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Elif Shafak explains what can be done to boost democracy

Sabine Peschel
September 8, 2017

The Turkish author told audiences in Berlin that she's one of a growing number of "depressed" writers from countries with weak democracies. But she also came with a message of hope and change.

Elif Safak Edinburgh International Book Festival
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Photoshot

From Arundhati Roy and Yasmina Reza to Stefan Hertmans and Marie N'Diaye, Berlin's International Literature Festival (ILB) is presenting big names.

"It's the most international of the international literature festivals," said director Uli Schreiber Wednesday in his opening speech.

The event, which runs through September 16, is expecting 200 authors from over 40 countries in the German capital. Now in its 17th year, the festival is not primarily about entertainment but about promoting democracy and freedom of expression - values that are currently under siege in many parts of the world, including Turkey.

Read more: Can literature help fight populism?

For that reason, writer Elif Shafak, the most-read Turkish author, was an appropriate choice to open ILB. Her 13 books have been translated into 40 languages, though she wrote some of them in English.

Shafak has been attacked by the pro-government press in Turkey. Ever since her 2006 novel "The Bastard of Istanbul," which calls the persecution of Armenians in Turkey after World War II a genocide, she has been viewed as a critic of the state. 

The writer was accused of "degrading Turkishness" and even though she was acquitted in court, she had to hire bodyguards for her protection over a two-year period.

Elif Shafak and Ulrich Schreiber at the Berlin International Literature Festival
Elif Shafak and ILB head Ulrich Schreiber at the start of the literary festivalImage: DW/I. Aftab

A team of depressed authors

Shafak has lived in London for the past seven years, although she still sees Turkey as her home. She said Wednesday in Berlin that she feels particularly close to Istanbul: "I love the city!"

She has lived a kind of nomadic existence since her childhood. The author was born in Strasbourg and raised by her grandmother in Ankara. She has since lived in Madrid, Amman, Cologne, Boston, Michigan and Arizona - while always returning now and then to Istanbul.

Nevertheless, in the most recent version of her biography, Shafak does not say she lives in Istanbul, journalist and writer Gabriele von Arnim pointed out during ILB's opening event.

In her home country, the Erdogan critic would most likely be in danger. But Shafak is not just worried about the situation in Turkey. "I'm used to being one of the darker, more depressing speakers at international conferences," she said, adding that many Turks are quite depressed and demoralized at the moment.

At international events, she meets authors from other countries that also have shaky democracies, such as Pakistan, Egypt and Venezuela, and with whom she feels a sense of solidarity.

In recent years, the number of authors in the "depressed team," as she called it, has grown as writers from Hungary, Poland and even the UK and the US have joined its ranks.

Protests in support of journalism and free speech in Turkey
Activists in Istanbul protest the government's crackdown on free speech. Many journalists are in Turkish prisons.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/L.Pitarakis

Read more: Turkey is 'killing me as a writer' says Alsi Erdogan

From globalization to the comeback of nationalism

It's the job of authors to concern themselves with people's feelings, said Shafak. "We are living in an age in which emotions guide and misguid politics," she said. "I am worried because I think populist demagogs unfortunately made a better job at connecting with people's emotions than many liberals, many democrats, many progressives."

Elif Shafak recalled the sense of optimism that arose at the turn of the millennium, when many thought that globalization had brought people together.

"Thanks to a flow of ideas, circulation of human beings, capital, commodities, technology and finance, we would be so interconnected that nationalism would become redundant, religion would wither away, nation states would lose their power, and supernational organizations or non-govermental organizations would become more dominant," pointed out Shafak.

Elif Shafak at the Berlin International Literature Festival
Shafak told the ILB audience that there are many depressed writers from countries around the world who have been shaken by rising authoritarianismImage: DW/S. Peschel

Some of these expectations were indeed fulfilled, she said - but, paradoxically, the opposite also occured. Now, nearly two decades later, nationalism and religious fundamentalism have made a strong comeback, with people thinking that we would be better off surrounded by like-minded people, she added.

Read more: How should the world react to globalization's cultural shifts?

An appeal for democracy

In order to maintain faith in democracy, especially in countries like Turkey and those in the Middle East, it's important to talk about it, said the author. In these places, she said, many people think that democracy is a Western phenomenon that doesn't align with their own traditions or values. These people long for stronger leadership, she added.

"Undemocratic countries are essentially unhappy countries," she pointed out. "And if a nation is unhappy sooner or later it will become unstable."

While Shafak said she was used to talking with people in Turkey about democracy and the European Union (EU), she had never thought she would have to defend the EU in the UK, where she lives.

She said that, for her, the EU stands for values like democracy, freedom of opinion, and rights for women, minorities and homosexuals - but above all for the memory of what "tribalism" can lead to.

What writers can do for democracy

"Democracy turned out to be much more fragile than we thought," summed up Shafak, likening it to an ecosystem that has to be fed and taken care of. She pointed to Turkey as a sad example of how quickly democracy can disintegrate.

Shafak appealed to the writers in Berlin, including herself, to support transnational connections and solidarity. "Speak up louder and bolder about what's happening in the world today!" she encouraged.

In Turkey and the Middle East, authoritarianism and Islamism, but also sexism have been observed in recent years, which she doesn't see as a coincidence. Countries that become more authoritarian also become more militaristic and nationalistic, she pointed out, which then leads to sexism, patriarchism, misogyny and homophobia.

Can Dündar
Former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet Can Dundar said Shafak shows Europe a truer picture of TurkeyImage: Imago

Turkey cannot be isolated

In Turkey, 160 journalists are currently in prison, with Shafak saying that number even exceeds that in China.

Thousands of academics have lost their jobs, many simply for signing a peace petition. Nevertheless, Shafak does not see the situation as hopeless.

"In Turkey there is an amazing civil society," she said, calling on the audience to connect with them and not lose contact. "Let us never, never isolate countries."

A number of Turkish guests were present in Berlin, including Can Dundar, the former editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, who now lives in exile in Berlin, and the actor, translator and author Recai Hallac.

"It was a very encouraging and impressive speech that cleared up misconceptions about Turkey," commented Dundar. "In Europe, Turkey is generally associated with Erdogan. Elif Shafak represents a different Turkey."