The following was given on April 25 as the inaugural PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Memorial Lecture.

In March 1985 Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter made a trip together to Istanbul. At the time, they were perhaps the two most important names in world theater, but unfortunately, it was not a play or a literary event that brought them to Istanbul, but the ruthless limits being set on freedom of expression in Turkey at that time, and the many writers languishing in prison. In 1980 there was a coup in Turkey, and hundreds of thousands of people were thrown into prison, and as always, it was writers who were persecuted most vigorously. Whenever I’ve looked through the newspaper archives and the almanacs of that time to remind myself what it was like in those days, I soon come across the image that defines that era for most of us: men sitting in a courtroom, flanked by gendarmes, their heads shaven, frowning as their case proceeds…. There were many writers among them, and Miller and Pinter had come to Istanbul to meet with them and their families, to offer them assistance, and to bring their plight to the attention of the world. Their trip had been arranged by PEN in conjunction with the Helsinki Watch Committee. I went to the airport to meet them, because a friend of mine and I were to be their guides.

I had been proposed for this job not because I had anything to do with politics in those days, but because I was a novelist who was fluent in English, and I’d happily accepted, not just because it was a way of helping writer friends in trouble, but because it meant spending a few days in the company of two great writers. Together we visited small and struggling publishing houses, cluttered newsrooms, and the dark and dusty headquarters of small magazines that were on the verge of shutting down; we went from house to house, and restaurant to restaurant, to meet with writers in trouble and their families. Until then I had stood on the margins of the political world, never entering unless coerced, but now, as I listened to suffocating tales of repression, cruelty, and outright evil, I felt drawn to this world through guilt—drawn to it, too, by feelings of solidarity, but at the same time I felt an equal and opposite desire to protect myself from all this, and to do nothing in life but write beautiful novels. As we took Miller and Pinter by taxi from appointment to appointment through the Istanbul traffic, I remember how we discussed the street vendors, the horse carts, the cinema posters, and the scarfless and scarf-wearing women that are always so interesting to Western observers. But I clearly remember one image: at one end of a very long corridor in the Istanbul Hilton, my friend and I are whispering to each other with some agitation, while at the other end, Miller and Pinter are whispering in the shadows with the same dark intensity. This image remained engraved in my troubled mind, I think, because it illustrated the great distance between our complicated histories and theirs, while suggesting at the same time that a consoling solidarity among writers was possible.

I felt the same sense of mutual pride and shared shame in every other meeting we attended—room after room of troubled and chain-smoking men. I knew this because sometimes it was expressed openly, and sometimes I felt it myself or sensed it in other people’s gestures and expressions. The writers, thinkers, and journalists with whom we were meeting mostly defined themselves as leftists in those days, so it could be said that their troubles had much to do with the freedoms held dear by Western liberal democracies. Twenty years on, when I see that half of these people—or thereabouts, I don’t have the precise numbers—now align themselves with a nationalism that is at odds with Westernization and democracy, I of course feel sad.

My experience as a guide, and other like experiences in later years, taught me something that we all know but that I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize. Whatever the country, freedom of thought and expression are universal human rights. These freedoms, which modern people long for as much as bread and water, should never be limited by using nationalist sentiment, moral sensitivities, or—worst of all—business or military interests. If many nations outside the West suffer poverty in shame, it is not because they have freedom of expression but because they don’t. As for those who emigrate from these poor countries to the West or the North to escape economic hardship and brutal repression—as we know, they sometimes find themselves further brutalized by the racism they encounter in rich countries. Yes, we must also be alert to those who denigrate immigrants and minorities for their religion, their ethnic roots, or the oppression that the governments of the countries they’ve left behind have visited on their own people.


But to respect the humanity and religious beliefs of minorities is not to suggest that we should limit freedom of thought on their behalf. Respect for the rights of religious or ethnic minorities should never be an excuse to violate freedom of speech. We writers should never hesitate on this matter, no matter how “provocative” the pretext. Some of us have a better understanding of the West, some of us have more affection for those who live in the East, and some, like me, try to keep our hearts open to both sides of this slightly artificial divide, but our natural attachments and our desire to understand those unlike us should never stand in the way of our respect for human rights.

I always have difficulty expressing my political judgments in a clear, emphatic, and strong way—I feel pretentious, as if I’m saying things that are not quite true. This is because I know I cannot reduce my thoughts about life to the music of a single voice and a single point of view—I am, after all, a novelist, the kind of novelist who makes it his business to identify with all of his characters, especially the bad ones. Living as I do in a world where, in a very short time, someone who has been a victim of tyranny and oppression can suddenly become one of the oppressors, I know also that holding strong beliefs about the nature of things and people is itself a difficult enterprise. I do also believe that most of us entertain these contradictory thoughts simultaneously, in a spirit of good will and with the best of intentions. The pleasure of writing novels comes from exploring this peculiarly modern condition whereby people are forever contradicting their own minds. It is because our modern minds are so slippery that freedom of expression becomes so important: we need it to understand ourselves, our shady, contradictory, inner thoughts, and the pride and shame that I mentioned earlier.

So let me tell another story that might cast some light on the shame and pride I felt twenty years ago while I was taking Miller and Pinter around Istanbul. In the ten years following their visit, a series of coincidences fed by good intentions, anger, guilt, and personal animosities led to my making a series of public statements on freedom of expression that bore no relation to my novels, and before long I had taken on a political persona far more powerful than I had ever intended. It was at about this time that the Indian author of a United Nations report on freedom of expression in my part of the world—an elderly gentleman—came to Istanbul and looked me up. As it happened, we, too, met at the Hilton Hotel. No sooner had we sat down at a table than the Indian gentleman asked me a question that still echoes strangely in my mind: “Mr. Pamuk, what is there going on in your country that you would like to explore in your novels but shy away from, due to legal prohibitions?”

There followed a long silence. Thrown by his question, I thought and thought and thought. I plunged into an anguished Dostoevskyan self-interrogation. Clearly, what the gentleman from the UN wished to ask was, “Given your country’s taboos, legal prohibitions, and oppressive policies, what is going unsaid?” But because he had—out of a desire to be polite, perhaps?—asked the eager young writer sitting across from him to consider the question in terms of his own novels, I, in my inexperience, took his question literally. In the Turkey of ten years ago, there were many more subjects kept closed by laws and oppressive state policies than there are today, but as I went through them one by one, I could find none that I wished to explore “in my novels.” But I knew, nonetheless, that if I said “there is nothing I wish to write in my novels that I am not able to discuss,” I’d be giving the wrong impression. For I’d already begun to speak often and openly about all these dangerous subjects outside my novels. Moreover, didn’t I often and angrily fantasize about raising these subjects in my novels, just because they happened to be forbidden? As I thought all this through, I was at once ashamed of my silence, and reconfirmed in my belief that freedom of expression has its roots in pride, and is, in essence, an expression of human dignity.


I have personally known writers who have chosen to raise forbidden topics purely because they were forbidden. I think I am no different. Because when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free. This, indeed, is the spirit that informs the solidarity felt by PEN, by writers all over the world.

Sometimes my friends rightly tell me or someone else, “You shouldn’t have put it quite like that; if only you had worded it like this, in a way that no one would find offensive, you wouldn’t be in so much trouble now.” But to change one’s words and package them in a way that will be acceptable to everyone in a repressed culture, and to become skilled in this arena, is a bit like smuggling forbidden goods through customs, and as such, it is shaming and degrading.

The theme of this year’s PEN festival is reason and belief. I have related all these stories to illustrate a single truth—that the joy of freely saying whatever we want to say is inextricably linked with human dignity. So let us now ask ourselves how “reasonable” it is to denigrate cultures and religions, or, more to the point, to mercilessly bomb countries, in the name of democracy and freedom of thought. My part of the world is not more democratic after all these killings. In the war against Iraq, the tyrannization and heartless murder of almost a hundred thousand people has brought neither peace nor democracy. To the contrary, it has served to ignite nationalist, anti-Western anger. Things have become a great deal more difficult for the small minority who are struggling for democracy and secularism in the Middle East. This savage, cruel war is the shame of America and the West. Organizations like PEN and writers like Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller are its pride.

Copyright © 2006 by Ohan Pamuk; English translation copyright © 2006 by Maureen Freely.

This Issue

May 25, 2006