A very touching and beautifully-observed piece in the TLS this week, by Louise Callaghan of the Sunday Times, about the liability that books can become in a fast-changing political climate. “If you want to know a city’s secrets,” she begins, “ask the bin-man.” Talking in Istanbul to Ahmet the Kurdish bin-man, she discovers that people are chucking out, in large quantities, books published by companies owned by Fethullah Gulen (“Ottoman era historical novels, religious texts and children’s books …”). These books have become dangerous not so much because of their content, as because of their imprint. Any kind of association with Gulen is dynamite today. His odd, rather cultish organization, once bosom-buddy to Erdogan and his AKP, is now held responsible for the attempted military coup last year, and known bombastically by Turkish officialdom as “FETO,” the “TO” at the end standing rather splendidly for “Terrorist Organization,” as though saying it repeatedly somehow made it undeniably true. This is reminiscent of “Crooked Hillary,” and not unlike the BBC with its bizarre, obligatory tag, “So-called,” every time a newsreader mentions Islamic State: in this latter case perhaps they imagine that constant repetition will make the Raqqah Caliphate shimmer and vanish like a so-called fairy palace. It’s a sort of ritualised prescriptive word-magic that propagandists the world over understand very well.
The bizarre absurdity of all this witch-hunting is illustrated by Callaghan: “Tens of thousands were arrested, sacked, or suspended from their jobs. Little to no evidence was required – some went to prison for owning a dollar bill with a suspiciously Gulenist-like serial number.” But, as she explains, books were a major problem too. Bookshops dumped stock of Gulen’s books and anything published by Gulen-owned imprints. (“Of course, we used to stock Gulen’s books. After the coup, we knew it would be bad. So we gave them away. When the police came to look for them, there was nothing to find.”) Academics trailed furtively around the night-time streets, leaving little piles of books in bins and under bushes. In one story that Callaghan tells, the chucker-out got home again, relieved, only to have all her books returned “by a policeman who had followed her the whole way, acting on a tip-off … in his hand was the bag of books.”
Banning books is pretty standard in the Middle East (and not only in the Middle East). In Egypt the military government is busy closing libraries and banning singers like Haife Wahbe. The Israeli government has outlawed Dorit Rabinyan’s Borderlife from schools for its scandalous portrayal of a Jewish-Arab love affair, which “threatens the identity of the nation.” (Naturally, Borderlife‘s sales have shot up in the bookshops and it continues cheerfully, if controversially, to impugn the national identity.) When the critical biography of King Mohammed VI, Le Roi Predateur, was published in 2012, it was at once banned in Morocco: everyone I knew there seemed to have a copy on the hard drive of their laptop. Banning books, in the long run, makes them more popular, not less. Jabalon, the Middle Eastern equivalent of Amazon, sells an in-your-face list of banned books with a cheerful insouciance that does them credit, and claims never to have given way to any government’s demands to withdraw titles.
Censorship in Turkey has a long history, but one episode stands out with great ironic resonance: the imprisonment of one Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 1997 for reciting a supposedly inflammatory poem by the nationalist poet Ziya Gokalp. Four months in the slammer for reciting verse seem not to have convinced him of the virtue of free speech. (Nor indeed the dignity of simply ignoring impertinence: one Turk was later memorably and – for everyone except the poor Turk in question – hilariously, arrested and put on trial for comparing Erdogan to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.)
But perhaps the President has a point, if not about the efficacy of banning books, then about their potency. Emine Sevgi Ozdamar wrote rather wonderfully in The Bridge of the Golden Horn,
On the steep streets [of Istanbul] there were many book vendors. They laid their books on the ground and the wind leafed through them, books about the Russian and French Revolutions, and about Resistance fighters who had been beheaded five hundred years ago by the Ottomans, books by Nazim Hikmet, books about the Spanish Civil War. All killed, strangled, beheaded people who had not died in their beds, rose up in those years. Poverty ran in the streets and the people who, in their lives, had wanted to do something about it and had been killed as a result, now lay in the streets as books. One only had to bend down to them, buy them, and hence many of those who had been killed entered homes, gathered on the bookshelves next to pillows and lived in the houses. The people who shut and opened their eyes with these books went out into the streets again in the morning as Lorca, Sacco and Vanzetti, Robespierre, Danton, Nazim Hikmet, Pir Sultan Abdal, Rosa Luxemburg …’
To which list one must now add the unattractive Mr Gulen, particularly if his books are to be found hiding under bushes all over Istanbul.