Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak: Istanbul, city of dreams and nightmares

As his Museum of Innocence comes to Britain, the Nobel prizewinner takes his fellow author Elif Shafak on a tour of his cabinet of curiosities. They talk about what Istanbul means to them – and the collective amnesia of a country where writers can be jailed for a tweet

Istanbul is the name of a city and the name of an illusion. In reality, there is no such thing as Istanbul. There are only Istanbuls – competing, clashing and somehow coexisting within the same congested space. That is one of the themes I want to talk about with Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature. The loss of plurality and nuance. The increasing dominance of an ideology of sameness throughout our motherland.

Turkey is a country of easy forgettings. Everything is written in water, except the works of the great architects, such as Sinan, which are written in stone; and the lines of the great poets, such as Nazim Hikmet, which are learnt by heart. Istanbul is a city of collective amnesia. As you walk the streets of London, you come across countless plaques commemorating the people – composers, novelists, politicians – who lived in those buildings. Memory is kept alive, through statues, signs and books, too.

Not so in Istanbul. And where there is such lamentably poor memory, it is easier for the state’s selective memory to survive unquestioned. A subjective way of reading the past, introduced from above, means the majority view triumphs over individuality and diversity. Hence all the jingoistic rhetoric in Turkey about “our noble Ottoman ancestors”. These imperial dreams have encouraged a disastrous neo-Ottoman foreign policy in the Middle East, a dangerous fusion of nationalism and Islamism.

We meet at Somerset House in London, where Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is making an appearance. Pamuk is excited and slightly nervous, a sign of how much he cares about his brainchild. The museum has grown simultaneously with the novel of the same name: a story of lost love about an (already engaged) wealthy socialite called Kemal and his obsessive love for his cousin twice removed, a beautiful shopgirl called Füsun. It features an array of everyday items – from wedding invitations and newspaper cuttings, to tin spoons and salt shakers – that chronicle the couple’s ill-fated romance, while also telling the story of the two families, and the city of Istanbul itself.

Everyday items chronicle the romance at the heart of Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence – and echo changing lives in Istanbul and Turkey.
Everyday items chronicle the romance at the heart of Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence – and echo changing lives in Istanbul and Turkey. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA

We talk about the city we call home. Pamuk was born and raised in Istanbul, the son of an upper-class Nişantaşi family, a sense of continuity central to his life. My connection has been more complicated. Born in Strasbourg, raised by a single mother in Ankara, Madrid, Cologne, Amman, and then a newcomer in Istanbul, I have led a nomadic life, insider and outsider. As a result, the way we perceive the city differs radically. Where he sees melancholy, an underlying persistent sorrow for the times lost, I see volatility – an erratic urban energy that could go in any direction, dizzying, stimulating and exhausting all at once. But we start with common ground: how the past, far from being a bygone era, is still alive in Turkey.

There are significant challenges about bringing the exhibition to London. For the tourists who visit the museum in Istanbul every year, finding its location among the labyrinthine streets of the city is part of the experience. “The poor, worn-out and unkempt appearance of these neighbourhoods during the 10 to 15 years before I opened my museum sometimes depressed me,” says Pamuk. With the help of the museum, he wanted to give these areas a “poetic aura”.

Orhan Pamuk amid objects from his Museum of Innocence show at Somerset House, London.
Orhan Pamuk amid objects from his Museum of Innocence show at Somerset House, London. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

Even without those shabby streets of Istanbul, the exhibition in Somerset House is an exquisite discovery. It is beautifully put together in two rooms that, though small, retain the warmth and charm of the original. Every little cabinet is a window into the soul of Istanbul, every piece is chosen carefully and is clearly a work of love. And “love” is the keyword in the entire project. Not only Kemal’s love for Füsun, but also Pamuk’s unwavering dedication to and passion for literature.

Museums and novels have much in common. They share, says Pamuk, a desire to show what is special about “the ordinary” and to help people to see things differently. Annually, around 30,000 people visit his museum, mostly foreigners. The majority have not read the book, he adds, although the two are organically linked. He describes the entire project as a Proustian endeavour: instead of the madeleine, he uses everyday objects to trigger memory. Through bric-a-brac, visitors are introduced not only to the world of Kemal – and therefore the world of the author behind the text – but also to the cultural history of Turkey, and the drastic transformations the country has gone through.

Watch the trailer for Innocence of Memories

The London exhibition also boasts Grant Gee’s documentary, Innocence of Memories, a powerful examination of Istanbul’s endless conflicts with its skyscrapers, construction projects, gentrification and insatiable greed.

Pamuk and I tiptoe around politics. These days, anyone who dares to say anything critical is labelled as “a betrayer” and an “enemy of the nation”. We both know what it feels like to have to live with bodyguards because of what you have said in an interview or written in a novel. Every poet, writer, journalist or academic in Turkey understands that – because of a book, an article, a tweet or even a retweet – one can get lynched in social media, demonised in mainstream media, put on trial or even imprisoned. As a result, there is widespread self-censorship, like a shadow that looms in the background, our constant companion.

In the name of westernisation, a new identity was generated by the modernist elite throughout the republican era. They longed for a tabula rasa, a clean slate on which to write the nation’s future. That negative approach to the past, ironically, made it easier for a conservative new elite – when they took hold of things after 2002 – to bring forth their own distorted version of the past. One of the endless ironies of Turkey is how conservatives, unlike conservatives in other countries, have been less interested in “preserving the past” than in actively destroying it.

Box No. 67: Cologne, at the Museum of Innocence.
‘A Proustian endeavour’ … box no. 67: Cologne, at the Museum of Innocence. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

Pamuk thinks the AKP, the ruling Justice and Development party, wants to represent itself and the people as both Islamic and modern. “They have done this successfully in business, diplomacy and politics,” he says. “In architecture, however, look at what they have done – the mosques are one-to-one bad imitations of classical Ottoman architecture.”

Turkish society is highly patriarchal, sexist and homophobic. The literary world might seem to be different at first glance; in truth, it is anything but. The novel, as a genre, arrived in Turkey at the end of the Ottoman empire, mostly from continental Europe. The early authors initiated a literary tradition that still survives today: the Father Novelists. I ask Pamuk what he thinks about the gender politics in literature, and how they might be reflected in Kemal’s gaze. Since Ottoman times we have seen, over and again, male novelists treating women as the Muse, almost static, to be observed and fetishised, an almost frozen existence, beautiful to look at but devoid of intelligence or creativity. Pamuk smiles and says: “Hey, Elif, I understand what you mean, but I’m a male Turkish novelist, what can I do?”

In the end, regardless of gender, being a Turkish novelist means being sentenced to lifelong loneliness. True, writers are solitary creatures all over the world, but in deeply polarised, extremely politicised and easily incensed places such as Turkey, a novelist is a public figure either to be hated or loved. And from love to hatred it is a very short step indeed.

Where freedom of speech is curbed and imagination censored, literature is, paradoxically, even more important, art all the more needed. Stories matter in Turkey. Every word written in The Museum of Innocence, every object in this exhibition, makes a positive difference in a fast-flowing river of amnesia and change. The Museum of Innocence will enrich your understanding of Turkey – of what it is and what it has lost.


Elif Shafak

The GuardianTramp

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