by Gillian R Kemmerer
For people like me, who live uncertainly on the edge of Europe with only our books to keep us company, Europe has figured always as a dream, a vision of what is to come; an apparition at times desired and at times feared; a goal to achieve or a danger. A future---but never a memory. –Orhan Pamuk, “Where is Europe?”
Novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk captures the essence of Turkish identity or lack thereof in his essay collection, Other Colors, translated into English earlier this year. An Istanbul resident at the center of a recent free speech trial, Pamuk conveys the feelings of isolation and confusion that radiate from his beloved country in its quest to straddle both the West and the East. In his essay “Where Is Europe?”, Pamuk describes the obsession many Turkish intellectuals have with Europe as they gaze from the edge, frequently swaying from one extreme to the other as new parties come to power.
The translation of Pamuk’s essay collection coincides with recent attempts by the Turkish government to redefine its position in the Eastern world. As a nation that has been embroiled in negotiations with the European Union while vying for membership, Turkey has recently reasserted its place in the Arab world with the rise of what the Economist calls the “mildly Islamic” Justice & Development party. Chief adviser on foreign policy Ahmet Davutoglu recently extended an invitation to the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal , despite Western urges to break away from the new Palestinian government and its views. Turkey remains trapped between its European and Middle Eastern influences, frequently succumbing to and receding from either direction. The nation embraces its American and European allies while attempting to appease the controversial Arab world, which views Turkey as merely a protégé of its Western associates.
Orhan Pamuk understands this struggle intimately, having found himself at the center of a free speech debacle over Turkey’s controversial Article 301 in 2005. This law states that it is illegal to insult “Turkey & Turkishness,” limiting the nation’s Western ideal of freedom of expression. In acknowledging the genocide of Kurds and Armenians in Turkish history, Pamuk was charged with violating Article 301 though the Justice Ministry never approved the prosecution. While Westerners considered the dropped charges a step forward for freedom of speech in Turkey, the Justice Ministry never clearly defended Pamuk’s right to expression, instead recognizing that he was charged under an ex post facto law.
Despite its commitment to embracing its Arab identity, Turkey continues to vie for membership in the European Union. Davutoglu maintains, “Turkey can be European in Europe and eastern in the East, because we are both.” Pamuk and many others still question this notion.
The Kurdish situation is perhaps the greatest display of Turkey’s distance from the West. Pamuk’s trial alone was centered around his remarks in a Swiss publication in 2005 on the situation: "Thirty thousand Kurds, and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody dares to talk about it." On October 21, 2007, Turkey succumbed to increasing pressure at home and bombed Kurdish rebels in Iraq. This situation not only worsened the delicate Turkey-EU negotiations, but also dampened the hopes of many Kurds who wished to find themselves in a separate state as members of the EU. Public approval for membership into the European Union plummeted below 50% in Turkey over the past year, reflecting the internal struggles occurring within citizens themselves concerning their allegiances.
It remains ambiguous whether or not Turkey will persistently straddle the Eastern and Western fronts, but this much is true: playing both sides is not stabilizing the nation, nor establishing the firm identity Turks yearn for today. Pamuk suggests, “Perhaps the best way of belonging to a city, a country, or a sea is to have no knowledge whatsoever of its boundaries, its images or even its existence. The best Istanbullu is the one who has forgotten that he is one.” Unfortunately it is impossible for Turkey to forget its duties to the Arab world and the fervor of its European dreams this late in the game. It is a balance that has never been reached before, yet the search continues on for the elusive formula.