Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature today. Announcing the award, the Swedish Academy praised his ability to speak across boundaries in an increasingly divided world and his ability to remain creative in the face of government suppression of his works. In this piece published in the December 5, 2005 edition of The Nation, Pamuk describes his evolution as a novelist and a citizen of contemporary Turkey, where nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism conspire to limit artistic freedom.
I grew up in a house where everyone read novels. My father had a large library, and when I was a child, my father would discuss the great novelists–Mann, Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy–the way other fathers discussed famous generals and saints. From an early age, all these novelists–these great novelists–were linked in my mind with the idea of Europe. But this is not just because I came from an Istanbul family that believed fervently in Westernization, and therefore longed, in its innocence, to believe itself and its country far more Western than they really were. It was also because the novel was one of the greatest artistic achievements to come out of Europe. The novel, like orchestral music and post-Renaissance painting, is in my opinion one of the cornerstones of European civilization; it is what makes Europe what it is, the means by which Europe has created and made visible its nature, if there is such a thing. I cannot think of Europe without novels.
I am speaking now of the novel as a way of thinking, understanding and imagining, and also as a way of imagining oneself as someone else. In other parts of the world, children and young people first meet Europe in depth with their first ventures into novels: I was one of them. To pick up a novel and step inside Europe’s borders, to enter a new continent, a new culture, a new civilization–to learn, in the course of these novel explorations, to express oneself with new desire and new inspiration, and to believe, as a consequence, that one was part of Europe–this is how I remember feeling. And let us also remember that the great Russian novel, and the Latin American novel, also stem from European culture–so just to read a novel is to prove that Europe’s borders, histories and national distinctions are in constant flux. The old Europe described in the French, Russian and German novels in my father’s library is, like the postwar Europe of my own childhood and the Europe of today, a place that is forever changing, and so, too, is our understanding of what Europe means. However, I have one vision of Europe that is constant, and that is what I shall speak of now.
Let me begin by saying that Europe is a very delicate, very sensitive question for a Turk. Here we are, knocking on your door and asking to come in, full of high hopes and good intentions, but also feeling rather anxious and fearing rejection. I feel such things as keenly as other Turks. As Turkey knocks on Europe’s door, as we wait and wait, and Europe makes us promises and then forgets us, only to raise the bar–and as Europe examines the full implications of Turkey’s bid to become a full member, we’ve seen lamentable hardening of anti-Turkish sentiment in certain parts of Europe, at least among certain politicians. In the recent elections, when certain politicians took a political line against Turks and Turkey, I found their style just as dangerous as the political style adopted by certain politicians in my own country. It is one thing to criticize the deficiencies of the Turkish state vis-à-vis democracy, or to find fault with its economy; it is quite another to denigrate all of Turkish culture, or those of Turkish descent here in Germany whose lives are among the most difficult and impoverished in the country. As for Turks in Turkey–when they hear themselves judged so cruelly, they are reminded yet again that they are knocking on a door and waiting to be let in, and of course they feel unwelcome. The cruelest irony of all is that the fanning of nationalist anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe has provoked the coarsest of nationalist backlash inside Turkey. Those who believe in the European Union must see at once that the real choice we have to make is between peace and nationalism. Either we have peace, or we have nationalism. I think that the ideal of peace sits at the heart of the European Union and I believe that the chance of peace that Turkey has offered Europe will not, in the end, be spurned. We’ve arrived at a point where we must choose between the power of a novelist’s imagination and the sort of nationalism that condones burning his books.
Over the past few years, I have spoken a great deal about Turkey and its EU bid; often I’ve been met with grimaces and suspicious questions. So let me answer them here and now. The most important thing that Turkey and the Turkish people have to offer Europe and Germany is, without a doubt, peace; it is the security and strength that will come from a Muslim country’s desire to join Europe, and this peaceful desire’s ratification. The great novelists I read as a child and a young man did not define Europe by its Christian faith but by its individuals. It was because they described Europe through heroes who were struggling to free themselves, express their creativity and make their dreams come true that their novels spoke to my heart. Europe has gained the respect of the non-Western world for the ideals it has done so much to nurture: liberty, equality and fraternity. If Europe’s soul is enlightenment, equality and democracy, if it is to be a union predicated on peace, then Turkey has a place in it. A Europe defining itself on narrow Christian terms will, like a Turkey that tries to derive its strength only from its religion, be an inward-looking place divorced from reality, and more bound to the past than to the future.
Having grown up in a Westernized secular family in the European part of Istanbul, it is not at all difficult for me–or people like me–to believe in the European Union. Don’t forget, since childhood my football team, Fenerbahçe, has been playing in the European Cup. There are millions of Turks like me, who believe heart and soul in the European Union. But what is more important is that most of today’s conservative and Muslim Turks, and with them their political representatives, want to see Turkey in the European Union, help to plan Europe’s future, dreaming it into being and helping to build it. Coming as it does after centuries of war and conflict, this gesture of friendship cannot be taken lightly, and to reject it outright would be cause for huge regret. Just as I cannot imagine a Turkey without a European prospect, I cannot believe in a Europe without a Turkish prospect.