“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A WELL-MEANING DICTATORSHIP. NOR IS THERE ANY SUCH THING AS AN UNDEMOCRATIC NATION THAT IS STABLE.”
Fotos: Aslihan Kuscu
I had a lot of people asking me for an english version of this text, so Eibleen ní Riaín was kind enough to translate the text – thanks a lot!
The Turkish author Elif Shafak opened the 17th International Literature Festival on September 6th, 2017. In her opening speech she discussed the crisis that democracy is experiencing worldwide and encouraged her fellow authors to take a stand for the preservation and development of democracy.
Ahafak is the most famous female Turkish author and constantly struggles with death threats, verbal assaults and other repressive measures there. She grew up with her mother and grandmother, two women who had a huge influence on her and her writing. Her mother worked as a diplomat for many years and due to this Elif Shafak has a very cosmopolitan background. She has divided her place of residence between London and Istanbul for many years, a traveller between two worlds.
Her grandmother stands for belief and tradition and her mother for modernity and secularity, and London and Istanbul reflect these two poles she moves between.
Democracy is going downhill in Turkey, but not only there. If we take a look around we can see how fragile this model has become in many countries, how we have taken democracy for granted and how we are only waking up now as more and more autocrats who are undermining the system become increasingly powerful.
The government in Turkey has been in power for 14 years and one can only look on helplessly as freedom of speech and the press are being eliminated, violence against women is growing, Islamism and attacks on intellectuals increasing. By now there are more journalists and writers in prison in Turkey than in China.
For many years Turkey saw itself as part of Europe. English, French and Italian literature was read and translated. Literature from the Middle East has only begun to be translated in the past few years, something which definitely should have happened earlier, but which distinctly demonstrates Turkey’s earlier leanings towards Europe and the swing towards a closer proximity to the Middle East.
Society is becoming more and more polarised in Turkey, just as in many other countries. People are being split up into „them“ and „us“. Believers against unbelievers, city dwellers against country folk, compromises are becoming increasingly impossible. And we shouldn‘t just lean back and describe this as typical „Middle East“ behaviour. These schisms exist equally in the western European world and the rifts are constantly deepening. This is a dangerous development and the tight results of the elections in France, Austria and the Netherlands are just a brief respite.
More and more people are questioning democracy, which they don‘t perceive as a model for the future. They want to persuade people that one has to decide between stability and democracy. However there cannot be any long-term stability in countries without democracy. Countries without democracy are unhappy countries and this leads sooner or later to massive problems.
A yearning for a „strong leader“ is widespread all over the world right now like never before. Progressive liberalism is under attack, is being intimidated and eroded. People long for the supposed good old times and the despots’ favourite phrase is „make Turkey/Hungary/Poland/Russia/US … great again“
Unfortunately I couldn’t find Elif Shafak’s talk at the Literature Festival in Berlin online, but I found a pretty similar one which she gave at the Oslo Peace Forum:
„We all need to become activists. We need to become activists for empathy, for diversity, for pluralistic democracy, and very importantly, for a global solidarity“
The Erdogan critic is very possibly in danger in her home country. She says „I was used to being one of the more dark and depressive speakers at international conferences. And I believe that there are a lot of Turkish authors who are pretty depressed and demoralised. But then again there were also authors from other countries, countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Venezuela, Nigeria or the Philippines who were also depressed. We listened to each other, smiled at each other, but emotionally there was always a clear difference between those of us who came from weak or wounded democracies and those who came from stable democracies.
This has changed over the past year, more and more authors are joining the team of the depressed and these authors now come from Europe: from Hungary, Poland, even from Austria, Holland and France. And even authors from the UK, where I live – suddenly there were more and more of us, all worried about the fate of their country and that of the world,“ says Shafak.
We were supposed to do a personal interview with Elif Shafak but unfortunately her flight had a two-hour delay and it didn‘t work out. I flew to Berlin with my friend Aslihan, who is probably the biggest Elif Shafak in the world and who took all the wonderful photos you can see here.
After her speech Elif Shafak took an incredible amount of time for all the people who wanted one (or more) of her books signed or wanted to have their photo taken with her. The queue was unbelievably long, there were so many young Turkish people, who absolutely adore Elif Shafak.
We got the opportunity to speak to Elif Shafak for a short while and – although I already felt a certain emotional connection with this incredibly intelligent and interesting author – after her talk and our brief meeting I am an even bigger fan.
Her latest novel “Three Daughters of Eve” is about three women who are studying in Oxford and become friends. Shirin, Mona and Peri: The sinner, the believer and the confused.
The book describes the current deep rift within Turkish society. When different groups are totally convinced of the absolute correctness of their own opinion conflict is inevitable. Religion continues to be the centre of most of these debates. In her novel Elif Shafak creates the figure of Azur, a controversial Oxford professor, who encourages his students to debate different belief systems in order to put a check on the deplorable custom „The Malady of Certainty“. You can’t just register for his seminar; you have to be chosen by him and be invited to discuss the philosophical relevance of God.
The central character Peri has grown up with a secular Kemalist father and a deeply religious mother which has left her rather confused about God. She is joined by the politically active and devout Muslima Mona and the liberal bi-sexual atheist Shirin, who comes from Iran.
Teile des Buches spielen im heutigen Istanbul und insbesondere während der Dinnerparty gibt es wahnsinnig gute Passagen und ich kam aus dem Unterstreichen kaum heraus.
Parts of the book are set in modern-day Istanbul and there are some amazing passages, particulary during the dinner party. I just couldn’t stop underlining!
„Frankly, I don’t believe in democracy“, said an architect with a crew cut and perfectly groomed goatee… Take Singapore, success without democracy. China. Same. It’s a fast-moving world. Decisions must be implemented like lightning. Europe wastes time with petty debates while Singapore gallops ahead. Why? Because they are focused. Democracy is a loss of time and money“.
I really enjoyed parts of the book but found other parts too contrived and for someone (me) who is a little too convinced that she knows exactly what she believes the constant confrontation with religion was a bit much.
Before the opening speech there was a performance by the actress Zoran Volantes. Sitting in a cage she read out texts by the imprisoned author Aslihan Erdogan and other imprisoned or endangered authors.
The meeting with Elif Shafak left me deeply impressed and her talk moved me immensely. I realized yet again how fragile democracy is at present and how important it is not to take it for granted but to fight for it and declare one’s solidarity with all progressive liberal people worldwide, no matter where they be.