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Professor Faces Trial in Turkey

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  • Professor Faces Trial in Turkey

    Professor Faces Trial in Turkey

    The Chronicle of Higher Education
    July 28, 2006 Friday


    A professor at the University of Arizona faces a possible trial in
    Turkey based on the content of her latest novel, which traces the lives
    of a Muslim-Turkish family living in Istanbul and an Armenian-American
    family in San Francisco.

    Elif Shafak, an assistant professor of Turkish and women's studies
    in the department of Near Eastern studies, has been charged with
    "denigrating Turkishness" in The Bastard of Istanbul.

    "The novel deals with the question of 'memory and amnesia,' mainly
    through Turkish and Armenian women's stories," Ms. Shafak explained
    by e-mail. "It deals with two particular taboos in Turkish society.
    One of them is a political taboo -- the Armenian question. The other
    is a sexual taboo -- incest."

    The Turkish government officially rejects the widely accepted view
    that the killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the waning
    days of the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide.

    Ultranationalist lawyers and prosecutors in Turkey have vigorously
    pursued those who even suggest otherwise, using the controversial
    Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, which criminalizes insults to
    the republic, Turkishness, and various state institutions.

    Last year Turkey's most internationally acclaimed novelist, Orhan
    Pamuk, faced similar charges for remarks he had made in an interview
    with a Swiss publication. His trial was adjourned soon after it began,
    and the charges were dropped.

    Ms. Shafak, a Turkish citizen who only recently moved to the United
    States and who returns regularly to her homeland, is in Turkey on
    leave from Arizona. She could be jailed if she is tried and convicted
    under Article 301.

    The Bastard of Istanbul, which she wrote in English and then had
    translated into Turkish, has sold more than 50,000 copies in Turkey
    since its publication there in March, she said. An English-language
    edition will be published in January by Viking Penguin.

    The book includes passages that have enraged nationalist critics.
    Even so, Ms. Shafak said, it drew an overwhelmingly positive response
    until she was notified, in June, that Kemal Kerincsiz, head of the
    nationalist Turkish Lawyers' Union, had filed a complaint against her.

    Ms. Shafak and her publisher were interrogated by the public
    prosecutor in a local district court, who also subjected the novel to
    a thorough inspection. At the end of that process, Ms. Shafak said,
    the prosecutor dismissed the case. But Mr. Kerincsiz took the case to
    a higher court, which he persuaded to reinvestigate the matter. Ms.
    Shafak now faces the possibility of a trial this year. If convicted,
    she could be sentenced to up to three years in jail.

    "This is an extraordinary situation, without precedence at the
    University of Arizona," said Jacqueline L. Mok, vice provost for
    academic programs and initiatives. "What we are trying to do is
    to take this time to review all our options, to determine what the
    university can and should do to bring about a positive resolution to
    this situation. Our preferred outcome is that all charges are dropped."