Between Public and Private: Orhan Pamuk on the Intentions of Words and the Heart

January 12, 2016   •   By Katherine Q. Stone

IN THE SUMMER OF 2014, three years after I read Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence for the first time, I flew to Istanbul. It was one year after the anti-government protests in Gezi Park that brought international attention to Turkey’s widespread political corruption, media censorship, and police brutality. Though I had obsessively followed the protests and attended rallies of support in New York, my reasons for coming to Istanbul weren’t political. Instead, I came for Pamuk. I wanted to see if the way he described the city in his novels would match my experiences; or if, as a yabancı, a foreigner, the city’s best secrets would always remain out of my reach.

I arrived in Istanbul two days after the Soma Mining Disaster, when the entire city was collectively mourning the 301 men who had died in the explosion. A resulting conflagration had just been extinguished. The country came to a standstill as, one by one, survivors, and then bodies, were lifted from the mine. Talk of dangerous working conditions began to spread, with miners saying they had been too frightened to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. Thousands of protesters gathered in Istanbul, Izmir, and several other major cities, including Ankara and Bursa. Photographs surfaced of Yusuf Yerkel, an aide to then-Prime Minister (and now President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, kicking a protester in the face, which led to further protests. The government issued a ban on public protests, sending water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas onto the streets. Lawyers on their way to assist the victims’ families were detained. YouTube had been banned.

On television, newscasters labeled the Soma disaster a tragic mistake, an unfortunate accident inevitable in such a dangerous industry. Protestors were accused of being disrespectful toward the memories of those killed. The media’s message was clear: solemn mourning was acceptable.

Arriving in Turkey amidst these protests, all I had to do to see proof of the tension between the Turkish government and its citizens was walk a few streets over from my apartment to Taksim Square. There, I saw rows of armed police behind riot shields, backed by water cannons — all for what could not have been more than two hundred protesters, holdouts from the larger-scale demonstrations that had taken place before I made it to Taksim.

A day later, as I wound through the streets of Istanbul on my way to Pamuk’s literal Museum of Innocence, I thought about how the clashes reflected Pamuk’s frequent descriptions of Turkey as a country existing in two places at once. The city, often referred to by residents and scholars alike as a bridge between the east and the west, the old and the new, has undergone countless cycles of evolution (or, as some would undoubtedly say, devolution) — and there is a Pamuk novel for several stages of Turkish history. The Museum of Innocence houses an obsessive collection of items — including cigarette butts, articles of clothing, and posters publicly shaming so-called promiscuous women — collected by Kemal, the protagonist of Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Far from displaying only Kemal’s romantic love for Füsun (the catalyst for the collection), the museum, as noted by J. Michael Kennedy in The New York Times, shows “… not only the plot of ‘The Museum of Innocence,’ but also Istanbul during Turkey’s halting movement into the modern era.” With photographs of old Turkish film stars placed alongside Füsun’s earrings and handbags, the museum blurs the line between the novel and reality — just as Pamuk’s fiction does in its descriptions of Istanbul through the ages. Perhaps, if my goal was to experience a “Pamuk Istanbul,” I came at exactly the right time.

To the point, Pamuk’s latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, explores the tension between private and public truths under oppressive regimes. Known for writing family epics, here Pamuk follows the life of boza seller Mevlut Karataş, from his 1957 birth in the Anatolian province of Konya to Istanbul in the summer of 2012. (Boza is a popular Turkish drink with a low alcohol content, made from fermented bulgur and topped with chickpeas and cinnamon.) As Mevlut winds his way through the ever-changing streets of Istanbul, the overwhelming mood of the book is hüzün, the difficult-to-define idea of Turkish melancholy that Pamuk has described as “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” Similar to the German concept of heimat, hüzün is created from a collective memory of the past, and it combines a sadness for what is gone while still acknowledging the benefits of modernization.

A Strangeness in My Mind is essentially a love story about Mevlut and his marriage to the village girl Rayiha, whom he first sees for only a few moments at his cousin’s wedding when he is 21. For the next three years he writes love letters to her from afar. With the help of his perhaps untrustworthy cousin Süleyman, Mevlut elopes with Rayiha only to realize that it was not she who he’d been envisioning when writing his love letters, but instead her sister, Samiha. Samiha later elopes with Mevlut’s childhood best friend Ferhat, instead of, as Süleyman had hoped, with him. Mevlut spends much of the novel debating whether or not Süleyman intentionally tricked him into marrying Rayiha, and doubt soon infects his wife as well. (In a Pamukesque aside to the author himself, Süleyman instructs: “Don’t write about this, do not BLOW THIS OUT OF ALL PROPORTION by writing about it.”) The novel raises questions about the problems of desire in a country that is still struggling with sexual liberation, and the “two kinds of love” that exist: “When you fall in love with someone because you don’t know them at all” or “when two people get married and fall in love after that [which] can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.”

The novel travels through the 1974 Turkish Invasion of Cyprus, the founding and early political victories of the AKP (the current ruling party in Turkey), the 1991 Lebanese livestock shipwreck that caused thousands of sheep to wash ashore in Turkey, the 1993 Sivas Massacre in which 35 Alevi cultural figures and intellectuals were burned alive by fundamentalist Salafists, and even September 11, 2001. Each of the characters responds to these incidents in their own way, whether viewing these catastrophes as opportunities to refine their personal beliefs, or seeing them as a threat to business.

Along the way unknowing readers are educated about the process of Turkey’s gecekondu (“placed overnight”) homes. These are cheap and rapidly constructed structures from which, due to a legal loophole, it is extremely difficult to evict squatters or to destroy the buildings. Mevlut and his father build their own gecekondu in Istanbul, where they reside for several years, selling boza together after Mevlut returns from his lessons at the Atatürk Boys’ Secondary School.

In two fictional rival neighborhoods of Istanbul called Duttepe (where Mevlut’s uncle and cousins live) and Kültepe (where Mevlut and his father live), tensions between the Turkish nationalists and communists of the 1960s and ’70s play out. Duttepe is home to the nationalist Grey Wolves, to which some of Mevlut’s family members belong, and is the site of the construction of a new mosque. Mevlut isn’t particularly interested in aligning himself with either side, saying, “There was something pretentious about politics when it was taken to extremes.” In interviews, Pamuk has said that Mevlut’s political interests would be centered on the party that would best affect his ability to sell boza.

Boza sellers are known for their somewhat mournful call of “booo-zaa” throughout the streets of Istanbul — a sound Pamuk suggests invokes the feeling of hüzün. As the novel progresses, the call of the boza seller is less of an advertisement and more of a reminder of a vanishing world. Among the changes wrought by modernization comes the “regrettable misconception […] that street food was ‘dirty.’” Mevlut says of the yogurt advertisements on television: “These bastards and their chemical yogurt have ruined street vendors!”

As Istanbul’s population grows and parts of the city gentrify, Mevlut watches as street vendors are subjected to stricter laws and the neighborhoods he used to sell to become inhabited by the wealthy, who have little interest in boza. When Mevlut’s childhood home is eventually demolished to make way for new developments, he “observed his whole childhood, the food he’d eaten, the homework he’d done, the way things had smelled, the sound of his father grunting in his sleep, hundreds of thousands of memories all smashed to pieces in a single swipe of the bulldozer shovel.”

In his younger years, Mevlut and his friend Ferhat sell kismet (meaning “fate,” the word is Turkish in origin), a scratch-off game where players can find their fortunes and earn prizes. Later, as Mevlut sells boza across Istanbul, he examines the impact of kismet on his life: “Kismet was the force that bridged the gap between what our heart intended and what our words intended. A person could wish for one thing and speak of another and their fate, their kismet, was the thing that could bring the two together.” Though Mevlut envisioned Samiha when writing love letters for three years, it was her sister Rayiha who received his words. Yet Mevlut soon realizes his love for Rayiha grew into something greater than anything he’d felt for Samiha.

Despite the varying levels of success Mevlut obtains in working his “day jobs,” every night he retreats back to the streets of Istanbul to sell boza, escaping his troubles and indulging in the feeling of hüzün, saying, “In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.” Perhaps like Pamuk himself, Mevlut’s “favorite thing in the world was watching people go by on the street, inventing stories inspired by the things he saw.”

As in much of his work, here Pamuk attempts to define what happiness looks like, and how moments of joy are shaped by fate and intention. But what defines the novel, and what makes it so timely for the Turkey of today, is the rift between the public and private opinions of Pamuk’s characters, whether they are talking politics or family matters. As Pamuk writes, “What makes city life meaningful is the things we hide.”

Growing up as a self-described “upper middle class bourgeois boy” in the posh neighborhood of Nişantaşı, Pamuk’s childhood, like Istanbul itself, was a push-pull between the values of his conservative mother and his more liberal father. While his mother named him after “one of the most modest Ottoman sultans,” his father was interested in exploring new ways of thinking, often letting his son take home armfuls of novels from used bookstores. Pamuk saw the value in both perspectives. After he decided to become a writer, he holed up in his mother’s home for eight years, where he wrote his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, which is not yet translated to English. His reputation and stature grew with each new novel, as did his need to speak, in his way, for his country.

In a 2005 interview with a Swiss magazine, Pamuk discussed the Turkish killings of Kurds as well as the 1915 Armenian Genocide — still denied by the Turkish government — saying, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” As a result, threats of death and violence forced him to leave Turkey, and he was charged with violating Turkey’s controversial “Article 301,” which makes “insulting Turkishness” a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Many authors and organizations, including the PEN American Center, Gabriel García Márquez, and John Updike, publicly condemned the charges against Pamuk. Many wondered how the trial, as an obvious human rights violation, would affect Turkey’s chance of becoming a member of the European Union. In late January 2006, curiously close to the EU’s formal examination of Turkey’s courts, the charges against Pamuk were dropped. (Though in 2011, Pamuk would have to pay 6,000 Turkish lira to several nationalists who appealed the case when he was found guilty of “insulting their honor.”) In October of the same year, Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Today, Pamuk is a professor in writing and the humanities at Columbia University in New York, where he teaches comparative literature and a class called “The Art of the Novel.”

Though Pamuk’s clout as an author, and the convenient timing of his trial, helped to ensure his own freedom, censorship, right-wing control of the media, and the imprisonment of journalists remain an enormous issue in Turkey. Vice journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool made international headlines recently for his 131-day imprisonment in Turkey. He was arrested on August 27, 2015, on false charges of working to aid a terrorist organization. (His fellow journalists, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, were also imprisoned, but were released on September 3.) And, as Pamuk becomes perhaps the most prominent voice of dissent in the country he left, he finds his position grows increasingly untenable, especially among those who want him to serve as the figurehead of a movement that he doesn’t feel qualified to represent.

In Istanbul, I encountered the inevitable discrepancies between the public and private views of Turkish citizens. People whisper about underground meetings and express fear over the increasingly conservative powers ruling their country only behind closed doors. But publicly, especially among tour guides, everything in Turkey, especially its leaders, is wonderful, modern, and representative of the needs of the people. When I told a friend I’d made there that I was going to include his thoughts on an unrelated topic in a piece referencing the Gezi Park protests, he sent me a panicked email asking me not to use anything he said and to please keep our friendship under wraps. Of course, I heeded his wishes.

Today, in the Turkish village of Elmadere, a new mine is being built to replace the one destroyed in the Soma Disaster, and many residents who lost family members in Soma, or even survived the accident themselves, say they will have no choice but to seek employment in the new mine, even though working conditions will most likely not have improved. Families say they have not yet been paid reparations for those that were killed in the Soma Disaster over a year ago, and have, as a result, been forced to sell plots of their own land to the companies responsible for the deaths of their husbands and sons in order to survive. As tensions continue to boil in Turkey, more and more people feel they have no choice, as Pamuk’s protagonist Mevlut did and as Pamuk himself has done, but to make their private views public.


Katherine Q. Stone is currently pursuing her MFA at the City College of New York.