 23. The day we buried you. 'Yes,' you once said, 'we Turkish Armenians do have a claim to the soil of this country, but not to take it away, as some accuse us of secretly plotting, but to be buried deep under it.' Your funeral was spectacular. Tens of thousands marched. They carried signs that said, WE ARE ALL HRANT, WE ARE ALL ARMENIANS."

The official position of the Turkish state is that the Armenian Genocide never took place. Pamuk was retroactively prosecuted for his comments, under a penal code introduced in June 2005, which states: "A person who, being a Turk, explicitly insults the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be imposed to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years." Pamuk and Shafak, who have both spoken publicly of the Armenian genocide, managed to have their charges of "insulting Turkishness" acquitted.

Further demonstrating how complicated Turkey's attitude regarding the Armenian genocide is, Shafak acknowledged in the Time piece that Dink wanted public dialogue about the issue but not at the expense of free speech: "...you fervently opposed the Armenian genocide bill approved by the French Parliament, which would make it a crime to say that the events of 1915 were not a genocide, because, first and foremost, you believed in freedom of expression." While Pamuk, Shafak and Dink have each attempted to foster discourse on this issue, Dink differed from the others in his non-support of the French genocide bill.

For Turkey, discussing publicly the genocide issue is both taboo, as Pamuk pointed out in Das Magazin, and a major insult for the State. However, few people in the Western world (excluding some professionals like diplomats, professors, and journalists) can truly realize the importance of Pamuk's statement for the Turkish people. It wouldn't be unfair if I claimed that this giant nation is two-faced, or better, is struggling between two faces: its modernized side versus its traditional side. Doubtlessly Turkey is the most modernized Muslim country, being a parliamentary democracy, yet its record of suppressing public dissent invokes concern in the European Union, where Turkey has applied to become a member.

David Hotham, a longtime London Times correspondent, in his book published in 1972, simply called The Turks, wrote what in my opinion is the best description of the fellow countrymen of Pamuk:

The Turk is unusually full of contradictions. Not only has he East and West in him, European and Asian, but an intense pride combined with an acute inferiority complex; a deep xenophobia with an overwhelming friendliness and hospitality to strangers; a profound need for flattery with an absolute disregard for what anybody thinks of him.

Many Europeans are against the possibility of seeing the Turks become full members of their Union because of this rift between the traditional and modern sides of Turkey. The divide between old and new casts doubt on Turkey's stance with regard to free speech as well as reinforcing concerns about human rights. And it appears that Turkish lawmakers offer plenty of pretexts that put more pressure on the country's back. Turkey has a long way to go (and many civic liberties to give) before transforming itself into the fully modernized and democratic state the European Union would consider admitting but unfortunately, cases as Pamuk's can cause greater setbacks to this challenge with the publicity they earn.

Pamuk was born in 1952 in the showcase city of his country, Istanbul. He studied architecture at the Istanbul Technical University due to pressure to take over the family business but soon he realized that his dream was to become a full-time writer. He subsequently graduated from the Institute of Journalism at the University of Istanbul in 1976 before becoming a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York from 1985 to 1988. During that same period, he spent time as a visiting fellow at the University of Iowa.

His early novels soon won critical appraises and literary awards. Over time, Pamuk developed a writing style that revealed a deep love for his birthplace and for Turkey in general. His first work, titled Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (translated as Mr. Cevdet and His Sons), was the story of three generations of a wealthy Istanbul family living in the same district where Pamuk was born, Nişantaşi.

Lyricism is a critical component of Pamuk's novels. Contrary to how it may appear nowadays, Pamuk is not a political writer and never actually has been interested in writing mainly about politics. What he wanted to do when he talked about the Kurdish and the Armenian genocide was to make an effort to bring Turkey to terms with its history and reality. What Pamuk unintentionally achieved with this remark was to have his name brought up in consideration of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

His win was a surprise not because he didn’t deserve the award, but because writers such as Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, and Umberto Eco, to name a few, are felt by some in the literary community to deserve a nod from the Swedish Academy. Pamuk is one of the youngest people ever awarded with the prize. His victory is a bit like Martin Scorsese's Academy Award win this year: deserved but not based entirely on his single, most recent work.

Pamuk's personal challenge is to bridge the gap between the traditional face of Turkey he loves and writes about with the side that the contemporary world might be willing to accept. Most of his writing has explored his country's Ottoman Empire history rather than issues of modern politico-mixed-religious extremes. The autobiographic Istanbul: Memories and the City (2006) recollects images from Turkey’s recent past and Pamuk's own life. On the other hand, the novel The White Castle (1985) offers a vivid description of the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century.

Turkey is literally cut off from its past. After the defeat and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Kemal Ataturk -- the 'father of Turks', as his name is translated -- created a new republic solely for Turks (minorities like Kurds or Armenians faced heavy persecution), based on the organization of the modern western states. One of his early undertakings was to ban many Ottoman traditions, including outlawing religious practices like those performed by the dervish sects. But his most important amendment was the introduction of the Latin alphabet. As a result, Turks cannot read their own classics, formerly written in the Arabic alphabet, without translation.

Despite Pamuk's well-meaning attempts to share Turkey's rich history with readers in the 21st century, various factions find reason to reproach Pamuk for betraying his Turkish background. For example, the nationalist Turks, infected with Kemal Ataturk's dogma, accuse him of being too religious, while for the Islamists he is yet another blasphemous western-style writer. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Pamuk is in love with the Ottoman past of his country in which religion was an important factor but he also admires democratic values such as the separation between religion and the state.

Although he is a bestselling novelist in Turkey -- in every corner of Istanbul you can find pirated editions of his books -- when the news of his Nobel award broke and made headlines around the globe, journalist Fatih Altaili questioned, in his article at the popular Turkish daily Sabah, whether: "We should be happy about it or sad", adding: "Turkey cannot be happy about this award, even if it should, because it can't see Pamuk as its own man." The same reaction could be seen in many parts of the Turkish press.

Pamuk's narrative style is rather foreign for Turkey. My Name is Red (2001), for example, is narrated in part by such unusual characters as a corpse, a dog, and a gold coin, but each manages to move the story forward in linear fashion. Influenced by great western writers, Pamuk doesn't hesitate to introduce postmodern motifs that portray space and time as malleable entities which often bend and change; novel elements to the writing tradition of his country. Yet every single new book he has published has sold out in just few days. Pamuk's literary success would ultimately seem to be due to this ongoing and divided love affair of modern Turks between the past and the present of their country, between tradition and modernity, between loyalty to Turkey and interest in the world outside.

Controversial for his political views advocating the need to talk about mistakes the state of Turkey has made, no matter what opinions exist about his work, Pamuk has used his fame as a platform to speak out regarding his country's problems and policies. Admired and deplored in turn by his fellow Turks, Pamuk's public image mirrors that of contemporary Turkey. And he is not alone among public figures within Turkey calling for open discussion regarding Turkey's past -- as well as its future.





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