I started reading the fiction of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz with a delay that embarrasses me, not until my early 30s. In the Turkey of my formative years, he was not well-known. His famous “Cairo Trilogy,” published in the 1950s, wasn’t widely available in Turkish until 2008.
We were far more interested in Russian literature — Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov and Tolstoy — and European literature — Balzac, Hugo, Maupassant and Dickens — than in Arab literature. Western classics had been widely translated into Turkish since the late 19th century. A number of them were even published as supplements in children’s magazines, and I remember devouring them eagerly.
Paris, London and Moscow seemed closer in spirit to Istanbul than Cairo was. We saw our own writing as part of European literature, even as our country waited and waited to become a full member of the European Union.
So Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning author of dozens of novels, remained at the periphery of our vision — despite the strong historical, cultural and religious ties between Turkey and Egypt. There is a saying that “the Koran is revealed in Mecca, recited in Cairo and written in Istanbul.”
Recently, however, the Turkish elite has started paying much more attention to Egypt. A few years ago the governments of Turkey and Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding to endorse cooperation and broaden military relations.
And today Turks are closely watching what is happening in Cairo. At the height of the protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech that was broadcast live to the protesters in Tahrir Square. “No government can remain oblivious to the democratic demands of its people,” he said. “There isn’t a government in history that has survived through oppression.”
When Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down, there was widespread celebration in Turkey. It’s a topsy-turvy world. The Europe we loved and admired for so long has looked down on Turkey, but the Middle East we ignored is suddenly looking up to us as a force to be reckoned with. Now there is much talk of Turkey serving as a model for a new Egypt.
Considering all this, it has been rather disconcerting to hear politicians and talking heads in the United States speak about Turkey as if it is in thrall to radical Islamists. Even President Obama has described our country as an “Islamic” democracy. But what does it mean to be an Islamic democracy?
Turkey defies clichés. Turkish society is a debating society, with some people passionately in favor of the governing Justice and Development Party and some passionately against it. At a recent event I heard an academic applaud the government for curtailing the power of the military, while a journalist criticized it for conducting groundless trials against army officers and restricting the press.
Whenever I have a book signing in Istanbul, I cannot help but notice the diversity of the people. Professional women wearing modern clothes stand in line next to women in head scarves and young men with long hair or piercings. The crowds include leftists, liberals, feminists, Kurds, conservative Muslims, non-Muslims, religious minorities like Alevis, Sufi mystics and so on. But it is not only the variety of people that is striking; it is the extent to which they intermingle. While Turkey’s political system is polarized and male-dominated, the society is, thankfully, far more hybrid. It is this complexity that outsiders fail to recognize, perhaps because they are too busy watching the leading political actors to see the people.
A society with a multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious empire under its belt and 80 years of experience as a constitutional republic, Turkey has managed to create its own passage to democracy, however flawed.
Around the same time as Mahfouz was writing his Cairo trilogy, a Turkish novelist, literary critic and poet named Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar was probing the way Turkey straddled an uneasy gap between East and West. “Our most important question is where and how we are going to connect with our past,” he wrote. In other words, how could we blend Islamic and Eastern elements with a modern, democratic, secular regime?
His question is as vital today as it was yesterday — for Egypt, Tunisia and many other countries in the Arab world — but Turkey has already provided many answers.
By Elif Shafak, the author, most recently, of the novel The Forty Rules of Love