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A novelist is caught up in Turk and Armenian rift

Published September 10, 2006

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Elif Shafak, one of Turkey's leading authors, is about to have a baby - and go on trial.

The reason for this strange conjunction of joy and foreboding is her new novel, which has exposed her to a charge of "insulting Turkishness" because it touches on one of the most disputed episodes of her country's history: the massacres of Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

A University of Arizona literature professor, the 35-year-old Shafak divides her time between Tucson and Istanbul. She sought a postponement of her trial, set for Sept. 21, until after her first child is born but was refused.

She could get three years in prison, though similar trials of other Turkish writers have usually folded on technicalities and no one has gone to jail.

For now, she is sitting at a cafe on an Istanbul back street, reflecting on the peculiarities of being tried for the words she gave to an Armenian voice in the novel.

"I think my case is very bizarre because for the first time they are trying fictional characters," Shafak said.

The case has broad ramifications, highlighting a rising wave of Turkish nationalism and the whole question of whether Turkey, a Western ally and NATO member, should be admitted to the liberal, democratic European Union, which the Bush administration supports.

Turks who long for EU membership worry that trials of writers are setting back their cause. But nationalists such as Kemal Kerincsiz, one of the lawyers suing Shafak, say Turkey shouldn't have to forsake bedrock convictions - for instance, that there was never any Armenian genocide - just to please Europe.

"The Easterner has to insult himself and degrade his own culture to ingratiate himself with the West," Kerincsiz said. "Our place is in Eastern culture."

Shafak said the law on insulting Turkishness "has been used as a weapon to silence many people. ... My case is perhaps just another step in this long chain."

Shafak says the rising nationalism is a reaction to Turkey becoming more democratic and pluralistic as it strives to join the EU, and welcomes it as a sign her country is undergoing a momentous transformation.

"This ultranationalist movement is taking place not because nothing is changing in Turkey, but just the opposite, because things are changing," Shafak said. "The bigger the transformation, the bigger their panic."

The novel in question, The Bastard of Istanbul, deals with taboos - domestic violence and incestuous rape - that are rarely discussed in this conservative, predominantly Muslim country.

But it is what her Armenian-American characters say that has landed Shafak in court.

For instance, this from a man worried about his niece being brought up by a Turkish stepfather:

"What will that innocent lamb tell her friends when she grows up? ... (That) I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives to the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha!"

Turkey insists the deaths of up to 1.5-million Armenians during forced evacuations in World War I was not a planned genocide but the result of the bloody breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

Shafak does not take sides on the genocide debate.

Her book has sold 60,000 copies, a bestseller by Turkish standards, and will appear in English next year.

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 00:39:41]

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