Elif Şafak

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Turkish Daily News Sept 25 2005

Istanbul conference on Ottoman Armenians Sunday, September 25, 2005

Opinion by Elif ÞAFAK

 On May 23, 2005, I arrived in Istanbul from Berlin to participate

in an event that was going to happen for the first time in Turkey: A conference on the Ottoman Armenians. Having thus arrived at Istanbul airport, I grabbed my bags and hailed the first cab waiting in line.


 `Look at this mess! Traitors!' remarked the cab driver as soon as

we took off. He was listening to national radio and when he realized I had no idea what he was talking about he turned the volume up. All of a sudden a fuming voice thundered inside the cab that belonged to Cemil Çiçek, Turkey's justice minister. He was delivering a speech about the upcoming conference. I flinched in my seat as I heard him declare that such a malevolent gathering could not possibly be permitted since it was tantamount to "treason." Then he added: `These so-called intellectuals are stabbing our nation in the back. If only I had the authority to prosecute them I would do so without any hesitation whatsoever. I urge the Turkish nation to watch the conference proceedings closely...'

 `Could you please turn that thing down,' I asked the cabdriver when

I could muster my courage and voice. `Actually, why don't you turn it off completely? The minister is talking nonsense.'

 The driver, a young, hefty man with astute eyes looked at me in the

rear view mirror from which a glittering Turkish flag, a miniature Koran and the picture of his baby boy were dangling side by side. His face was marred with incredulity and disappointment. `How would you know? You just walked off the plane?'

 `I know because I am one of those traitors he just mentioned,' I

heard myself mutter, as if that needed to be revealed. A deep silence ensued in the cab as we inched our way through the snaky side streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. For more than 10 minutes we did not exchange a single word. I sat there uncomfortably fearing being kicked out of the cab with my suitcases.

 Finally, at a red light, he said to me: `You guys are playing with

fire. What you are doing is detrimental to the interests of the Turkish state. If you accomplish this meeting it will mean you accept the Armenians' allegations of genocide. Is that what you want? You guys are educated thanks to our tax money. We expect you to help this nation. However, what do you do instead? You ruin it!'

 He uttered these words as effortlessly and easily as if we were

having a chat about the weather. It took me some extra seconds to fully sense the fury buried within.

 `We want to organize this conference because we believe it is

essential for the development of Turkish democracy,' I replied, trying not to sound either patronizing or enervated but failing in both, adding: `What does the minister know about this conference? We never circulated our papers. I myself do not know what the other participants are going to say. How can you call something a crime that has not as yet even occurred? Why is it such a taboo to talk about the deportation and killing of Armenians in 1915? Did it not happen?'

 The driver softened a bit. `Look, you intellectuals are famous for

being naïve. You live in your books. Nevertheless, the real world is different. You will be exploited by the great powers, the capitalist media, the CIA and all that,' he said.

 It was precisely then that I received a call on my mobile phone. It

was from a colleague in the conference organizing committee. The cab driver became all ears without even pretending not to overhear. `We should all draft a petition to protest at this infamous attack on academic and intellectual freedom,' my colleague and I agreed before I hung up.

 `Intellectual freedom! I'll tell you what boils my blood,' the cab

driver said, adding: `You are free to say whatever you want as long as you say it here in your motherland. However, our writers and scholars always do the exact opposite. They keep quiet here in Turkey and talk a blue streak abroad. Why is that?'

 `Well, if that's what you think then isn't it better that we have

this conference here in the heart of Istanbul,' I asked as we pulled aside, having arrived at the address.

 There came no answer. I reached out for my purse getting ready to

pay.

 `I have decided I am not going to take your money,' the driver said

calmly.

 The rest is history. As everyone interested in the subject now

knows, the conference was postponed.

  * * * 
 On Sept. 23, I came to Istanbul again. On the same day at 5:00 p.m.

we learned about a legal maneuver to stop the conference. Back to square one! As in every state mechanism within the Turkish state, there is a reactionary line against every endeavor that might disturb the status quo. Challenging the official historiography is a struggle and it is not an easy one. Nevertheless, thank God things are not as black and white as Westerners tend to think sometimes; there are other shades in Turkish civil society, and other cab drivers in Istanbul...

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