A rebellious Turk

Print edition : December 30, 2005

Orhan Pamuk. - JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk holds a mirror up to the state against its atrocities while he advocates holding on to values that are dear to his country which is both Islamic and European.

ORHAN PAMUK, Europe's most prominent novelist, has been persecuted in Turkey for his "irreverence" for the state, especially his condemnation of the large-scale killing of Kurds and Armenians. His reference is to the civil war that raged in the Kurdish regions of Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s and to the massacre of Armenians during the First World War. In his own words, he is a spokesman "for those who cannot speak for themselves, whose anger is never heard, and whose words are suppressed".

When I asked for Noam Chomsky's response, he wrote back saying: "The suppression of such opposition is criminal. I have personally been and still am closely involved with many such cases. As you may know, I once went to Istanbul and insisted on being a co-defendant in a trial of a publisher for publishing a book of mine that had some (absolutely accurate) material on United States-backed crimes against the Kurds in the 1990s, which were horrendous (and almost entirely suppressed in the U.S., still unknown). There was too much publicity, I guess, and the Security Courts, which are of course a joke, dismissed the charges on the first day of the trial. But there's another similar one under way right now: same publisher, similar charges."

The state's assault on constitutional freedom and due processes in the name of "patriotism" is a blemish on the institutions of democracy and is sure to provoke such opposition. People such as Pamuk, who value their freedom and stand up against any curb on independent thought and expression, care enough for their rights as well as for the rights of others. Confrontational protest activities have always played an important role in the struggle for political and social justice.

Pamuk is one such dissident writer who has risen above mere academic debate to challenge with passion and verve the government policy in Turkey. He has supported the rights of the minorities and can be compared with the inspirational examples of Rosa Park, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. Injustice has to be exposed. Rational politics is essential for challenging the status quo.

Defending and rationalising inequality is the central logic of all systems of oppression. Pamuk's theory of liberatory politics is integral to his praxis and his fiction, a drive towards coming to grips with identity politics and the challenge to power. He works under structural and ideological constraints with a creativity that is based inherently on compassion, solidarity and the yearning for freedom. And he exists in a universal space bound neither by national boundaries nor by ethnic identity.

In spite of his scathing attack on the Turkish state, he was designated as the state artist, an award he refused, saying: "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it." He has stood up against authoritarianism and the repression of personal behaviour by the state, which refuses to understand the plight of the marginalised. This is not, in the words of Edward Said: "[O]pposition for opposition's sake. But it does mean asking questions, making distinctions, restoring to memory all those things that tend to be overlooked or walked past in the rush to collective judgment and action. With regard to the consensus on group or national identity it is the intellectual's task to show how the group is not a natural or god-given entity but is a constructed, manufactured, even in some cases invented object, with a history of struggle and conquest behind it, that is sometimes important to represent" (Representations of the Intellectual).

Young Turks see in him the future of a peaceful Turkey where some day the two opposing forces of religion and secularism, of East and West, would stand reconciled and Turkey finally integrated into Europe where it belongs rightfully both geographically and politically. Pamuk is the only European writer who could become the much-needed bridge between the West and the East, between an ancient Islamic culture and the contemporary dream of an economically prosperous nation.

Pamuk is of the view that "when we in Turkey discuss the East-West question, when we talk of the tensions between tradition and modernity [which, to my mind, is what the East-West question is really all about], or when we prevaricate over our country's relations with Europe, the question of shame is always lurking between the lines". For him, there is no place for the narrow European Christian values or the extreme fundamentalist Islamic religion within the programme of world peace intended to bring to an end centuries of war and conflict. Pamuk makes a case for the European acceptance of Turkey's gesture for peace and "the security and strength that will come from a Muslim country's desire to join Europe. He has stood against American unilateralism and terror politics that have ravaged the world recently. But he does not put the blame on Islam: "It is neither Islam nor even poverty itself that directly engenders support for terrorists whose ferocity and ingenuity are unprecedented in human history; it is, rather, the crushing humiliation that has infected Third World countries." And for this the West has to be held responsible because it has failed to comprehend the shame and the humiliation that has fallen upon the poor nations. Hot-headed military operations and wars will only take us away from the order of peace.

Pamuk's rather controversial novel, The White Castle, which was translated into English in 1985, is a perfect example of this amalgamation of faith and aggressive science and is a landmark in his rise to international fame. My Name is Red and Snow also bring the opposites of tradition and modernity together in a style that has the wonderful lightness of being as well as the inherent tensions between, what Pamuk maintains, "the writer and the `other', and `the question of the `stranger'". In his uncomplicated and compelling talk given on receiving the 2005 Friedenspries, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, he speaks of the need of the novelist to recognise the marginalised such as Daniel Defoe's Friday, Cervantes's Sancho Panza or the slaves in Faulkner: "Likewise, a Turkish novelist who fails to imagine the Kurds and other minorities, and who neglects to illuminate the black spots in his country's unspoken history, will, in my view, produce work that has a hole in its centre." He emphasises that "the novelist will also know that thinking about this `other' whom everyone knows and believes to be his opposite will help to liberate him from the confines of his own persona. The history of the novel is the history of human liberation: by putting ourselves in other's shoes, by using our imagination to free ourselves from our own identities, we are able to set ourselves free."

His most political novel Kar (Snow, 2002) tells the story of the protagonist Ka who travels to an Anatolian town of Kars to look into the horrifying event of mass suicide by girls of a school who had been forbidden to wear headscarves. The little town is covered by snow like a scarf, which is paradoxically denied to the inhabitants. The end comes with Ka's assassination, but his redemption lies in the regaining of his poetic voice, which is an act of resistance through the imagination. Poets and political refugees like him work on the frontline of imagination and make all the difference in raising the oppositional voice and "having the ability to convey meaning to others". This, Pamuk argues, "is humanity's greatest power".

My interest in Pamuk goes back to 1995, when I came across his A New Life, a poetic rendition of his theory of fiction based on the post-modernist notion of false concepts of reality derived from the written word. As is clear in his fictional work, especially The Black Hole, he has a propensity to delve into religious and historical themes, stories within stories, paradoxes and complex narratives dealing with protean identities. Pamuk is a qualified journalist and an architect, and his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, appeared in 1982 - exquisitely subtle account of the Turkish middle class.

Pamuk argues: "The challenge of a historical novel is not to render a perfect imitation of the past, but to relate history with something new, enrich and change it with imagination and sensuousness of personal experience." There is inventiveness and the art of combining details, of going into minute details learned by examining Islamic miniatures so as to recall tales from the past now forgotten and to give some insight into the soul of one's nation and the ever-present history. The past has to be remembered and any amount of westernisation cannot justify the forgetting of one's history. "If you try to repress memories, something always comes back," reiterates Pamuk. "I'm what comes back." He has a deep fixation for Istanbul, which figures in many of his novels in all its antique beauty and unchanging contradictions in the same way that Dublin exists for James Joyce.

Pamuk is a die-hard lover of Istanbul where he was born and where he lives: "Istanbul's fate is my fate: I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am." It is understandable that anyone obsessed with nationalism would make his city of love central to his writings. Here lies the need to arouse the conscience of his community over its history and its injustice. The need to write makes possible the vision of making real another world where pain and suffering have no place. And as Edward Said says: "The hardest aspect of being an intellectual is to represent what you profess through your work and interventions, without hardening into an institution or a kind of automaton acting at the behest of a system or method."

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