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Culture

Turkish Authors to Boycott Frankfurt Book Fair

Turkey is the showcase country at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, which opens to the public on Wednesday. But a group of Turkish authors has announced a boycott of the fair to protest their country's government.

A man reads a book at the Turkish booth at the Frankfurt book fair in Frankfurt, central Germany, Monday, Oct. 13 2008. The book fair will be opened on Tuesday. Turkey is honorary guest.

While some talk boycott, other Turkish writers have high hopes for the fair

Around 20 Turkish writers have signed a declaration explaining their decision to boycott the fair, and are calling on fellow Turkish authors to do the same. Many of the signatories are authors of modern classics in Turkey, and all are devoted Kemalists -- Turks whose ideology can be traced back to Turkey's first president, the reformist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his vision of a modern, democratic, secular state.

Literary critic Fusun Akatli said the boycott would be a way of protesting the ruling conservative AKP government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In her view, the government is not fit to represent Turkish culture and literature in Frankfurt, as it is set on overturning 80 years of progress and modernity in Turkey.

"I personally cannot take part in the Frankfurt Book Fair under the umbrella of this government's ministry for culture," Akatli said.

Opportunity for Turkish literature

Representatives from Turkish author associations and the fair's organizing committee have pointed out that the fair is in no way a Turkish government-sponsored event, but to no effect. Many Turkish writers have also criticized the boycott, calling it counterproductive.

Author Ahmet Umit, whose political thriller and social critique is one of Turkey's best-selling books, also thinks the boycott is wrong. For him, the book fair with its international audience is a huge opportunity for Turkish literature.

"Destroying this opportunity out of protest against the AKP government just doesn't make any sense to me," he said. "Rather, we should be using this opportunity to present our literature and make ourselves better known. Turkey has great literature, but it's just not known around the world."

Manipulating Turkey's image?

The boycotters doubt, however, that their country and the culture can be adequately showcased in Frankfurt. The cultural ministry is trying to manipulate Turkey's image through the events at the fair and the choice of participants, argues Akatli.

A member of the Turkish exhibition booth holds a book reading 'Turkey' during preparations for the upcoming Franfurt book fair in Frankfurt, central Germany, on Monday, Oct. 13, 2008.

The protesters are worried about how Turkey will come across at the fair.

"They'll try to make it seem as if Turkey is home to writers of all ideologies, even those who support moderate Islam," she said. "We'll have to stand by as these people are treated equally in Frankfurt and are presented as on a par. That's the image that's going to be created there, and I personally do not want to be part of that image."

Akatli refused to say who exactly her criticism is aimed at in terms of the selection of authors chosen to participate in the book fair.

Her criticism of Turkey's preparation for the fair and related events is equally vague.

"It's all been conducted in secret," she said, adding that only after the fair, would she find out who had participated and what topics were discussed.

The boycotters also mentioned a lack of transparency in their written protest declaration, despite the fact that the program for the book fair has been available on the organizing committee's Web site for weeks, along with all the scheduled symposiums, participants and topics.

Wide-ranging spectrum of topics

Podium discussions about women's rights, migration and freedom of speech are planned, as are talks about coming to terms with Turkey's past, the modernization process, and the importance of soccer, music and humor. And -- it's true -- there will be a discussion about Islam in Turkey.

While many of the 200 invited Turkish writers find themselves between the two ideological camps, many others confirmed their participation in the fair on the basis of its program, and defend their decision. After all, participation in the fair should not be equated with muffling criticism of the government, Ahmet Umit says.

"I can also voice my criticism of the AKP government," he said. "I want to represent my country with all its strengths and weaknesses -- not just the black and white of it, but all the shades of grey in between. That's a contribution to the democratization and modernization of Turkey."

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