Turkey's poisoned pens

This year’s Frankfurt Book Fair highlights Turkey’s literary production. Here is a signandsight article by Constanze Letsch speaking to the difficulties this is posing Turkish writers:

Turkey’s poisoned pens

Turkey is this year’s guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair. For months now, the country’s writers and critics have been embroiled in a bitter feud over the politics of participation. By Constanze Letsch

The 60th Frankfurt Book Fair opens in just a few days time, a moment that has been eagerly awaited in Turkey, this year’s guest country, for almost two years. The Turkish government set aside a budget of seven million euros, and rented 4.260 m² of exhibition space. The country will be represented by 100 publishers, 350 authors, translators and academics, 320 artists, 10 literary and licensing agency representatives, 110 curators, presenters and coordinators and 120 media representatives: almost 1000 people in total.

1000 minus 20. Since July, a bitter feud has been bubbling away in the Turkish media over a controversial boycott of the Book Fair, in which to date, 20 of the invited authors and literary critics are participating.

Boycotting the Book Fair

On July 14, the writers Leyla Erbil, Tahsin Yücel, Kaan Arslanoglu and Nihat Behram announced in the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet that they would not be going to Frankfurt. They explained that they didn’t want to be represented by the AKP government and the Cultural Minister, Ertugrul Günay. Leyla Erbil, one of Turkey’s leading novelists explained: “I protest against the AKP and the Cultural Minister, who are simply using the writers to score points. I have therefore refused the invitation to go to Frankfurt.

On July 16, a second public declaration from the protesting writers appeared in the pages of the daily Milliyet. By now the renowned philosopher and literary critic, Füsun Akatli, had signed up too, saying that she would not aid a government, which threatened the values of the republic, in presenting its “culture veneer”. “Participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair goes against my world view and my political convictions,” she wrote.

Leyla Erbil (Unionsverlag, Photo Necdet Kaygin), Füsun Akatli

The popularity of the AKP, which on 30 July 2008, narrowly escaped being outlawed by the constitutional court, has taken a bashing. A number of serious corruption charges, an increasingly totalitarian tone and the aggressive, almost thuggish, behaviour of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, towards the press in its battle with media mogul Aydin Dogan, have sullied the image of the governing party which, until recently, was largely regarded as honest.

The Organisational Committee

But the presentation of Turkish literature at this year’s Book Fair in Frankfurt is not in government hands. It was planned and organised by an organisational committee made up of members of various Turkish writers and publishers associations, with only one representative from the Ministry of Culture on board. When the boycott was announced, the committee issued the following statement:

“There are countless reasons for writers, caricaturists, artists and intellectuals in Turkey, to distrust our political leaders. (…) Yet we should not forget that the Frankfurt Book Fair is an event which takes place not among governments, but among publishers. The fair is a platform for the literature of the world, where opinions are formed and discussed in public, where experiences in the publishing world can be exchanged. (…) The writers and publishers associations, which have come together on the initiative of the Turkish Publishers Association, had full control over the concept for “Turkey in all its Colours” and made all programme decisions without any government intervention.”

But the committee also emphasised that it was part of “a society’s social rights” that it’s government should provide a budget for events of this kind. Without financial support from the state, many publishers and writers would be unable to go to Frankfurt.

Literary critic Füsun Akatli was not satisfied. “Whether or not the book fair is an AKP-organised event is irrelevant. The organisational committee has not clarified its position on the AKP. Can this committee guarantee that in Frankfurt we will not see a repeat of the situation in Karabük, when Latife Tekin was told: ‘You cannot criticise me at an event in which you are participating at my expense’? I doubt it.”

Latife Tekin has her microphone turned off

Aktali was referring to a scandal which broke in the town of Karabük on the Black Sea on July 26. The mayor of the town, Hüseyin Erer, turned off microphone of the writer Latife Tekin and then proceeded to verbally threaten her for publicly criticising the energy policy of the AKP and the growing conservatism in Turkey. It provoked storm of protest from writers and intellectuals, in the media and within writers associations. Mayor Erer has since filed charges against Latife Tekin for insulting the inhabitants of Karabük and the Turkish government. Tekin is one of Turkey’s most influential writers in the Turkey since 1980.

It’s hard to imagine Turkish writers having their microphones turned off at symposiums and readings in Frankfurt or anywhere else in Germany. But it would be terrible if writers had to fear reprisals on returning to Turkey for criticising the government. But the majority of the writers who have agreed to participate in the Frankfurt Fair have also voiced their criticism of Mayor Erer.

Asli Erdogan, for example, said: “If there is to be criticism of the German or the Turkish government, or of the behaviour of the publishers, then it should be vented in Frankfurt.” The fair is above all a platform for communication.

Latife Tekin (Unionsverlag) Asli Erdogan (Unionsverlag, Foto Gürcan Öztürk), Perihan Magden (Suhrkamp, Foto Mushin Akgün)

And most of the writers, publishers and critics who have been invited to Frankfurt share Asli Erdogan’s sentiments. The guest list suggests that we will see plenty of relentless discussions and harsh criticism at the Book Fair – it includes all number of writers who have been sentenced, attacked and hotly disputed. Perihan Magden, for example, who publishes a daily, razor-sharp column in the daily paper Radikal, which is too provocative even for a number of left-wing intellectuals. Or Murat Belge, who writes for Radikal and the leftist daily Taraf. Or Elif Shafak or Orhan Pamuk who, despite being Turkey’s best known writers abroad, have both stood trial for insulting Turkishness at home.

Women writers in headscarves

Ece Temelkuran, a journalist and Sacharov prize winner, had a huge success this year with her book “Agri’nin Derinligi”. In it she gives a fresh analysis of Armenian-Turkish relations, one of the most sensitive issues in Turkish politics and history. She is open about her intentions: “I am going to Frankfurt to talk about corruption in my country.”

But the boycott is not only about the intolerant attitude of the Turkish authorities towards the arts and culture, it is not only about freedom of expression. Füsun Akatli fears that the AKP will use the Book Fair to “present Turkey as a country of moderate Islam”. And she is also concerned that the government “will try to present Kemalist and Islamist writers as well as headscarf-wearing writers as equals.” It’s worth thinking about this phrasing. One minute she is criticising the discriminatory policy of the ruling party in reference to Latife Tekin, and the next she is defending literature as the monopoly of a strictly Kemalist elite.

Füsun Aktali’s remarks also met with protest from Turkish authors. Aysegül Devecioglu, whose last novel “Aglayan Dag, Susan Nehir”, won the Orhan Kemal prize, resigned from the women’s committee of the PEN Association. She had made enemies for herself at the PEN Association after she spoke out against the headscarf ban in universities and questioned the logic behind the boycott of the Book Fair. “Had there been a protest against the policy on the Kurds, against censorship and growing nationalism, I would have joined immediately,” she explained. In the discussion about reaction of the women’s committee, she also wrote a letter to its president, the writer Leyla Erbil.

A few days later, sections of this private letter appeared in the Kemalist newspaper Cumhuriyet, much to Aysegül Devecioglu’s surprise and annoyance. In a furious article, the dramatist and boycott advocate Enver Aysever accused her of playing to the AKP and spreading Kurdish nationalism. His article bore the title “The End of Intellectual Honour”, and it used the word for pure, unsullied honour, which is generally reserved for blackmailing women – Namus.

The old conflict between fundamentalist Kemalists and Islamists, which flared up so violently in the two years before the election of Abdullah Gül as Turkey’s president and during the attempt of the AKP to allow headscarves in universities, rears its ugly head again between the lines of this Cumhuriyet writer.

Aysegül Devecioglu (Metis Verlag), Ahmet Ümit (Unionsverlag)

Now Aysegül Devecioglu is now likely to have to stand trial for insulting Turkey and the Turkish state founder because of a letter she wrote to Leyla Erbil that was not intended for the public eye, and in which she openly criticises Ataturk’s cultural policy and the official Turkish position on the Kurds. The case also underlines the extent to which the rhetorical attempt to divide Turkey into two irreconcilable camps of pro-Atatürk Kemalists and pro-AKP Islamists, is poisoning the intellectual and cultural climate. Both Füsun Akatli, a long-standing women’s rights activist, and Leyla Erbil, an icon of the Left, are vehemently opposed to Clause 301 of the Turkish penal code which, since the mini reform in March 2008, no longer covers insults to Turkishness but to the Turkish nation instead.

Once again, however, it is the headscarf which divides and which decides who writes good books and who writes bad ones. Or who even deserves to call themselves a writer.

Turkish literature

A rich body of prose literature arose in Turkey almost simultaneously with the foundation of the Republic in 1923. During the Ottoman Empire, literature was mainly restricted to poetry – courtly divan literature – and to political tracts and artful travel descriptions. With the fall of Ottoman Empire and the ever-stronger European orientation, new narrative forms found their way into Turkish literature. It was not until somewhere around the turn of the century that Ahmet Mithat Efendi, one of the early fathers of Turkish prose, wrote his novels and novellas. Only after the radical language reforms in 1928, when Atatürk had the Arabic alphabet replaced by Latin letters and the Turkish language “cleansed” of Arabic and Persian influences, did modern Turkish literature come into being.

This is probably another reason why the “literature of the Republic” plays an almost holy, enlightening role for the Kemalists, and why they defend it so fiercely. “How many great Islamic writers, how many great headscarf-wearing women writers do we have in our history?” Enver Aysever thunders in his denouncement of Aysegül Devecioglu. The enlightened modern Turk does not have to think about his answer. “None, not in the past, not in the present, not in the future.” That those who (rightly) criticise the AKP for its heavy-handed use of censorship and banning, then set themselves up as the guardians of (high) culture and good taste, is appalling. To say that there has never been or there is no Islamic literature in Turkey is just wrong. 

And is the motto of this year’s guest country not “Turkey in all its Colours”? Turkey is an Islamic-oriented country with an overwhelming Muslim majority. And it is a fact that Islamic books and others that are aimed at religious readers (whether they be prayer books, sex guides, novels or whatever) are among the country’s best-selling books, even if they rarely appear in statistics.

In the online translators magazine Ceviribilim, the writer Sabri Gürses asks:
“Uncomfortable as it is, we must ask ourselves this question: Shouldn’t we be able to show the Koran, the most popular book in Turkey, at the Book Fair? And won’t the rest of the world notice that Turkey has still not found a solution to this problem?”

Turkish publishers angry at invitation policy

While a small number of the invited guests have chosen to keep their distance from the Frankfurt Book Fair, others are complaining at not having been invited. It is not without a certain irony that these are publishers of populist and Islamic titles.

In the Islamic newspaper Zaman, Osman Okcu, the director of Timas Publishers, one of Turkey’s largest publishers in terms of books published annually, expresses his anger about the refusal of the organisation committee to allow him to participate: “We have told the Publishers Association on numerous occasions how significantly our publishing house would contribute to the success of the Book Fair in. But we were informed that the programme was full and that we should pay for our authors to go to Frankfurt ourselves.” His displeasure is evident. “We no longer have any faith in the organisational committee.” Another unpleasant surprise for the publishers was that the committee also failed to invite the eminent historian Ilber Ortayli, a professor Istanbul’s Bilgi University whose books are published by Timas. (Read a talk by Ortayli about “the Other” in the OIC-EU) According to Okcu, 70 percent of the publishers and writers who have been invited follow “a particular ideological direction”. That he means left-wing liberal is left to his faithful readers to read between his angry lines.

Timas publishers hit the headlines in 2006 after it emerged that it had “Islamised” the Turkish translations of children’s book classics such as “Heidi” and “Pinocchio”. And the sequels to the populist conspiracy theory bestseller “Metal Storm”, which was written in a similar style to the TV series “Valley of the Wolves” which is so popular among nationalists, are also published by Timas Publishers (more info here).

Nermin Mollaoglu who, together with her business partner Ayser Ali, runs the Kalem Literary Agency, is one of the people who is satisfied with the organisation: “I believe that all Turkey’s most important authors have been invited and the programme in Frankfurt looks very promising indeed. Being the guest country in Frankfurt is a wonderful and important opportunity to bring Turkish literature to a wider international readership.”

The author Ahmet Ümit, whose political thrillers are very popular in Turkey, agrees: “Turkish art and Turkish literature deserve a lot more recognition abroad. There is a still a long way to go.” And he adds: “I have no sympathy for the writers who don’t want to participate. Turkish literature did not start with the AKP and it won’t stop with them either.”


This article was originally published in German at Perlentaucher on 7 October, 2008

Constanze Letsch is a freelance journalist who has lived in Istanbul since 2005.

Translation: lp

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