December 30, 2005
Orhan Pamuk and the Turkish Officer
Once a month or so, my good friend Turkish (nickname to be explained shortly) and I meet up for lunch to discuss both local and Mideast politics. Turkish is very serious, intelligent and articulate, the sort of person who thinks more than he speaks and measures every word carefully. He is also an ex-officer in the Turkish military and an avowed Kemalist, which makes for an interesting perspective. Once I asked him what he thought about Kurds and he replied with an enigmatic smile: “Kurds are Turks too, they just haven’t realized it yet”. I think he was joking, but I'm not entirely sure.
When we last met, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was due to appear in court shortly, charged with the “public denigration of Turkish identity” for making a pointed observation in a Swiss newspaper about his country’s silence over Kurd and Armenian deaths. From FT (subscription, but I quote extensively for the uninitiated):
"Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and almost nobody but me dares to talk about it."
His comment referred to the two most traumatic events in Turkey's modern history: the struggle against Kurdish separatism in the 1980s and 1990s and the massacre of Ottoman Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces as the empire collapsed during the first world war. The Armenian question is especially sensitive in Turkey. Armenians say the event marked the twentieth century's first genocide. Turkey rejects any such assertion, though it does not deny that many Armenians and Turks died in those terrible days…
Mr Pamuk is being tried under article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalises "insulting Turkishness, the republic, and the institutions and organs of the state". If found guilty, he faces three years in jail, part of which is an extra punishment for committing his "crime" abroad.
Now, this being the 90th anniversary of the “Armenian question” (a date the Turkish government has studiously ignored), Pamuk’s remarks and the resulting charges have caused quite a stir in Turkey and abroad. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s correction in the FT on December 13, no one has actually been convicted under article 301, but a fair number of writers and publishers have run afoul of Turkey’s free speech laws.
Reflecting sentiments expressed by many of Turkey’s intellectual elites, my very circumspect friend was terribly disappointed at Pamuk’s actions. Pamuk is well-loved in Turkey, a national hero of sorts with a relatively high profile in the Western world as well (at least by arty lit types). When he appeared in court on December 16, demonstrators pelted his car with eggs and accused him of betraying the nation. Many believe that his intentions are purely selfish and that this is not a consciousness-raising exercise for Turkey, but merely an attempt to garner publicity and book awards by inviting persecution. Others take the less cynical position that Turkey is entering a time of significant transformation and Pamuk’s actions only make these painful changes more difficult. What Pamuk has succeeded in is turning his trial into a "litmus test" for Turkey’s commitment to EU human rights standards, a fact that makes both the military and the government rather uncomfortable.
As the generals reluctantly ease their grip on Turkey’s government to pave the way for EU membership, my friend worries that Atatürk’s legacy (and the military’s ability to safeguard it) will be weakened by corrupt politicians and Islamist agendas. Still, he is flexible enough in his idealism to see that reform is necessary and that Turkey’s future lies with Europe. A difficult thing to reconcile, but then Turkey is no stranger to change.
A Note on Orhan Pamuk’s Writing
Despite my general lack of interest in fiction, I think Pamuk’s most popular books, My Name is Red and Snow, are haunting and elegantly written. The latter takes a hard look at the staunchly secular country’s uneasy relationship with Islam, as seen through the eyes of an exiled Turkish poet. Haven’t finished reading it yet, but I recommend it anyway.
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i am curious: what did your friend say about orhan pamuk (one of my favorite writes) in this context, and what did he say about the armenian genocide?
Posted by: raf* at December 31, 2005 05:47 AM
He really likes Pamuk, in fact he was the one who introduced me to to his work (because I am not by nature an arty lit type). Overall he was disappointed, particularly by the Western media's portrayal of Pamuk as Turkey's "conscience". Not too bothered about Pamuk's actions, but annoyed by some perceived lack of finesse in how it was carried out.
As for the Armenians, well, we haven't really talked about it. When you get to know someone, you realize that some topics are taken more personally than others.
Posted by: eerie at December 31, 2005 12:00 PM
I wonder what he thinks of the even more disputed Hellenic Genocide.
Posted by: zurn at December 31, 2005 06:56 PM
Where could I find out about that? When did it take place? I got the impression that when Greece invaded, a lot of people were killed and that there were massive population transfers between Turkey and Greece but I had never heard of the Hellenic genocide.
If possible, I'd like a source that's not from a Greek lobby. I mention this because I've seen Greek criticism of Turkey that was barely cogent. No doubt much Turkish criticism of Greece is barely cogent too.
Posted by: Baal Shem Ra at January 2, 2006 09:10 AM
I'm no expert on this, but the usual sites can be found with a Google search of the phrase, though I'm not sure there'll be a source to your satisfaction. The claim is, though, that the campaign of ethnic cleansing took place over a long period of time. The destruction of Smyrna in 1922 is pointed to as one of the worse single events; there is a book about this, "Smyrna 1922", written by a Columbia University professor.
Posted by: zurn at January 2, 2006 02:23 PM