In what amounts to a set of one irony after another, Turkey is freeing hundreds of books from decades of exclusion while simultaneously threatening to ban two world classics.
Freedom of expression and censorship. It’s never been one without the other in Turkey. In a twist of irony, Turkey is at once celebrating the lifting of decades-old bans on 453 books and 645 periodicals while waiting for the fate of two classics whose fates are yet to be decided. One of these classics is John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The other one is the beloved children’s book “My Sweet Orange Tree” by Brazilian writer José Mauro de Vasconcelos.
As part of the third package of judicial reforms, Ankara’s Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office recently decided to lift bans on 453 books. Some titles like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ “The Communist Manifesto,” Lenin’s “State and Revolution” or Stalin’s “The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks),” are understandable, given that they were banned in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
On the list are also books by Turkish authors like Nazım Hikmet, Aziz Nesin, İsmail Beşikçi and Abdurrahim Karakoç, whose books were banned due to the political atmosphere of the time. But there are also the titles that makes one scratch one’s head, such as the “National Geographic Atlas of the World,” banned as late as 1987, and an issue of the Italian comic book “Capitan Miki,” or known as “Tommiks” here in Turkey.
Naked women and brothels in classics
Writing for the free speech watchdog Indexoncensorship.org on the unfortunate fate of “Tommiks” two weeks ago, Kaya Genç summarizes the reasons for the comic hero’s persecution in 1961: “The generals, who hanged a democratically elected prime minister the same year [referring to the 1960 coup], accused Captain Miki of having encouraged laziness and a ‘spirit of adventurousness’ among Turkish people.”
While hundreds of wrongs were made right, new wrongs are on the way for Turkey as of last week.
Following a complaint by a parent, the Education Ministry launched a disciplinary investigation on a secondary teacher in Istanbul for giving a reading assignment from Vasconcelos’ “My Sweet Orange Tree.”
The complaint was made on the grounds that the book included obscene content, slang language and a plot that clashed with Turkish morals and values. The 1968 book tells the story of little Zeze as he discovers life through poverty, abuse, family and the death of a loved one. The part that offended the now infamous parent is where Zeze recites a song he overheard from his teachers, longing for a naked woman under the moonlight, and Zeze’s father’s shock upon hearing it. So much for life imitating art.
Ironies seem to abound as the book is among the 100 fundamental texts recommended by the Education Ministry. “Of Mice and Men” is also among the ministry’s list of 100 Fundamental Novels. And it is the İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission that is seeking to ban certain parts of the novel that are “unfit for educational use” for “immoral sections.”
“Of Mice and Men,” in fact, is on the list of the American Library Association’s Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century, placing fourth in the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books (the Harry Potter series is at the top).
The novel has been challenged 54 times in the U.S. since its publication in 1936 for “promoting euthanasia,” “condoning racial slurs” and being “anti-business.” For the İzmir Education Directorate, it’s all about sex. The part facing a ban is where Whit, a young worker on the ranch, invites George for a Saturday night trip to the local brothel and features no more than innocent banter among the two men.
‘Unfavorable to the state’
Steinbeck’s works aren’t new to the wrath of censorship, at home and here in Turkey. “The Grapes of Wrath,” the novel that helped him win the Pulitzer Prize, immediately became a target in the U.S. for being racy for its time of publication in 1939. The big question is why 11 publishers were charged in 1973 for publishing the novel: The answer is for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state.”
“Unfavorable to the state” seems to be the norm in Turkey when banning books and sending authors, publishers and translators to jail. Inciting religious hatred and critiquing state terror are the grounds to attack books and those behind those books. The Kurdish question and the Armenian genocide are the biggest literary landmines.
The Turkish translation of writer Richard Dawkins’ book on evolutionary biology, “The God Delusion,” had caused its publisher Erol Karaaslan to be investigated by an Istanbul prosecutor back in 2007 for “inciting religious hatred.” In 1993, religious hatred led to one of the biggest massacres in the history of modern Turkey. A mob of radical Islamists set fire to a hotel where artist, writers, and musicians had gathered for a festival in the Central Anatolian city of Sivas, where 37 died eventually.
The frenzy had begun upon the presence of Aziz Nesin, who had translated and published extracts from Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” the book that had ignited Ayatollah Khomeini, the then-leader of Iran, to issue a fatwa for the death of Rushdie and anyone related to the publication of the book. Unfortunately, banning a book for its slang language or for including dialogue on going to brothels seems innocent when you live in Turkey.
Hürriyet Daily News