Nouritza Matossian: When Its Finest Novelist Attacked Turkey's Bloody Past

Roundup: Talking About History

Nouritza Matossian, in the Guardian (2-27-05):

There is a Turkish saying: 'A sword won't cut without inspiration from the pen.'
Orhan Pamuk, wielder of Turkey's finest pen, has spoken and cut a swath through his country's conscience. His most recent novel Snow was set in Kars and peppered with references to the Armenian culture of that formerly Armenian city. Brilliant novelist, translated in 20 languages, winner of international prizes, he has become a hate figure.

His crime was one sentence in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger this month. 'Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and the nationalists hate me for that.' All hell broke loose. The press attacked him for dishonouring the Turkish state and incitement to racial violence. He has been called a liar, 'a miserable creature' and a 'black writer' in the daily Hurriyet. Professor Hikmet Ozdemir, head of the Armenian studies department at the Turkish Union of Historians, rejected his statement as a 'great lie'.

A lone voice, Halil Berktay, professor at Sabanci University, supported Pamuk: 'In 1915-16 about 800,000 or one million Armenians were killed for sure.'

Mehmet Üçok, an attorney, filed charges at the Kayseri public prosecutor's office. Another charge was filed by Kayseri Bar Association attorney Orhan Pekmezci: 'Pamuk has made groundless claims against the Turkish identity, the Turkish military and Turkey as a whole. He should be punished for violating Articles 159 and 312 of the Turkish penal code. He made a statement provoking the people to hatred and animosity through the media, which is defined as a crime in Article 312.'

I find this ironic. My mother's family was deported from the historic Armenian city of Kayseri, leaving their murdered menfolk behind.

I was recently in Istanbul lecturing on my biography of Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky, the basis for the controversial genocide movie Ararat. Official permission for my talk required me not to utter the word 'genocide' to refer to the Ottoman empire's systematic deportations, tortures and killings of two million Armenians which Gorky witnessed. I might refer to those 'incidents'. The crime has never been acknowledged by successive Turkish governments, Britain or the United States.

Recent discussions of Turkey's possible entry into the EU were dominated by France and other countries demanding that Turkey first admit the Armenian genocide. What if Britain had a law forbidding criticism of its history, identity, or the armed forces? Turkey has far to go to reach the legal standards of EU members, with their humane and non-discriminatory laws aiming at standards of truth and reason. So much hatred. So much anger. What does Turkey have to hide?...

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