Many of us travelling to the European Writers’ Parliament, convened in Istanbul for that city’s Capital of Culture year, were puzzled. Taking its lineage from previous gatherings of writers (during the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the occasion of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, etc), it seemed to us that this parliament lacked a focus. We would not be called upon to utter a declaration against fascism or to defend a fellow writer against a death sentence.
But we arrived in a cloudy and damp Istanbul in a cloud of controversy. VS Naipaul, invited as a guest speaker for the opening, had been ‘uninvited’ – or if we are to believe the official story, had voluntarily withdrawn – due to a raging controversy in the Turkish media. The newspapers were quoting the writer and poet Hilmi Yavuz to the effect that Naipaul had no business in Turkey. “I don’t have a personal problem with Naipaul,” Yavuz told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review . “I have a problem with the mentality. I don’t care what the world thinks about me. As a Turkish intellectual, my mission is to illuminate my own society. He might have received the Nobel prize, but it does not give him the right to insult the Muslim world.” Cihan Aktash told the Guardian: “The disgust he feels for Muslims in his books is appalling. I cannot attend the event given all of this.” Aktash did, in fact, attend and I sat in commission with her. Her contribution was interesting but gave no indication of her wide reading among the canon of radical European intellectuals, from Negri to Ranciere. Naipaul did not come. Orhan Pamuk wasn’t going to come anyway. In a private communication with writer Hari Kunzru he said, “I was invited to it but, as you saw, I was in New York and since I’ve seen the city before, I didn’t make the journey.” Not exactly unbounded enthusiasm.
Therefore there were 99 (not 100!) writers from 33 countries, still a substantial gathering covering all kinds of writing and most of the fields that writers engage in besides the actual work of writing. There were writers who were editors, translators, teachers, journalists., house-husbands and housewives. Many belonged in more than two categories.
The eruption of the Naipaul controversy and its reflection in the Turkish and world press brought home to us the significance of our presence. We were, in fact, called upon to take a position in a radicalized environment. Freedom of speech there is a matter of life and death. Whereas, in many ways, writers are marginalized (or willingly marginalise themselves) in the West, their utterances largely ignored unless they adopt an extremist position like Naipaul’s, in Turkey and the Islamic world they act as public intellectuals, representing the political in their work, using their profile to engage with political ideas on all sides of the argument. When they do so, they put themselves in very real danger. Our duty was to align ourselves with them, and with freedom of speech – not too difficult for a gathering of people who already believed in these values, and most of whom would be travelling home in a few days to countries where such values prevailed however imperfectly, and for the time being at least. In due course this duty would become central to the Istanbul Declaration. The first paragraph of the declaration would state:
“The freedom of all types of cultural and literary acts is vital. Every direct or indirect barrier preventing freedom of expression should be abolished. Powerful institutional and civil society support should be mobilized to prevent violence and threats to freedom of expression.”
Easily said in Ireland, but in Istanbul it involved considerable heated discussion and editing. The initial weaker draft was withdrawn. Equally, direct references to Articles 301and 312 of the Turkish Penal Code (among several that limit freedom of expression) were withdrawn, avowedly because the Turkish Government changed the numbers regularly, but possibly because a reference to them might put the Turkish signatories in danger of prosecution – something we outsiders could not countenance in our name. Turkey is, of course, a secular state, but one in which the Islamic governing party is in constant conflict with old-guard Kemalist forces, among whom, generally, one numbers the Armed Forces. It is important to remember that the prosecutions are not only directed against the writers, editors and translators who have allegedly violated the various articles, but are also strategic or tactical actions in which the accused stands proxy for powerful political and corporate forces. The Pamuk case, for example, in which he was cited for mentioning the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, as well as the Armenian Genocide, was, at a tactical level, an action between the anti-EU old-guard and the pro-EU reformists, the aim being to make an EU application impossible because of the high-profile violation of human rights involved.
So, we European Writers not from Turkey stepped gingerly into a complexity that we could only measure by trying to explain the complexity of our own politics. The Irish ‘bail-out’, for example, was a subject of much enquiry. The complex history of Fianna Fáil, the divisions rooted in the Civil War, the arrival of the ideological Progressive Democrats, and Berlin-to-Bostonism, the tent at the Galway races, the complex decline of the Left and its tentative new beginnings in the present, could only be the tip of the iceberg of explanation. Another subject of interest to the better-informed delegates was our new blasphemy legislation. Attempting to explain ourselves we learn about the complexity of others. We remained conscious, or were gently reminded, of the dangers of Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said. We tried to be sensitive while simultaneously lending support. To what extant were we successful? The declaration itself can be the only test. I attach the text at the end of this article.
The Parliament was unusual for gatherings of writers, poets, translators and editors, in that almost all the participants had been invited because they were intellectually and politically engaged in one way or another in their home countries. Lunch-time conversations centred around cultural, literary and political ideas. The breath of the cultural field was impressive. Hari Kunzru, representing England (or possibly the UK?), an Indian born, left-wing novelist, speaking at the opening ceremony, set the tone by attacking Turkish censorship, questioning our assumptions about identity and multiculturalism and the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’. Vikram Seth challenged the very idea of Europe. Cultural boundaries were transgressed in ever more delightful ways: Rui Zink (who read at Cork’s World Book Fest some years ago), the Portuguese novelist, children’s writer, journalist and author of brilliant graphic novels whose anarchist father and grandfather were imprisoned by the Salazar regime; Fatima Sharafeddine, a children’s author, Lebanese born, representing Belgium, where she lives, writing in Classical Arabic, one of whose books (Neilín agus an Cat) has been translated for the publisher Futa Fata; Mehmet Yashin, born in Nicosia, Cyprus, writing in Turkish and living in Cambridge; Eva Moreda, from Spain, writing in Galician and teaching at the Open University in London; Kaya Genç, from Turkey, writing his dissertation on Oscar Wilde and Conrad. And so on.