The Turkish writer Mario Levi (photo: dpa)
Interview with the Turkish Writer Mario Levi

''Dialogue is the Most Important Thing!''

In this interview with Ceyda Nurtsch, Turkish author and journalist Mario Levi speaks about anti-Semitism in Turkey, writing as an escape and how remembering can become a political act

In Turkey, there are two different ways of thinking. On the one hand, people boast about how the Ottoman Empire gave sanctuary to Jews who were persecuted in Spain. Along the same lines, the movie Turkish Passport, which was released last year, tells the story of Turkish diplomats who saved the lives of Jews during the Second World War. On the other hand, there are conspiracy theories that hold Jews and Freemasons responsible for all of the country's misfortunes. What is your experience of this social climate?

Mario Levi: I already sensed these two extremes as a child. Turkey has served as a haven ever since the fifteenth century, a fact for which I am very grateful. Now, however, historians have discovered – without wanting to detract from this achievement in any way – that when Sultan Beyazit II invited Jews into the country, he actually had some very pragmatic reasons for doing so: he wanted to turn the state he had inherited from his father, Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror, into a world empire. The people who came were mostly educated and therefore of use to him in this venture. It was thus a kind of brain drain, which in turn is also an approach that deserves recognition.

I can still remember very well, though, my parents and grandparents drumming into me as a child: "Never tell anyone about the things we discuss here at home." Can you imagine what a heavy burden that is for a child, what kind of worldview it instils and how it influences the formation of the child's character? Years later I found out that I was not the only one with this problem but in fact shared it with many others. And I wondered: who did this to us?

Journalists like Ezgi Başaran from the Social-Democratic newspaper Radikal write that, while there is indeed anti-Semitism in Turkey, most people don't know about it. Do you share this view?

Levi: Yes, that's correct. Most people aren't aware of it because anti-Semitism is not spread systematically. Sometimes it's expressed very openly, but sometimes it's more subtle. Authors like Soner Yalçin or Yalçin Küçük – and I am deliberately mentioning their names here – publish the most bigoted anti-Semitic books in Turkey. Others, by contrast, take a very clear stand, and you know who they are and which attitude they represent.

Wedding in the Karaite synagogue Hasköy in Istanbul (photo: Izzet Keribar/DW)
There are more Jews living in Turkey than in any other Islamic country; about 20,000 live in Istanbul alone. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic sentiment has been on the rise in Turkey for several years now

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What really bothers me in Turkey are these other, hypocritical people. Dealing with them is particularly difficult. This mood creates a tension that you can feel quite keenly. And we must not forget the following: today's Turkey is a country that has largely lost its religious minorities. In the 1920s and 30s the situation was completely different. But when diversity is lost, the result is ignorance, which in turn leads to prejudices.

About six years ago, a study was conducted with results that really shocked me. Of those surveyed, 65 per cent said they wouldn't want a gay neighbour, and 64 per cent that they wouldn't want a Jewish one. Very deep-seated prejudices exist and these supposed research results, published by the authors I named above, only serve to reinforce them. It is in order to fight this kind of ignorance that I write, because dialogue is the most important thing.

After the World Economic Summit in Davos in 2009 in particular and the incident with the Marmara aid flotilla to Gaza a year later, Turkey under the AKP government has adopted an attitude of intransigence towards Israel. Has the foreign policy situation affected the lives of Jews in Turkey?

Levi: There haven't been any concrete attacks, but very unambiguous anti-Semitic slogans on billboards. We have to ask ourselves whether the statement that there is no anti-Semitism in Turkey, which we have always defended on our travels abroad, is perhaps not true after all.

What allows me to remain calm, however, is that many people are protesting against it and showing empathy, including many who define themselves as Muslims rather than lay persons. Currently we are fighting side by side with them. This is a glimmer of hope.

In writing, you've found a way to handle this pressure. But you don't write merely to inform ...

Levi: If I only wanted to provide information, I would do research and publish scholarly books. These are also very important to me, because I don't write only from my own experience. Nor do I write just to tell stories; I write to free myself from a curse. You can call it unloading baggage, relieving my fear of going crazy or defending myself; everything I write is the result of a war that takes place inside me.

Literature is always born from an ordeal. There must be some sort of conflict, otherwise there would be no literature. It never comes out of a state of happiness and contentment. I would even go so far as to say that happy people cannot write. The driving force is negative emotions such as grief and melancholy, but also anger and rebellion. That's why I am fortunate to live in a country like Turkey.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque in Istanbul (photo: Getty Images)
The fascinating pull of Istanbul: Writer Mario Levi was born and raised in Istanbul, and the city features heavily in his work. For him, Istanbul is more vibrant than any city in Europe because of the different cultures and people in it

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In addition to these fertile negative feelings you cite, your novels are dominated by Istanbul. How important is the city for your literary work?

Levi: The reason I write about Istanbul is because, for one thing, I know the city so well. I was born here and I grew up here. But I also have emotional knowledge of the city. It is a very rich source for a writer. Because of its very long history alone, there are endless stories here; some of which I know and some of which I get to know while writing.

But there is also the Istanbul of today; the vibrant and noisy Istanbul. If I may venture a guess, the energy that exists today in Istanbul can't be found in any European city. Not only because of the many cultures that come together here, but because of the completely different people who live here. We always talk of the one Istanbul, but in reality there are many Istanbuls and some of them I may not even know of and will never get to know.

There is a chaos in this energy. There is not only the melancholy Istanbul that is such a popular motif in novels; with its toughness and chaos, Istanbul is also a mighty city that is very inspiring. Just take the district of Beyoglu for example and how much it contrasts with its back alleys.

In your novel Where Were You When Darkness Fell? you tell the story of a group of friends who all witnessed the military coup in 1980 and then meet again 30 years later. To what extent does this kind of recollection constitute a political act?

Levi: Unfortunately, we here in Turkey have not yet fully come to terms with the military coup of 1980. The culture of remembrance today consists in the mantra-like repetition of pre-formulated sentences. In recent years in particular, we have been experiencing a frightening resurgence in nationalism in Turkey. What's so awful is that this nationalism is coming not only from the right, but also from those who call themselves leftists.

Cover of Mario Levi's book 'Istanbul was a Fairy Tale'
Mario Levi's book "Istanbul was a Fairy Tale" tells of the joys, trials and tribulations of three generations of a Jewish family in Istanbul. Says Levi of his own childhood: "I can still remember very well [...] my parents and grandparents drumming into me as a child: 'Never tell anyone about the things we discuss here at home.'"

​​But the problem of remembering is nothing new in the last few years; it goes back much further than that. It is so deeply rooted that it can't be explained merely by nationalism alone. Of course we have crackpots who send young soldiers off to war with cheers of jubilation, but there are also growing tensions in everyday life: the unconditional adherence to one's own opinion, refusing to even entertain the ideas of others.

There are fanatics everywhere – not just among the religious forces, but also among the nationalists, the Republicans and even football fans, albeit in a weaker form. I am firmly convinced that the fundamental problem is the question of democracy.

The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann once put it succinctly: "Fascism begins between two people." Borrowing from her, I would say that democracy begins between two people. It is a question of ethics and the basis on which we can discuss the topics we need to discuss. But we're not ready yet. The simple reason is fear and the self-censorship it entails. One must be aware that the process of remembering is associated with pain and is only useful as a political act if it is applied appropriately.

You once said that the term "minority" plays no role in the collective consciousness of Turkey and that the different social groups such as Jews, Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, etc. don't know much about each other. How can this shortcoming be remedied?

Levi: I am grateful that some time ago, we set in motion a process for gradually overcoming this problem. I always tell my intellectual Kurdish friends that I only learned about the Kurdish problem in this country when I came to Istanbul University in 1975, which was at the time highly politicised. They always find this funny, but they have to admit that they for their part knew nothing about the Jewish problem. And at that time we had never heard anything about an Armenian problem either. Back then, people swept such things under the carpet, assuming that the problems would go away if they were not spoken about for long enough.

It is only recently that we have come to understand that we must talk to each other, so that the problems can be resolved. You could say that Turkey needs therapy; we have to play therapists to each other. To do so, we first have to put our finger in the wound. We haven't begun to talk about things yet, but at least we now understand that we need to talk about them. The process will be painful, but I am full of hope.

Interview conducted by Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2013

Mario Levi was born to Jewish parents in Istanbul in 1957. He attended the French Lycée Français Saint Michel and studied Romance Language and Literature. He works as an author and journalist and teaches at Yeditepe University.

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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