In Other Words

Bridging the Bosphorus

Turkey's decades-long desire to join Europe has prompted vast political reforms, and its negotiations for European Union membership are finally under way. Mensur Akgün, foreign-policy director of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation in Istanbul and associate professor at the Istanbul Kultur University, discussed the literary backdrop for Turkey's changing times with FP.

Foreign Policy: Which literary themes are popular in Turkey?

Mensur Akgün: We currently discuss Turkish religion and identity and, with a changing understanding of minorities, what it means to be a Turk. Mehmet Metiner for instance, a leading Islamist, denounces his own Islamic past in Yemyesil Seriat, Bembuyaz Demokrasi (Green Islam, White Democracy). In 2002, Hasan Cemal, a journalist with the Milliyet newspaper, published Kürtler (Kurds), a landmark book on Turkey’s suppression of the Kurds. Kurds served as a catalyst for our increasing normalization of relations with the Kurdish population, and it is already in its 15th edition, not to mention thousands of pirated copies.

FP: Do you buy books through the black market?

MA: Many printing houses scan books and even promote them outside the official book market, selling pirated copies at less than half the normal price. While the book market as such is thriving, books’ economic value remains low.

FP: Which fiction authors are popular?

MA: Apart from Dan Brown’s bestselling Da Vinci Code and a flurry of bizarre conspiracy books by Aytunç Altindal and Soner Yalçin, we read everything by our own Orhan Pamuk, who, in such books as Snow, My Name is Red, The New Life, and The White Castle, wraps Turkish history and current questions into marvelous, metaphorical language. Recently, five authors, including Elif Safak and Pinar Kür, embarked on a celebrated experiment by passing one novel draft to another and publishing the result under the title, Bespese (Five After Each Other). Paul Auster, Susanna Tamaro, Milan Kundera, and James Joyce are popular evergreens in Turkey.

FP: Who fuels the ongoing debate on the Armenian massacre in 1915 in Eastern Turkey?

MA: Two leading figures are Halil Berktay, a Turkish sociologist, and Taner Akcam, a sociologist and historian now living in the United States. He was one of the first Turkish scholars to use the term "genocide," and his books and articles have been challenging Turkey’s political establishment to come to terms with our history. My generation never learned about this in school, as Turkey wasn’t pressured to reveal the truth about this massacre during the Cold War because it was a NATO member. While the "skeleton counting" is pretty much settled — demographic research says that up to 800,000 Armenians were killed — we are still debating whether, legally, this was a genocide.

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