Writers from the ‘Other’ Turkey Speak Out in Frankfurt

From left, Ragip Zarakolu, Christoph Links, Sabine Kieselbach (moderator), Asli Erdogan and Mehmet Atak

by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
FRANKFURT, OCTOBER 19, 2017 — If France was the Guest of Honor this year at the celebrated Frankfurt Book Fair, then Turkey — that is, the official Turkey — might well earn the title of the Guest of Dishonor. Taking part in the innumerable interviews with authors, round table discussions and special exhibits were leading Turkish personalities from the book world, who presented their recent works and engaged capacity audiences in heated debates about the current, sad state of affairs for intellectuals in their country. These were the voices of the “other” Turkey.

On October 11, the opening day of the world’s largest trade fair for books, which ran to October 15, Turkish investigative journalist Ahmet Sik was given the Raif Badawi Award for Courageous Journalists (granted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom) — of course, in absentia, since he is currently behind bars in Turkey. Later on the same day, author and Spiegel journalist Hasnaim Kazim presented his book, Krisenstaat Türkei. Erdogan und das Ende der Demokratie am Bosporus (“Turkey a State in Crisis: Erdogan and the End of Democracy on the Bosporus”). On Friday, Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, presented his book, Verräter. Von Istanbul nach Berlin. Aufzeichnungen im deutschen Exil (“Traitor: From Istanbul to Berlin – Notes from German Exile”), in which he poses the question: who is the traitor? At a large gathering convened on Saturday, journalists, authors and political figures conducted readings in solidarity with Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish writer who has been jailed since February. The following day a round table discussion entitled “Critical Voices from Turkey” organized by the “Initiative Freundeskreis #FreeDeniz” featured writers representing the “other” Turkey. An hour later on a huge stage inside the fair, again leading journalists, both German and Turkish, joined to present “New Journalistic Solutions for a Turkey in Crisis.”

Books Against Censorship

It was literally impossible to attend all the events, so let me focus on one particularly significant meeting that took place on October 13. Entitled “Books against Censorship,” it brought together two publishers, one author and an actor. Sponsors were the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Börsenverein) [https://www.boersenverein.de/de/394814] together with Deutsche Welle [http://www.dwhttp://www.dw.com/en/top-stories/s-9097], Germany’s public international broadcaster. Christopher Links of the Ch. Links publishing company (Berlin) and Ragip Zarakolu of Belge (Istanbul) joined physicist and author Asli Erdogan in a discussion moderated by Sabine Kieselbach, literary correspondent for Deutsche Welle. Actor and director Mehmet Atak also participated.

The mere presence of Asli Erdogan constituted an assertion of the power of resistance against censorship; she had been in prison since August 2016, was released in December and finally allowed to leave the country last month to receive the Remarque Peace Prize in Oznabrück, only as a result of massive international protests against her unlawful incarceration.

She recounted her story in simple, direct terms. In the 1990s, she had written for the newspaper Radikal, and was fired in 2001. In 2010 she resumed her writing there as a guest columnist. In the climate of post-coup hysteria, on August 17, 2016, police raided the offices of the paper, and then broke into her apartment at night, hauling her off to jail on charges of “terrorist propaganda” (i.e. pro Kurdish, = pro-PKK) and “destruction of national unity,” which can lead to capital punishment. When asked by Kieselbach about her state of health, Erdogan replied that she was “on automatic pilot,” and had not really yet dealt with the trauma, for sure, not yet in writing.

Kieselbach then turned to publisher Ragip Zarakolu, who has been charged with crimes 45 times (!) and now lives in exile in Sweden. The moderator wanted to know why he left the country. Zarakolu explained that he had gone to Sweden as a guest writer, but then after the coup and counter-coup, he could not return to Turkey. The crimes he has been accused of include publishing “works about the Armenian Genocide and the Shoa, about torture in Turkish prisons,” like that which Asli Erdogan had witnessed. The situation, he said, “is worse now, because it is like a military dictatorship with authoritarian laws;” here he pointed to the arrest of human rights defenders, individuals who should enjoy the protection of the United Nations. His publishing company Belge was founded in 1977 and continued even under the later military regime, issuing works by political prisoners, among others. All sorts of topics became taboo, he said, among them, leftist politics, the Armenian genocide, the Kurds. In the 1990s when he produced books on these themes, he came under attack, and his publishing house was bombed in 1994. As recently as May 7, 2017, the offices were raided and 2,000 books reportedly seized. As a special treat for the book fair this year, Zarakolu organized and curated an exhibition of “Forbidden Books” which features works from the last 92 years in Turkey.

Christoph Links has partnered with Zarakolu in promoting “forbidden” books. His company published Jürgen Gottschlich’s book, Beihilfe zum Völkermord. Deutschlands Rolle bei der Vernichtung der Armenier (“Accessory to Genocide: Germany’s Role in the Armenian Genocide”) in 2015, a volume present at the Istanbul book fair. The partnership between Ch. Links and Belge involves translation projects to make the reality in Turkey known.

The Power of the Mighty Pen

Speaking from personal experience, Asli Erdogan underlined the special role of political solidarity, especially from outside Turkey. On the night of her arrest, she said, crowds gathered to signal support, there were demonstrations in Cracow, Poland, PEN International organized twice-weekly freedom vigils, not to mention the expressions of support from her readers. “The solidarity from abroad was incredible!” she said. “The government underestimated the power of the literary world.” The pressure from abroad became so great that “it became cheaper to let me out.” It was due to initiatives taken by France, Austria and Germany that she finally got her passport and could travel.

“And inside Turkey?” the moderator asked. Zarakolu confirmed that international pressure was decisive, referring to his own arrest in 2011. As for the domestic situation, he characterized Turkey as “a Republic of Fear.” Arbitrary arrests of intellectuals are intended to have the effect of terrifying everyone, giving the impression that no one who dares to speak out is safe. And at the same time, the ruling elite around Recep Tayyip Erdogan et al are considered “untouchables,” above and beyond the reach of the law. What must change is that they “must become touchable,” he said. For those who are unlawfully prosecuted, international attention can even be life-saving; when Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize, Zarakolu noted, it shifted thinking; “people said they should be proud of him!” That honor was crucial, and “Pamuk survived,” just as others who have received comparable international acclaim have also been saved. “But,” he added with sadness, “we could not save Hrant Dink,” the Armenian.

Links confirmed that the actions of organizations like PEN, with their petitions to governments and to prisons protesting conditions, do have an impact and may alleviate their suffering. That prisoners in Turkey are treated inhumanely was clear in the brief description that Asli Erdogan gave of her incarceration. “I was in solitary confinement for five days,” she said, “and for two days went without water.” Once the international uproar forced the authorities to deal with “writer Asli” and not “PKK Asli,” their behavior improved. When German political figure Martin Schulz (SPD) called for her liberation on television, the world had to take note and the authorities in Turkey could not ignore it.