Sunday, October 15, 2006

Voices and Ears

Yesterday afternoon I went to St Ann's Church in the centre of Manchester for the talk on Freedom of Expression by Turkey's Murat Belge, an Amnesty International event which was part of the Manchester Literature Festival.

How could this be more timely - two days after Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize and the French parliament approved a bill outlawing the denial of the Turkish massacre of Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century. (Earlier this year, of course, Pamuk narrowly escaped trial for his 'insult to Turkishness' in referring to this episode and calling it a massacre.) Belge is indeed Pamuk's publisher in Instanbul.

Now, you know, I always have a funny feeling about churches. I can never enter a church without thinking of the tensions around religion in my own childhood household (my parents were of different religions, Catholic and Protestant), and they take me back to those days and Sunday School where I always felt like both a traitor and a heathen and was filled with a frightening sense of being out of place and somehow punishably in the wrong. But somehow yesterday...

The sun was drenching Manchester as we drove in, mid-October and people strolling in sleeveless vests and sandals; this wasn't the Manchester we have always known (it used to be frosty for the Poetry Festival!), it was Manchester autumn easternised, and the John Rylands Library on Deansgate, newly cleaned and extended, no longer seemed simply grimly Northern Neo-Gothic but glowed a mediterranean red. And St Ann's Church was filled with light, the stained-glass windows showing up as delicate pastel, and all the wood coloured like honey.

At the front, as people filed in, Murat Belge was trying out the microphone, which didn't seem to be working very well. He was a little man, and he wasn't fierce or intent as the picture above portrays him, but he looked like someone's grandad, and he had a twinkle in his eye. 'Come nearer to the front,' the organisers asked us, because of the microphone problem and because , they said, Murat Belge had a 'very quiet voice', and we did. Beginning his talk in an indeed quietly husky voice, Belge explained: he'd had glottal cancer, and having the choice of surgery, had opted (he said with a twinkle) 'to lose a little of his voice rather than his life.'

And then in his quiet husky voice he talked for forty minutes, about the significance of Pamuk's Nobel Prize and the French parliamentary vote, about the history of Turkey which has given rise to its present position, caught between east and west and the forces of traditionalism and modernisation, and about the prospect of Turkey's entry into the EU. No need for microphones: everyone was riveted, and you could have heard a pin drop in that church.

Magaret Atwood in Friday's Guardian and Robert McCrum in today's Observer praise the choice of Pamuk for the Nobel as the absolutely right moral decision, and of course they are right. I have only read Pamuk's Snow, and at the time I and my reading group, bringing to it our contemporary western literary expectations, found it heavy going, but that novel has stayed with me since in a way few novels do: dream-like and snowbound, aching with isolation and confusion and the sense of lost empire. However, Belge, an avowed internationalist, fears that the prize, and the French parliamentary vote, will provoke a backlash. He told us that although at one time 70% of the Turkish population was in favour of EU entry, that figure, under the influence of the traditionalists, has now dropped to 40%. Pamuk is viewed by many in Turkey as a traitor, and now, Belge said, in the wake of these two major events, the traditionalists will be able to say, Look at the kind of people we would be joining if we joined the EU. And he agreed with a comment from the floor that if Turkey does not join the EU, the way will be paved for a strengthening of fundamentalist Islamism.

Another question from the floor: 'What would happen to you if you gave this talk in Turkey?'

Belge paused. Then: 'Nothing.' He twinkled. 'Nothing. Usually. When it happens [arrest or prosecution for speaking out], it happens because a certain group decides go to the authorities and force them to act. And the authorities will act thinking, Well, nothing will really happen... But then of course sometimes it does [and people are imprisoned].'

He paused again. In the gap I noticed that the stained-glass window to my left was a modern replacement, a result of the IRA bomb.' But you know, the worst thing that happens is that you speak out, you give a talk, you write a paper and nothing happens. It is as though you never said it at all...'

And then it was over, and there was tea at the back, and buns made by the ladies of the church, just like in my childhod, and I swallowed mine too quickly, because, I tell you, I don't care, this Bitch was crying, and also wondering why I recognised no one here in the church, only one Manchester librarian. Murat Belge is a literary man, a publisher, a scholar of English literature, a Professor of Comparative Literature, and this was a literature festival, but as far as I could see the audience was made up not of literary people but of members of Amnesty International who had travelled from miles away, and politics students. Not a writer among them. Well, of course there may have been, for all I know, but there was not a writer that I knew, none from the Manchester writing scene who could be expected to turn up to events at a literature festival.
Aren't writers interested in these issues? Aren't British writers political nowadays? Oh well, these aren't our issues, are they, we're free, aren't we, to say whatever we like, and we've got such a great life nowadays there's something almost embarrassing about people who write dark novels... But these are our issues, increasingly: Murat Belge may have 'sacrificed some of his voice' but his message is loud and clear. So why, as in Turkey, are there people not listening here?
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