Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Storyteller's Quest

A Storyteller's Quest
by Khatchig Mouradian
March 14, 2006

"Anatolia has always been a mosaic of flowers,
filling the world with flowers and light.
I want it to be the same today"
Yasar Kemal

The Anatolia Yasar Kemal, arguably the greatest Turkish author of the 20th century, wants to see and the Anatolia he can actually see today cannot possibly be considered the same region of Turkey. What was a century ago a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups (Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Turks, Kurds, etc.) is now almost homogenized through blood and destruction, and the memory of many of the peoples that once dwelled in the region of Eastern Turkey is being negligently allowed to pass into oblivion.

A number of Turkish intellectuals are striving to push Turkey to face its past and recognize the "mosaic of flowers" that Anatolia once was. Will their vision one day become reality? Much depends on the changes currently taking place in Turkey. Novelist Elif Shafak, one of the courageous intellectuals struggling today for the preservation of memory and recognition of cultural diversity, spoke to me of Turkey today and the Turkey she would like to see tomorrow.

The Two Faces of Turkey

"I feel connected to so many things in Turkey, especially in Istanbul. The city, the people, the customs of women, the enchanting world of superstitions, my grandmother's almost magical cosmos, my mother's humanism, and the warmth, the sincerity of the people," Shafak tells me, speaking of her native country. "At the same time I feel no connection whatsoever to its main ideology, its state structure and army," she notes.

Turkey is the country of opposites which oftentimes, defying the laws of physics, repel one another. Eastern and Western, Islamic and secular at the same time, the country is torn between democracy and dictatorship, memory and amnesia. These dualities, bordering on schizophrenia, are unsettling for Shafak, an author of five published novels. "I think there are two undercurrents in Turkey, both very old. One is nationalist, exclusivist, xenophobic and reactionary. The other is cosmopolitan, Sufi, humanist, embracing. It is the second tide that I feel connected to," she says.

Not surprisingly, the first tide she mentions is not at all happy with her line of conduct. Hate-mail and accusations of being a traitor to her country have become commonplace for the young writer.

"The nationalist discourse in Turkey-- just like the Republicans in the USA-- is that if you are criticizing your government, you do not like your nation. This is a lie. Only and only if you care about something you will reflect upon it, give it further thought. I care about Turkey. It hurts me to be accused of hating my country," she explains.

However, Elif Shafak, who spent most of her childhood and adolescence in Europe and later moved to Turkey to pursue her studies, is anything but wrong when she points out that her country has come a long way in the last few years. "There are very important changes underway in Turkey. Sometimes, in the West, Turkey looks more black-and-white than it really is, but the fact remains that Turkey's civil society is multifaceted and very dynamic. Especially over the past two decades there have been fundamental transformations," she says.

"The bigger the change, the deeper the panic of those who want to preserve the status quo," she adds.

A cornered tiger is the fiercest, however, as an Eastern proverb says. This is why the prospect of membership to the European Union (EU) is deemed necessary by the country’s cosmopolitan undercurrent, which is struggling against the status quo. For decades, those, who have dared to challenge the official rhetoric on a wide spectrum of issues, have faced oppression, persecution, and imprisonment, and they know well that the only way not to take the country back in time is to keep it going in the direction of the EU. Shafak herself believes that Turkey's bid to join the EU "is an important process for progressive forces both within and outside the country". She adds: "Definitely the whole process will reinforce democracy, human rights and minority rights. It will diminish the role of the state apparatuses, and most importantly the shadow of the military in the political arena."

Dealing with the Turkish Society's 'Underbelly'

"For me, the recognition of 1915 is connected to my love for democracy and human rights," says Shafak. 1915 is the year when the Turkish government embarked on a genocidal campaign to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. This topic remained the greatest of all taboos in Turkey until very recently.

Although the Armenian genocide is acknowledged by most genocide scholars and many parliaments around the world, the Turkish government's official stand maintains that the Armenians were not subjected to a state sponsored annihilation process that killed more than a million and a half people in 1915-16. The Armenians were, the Turkish official viewpoint argues, the victims of ethnic strife or war and starvation, just like many Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Moreover, according to the official historiography in Turkey, the number of the Armenians that died due to these "unfortunate events" is exaggerated.

Like a growing number of fellow Turkish intellectuals, it is against this policy of denial that Elif Shafak rages. "If we had been able to face the atrocities committed against the Armenians in Anatolia, it would have been more difficult for the Turkish state to commit atrocities against the Kurds," she argues.

"A society based on amnesia cannot have a mature democracy," she adds.

Why did she choose to tackle this very sensitive issue, knowing well that harassment and threats were inevitable? "I am a storyteller. If I cannot "feel" other people's pain and grief, I better quit what I am doing. So there is an emotional aspect for me in that I have always felt connected to those pushed to the margins and silenced rather than those at the center", she notes. "This is the pattern in each and every one of my novels; I deal with Turkish society's underbelly."

Her upcoming novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul", is no exception. The Turkish translation of the novel, titled “Baba ve Pic” was released in Turkey on March 8, 2006. The original novel in English will be released in the U.S. in January 2007 out of Penguin/Viking press. "The novel is highly critical of the sexist and nationalist fabric of Turkish society. It is the story of four generations of women in Istanbul. At some point their stories converge with the story of an Armenian woman and, thereby, an Armenian-American family. I have used this family in San Francisco and the family in Istanbul as mirrors," she explains. "Basically, the novel testifies to the struggle of amnesia and memory. It deals with painful pasts both at the individual and collective level," she adds.

The Turkey she would like to see in 2015, a century after the Armenian genocide, stands in deep contrast to the Turkey the world has known for the better part of the past century. It is "a Turkey that is part of EU, a Turkey where women do not get killed on the basis of "family honor", a Turkey where there is no gender discrimination, no violations against minorities; a Turkey which is not xenophobic, homophobic, where each and every individual is treated as valuably as the reflection of the Jamal side of God, its beauty."

It would be hard to disagree with Shafak that only in the Turkey she envisions can cosmopolitism overshadow nationalism and remembrance emerge victorious over denial.

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