Erdağ Göknar: Modern Turkey’s ‘Islamosecularism’ Through the Lens of Pamuk’s Novels

[ 0 ] April 9, 2013
The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge between Europe and Asia. photo by Erdağ Göknar

The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge between Europe and Asia, in Istanbul, Turkey. photo by Erdağ Göknar

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN for ISLAMiCommentary on APRIL 9, 2013: 

Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and BlasphemyA proud, nearly life-long Istanbul resident, celebrated Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was charged in 2005 with “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code.

The charge had nothing to do with any of his novels, but was apparently levied after an interview Pamuk gave the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger in February 2005, in which, according to Der Spiegel, he said that 30,000 people had died in the conflict between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish nationalists, and that 1 million Armenians had died in Ottoman Anatolia during World War I, and “nobody but me dares to talk about it.”

The court ended up dropping the case against Pamuk at a time when the charge against him was seen by many in the West as a free speech violation, and the European Union was considering Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

Eighteen months after being charged, Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Says Routledge, publisher of a new book about Pamuk’s works, “After decades of criticism for wielding a depoliticized pen, Pamuk was cast as a dissident through his trial, an event that underscored his transformation from national literateur to global author.”

“By contextualizing Pamuk’s fiction into the Turkish tradition and by defining the literary and political intersections of his work, Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel (released in the U.S. on March 14, 2013) rereads Pamuk’s dissidence as a factor of the form of his novels.”

Routledge describes the book as “the first critical study of all of the Turkish novelist’s books, including the early untranslated work.”

Erdağ Göknar

Erdağ Göknar

The book’s author, Duke University Assistant Professor of Turkish & Middle Eastern Studies Erdağ Göknar— a Turkish American scholar who still has extended family in Istanbul — is no stranger to Pamuk’s novels or milieu.

Göknar, who as a graduate student first met Pamuk in 1997, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003 for his 2001 translation into English of Pamuk’s 1998 novel My Name is Red — a novel that depicted Ottoman and Persian artists and their ways of seeing and portraying the non-western world, told through a love story and family story.  It was that book that helped garner Pamuk the Nobel Prize in Literature, and changed Göknar’s life.

Currently teaching an Orhan Pamuk & World Literature seminar at Duke, he also directs and co-teaches with his wife (UNC-Chapel Hill Associate Professor of Geography Banu Gökarıksel) a study abroad program based in Istanbul, and will teach the Duke In Turkey program again this summer. It’s a six-week, two-course program at Bogazici University in Istanbul offered by the Duke Global Education Office for Undergraduates. Göknar’s course is Istanbul from Occupation to Globalization. 

Last summer his students read Pamuk’s work on Istanbul while in the city and visited the unusual collections of Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence —named for Pamuk’s 2008 novel of the same name.

The museum is filled with ordinary objects drawn from the novel, including a wall of 4, 213 cigarettes smoked by the novel’s main character, and associated buttons, toys, combs, tickets, and old photographs, meant “not to be viewed” according to Pamuk “as real things in the present moment, but as my memories.”

When it first opened to much acclaim last Spring Göknar told the Christian Science Monitor, “Pamuk has accomplished a first by writing a novel of objects and by producing a museum that is a novel. This is an achievement that blurs the boundary between object and text in a way that redefines the novel genre. Pamuk has again written Istanbul into world literature.”

Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy is turning a spotlight on Istanbul and Turkey once again, and, as the publisher, author, and at least one reviewer points out, the book could have a wider audience beyond Pamuk’s traditional literary fans.

According to Routledge, “This is not a traditional study of literature but a book that turns to literature to ask larger questions about recent transformations in Turkish history, identity, modernity, and collective memory.”

“As a corrective to common misreadings of Pamuk’s work in its international reception, Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy applies various analytical lenses to the politics of the Turkish novel, including gender studies, cultural translation, historiography, and Islam.”

Walter Andrews, Professor of Ottoman and Turkish Literature at the University of Washington wrote that the book analyzes more than the Turkish Nobel laureate, more than the Turkish novel, and more than Turkish politics.”

“It makes sense of the contradictory interactions among Pamuk, his writing, his homeland’s Ottoman past and present anxieties about the role of Islam in a secular state. Göknar helps us better understand Pamuk and Turkey by highlighting the politics of literary life in a globalizing age.”

During the Fall semester Göknar, who is also a core faculty member of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, teaches his popular Geopolitics & Culture from Bosnia to Afghanistan course, part of the Middle East in Global Contexts Focus cluster for Duke freshmen — a course that has ranked in the top 5% of student evaluations in the past two years.

Haghia Sophia: A Byzantine church, an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now, a secular museum. photo by Erdağ Göknar

Haghia Sophia: A Byzantine church, an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now, a secular museum. photo by Erdağ Göknar

Last week I asked him what could be learned from his book that explores three decades of Orhan Pamuk’s works.

Göknar: Turkey is an enigma for students who don’t know how to read its secular and religious traditions together. Using the vehicle of Pamuk and his work, this book performs a dual reading that brings secularism and Islam together.

One way to understand this analysis is through the notion of what might be termed “Islamosecularism”. In the case of Turkey, Islamosecularism has its roots in the Ottoman Empire, whose modern and Muslim characteristics lasted until 1922.

Literature, in particular, reflects the legacy of this duality in the present era, and Pamuk’s work is no exception.

Q: Why did you write this book and can a non-academic audience appreciate it?

Göknar: So I wrote the book not only to present a complete reading of Pamuk’s literature as an example of the intersection of cultures of secularism and of Islam, but I also wanted to argue for the relevance of that tradition in understanding Turkey’s increasing regional influence today.

Turkey has transformed dramatically in the past decade. It is now the world’s sixteenth largest economy, it is an EU candidate country, it sits at the nexus of Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, and it is considered to be one of the world’s few successful examples of the marriage of democracy and Islam.

But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the political story is always inflected by its cultural corollary. Pamuk’s work sheds light on various unacknowledged cultural contexts between tradition and modernity, from Sufism to the Ottoman legacy and from Istanbul cosmopolitanism to secular nationalism.

Anyone who wants to understand the tensions in modern Turkish culture and Turkey’s growing legitimacy as a functioning state that is democratic and Muslim, European and Middle Eastern, would be interested in this book.

Göknar will give a book talk on Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy,  April 10 at 5:30 p.m. at Duke University, Allen building. Rm. 326. 


image from Orhan Pamuk's novel "Snow"

image from Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Snow”

Q: The snowflake image is the only image, besides the bookcover, that appears in the book. Explain its significance.

Göknar: The snowflake icon is a representation of Pamuk’s protagonist Ka from Snow. The snowflake represents the unstable emergence of Ka’s authorial self between forces of secularism and Islam. During his visit to the town of Kars, Ka, a longtime secularist, repeatedly feels the presence of Allah through poetic inspiration. Each point on the snowflake is the title of a poem Ka has prophetically “received” in Kars.

In Pamuk’s world, the snowflake symbolizes the tense intersection of the material and the mystical, reason and faith, and religion (din) and state (devlet).

The ‘Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy’ publisher’s web site includes a description, reviews, author bio, and table of contents.

Amazon offers a peek inside the book’s table of contents, acknowledgments, preface, and introduction.

Like the ‘Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy’ page on Facebook.

Here’s an excerpt from a review of  the book:  

Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel

Since being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006, Orhan Pamuk has become not only synonymous with contemporary Turkish literature but also a mainstay in world literature. Surprisingly, there have been few comprehensive studies in English of Pamuk’s literary oeuvre, and Erdağ Göknar’s excellent new study seeks to fill that gap. Göknar, a faculty member in Turkish Studies at Duke University and the translator of Pamuk’s My Name is Red, is well-positioned to offer insights, both into Pamuk’s Turkish sources and influences as well as the challenges involved in the cultural translation and international reception to his work. To do this, Göknar relies not only on translations of Pamuk’s novels, but also access to important literary works of Turkish modernity. Unlike critics in comparative or world literature, who see Pamuk’s works as part of the world republic of letters, Göknar understands Pamuk’s writing as thoroughly Turkish, all the while recognizing that that status itself needs deconstructing. His study situates Pamuk in the Turkish historical, cultural, and literary context that has not only informed him as a writer, but which is also necessary for understanding his novels. However, there are several ironies about Pamuk and his own self-conception as a writer, which complicate the goals of Göknar’s study. KEEP READING


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Category: Books, Eurasia, History and Anthropology, i-Comment, Islamic Theology & Law, Middle East and North Africa, Muslim Life & Culture, Politics & Current Events

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