Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

What do you call a state that puts a writer on trial because of remarks made by a character in a novel, on a charge that carries a three-year sentence, and then schedules the hearing for a few days before her first baby is due? A likely candidate for swift progress towards entry to the European Union? Probably not. Yet, in Turkey, the surface story seldom tells the entire truth.

Elif Shafak, who will face a court in Istanbul on 21 September to answer a case of "insulting Turkish identity" under the notorious Article 301, knows that better then anyone. Her fiction (The Gaze and The Flea Palace are published here by Marion Boyars) sets out with passion, wit and courage to break down every Turkish monolith. It tells tales within tales, shows layers under layers, to reveal a past and present full of fractures that let the daylight in and banish the shadows that narrow minds. Fair-haired, fashionably-dressed, raised in Spain and France and with a university post in Arizona, Shafak nonetheless rescues old Ottoman traditions and Sufi beliefs from the disdainful condescension of Atatürk's secular state. I heard her speak, compellingly, about her work in London this summer. Any country should be saluting such a writer, not menacing a mother-to-be with a prison stretch for thought-crimes.

Armies of her admirers in Turkey share that opinion. Yet the recent spate of prosecutions under Article 301 - about 60 in the past year or so, most famously against Orhan Pamuk - is being driven by right-wing secular nationalists who dread the dilution of "pure" Turkishness into a European super-state. Sounds familiar? As Shafak says, many lands now host culture-wars between hopeful openness and xenophobia.

So every foreign pundit who howls that such cases should scupper Turkey's EU accession talks does the diehards' job for them. They fear European influence, and the cosmopolitanism that an author such as Shafak brings. Another point that needs endless iteration in today's nervy climate is that these artistic persecutions have nothing whatever to do with any official "Islamist" agenda. Exactly the contrary: Shafak has shown plenty of sympathetic interest in the rising appeal of the headscarf and the mosque for educated Turks of her (thirtysomething) generation. She carefully calls the pro-European government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan a "Muslim democratic" regime, not an Islamist one. Like it or not, judicial independence (and competing powers) fuels this war against the written word.

The deeper truth is that Turkey is a political nation at war with itself. Shafak likens it to "a tapestry of clashing and coexisting forces", where "the government and the state are not one and the same". Last autumn, a conference on Armenian history in Istanbul was initally banned by the justice minister (it later went ahead) but welcomed by the foreign minister. And it is, of course, the still-open wound of the Armenians' terrible fate as the Ottoman empire broke apart that has led to Shafak's day in court next week.

In her new novel The Bastard of Istanbul (originally written in English - another "insult" in nationalist eyes), an Armenian figure whose grandparents died in the massacres regrets having "been brainwashed to deny the genocide" of 1915. Invoke the G-word with reference to the mass death of Armenians, and every warning light in the Turkish "deep state" will glow a wrathful red. The outcome is a Satanic Verses-style furore in which fictional creatures stand accused of a secular blasphemy. Shafak drily points out that: "As much as I believe in their vivacity, my Armenian characters cannot go to court to be tried under Article 301." So she must, with - I hope - the support of every reader and writer who cherishes the freedom she upholds.