Don’t mention the war

The long-awaited trial of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was adjourned on Friday amid concern in the European Union (EU) that the case could challenge freedom of expression.
Pamuk, author of My Name is Red and Snow, faces a possible three-year jail term for “insulting Turkish identity” by saying that a million Armenians were killed in massacres 90 years ago and 30,000 Kurds in recent decades. You’re not supposed to mention those sorts of things in Turkey. Why they don’t just blame the Armenian massacres on the Ottoman Empire and move on, I don’t know (fear of compensation claims, perhaps, or because of the historic link to the more recent Kurdish insurgency).
But Pamuk’s case comes at a critical time as the country begins serious negotiations about joining the EU – which doesn’t look kindly on laws which limit freedom of expression, or on countries which jail writers and journalists for saying what they think.
Yet in a continent quietly celebrating the recent Austrian charges against Holocaust denier David “Did I really say that?” Irving, allowing membership to an entire nation that denies a genocide is undoubtedly tricky. On the other hand – how do you get a country to admit responsibility for alleged war crimes? And how do you admit your own complicity: when it was the European powers and the US which drew up the boundaries of modern Iraq and Turkey, denying the Kurds a homeland, after World War 1? The US, Britain and France aren’t exactly famous for ‘fessing up to their own colonial incursions.
I was in Turkey last year and people were largely very excited about joining the EU (they saw it as a fait-accompli) and the Euro was proudly encouraged. I loved every second of my time in the country, but when I started researching Turkey prior to my visit, I was confronted with a terse statement on the home page of the Government Ministry’s websites denying any killing of Armenians ever took place. It’s still prominent. You can read instead about “the killing of Turks by Armenians.” It’s at complete odds with Turkey’s usually sensitive approach to the commemoration of the Allied 1915 invasion of their own land along the Dardanelles.
My impression was that there’s a cultural gulf between central government in Ankara and a clamouring Euro-focused entrepreneurial class – particularly in Istanbul, one of the world’s most exciting cities – and perhaps between traditional rural people and city folk. I imagine this will lead to divisions later on issues such as agricultural subsidies and trade tariffs. It’s always been a country on the cusp of two continents, two histories, just as Istanbul has always been amongst the world’s most cosmopolitan of cities, so these aren’t new issues.
But I admit I wasn’t brave enough to start engaging complete strangers in discussions about the Armenian genocide or the war against the Kurds. Like many issues of national identity, inside the country, even among friendly and invariably generous people, the belief in these events as “myths” appears fairly common. Every country has those. Ask a Tasmanian whitefella about the fate of the Aboriginal inhabitants. Ask the Japanese Prime Minister about the Sandakan Death March, the Rape of Nanking, or the Korean “comfort women”. Indeed, just the other day I read an extract from a Southern US history textbook all about how the relationship between “masters” and slaves was one based on mutual respect and benefit. No mention of whips or lynching.
Pamuk’s case, along with the dramatic shifts in Turkish society, will be critical not just to the question of EU membership, but also to the future political environment inside the country. While the hardline nature of the government has eased over the years, it’s still concerned with keeping a certain kind of “peace”.
The trial will restart on February 7, 2006, after a dispute as to whether the law under which Pamuk is charged can apply, as it was introduced after his statements in an interview. All very well, legally, but I can’t imagine Pamuk shutting up about it now, whether new laws or old apply.
George W Bush banged on a great deal about the Kurds killed and dispossessed by Saddam Hussein – haven’t heard him sticking up for Orhan Pamuk, though I guess he’s got enough going on at present.

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