Author: Islam and Western democracy can co-exist

Elif Safak.jpg

If Turkey were to join the EU, the continent would show the world that Islam and Western democracy can co-exist, which would be a "huge message for humanity," said Elif ?afak, Turkey's best-selling female writer, in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.

Elif ?afak was born in Strasbourg in 1971 and lived in Madrid and Amman before returning to Turkey, where she graduated with a degree in international relations. While on a fellowship in the USA, she completed her first novel.

A visiting lecturer at US universities, she is based in Istanbul, a city she has often described as a source of love and inspiration for her.

She was speaking to Georgi Gotev.

You participated in the 'cultural bridges' project, which brought together other writers and cultural actors from the Balkan region and focused mostly on your country, Turkey. How do you feel about this exchange project, which took place over a few months?

I find it very exciting. Over forty European writers went to various places in Turkey and Turkish writers went to various cities in Europe. Overall, my approach to such projects is very positive. I think we need to read each other's works more and we need to hear each other more. In fact, in Turkey we read more European literature than vice-versa.

Well, there are Turkish authors which Europeans read. Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk is one, and yourself are the best-selling female Turkish novelist. Your novels, in which Istanbul plays a particular role as a magic place, have been translated into many languages…

Well, in general, what I'm trying to say is that we don't know each other's stories very well. I think it's very important to deliver a language that isn't just politics. I am someone who believes in cultural bridges, literary bridges. So my approach to such dialogues is positive.

But you'll agree that politics is very much a part of our lives. You cover highly political issues in your novels.

There is politics in our lives, and as authors we can't get away from that completely. But it is different to the language of art or literature. It isn't the same language as day-to-day politics. I have nine books out in Turkey and each and every one is different. Not all have been translated into other languages yet, but in Turkey people know the wide range of my interests.

Each book represents a new journey. What I like most is imagination – to me this is very important. In one book I may write about a Turkish woman, in another a Chinese peasant, in another seventeenth-century Siberia. In time and space, there should be this freedom for the artist to move endlessly.

You are yourself a very cosmopolitan person, shuttling between the US and Turkey. But only a few years ago you were prosecuted in your country for 'insulting Turkishness' in an article about the Turkish Criminal Code, which is hardly in harmony with EU norms. Is this problem over?

Of course it's over, for me it's over and I've left it behind. I've moved on and published other books. Of course at the time it was difficult as a writer, but I don't want to put too much emphasis on that. Overall, the reception of my novel – the Bastard of Istanbul – was a bestseller in my country and received very positive feedback from readers and this is very important to me as a writer.

Does the law still stand?

Yes, but it is not applied as it was before. But speaking about it, I should first say that in Turkey there is a very vivid and multi-coloured literary world. If we are to only choose one small aspect of this and minimise it, then we don't understand the whole picture.

In my country generations of women are very vocal and visible in art and literature. Most fiction readers are women. They make the whole atmosphere very dynamic – these things are not very well known in the West. Usually, only one or two things are being discussed.

To understand the artist's position we need to see the whole picture. And, in that sense, there is a very colourful and dynamic, heterogeneous arts scene in Turkey.

There appear to be more women wearing headscarves now in Turkey than twenty years ago. Is this perception correct?

It is not correct in the sense that more women with headscarves are now getting out into the public space. These people were always there, but in their homes. It is good that this is happening. In an ironic way, some cover their heads in order to enter the public space. Not every woman with a headscarf is a fundamentalist or oppressed. There are nuances, there are differences, and I think it is very important to see this in order to understand the picture.

Turkey has several 'faces', one of which is very European, the other one not so much. Do you think it is a problem for the ural perception of Turkey that such a discrepancy exists?

I think Turkey is a Westernised country, and I am someone who very much supports Turkey's EU membership. I think we need Europe but also that Europe needs us in the long-run. If we can show the world that Islam and Western democracy can co-exist then this is a huge message for humanity.

Synthesis never comes easily. But if we learn not to see them in a negative light then they can be a source of additional energy. There are so many Muslims living inside Europe – it is very important to show that Eastern elements and Western democracy can be harmonised.

In my mind, Turkey is a Westernised country [but] not like Norway, not like Denmark: it has a very special place in the Muslim world and is right on the frontier.

It's a big question for all of us – what kind of a life do we want to live, do we want to only be surrounded by people who dress like us and have similar surnames? Or do we want to develop a framework whereby different people can get together around common ideals of democracy.

In my mind the second is better. The first is a cultural ghetto. Is this what Europe is to become? In general, I think it would be good to bring these different elements you mention together in harmony.

I'm sure they can be: they already are in a number of countries. Some will become members of the EU in a few years, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. But Turkey is also different because of its size and EU leaders would not accept it easily. Just imagine French President Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel sharing their tandem act with Turkey – isn't this the biggest problem?

Some EU leaders may see things that way, but some will not. I'm someone who travels a lot and I hear different voices in these countries, not everyone thinks like Sarkozy.

In any case, I think that the language of art and literature is different to the language of populist politics, which always has to create an 'Other'. That difference between us and the 'Other' is important for the politician. That 'Other' is sometimes Islam, but is that healthy? I think this is the biggest problem.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in or are we trying to build common ideals around humanity, around democracy? The tendency at the moment is to create an 'Other' all the time.

In EU-Turkey relations there are also some very positive developments and good projects such as Istanbul, cultural capital of Europe for 2010. How important do you think this project is for your country?

I think it is very important and I support it wholeheartedly. In many ways, Istanbul is a cultural centre and a cultural capital. It is a city that is an amazing source of inspiration for stories. Behind every door, behind every stone – there are stories everywhere. It is a multi-layered city. Photographers, dancers, people in the cinema are all here and this makes you think about life more closely, your human-ness. So I very much support this idea.

Do you think that the EU has a fair approach vis-à-vis Turkey and other applicant countries, which have more or less been put on a fast-track to join?

We all know that we are not treated equally, everyone recognises this, but we all have different explanations for it. How many years have passed in the waiting room without things speeding up? In Turkey there is a general feeling that we are treated differently and unfairly.

Some Turkish politicians say that if this unfair treatment continues, the country has other options. They say the country can develop as a regional power centred on its neighbours, like Iran. Do you think this is the right language to speak about an alternative?

As an artist I want to build a different language outside this; as I said, this kind of language from Sarkozy and Turkish politicians is connected. We need to build another type of language, a much more constructive dialogue.

I do a lot of events. For instance, when you see an Israeli and a Palestinian politician sitting next to each other, they don't listen to each other. But a Palestinian reader may read a novel written by an Israeli writer or an Israeli reader may read a poem from a Palestinian poet. Through art, we still connect and see each other as similar and not complete opposites.

When you look at politics, it's always about differences. Art is about similarities.

You mention the French president's name more than once – if you were to meet him during the course of this year, for example when he visits Turkey later this year, what would you tell him?

I don't have such messages for anyone. I'm someone who believes we all need to do more to overcome this 'us and them' duality. Building so much tension and polarisation is not helping anyone. So this isn't a message to anyone but is something we must remember. There is already too much tension in the world. We need to think about how to build more constructive dialogue between different cultures.

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