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Turkey’s Crackdown Curiously Spares the Literary World

ISTANBUL — Some Turkish authors who are not in prison may well be wondering why not.

This country’s literary world has a proud tradition of enduring imprisonment and repression, but mainstream authors have enjoyed an odd, if partial, immunity to the crackdown by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a failed coup attempt this summer.

It is not that no authors are jailed: A prominent novelist and human—rights advocate, Asli Erdogan, is facing life in prison. And the thousands of books put out by 29 publishers aligned with the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Mr. Erdogan blamed for orchestrating the failed coup, have been withdrawn from bookstores, universities and schools and reduced to pulp.

Ms. Erdogan, who is not related to the president, is not in prison for anything in her books, but for work with a beleaguered, and since suppressed, Kurdish newspaper, Ozgur Gundem. Another novelist, Ahmet Altan, and his brother Mehmet, an academic, were jailed for “subliminal messaging” in favor of the attempted coup — again, not in their books but during a TV appearance.

In bookstores, works by mainstream publishers, other than those deemed pro—Kurdish, have been untouched by the crackdown. Ms. Erdogan’s books continue to sell, and even better than before, according to book industry officials.

Compared with people in other intellectual fields, writers have gotten off easy. Since the coup attempt, some 120 journalists have been jailed, along with hundreds of academics and thousands of teachers. Only three authors are behind bars, none of them for their books.

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It is not clear why the literary world has been given a pass so far. Some think it reflects the book world’s status, which is higher than journalism’s, and suppression of authors has unpleasant associations with previous periods of authoritarian rule in Turkey. Others speculate that writers may be self—censoring, steering clear of issues that could prove troublesome. And many warn that this could just be a short—lived phase.

It is not that Turkey’s literary figures have not been outspoken about current events. “In the last three decades, novelists were not much in trouble for what they wrote in their fiction,” said Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006 (the only Turk to be so honored).

But Mr. Pamuk has often run afoul of the Erdogan government. “I had various troubles with the government and court cases, not because of my novels but because of my interviews and random brief political essays,” he said. “Journalist political commentary is dangerous in Turkey, and after the failed coup, the situation of free speech got worse.”

Irfan Sanci, the owner of Sel Publishing, has been prosecuted 10 times over books he has published, and is free while he appeals a three—year prison term. But those prosecutions were all on obscenity charges and mostly involved foreign works, such as Beat novels by William S. Burroughs or erotic works by Guillaume Apollinaire.

Social and political criticism, especially of the current government, often gets writers jailed, but rarely when it appears between two covers.

That is, if the work has nothing to do with Mr. Gulen’s movement, and if it refrains from any sympathetic treatment of Kurdish issues — two big ifs in contemporary Turkey. But most Turks opposed the coup attempt, even if they detested Mr. Erdogan. And fresh in memories is a time, only a few years ago, when the Gulen movement was aligned with the president and Mr. Gulen’s followers were blamed for persecuting authors.

The Kurdish issue is murky, too, because Turkey’s military is in a shooting war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the P.K.K.

Still, no one is taking heart from what may prove to be a temporary and limited immunity. “Yes, books seem more untouchable than newspapers, and they’re kind of scared of accusing the authors of books,” said Eray Ak, an editor for the book reviews at the Cumhuriyet newspaper, whose editor in chief, Turhan Gunay, has been jailed.

Tora Pekin, a lawyer for Cumhuriyet, said the government had already done enough to raise concerns: “Arresting Asli Erdogan and Necmiye Alpay was crossing a threshold. After them, they can put anyone in jail.”

Ms. Alpay, who also faces life imprisonment, is a linguist and is often described as a living dictionary of the Turkish language.

Mr. Sanci, too, said no one should be complacent. “The fact that the journalists are in jail but not the authors yet doesn’t mean we won’t be in the future,” he said. “This is a period without law.”

Mr. Pamuk noted that prominent novelists were in jail because of ties to journalism.

“Asli Erdogan, whom I admire a lot, is emblematic, and her case is heartbreaking,” he said. “She only did a symbolic act of lending her name to a newspaper as an editor.”

“It is not easy to accept that a great literary critic, Necmiye Alpay, who educated the Turkish readership about the intricacies and glories of the Turkish language in her book columns, is in prison for being a ‘traitor,’” he continued. “It is also hard to believe the government newspapers’ claims that these writers whom the Turkish public are reading, discussing and enjoying at least for the last 20 years are ‘terrorists.’”

Most, Mr. Pamuk noted, are being held under pretrial detention under a state of emergency declared after the coup attempt. “If there is evidence against them, they should be tried,” he said, “but not put into prison before the verdict.”

Hasan Cemal, a former editor in chief of Cumhuriyet, has published a dozen books without incident — even some that are quite provocative, such as one challenging the subject of a deeply rooted taboo here, “1915: The Armenian Genocide.” But his book “Delila,” about a Kurdish guerrilla and singer, was banned last year, and he faces criminal charges over it, although he has not been jailed.

Mr. Cemal said he thought a large part of the reason more authors had not been arrested over their books was that many were being careful about what they wrote. Thousands of people, after all, have been charged after insulting the president.

Senay Aydemir, the editor in chief of the Posta Kitap publishing house, said more time needed to go by for literary responses to the crackdown to begin to filter in.

“The tradition of literature in Turkey is strong in this sense,” he said. “Throughout the history of the republic, authors faced similar pressure, exile or prison, but found ways to resist. I think this tradition will continue.”

In the meantime, he said, the book business is doing well, because in unsettled times, more people read. He also sees signs that more people are writing books, including many journalists whose publications have been closed.

“Book publishing is still Turkey’s most free arena,” said Cem Erciyes, another publisher. “I see lots of journalists, lots of literary writers taking shelter in the world of books. The book is the oldest media — its wisdom, its accumulation of knowledge is thousands of years old.”

When an investigative journalist, Ahmet Sik, was arrested in 2011 and jailed over a book he had not yet published, Mr. Erdogan justified the arrest by saying, “Sometimes a book is more dangerous than a bomb.”

The book was seized in draft form and banned. It came out anyway in an edition listing 125 editors, a who’s who of Turkey’s literary, academic and journalistic world, under the title “000Book” to avoid the ban on the actual title, “The Imam’s Army.”

It turns out that Mr. Sik’s book was an investigation of the infiltration of Turkey’s security services by Mr. Gulen, the man Mr. Erdogan now accuses of trying to overthrow his government.


The New York Times, Rod Nordland


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