Friday,14 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Friday,14 December, 2018
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ottoman culture in disguise

Mona Anis and Youssef Rakha spoke to Orhan Pamuk, the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, while he was in Cairo to inaugurate the Cairo Literary Festival (14 -20 February)

 Ottoman culture in disguise
Ottoman culture in disguise
Al-Ahram Weekly

Mona Anis: We were thinking that, having lived through the military takeover in 1980 and having witnessed the rise of political Islam in Turkey after so many years of secularisation, you decided to veil all of these things in your works. I recall you saying about Snow, ‘This is my one and only political book.’ But the issues are clearly there in other works too, and they are of course very relevant to the Egyptian experience. It is not that we want any vulgar Sisi-versus-Erdogan quote from you, but perhaps we can discuss your relationship with politics.

Egypt is perhaps one of the deciding, essential countries to understand Islam, politics, secularism. So is Turkey. My novel Snow is my take, my composition on these issues. In fact, even before writing it, and writing it, I said to myself: in my previous novels I looked at the spirit of the nation, or the well-being of the cultural scene of my world—in My Name Is Red through art, in The Black Book through Istanbul—and in Snow I looked to it through the window of politics. This politics, Egyptians, Middle Easterners, even sometimes non-western people would know: the tension between drama and modernity, the tension between religion/Islam and individual freedom, and so forth and so on. My novel Snow dramatises these issues, and the popularity of it in this part of the world is more related to issues of individuality, tradition and the place of the army in the picture, while the book was popular in the United States and Europe not because of these issues, but it was popular in these countries because political Islam was something they were scared of, they cannot understand what it’s all about. So, in America, in Europe, I was chronicling, talking about something they don’t even know, while here I’m going into details, human situations, dramatic problems of individuality and of course belonging to the nation, the consequences of talking to power, the army’s eternal place in our countries which we are always critical of, the sense of community which paves the way to curtailing individuality, bad treatment from the police, disrespect for human life. These are issues we all know and unfortunately continue in all our countries.

Youssef Rakha: I get the sense from your work that, the way you were brought up and educated, you were very isolated from anything that could be called Islamic culture, yet in your work there is this constant sense of difference from Europe or the West. To what extent would you say you belong to a secular community because of your class? Does secularism go hand in hand with Kemalism? And if you do belong to a secular community, where does your sense of difference come from?

I come from upper middle class, Nişantaşı, secular, republican, bourgeois culture. At that time, when I was educated, Turkey’s upper class was 80 per cent heartfelt secular, but now the composition of the upper classes has changed. There is a strong secular community in Turkey and I am part of it, I am definitely deeply secular, from family, from the way I was raised and also from what I’ve read and what I believe is a human value. But, before acknowledging secularism as something dear and important, I saw it as a part of the life of my family. Not only secularism. From my family, especially from my father, I learned to respect values which I associate with Europe and the west: respect for the creativity of the individual, respect for the strangeness and uniqueness of a person, respect for difference. These things, I learned from my family. I have no problem whether historically or in any way with secularism. I would have a problem with various forces who use or abuse the idea of secularism to rationalize, legalize military coups and disrespect for people’s votes. Unfortunately secularism was abused in this way by the Turkish army—not today, but decades ago, and that was a tradition—but now the Turkish army is not in politics. First, I like Kemal Atatürk, his whole legacy. He had done these things before the second world war, the world was different then, and associating today’s politics with that time or blaming Kemal Atatürk, or whoever, who did things so many years ago, is not the way I understand things.

But, yes. I am essentially different from, my culture is different from western culture, because I live in Turkey, Turkey is a different country. And I hope it will be more secularised. I am not critical of secularism. If I am different it’s because Islamic, Ottoman, our traditions are different. Our understanding of many things is different. But, look. My policy, my culture, my take in culture and politics, especially in culture is that I stress the difference in my books, and I also stress the western values I like: secularism, respect for women’s rights, respect for people’s votes and—what else?—free speech, respect for minorities, a free press. I definitely believe in parliamentary elections. I am a person who doesn’t believe in much utopia, who doesn’t have big projects. If I have a project it is respect for people, parliamentary democracy but not only that—free speech. Parliamentary democracy is half a democracy if there is no free speech… But this is only talking about political topics—I’ll stop here. It is not that I don’t like to talk about these things but I don’t want to portray myself as a political thinker which is a side thing for me.

MA: Then we’ll stop here. Okay. History. Two of your novels, My Name Is Red and The White Castle, are direct takes on the Ottoman legacy. Perhaps you were experimenting with your relationship to that history. Did traditional topics feel foreign to you as you approached them from where you stood?

Then I have to tell you these books were also, thank God, reactions to a previous generation of Turkish writers, but I think with writers all over our part of the world there was flat realism, a deep belief in the European sociological project of growth and development, naiveté about these issues, also a simplistic idea of the people’s Islam where religion will pass away as we get richer and more modern—a misunderstanding of the role of religion in understanding people’s lives. These were critical things that I developed. The literary, formal expression of these ideas was flat realism, be it socialist or critical realism. For example when I began writing the example moderne for Turkish writers was Steinbeck, Maxim Gorky and—the best—Hemingway. Even Faulkner was not an influence because he was considered complicated. The issues of darkness, of the human spirit, that the human spirit may be dark, that there are irrational, un-understandable corners in our mind or in our social world: these were the issues that I wanted to focus on. Or, to put it simply, as the previous generation liked critical realists as I said, from Maxim Gorky to John Steinbeck, I liked Nabokov or Proust in a way, or Borges, right? This was the beginning, you know. And I would have loved to express myself more literarily but of course I was also aware of the background. So one thing, for example, I’m critical of in the Turkish leftists’ or the modern leftists’ legacy—

MA: Is that Aziz Nesin and—

No, no, no, I don’t want… No. Don’t push names suddenly because… One thing I was critical of was that they were not interested in anything that came from Ottoman culture. Here I sensed that the visibility of Islamic culture could be more apparent, while there was a strong tendency to forget anything related to Islam, and when you showed interest in, say, Rumi or Attar or whoever, they would be upset, while—my take—you can be extremely secular and still be extremely interested in these subjects. You can look at the whole labyrinths and complexities and beauties of old culture and stay secular, but make a new literature from that. You don’t have to copy Borges or Edgar Allan Poe, you can also find your own Borgeses and Edgar Allan Poes in that traditional literature. This was one thing that I said, and in fact the motivation for My Name Is Red was not only writing about painting—don’t forget that I’m a failed painter—but also, since Islamic painting was only illustrative painting and all these paintings suggested literary texts, in a way I wanted to revive these texts. I wanted to say to my Turkish readers, “Look, these were your Shakespeares and this is your Hamlet.” And in fact an Ottoman gentleman who studied in the 17th century would know these texts as a British citizen knows his Shakespeare today, and that was a strong point I felt. I was reading these texts as an upper middle class, Nişantaşı or Istanbul person discovering something new. All this traditional literature had been pushed down and marginalised because westernisation was also a class issue.

The Ottoman legacy was not foreign to me. I did not know much about it but it was extremely familiar, because all these Rüstem and Şirins and Rumi stories and all these medieval Islamic anecdotes had found their way in disguise to popular culture, in Turkish films, in the way people behaved, in words and expectations about life. In fact sometimes I joke about all this culture that was suppressed by the modernist Kemal Atatürk project and forgotten. You can be modernist and a Kemal Atatürkist but not forget that. That, I think, is my choice. But on the other hand, once it is forgotten—I joke—just as Sigmund Freud said, something that is suppressed comes back in disguise, right? My novels are traditional Ottoman Turkish culture in the disguise of postmodernism. That I think is why they are loved.

YR: Would you call yourself postmuslim?

OP: No, I wouldn’t even call myself postmodern. I don’t know…

YR: How would you define the term “Muslim” as it relates to you?

Well, I never thought of that in that sense. Defining yourself as a Turk, defining yourself as a Turkish citizen, as a political person, as a Muslim: I don’t do these things. All these definitions always imply some exclusivity, meaning “I own the Muslim”, “I own the Turk”… I reject these definitions. Most of the time, how do you define this, how do you define that implies a desire to hold power. I remember in the 1970s-1980s, Turkish intellectuals were very busy arguing about who was an intellectual. Most of the time they were arguing about this because they wanted to say to you, “You are not an intellectual.” What is a Turk, what is a Muslim, what is an intellectual, what is a leftist, what is a communist: I am 62 and I understand that, once they start discussing this, they are doing so just in the end to tell you, “You’re not a Muslim, you’re not a communist, you’re not a modern. You’re not a good guy.” In the end, that’s what they want to tell you. So I reject these kinds of question, and they’re also very old fashioned, scholastic and dead discussions. I don’t argue definitions, I argue what I do in life or even talk about my life. It’s better, I’m a writer. I’m not a scholastic definition, Platonic definition… Anyway!

MA: Well, back to literature. Style. You started very young, with Cevdet Bey and His Sons, which you began at the age of 23, a very straightforward, realist work—

Yes, and right after that I was critical of that kind of writing.

MA: Yes, and you kept experimenting with different kinds of writing for quite a long time: occultism, mystery, crime… It was like a museum of various styles until with Snow or perhaps earlier with My Name Is Red, we come to what might be called the Pamukesque style. Would you say that now, after 60—and I don’t mean a template—you have a style that defines you?

Probably I found what you call my style when I finished The White Castle and wrote The Black Book. I knew that I had found my style, and once a writer finds his voice or convinces himself that he has found his voice he even begins to imitate himself. This is me. There is so much from The White Castle in My Name Is Red, in The Black Book. And, yes, now I have a sense of my style. Maybe to simplify how I see my style and how my readers recognise my style I would say that, especially in Turkey, I have two poles of readers. At one end there is the reader who says (and this is the more literary reader), “Your best book is The Black Book, you can’t do anything better.” And all these readers, whenever I write a new book, they say, “Well, it may be interesting. It’s not as good as The Black Book.” And also a meaner expression of this sentiment is, “Once again you betrayed The Black Book.” At the other end are the other readers, my first readers, actually, who are the readers of Cevdet Bey, my social realist/critical realist, panoramic, 40-years-of-Turkish-history novel, and they say, “Wow, that was your best novel. From then on you did strange things, postmodern and strange things.” While I think that for the rest of my life I’ll write books either satisfying this pole or that but never satisfying both poles completely.

YR: And you feel the two poles exist outside of Turkey as well?

It’s different. Outside of Turkey, I am proud, you get well-known for one book. There are readers who are following my books, but say in the United States I am most famous for Snow, while they don’t care about that book in China. They definitely care about My Name Is Red there, because it’s about seeing and the Chinese have a great tradition of painting, traditional painting versus modernity being a metaphor for the traditional character versus modernity and anxieties about individuality, modernity and the fragility of your identity. These are issues I like, and these I think for example Chinese or Korean, Asian readers care about while American readers don’t care much about the issues we have with individuality. American readers want to know about political Islam, or they care about My Name Is Red in the sense of artists, drawing, they did this kind of miniatures, very interesting, but not as an issue of today. Or, for example, in Spain my bestselling book is Istanbul. So I am happy to be a writer of this kind. Most of the time every writer has one book that sells in every place, but I’m happy and proud in a way that every culture picks up something different from me.

YR: I read somewhere that your family, your mother was very upset about Istanbul and stopped talking to you.

Yes, because I wrote about private things. Of course this is the eternal drama of every writer: that you give away personal family matters. And not only that: you give away personal national secrets too and that upsets people even more. But in the end the writer’s job is to be honest and I didn’t give away too many secrets, really. Then you understand that there are so many secrets that I haven’t given away and you understand that most of our writers are not telling too much truth. There is so much to tell but it’s no easy to tell it…

YR: Have you made it up with her, though?

Oh, yes, sure. That’s the problem with interviews. You do an interview and you define a certain situation that’s resolved in two years’ time, but 16 years later they’re still quoting. It’s not like that.

MA: Something I want to bring up before we run out of time is The Museum of Innocence. And, me being the same age as you, it’s all about memories, how you transform memories from time into space, and because I also came across your Harvard lectures about the sentimental novelist, it occurred to me that perhaps as we grow old we feel we should be entertaining. That was something that our generation underrated when we were younger maybe.

I agree.

MA: I was thinking this because I was reading The Museum of Innocence in the last three days and it’s just a love story, and it reminded me of late Marquez. I don’t want to suggest this is late for you. But it reminded me of something Salman Rushdie did with The Enchantress of Florence—

It was before that.

MA: No, I am not saying they influenced the book at all, but I’m saying it’s another love story that flows in such a sensual and lovely way, and to pay attention to the details to the point of erecting a museum of things. Could you have written something like this earlier on or is this a function of maturity and memory?

YR: She’s saying you’re getting old!

The Museum of Innocence—I mean the novel—is a love story told with too many details, I accept that if it’s what you’re implying. It’s a long story, and today I see that among Turkish readers it’s read not with much literary interest but more by people who are badly in love, in what they call black love—their friend will say, “Wow, your situation is horrible, Ahmed. Why don’t you read this novel by Pamuk? Perhaps you’ll understand yourself.”—and now it’s the bestselling book I have in reprints in Turkey. Some of it may be because the museum is an interesting thing, but we don’t have as many visitors to the museum as the sales of the book. Not that the museum, which I am very proud of, needs economic backing. I’m very happy to say that the museum, which opened three years ago, is operating on the ticket money. I’m not asking anyone or myself to put money into it. It’s a self-sustained small museum and its idea… Let’s tell the idea of it to the readers.

I thought of the museum as I wrote the novel, so it’s a single project where I open a museum of daily objects of Istanbul between 1950 and the 1990s in which all the objects—things, paintings, landscapes, postcards, photos of upper middle class, secular people of Istanbul—are collected. They are highly connected to a personal story which lends these objects an aura and a sense of memory, and the composition of these objects in display boxes in the museum is in the end, I must confess in a humble way, artistic. The first piece of the museum is the building in itself, because I had this fantasy idea, but I couldn’t even myself decide: am I going to pursue it? If I went to anyone and said, “I want to open a museum”, they would say, just as they told me when I first said I was going to write in Istanbul, “Are you crazy? You want to write novels in Turkey?” This is in the 1970s. And then in the early 2000s my friends and my family were, “Are you crazy? You want to open a museum in Turkey?” And up to now the two ideas both worked, touch wood.

The idea was really because I wanted to be a painter before anything else and so there is a dead artist who wants to be resurrected and claim my life, and I respect this person inside me. And I really enjoyed doing it, and I’m really surprised and extremely happy that both economically it is sustained and the Turkish and international media, and also artistic people, museum people respected it. Now I am friendly with curators, museum people, artists. The museum opened a new life for me. I had long relations with writer friends in many countries but now I also have artist friends, I am going to biennales and being invited to deliver lectures…

MA: And you have the room in the attic?


MA: So it’s not just in the novel only. So you sleep there?

No. Before the museum opened I did that but of course now I can’t do it. I cannot go to the museum when it’s open at normal times, because people recognise me and they stop looking at the museum and start looking at me, or bringing me books to sign.

YR: Do you feel that success on this scale has affected the way you write?

It has a weight, that success. And also people’s expectations are high, such as, “Nobel Prize—ah, let’s see what he’s going to do next!” There is also that kind of attitude in people. But somehow since I plan my novels ahead… All my novels are long. I don’t start a book one day and hope to continue. At any one point I have running projects for eight or nine novels I want to write, and I keep notes on them for many, many years. In that sense the subject matter, the intricate quotes, my ideas that I keep writing all the time, the seriousness of my projects defends me from the vanities of fame and success.

YR: My sense sense is that not a lot of Turkish literature is being translated into Arabic or vice versa. How do you feel about that?

Yes, the tragedy of our cultures. Not only is this true of Turkish and Arabic but it’s also true of Persian and Turkish that we essentially share the same culture, especially in religion and also literary culture but now all this communication is cut off. We only know of each other if Europe or the west approves of our success. This is a tragic thing. Everyone pays lip service to this tragedy but no one heals it.

MA: But Turkish drama, which we get dubbed in Syrian Arabic, seems to bridge that gap. I cannot tell you the impact of TV drama from Turkey in Egypt and on me…

Maybe I’ll just insert this one thing. They always want to do something with me, these TV production companies. I always negotiate. And it always falls apart. Maybe I’m demanding.

YR: They want you to write something?

No, they want to adapt Cevdet Bey, and this [The Museum of Innocence], and I thought this would be fine because it’s a popular love story, right?

MA: But do you think that kind of drama is spreading Turkish culture or knowledge of Turkey?

There is some knowledge of Turkey being spread around the world, but soap operas have such defining formats, shapes, that after a certain point real communication, cultural communication is very little. On the other hand I’m very happy and proud that Turkish soap operas are as famous as my books internationally… Maybe we’re finished?

YR: Unless you want to say something about visiting Egypt?

I am very happy about visiting Egypt in these bad times, when human rights are violated, so many people are in trouble and there is so much injustice around, but now I am seeing and talking to people with many opinions. Egypt is the most prominent Islamic country, whatever happens here has resonances all over not only the Islamic world but all over the globe. So I am here to know more and of course address my readers. I am very happy to be here.

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