Turkey, a Touchy Critic, Plans to Put a Novel on Trial
ISTANBUL—“If there is a thief in a novel,” said Elif Shafak recently, “it doesn’t make the novelist a thief.”
Yet, Ms. Shafak is due in court here on Sept. 21 to defend herself against charges that she insulted “Turkishness” because a character in her latest novel, “The Bastard of Istanbul,” refers to the deaths of Armenians in 1915 as genocide.
Ms. Shafak, a Turkish citizen who was born in Strasbourg, France, is being sued under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, the same law that ensnared Turkey’s best-known contemporary author, Orhan Pamuk, in 2005.
She is scheduled to give birth to her first child the week of the trial. A conviction carries a possible penalty of up to three years in jail.
The plaintiffs are vocal nationalists who she says oppose the government’s efforts to gain admission for Turkey, the only member of NATO with a largely Muslim population, into the European Union.
“I believe they want to derail the E.U. process because that would change many things in the structure of the state and the fabric of Turkish society,” Ms. Shafak, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona, said in an interview. “They would rather have an insular, enclosed, xenophobic society than an open society.”
Ms. Shafak, 34, initially escaped a court date by successfully arguing that the statements over which she was being sued were made by fictional characters who could not be prosecuted. In June, a public prosecutor in Istanbul agreed and dismissed the charges.
But Kemal Kerincsiz, a lawyer who is also the leader of a rightist group opposed to European Union membership for Turkey, filed a new complaint. In July, a high criminal court in Istanbul overruled the lower court decision, paving the way for the trial.
“Article 301 has been used by ultranationalists as a weapon to silence political voices in Turkey,” Ms. Shafak said. “In that sense, my case is not unusual. But for the first time, they are trying to bring a novel into court. The way they are trying to penetrate the domain of art and literature is quite new, and quite disturbing.”
The European Union agrees.
Olli Rehn, the European Union’s commissioner for enlargement, said in July that such cases were evidence that Turkey had failed to align its laws with the union’s standards. He urged the Turkish authorities to amend Article 301 “in order to guarantee freedom of expression,” which he called “a key principle at the core of democracy.”
Mr. Pamuk, at the time of his trial, said he hoped the charges against him would not hurt Turkey’s chances of entering the union. He was prosecuted for saying during an interview that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.” Eventually, with a groundswell of support from the West, the charges were dropped.
But more than 60 similar cases have been brought against writers and artists in Turkey, although no one has served time in prison yet. The person potentially most at risk is Hrant Dink, a Turk of Armenian descent who edits a bilingual Turkish and Armenian newspaper. In July, an appeals court upheld a suspended six-month prison sentence against him in connection with a column he wrote, and he faces new charges based on remarks he made in an interview, according to Reporters Without Borders.
“The Bastard of Istanbul,” Ms. Shafak’s novel, was published in Turkish and has sold 60,000 copies, a best seller in Turkey. It is to be published in English in January. Its plot centers on two families with a common past: Turkish Muslims living in Istanbul and Armenian-Americans in San Francisco.
Among the excerpts opposed by the lawyers’ group is a passage in which a man of Armenian descent worries about which version of history his niece will accept as she is raised by her Turkish stepfather. He wonders aloud if she will state, “I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives to the hands of the Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha!”
Turkey says that the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians were not the result of genocide, but rather of a war in which many Turks also were killed as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing.
As a writer, Ms. Shafak has shown a penchant for provocative topics.
Her previous novels have touched on suicide, the intersection of Islamic and Jewish mysticism, and even love between a Sufi dervish hermaphrodite and a Greek man. She has angered critics in the past by, in their view, eschewing Turkishness by writing in English and by using what Turks today call “old words” from the Ottoman vocabulary that preceded the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish republic in 1923.
Ms. Shafak also took part in a controversial conference in Istanbul last year on the Armenian question (the first such conference in Turkey, and one that Mr. Kerincsiz and his group, the Unity of Jurists, tried to prevent).
So while Europe struggles to define the idea of Europe and who is European, Turkey is in the midst of its own debate about what defines Turkishness and whether Turks even want to be considered European. “There is a clash of opinion in Turkey,” Ms. Shafak said. “On the one hand are the people who are very much pro-E.U., sometimes for economic reasons, sometimes for political reasons.” On the other hand, she said, are factions, including nationalists, who fear that Turkish autonomy will be weakened by membership in the union.
“Fear is a powerful element,” Ms. Shafak said. “We were taught ever since we were little kids that Turkey is a country surrounded by water on three sides and enemies on all sides and that you can never trust outsiders.”
The charges of “insulting Turkishness” seem particularly galling to Ms. Shafak, whose mother was a Turkish diplomat and whose husband, Eyup Can, is the editor of Referans, a respected Turkish daily business newspaper.
“I was thinking of going back to the States to give birth, but because of the trial I will stay here,” Ms. Shafak said. “And I am happy to be giving birth in Istanbul. This city is very dear to me, even though it suffers from a sort of collective amnesia.”
Copyright 2006 New York Times. All rights reserved.