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A question of conscience: Orhan Pamuk defends Turkey's controversial female columnist

June 3 2006 at 5:12 PM
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A question of conscience
Orhan Pamuk defends Turkey's wittiest and most controversial female columnist

Orhan Pamuk
Saturday June 3, 2006


Perihan Magden is one of the most inventive and outspoken writers of our time. The way she twists and turns the Turkish language, the delight she takes in the thrust and pull of popular culture, and her brilliant forays into subjects that everyone thinks about and then decides not to put into words, "just in case" - these have earned her the love of her readers and the respect of her fellow writers. The demonic wit and formal elegance of her much-read and often controversial columns are evident also in her novels, two of which have been published in English translation. In Two Girls and The Messenger Boy Murders (my personal favourite) she combines a flair for the grotesque with a humane sensibility to evoke a world all her own.
But for me, and for so many other readers who like to begin each day with anger, joy, and someone else's clever words, the real addiction is her newspaper columns. When she takes aim at an affected actor, or a popular singer pretending to be more western and (naturally) better born than she really is, or a high-ranking official drowning in banality, or a media queen bending over backwards in a new way every day to keep her face on television, or a heartless minister refusing to take an interest in the latest prison hunger strikes, or a lacklustre politician invoking religion for suspect reasons, or the latest manoeuvres of an arabesque singer, or the kitsch poems sent in by an admiring reader, or a columnist who, in deference to the powers that be, has invented the most preposterous excuses for a brutal injustice or an indefensible prohibition - even as I laugh at her clever, brilliant jokes and the elegant phrasing of her thoughts, I am left wondering what sort of person she is.

Born in 1960, the daughter of educated and artistically inclined parents, Magden is a native of Istanbul; though she studied psychology at university, she chose to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a writer. Today she is the mother of a 12-year-old girl; since divorcing her husband, she has raised her alone, supported solely by her earnings as a writer, which cannot have been easy. Turkey's columnists are as important in the shaping of public opinion as its news editors. Like the columnists I so lovingly describe in my novel, The Black Book, these "professors of everything" are mostly men. The handful of women columnists generally have the protection of husbands or secret family connections, so they cannot count as independent. An unprotected female columnist can, by contrast, pay a high price for speaking her mind. Magden believes that people she has criticised in the past have retaliated by tapping her phones and collecting information on her private life.

Seen in this context, Magden's fiery outbursts (which everyone knows to come from the heart), her combative independence and her steely conscience make her just the sort of independent woman Ataturk saw in Turkey's future when he founded his republic. The westernising reforms that sit at the heart of the Turkish republic were as much about bringing women out of the full control of men and giving them some independence as they were about reducing the role played by religion in public life.

But in a bizarre twist of fate, the Turkish army, which likes to see itself as the "defender of Ataturk's revolution", is now threatening to put that freedom on trial. Perihan Magden's writings have earned her a long string of public and private prosecutions in the past. Many of the politicians she has criticised have also opened cases against her. And she has spent a lot of time in courthouses and lawyers' offices. This time the Turkish Armed Forces accuse her of "turning the people against military service" - though in later columns Magden has made it abundantly clear that this was never her aim.

In the offending column, entitled "Conscientious Objection is a Human Right" Magden defended Mehmet Tarhan, who found himself in deep trouble after insisting on his right to refuse military service for reasons of conscience. She reminded her Turkish readers that the UN has acknowledged conscientious objection as a human right since the 1970s, and that of the signatories of the European Council, only the peoples of Azerbaijan and Turkey did not enjoy this right. Mehmet Tarhan is a homosexual, and because the Turkish army views homosexuality as a defect or a disability, he would have been "excused" from military service had he been willing to undergo a physical examination, but he "refused absolutely" to subject himself to such wrongful and degrading treatment.

As they weigh the scales of justice, balancing the rights of a homosexual and a single woman against the ire of the Turkish Armed Forces, the judges presiding over the case will, no doubt, proceed with great care. Echoing as it does so many other recent thought crime prosecutions, Perihan Magden's trial will show the world - yet again - just how deep Turkey's dreams of entering the EU really are. At her first hearing on June 7, the democrats of Turkey and the world will be there at her side. Let us not forget that 125 years ago Tolstoy defended Russia's conscientious objectors and did not find himself in legal trouble with the tsar's government ...

· Translated by Maureen Freely. Orhan Pamuk's latest book is Istanbul: Memories of a City (Faber)

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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