Pamuk on Reason, Faith, and Freedom

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books includes a reprint of the speech that Orhan Pamuk gave a few days ago at the opening of the World Voices Festival in New York. In it, he describes how, as a young man, he was asked to serve as a guide to Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller as they visited Istanbul to offer support to writers who had been imprisoned in the wake of the military coup of 1980. He had been chosen for the job because he was fluent in English, and he went with the two playwrights from house to house to visit with writers:

Until then I had stood on the margins of the political world, never entering unless coerced, but now, as I listened to suffocating tales of repression, cruelty, and outright evil, I felt drawn to this world through guilt–drawn to it, too, by feelings of solidarity, but at the same time I felt an equal and opposite desire to protect myself from all this, and to do nothing in life but write beautiful novels. As we took Miller and Pinter by taxi from appointment to appointment through the Istanbul traffic, I remember how we discussed the street vendors, the horse carts, the cinema posters, and the scarfless and scarf-wearing women that are always so interesting to Western observers. But I clearly remember one image: at one end of a very long corridor in the Istanbul Hilton, my friend and I are whispering to each other with some agitation, while at the other end, Miller and Pinter are whispering in the shadows with the same dark intensity. This image remained engraved in my troubled mind, I think, because it illustrated the great distance between our complicated histories and theirs, while suggesting at the same time that a consoling solidarity among writers was possible.

Later, reflecting on how things have turned out, some twenty years later, Pamuk concludes:

The theme of this year’s PEN festival is reason and belief. I have related all these stories to illustrate a single truth –that the joy of freely saying whatever we want to say is inextricably linked with human dignity. So let us now ask ourselves how “reasonable” it is to denigrate cultures and religions, or, more to the point, to mercilessly bomb countries, in the name of democracy and freedom of thought. My part of the world is not more democratic after all these killings. In the war against Iraq, the tyrannization and heartless murder of almost a hundred thousand people has brought neither peace nor democracy. To the contrary, it has served to ignite nationalist, anti-Western anger. Things have become a great deal more difficult for the small minority who are struggling for democracy and secularism in the Middle East. This savage, cruel war is the shame of America and the West. Organizations like PEN and writers like Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller are its pride.

A highly recommended (and freely available) read.