In Turkey, writing history's wrongs

Novelist Elif Shafak speaks with the 'Post' about history and memory in the Middle East.

October 17, 2006 10:41
In Turkey, writing history's wrongs

shafak 298.88 ap. (photo credit: AP)


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Last September, the rising young Turkish novelist Elif Shafak was charged with "public denigration of Turkishness" under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The subsequent legal case became only one of a series of trials aimed at suppressing internal discourse about the 1915 Armenian massacre, with the Turkish government continuing to reject responsibility and the term "genocide" when describing the fate of 1.5 million Armenians in the country during World War I. Since the Article's induction last year, a number of distinguished Turkish writers and journalists have faced similar charges, including Orhan Pamuk, who received the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature last week. (In a well-publicized interview with Swiss journal Tages Anzeiger, Pamuk had stated, "One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it." The case against him stalled and was eventually dismissed against a backdrop of growing international outrage.) France's lower house of parliament approved a bill making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide last week, just as Pamuk was announced as the Nobel prize winner. President Chirac is expected to block the bill's progress, but if the law is passed the Armenian genocide will join the Holocaust as something illegal to deny in France. The law cuts to the heart of European-Turkish tensions, with Turkey's highly contested "literature trials"threatening to undermine the Muslim country's application for European Union membership. The case against Shafak, a critically acclaimed, bestselling novelist, was considered exceptional even among the recent court scandals. In contrast to Pamuk, Shafak was prosecuted not because of public statements she had made, but because of the opinions of her fictional characters. The novel at the heart of the controversy, The Bastard of Istanbul, follows four generations of women in two families - one in Turkey and the second a group of migr s based in the United States. Among the book's offending statements is the line, "I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha!" Originally written in English, the novel was released in Turkey last March and became an overnight bestseller, selling over 60,000 copies. From her home in Istanbul, Shafak spoke recently with the Jerusalem Post. You didn't attend the September hearing against you because of your pregnancy, but why was The Bastard of Istanbul a political target in the first place? I gave birth four days before my trial, so both the trial and the delivery took place in the same week. The book became the target of ultra-nationalists. These groups compose a very small segment of the society, but because their voices are so loud and message so aggressive, they manage to dominate the political agenda. There is this nationalist backlash that wants to prevent Turkey's European Union membership. So they are targeting intellectuals deliberately. We're not the main targets. The main target is Turkey's EU process. What was the initial response to the novel? Were there changes to this response during or following your trial? The book came out on March 8, International Women's Day. It was read and circulated freely. The feedback that I received from different segments of Turkish society has been incredibly positive … This nationalist reaction, the backlash, came much later. My experience with Turkish society is yes, I think people are discussing issues. It's not easy, but the civil society here is quite dynamic. That's why [the trials are] a pity, because nationalist groups are giving the whole country a black eye. Did thoughts of flight cross your mind during the trial, or did you expect the verdict? I wasn't expecting this trial. It caught me by surprise, but I never thought about abandoning Turkey, going away once and for all. There is a metaphor I like very much in the Koran: it's a tree called Tuba that's supposed to have roots up in the air. Sometimes when my nationalist critics accuse me of having no roots, I say I feel like the Tuba tree ... My roots are in the air, not in the ground, and when your roots are in the air you can feel connected to more than one country, culture, and identity. I like that flexibility. What is your response to this notion of a "clash of civilizations"? What was your take on the Pope's controversial recent statements about Islam? I found the Pope's recent statements worrisome because we are living in an increasingly polarized world and we don't need further polarization ... There are very rigid ultra-religious within the Muslim world, in the Christian world, and in the Jewish world, and I think that these hardliners have a lot in common. They have the same mentality based on exclusion, and they think they are better than others ... I do not believe there is a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, but I think there is a clash of opinions in each country. I think Islam is ... not one color or one voice. It is composed of different voices, different interpretations, just like every other religion. There are progressive, heterodox forces within Islamic history and the Islamic domain. What worries me most is to see how people on both sides believe in a clash of civilizations. I think this is very dangerous. What is the Turkish writer's relationship with censored history? For me, history is important, memory is important, a sense of continuity is important. Turkey is a dynamic, future-oriented society, but that potential for transformation came at the expense of memory ... The events of 1915 are part of that. Many Turks do not have a sense of curiosity for our past. There is this mentality to let bygones be bygones and a tendency to draw a clear demarcation line between past and present. Walter Benjamin has a metaphor I like very much. He said, "sometimes I feel like I'm walking on a pile of rubble and I try to listen to the sounds coming from beneath, to understand if there is still something alive underneath that rubble." Sometimes I try to see if there are still stories or words that are alive under the ground and, when I encounter something, I pull it from the ground, I shake off its dust and put it in my novels so that it can live and circulate. In fall 2005, you taught a course entitled "Gender Issues and Women's Literature in the Middle East" at the University of Arizona. You asked, "Do women write differently than men? Are there essential differences between Western women writers and those coming from the Middle East?" How would you answer those questions? These are questions that are very dear to me. I think about these questions a lot. I don't think there are fundamental differences between women writers and male writers that are biologically determined … our pen, our writing, should be bi-sexual; it should transcend gender boundaries. And I am against making a distinction between Middle Eastern writers and Western writers. I prefer to see each and every writer in his or her own individuality. Did you receive any threats to you or your family during the trial? I have received some very poisonous letters, few in numbers, but they were quite full of hatred and rage. That being said, it was interesting to see that most of the [negative] letters came from Turks living abroad, in America or in Europe. I tend to think immigrant Turks [are] much more nationalist, religious or conservative than the Turks in Turkey. You've quoted Bertolt Brecht, "Unhappy the country that needs heroes." How would you respond to this, in terms of your relationship with national heroes? It troubles me very much. I think only true democracy can come from below, from civil society, and it can be achieved collectively, not individually. When Turkish writers are persecuted, sometimes the Western media treats us as if we were victims, and I don't like that. I'm not a victim. I'm not a hero, either. We don't need individual heroes. We need collective networks, collective movements of progressive people. I think there should be more collaboration between progressive, democratic forces in Turkey, in Israel, progressive democratic forces in France. We don't need heroes, but we need these movements, civil society movements coming from below.

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