Turkey as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair

"Literature Starts at the Point Where I Forget Who I Am"

With a professional presentation and a wide variety of interesting literary premieres, this year's guest of honour at the Book Fair has left a good impression. But will the commitment to diversity which was the unspoken motto of Turkey's presentation have an influence on conditions in the country itself? By Angela Schader

With a professional presentation and a wide variety of interesting literary premieres, this year's guest of honour at the Book Fair has left a good impression. But will the commitment to diversity which was the unspoken motto of Turkey's presentation have an influence on conditions in the country itself? By Angela Schader

Turkey at the book fair (photo: AP)
Not "gloomy and colourless" like Europe: Turkey wanted to show itself at the Book Fair as "fascinatingly colourful"

​​ "Whatever his head is like, a man must ensure that he is wearing a jacket, a pair of trousers and some sort of hat if he wants to earn the title of European. This gloomy and colourless costume is the uniform of civilisation." That's how the Turkish poet Ahmet Hasim saw it, writing in 1932 in Frankfurt, nine years after the Kemalist government had begun to do everything it could to turn the young republic into part of that civilisation.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Islamic oriented thinker Rasim Özdenören characterised that project as "a dead end." Modernisation, he said, must always mean that a non-Western society has to adopt the Western model. Such a development does not emerge from a culture's own dynamic; it is merely an imitation, condemned to limp along behind the original.

Turkey's frustrating experiences with the EU seem to confirm that viewpoint, but Rainer Hermann, who has lived in Istanbul for many years as correspondent for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" newspaper, warns against further knee-jerk defensive reactions. The reformist elements in Turkey rely on support from Europe; Europe for its part – in the light of the conflict between orient and occident which is likely to be with us for some time – also relies on an increasing cooperation which could serve as a model for the reconciliation of Western modernism and Muslim-influenced culture.

The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk also made the point in his opening speech: the Turks, he said, had felt themselves to be so misunderstood over the last hundred years "that we have made this feeling into part of our sense of who we are." But he continued with a warning: "Those who draw the conclusion that failure to understand one another is the same as intercultural incompatibility ( . . . ), give credence to a dangerous idea which is gaining ground: the idea that the ideals of democracy and freedom of opinion, which were developed in the West, are from their very nature alien to us and incompatible with our way of life."

Many voices, but few listeners

Not "gloomy and colourless" – Turkey wanted to present itself at the Book Fair as "fascinatingly colourful." The colourful labyrinth which was the logo of Turkey's presence was ingeniously adapted for the exhibition in the Forum, where, divided into various coloured segments, it led one through the labyrinthine passage of the epochs and stylistic periods of Turkish literature. On the trade fair site pavilion, elements of Turkish cultural tradition – such as Ottoman architecture, book illustration, handicrafts, or the folksy pranks of Nasreddin Hoca and the experimental texts of the poet Sevim Burak – were successfully presented in a way which was exciting and free from the dust of folklore.

The locations outside the trade fair grounds which were used as venues for performances were varied: from the cathedral and St Paul's Church all the way to the bargain store Expozeil and an exhibition hall which was hidden away in a romantic tumble-down courtyard. There you could get an idea of Turkey's varied up-to-the-minute art scene, while the Anthropological Museum showed cartoons – at times airy-fairy, at times aggressively cutting – ranging from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the present.

The topic of Turkey's ethnic variety was covered both in an exhibition of impressive photographs by Attila Durak at the Haus am Dom, as well as in two discussions. The first, held by writers of Armenian origin, was of a high standard and offered carefully differentiated opinions. Jaklin Celik dealt critically with the term "multicultural," seeing in it a certain arrogance, a mere tolerance of the "other" which was by no means seen as self-evident. Esther Heboyan said on the other hand that, as an Armenian in Turkey, she had never felt marginalised; the painful experience of feeling different only emerged when she moved to Germany and then to France, as long as she did not have a proper command of the language and was condemned to silence.

The Turkish stand (photo: DW/Schuhmann)
Turkey: The compatibility of Western modernism and Islamic culture?

​​ Raffi Kebabciyan recalled, however, that the genocide against the Armenians could still largely not be talked about; later he asked a sharp question: why was everyone speaking in Turkish when they all had Armenian as their mother tongue?

Indeed it would have been particularly appropriate to have held the discussion in Armenian since the small audience seemed mostly made up of Armenians living in Germany. Bearing in mind the virulence of the Armenian question in modern Turkey, such a lack of interest was regrettable and worrying. The same applied to another discussion, "Other colours, other voices," in which the Armenian writers Karin Karakasli and Ikan Sariaslan were joined by the Jewish writer Mario Levi and the Kurd Selim Teno. At that discussion, Mario Levi caused an éclat with an outburst following Sariaslan's somewhat long-winded contribution.

This was the third and last time that he would take part in such a discussion, said Levi. He had only agreed to attend in order to articulate a protest. He had been active as a writer for decades, and would rather be treated as such than stuck in a special minority niche. It was by no means a problem to belong to a minority; he said, the real problem was to be a Turk and an Istabuler: whatever concerned the country and the city concerned him too.

Selim Temo admitted in his turn that he could not write his way out of his origins. He felt as if he really belonged neither to Turkish nor to Kurdish; he had never had a literary language, but was rather able to develop a language of resistance for himself. He would have liked to have moved in the intellectual space of World Literature, but the restrictions of "victim literature" lay "like a death sentence" on his shoulders. In that he came from another direction to the same point as Karin Karakasli, who had found that "Literature begins at the point where I forget who I am."

Freedom of opinion – Freedom to be an outlaw

Orhan Pamuk speaking at the Book Fair (photo: AP)
Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk: "For the last hundred years, Turks have felt misunderstood"

​​ Commenting on the slogan of Turkey's presence at the Book Fair, the publisher Seyfi Öngider said that, as far as freedom of opinion in Turkey was concerned, there were no colours, only black. On the platform together with him, talking about "Freedom of opinion and the experience of the publishing industry," were Ragip Zarakolu, who has often been taken to court over publications which were unpopular with the authorities, the lawyer Fikret Ilkiz, and Etyen Mahçupyan, who took over the publication of the Armenian-Turkish weekly "Agos" after the killing of Hrant Dink.

For the audience at this discussion, their ears "stood out on both sides of their stunned heads like two nervous leaves on a tree" (as the already quoted Ahmet Hasim once wrote): they heard about the many forms of official harassment and "very creative ways of applying pressure," as well as about the brave, and occasionally just as creative counter-manoeuvres of the publishers. For example, Henry Miller's book "Tropic of Cancer" was censored for obscenity; it appeared in a version with all the censored passages blacked out. However the court judgement, which included the offensive passages in full, was printed as an appendix.

One bright (or colourful) point was that this event was included in the programme by the Turkish organising committee itself (and it was mainly well translated by the tireless team of interpreters). Whether such an event could have taken place in this way in Turkey is another question. But at least the brave and unequivocal words of Orhan Pamuk at the opening, as he criticised the lack of freedom of opinion and expression in Turkey, will have put the topic at the top of the agenda.

Angela Schader

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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