Turkish Travels IV: Memory, museums, and bombs

There are many lessons that Israelis can take away from the Turkish model, but if we indeed wish to improve our political and social reality, it is critical to take Orhan Pamuk and his message to heart

The two ivory poker dice rested softly in a jar of buttons, pins, and knickknacks. Peering through the glass case, I could see the expressionless stare of the King of Hearts; his tawny beard reminded me of summers at my grandfather’s house organizing stamps and playing with model trains. My brother and I would often roll dice just like these on his soft, carpeted steps. As I drifted away from the glass, the King returned to the seemingly anonymous collection in The Museum of Innocence.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel-Prize winning author, built The Museum of Innocence in order to recreate the world found in his latest novel. It is a shrine, both to the 1970s lifestyle of Istanbul’s upper class, and to our tendencies as human beings to cling to objects that remind us of our (often painful) past. From saltshakers to hair combs and Piyango lottery stubs, Pamuk’s imagination recreates a world mixed with “Amelie-esque whimsy and “Twilight Zone” juxtaposition.

Every object elicits a memory, and Pamuk’s attempts to overdose his audience are quite successful. Even though I grew up without both Latin and Arabic clocks, and never played with toy dolma (stuffed grape leaves), the Museum of Innocence mirrored so many images from my past. I could not resist being drawn into the clusters of foreign newspaper clippings, photographs, and glasses of milky rakı.

Memory played a central role in my final week in Istanbul. After a sweltering summer of exploration, I was having difficulty determining how best to remember my experiences in Turkey’s largest city, and how to share them with my Israeli and American friends. Should I mention the feeling of insignificance one experiences when wandering the crowded alleyways of the city’s never-sleeping center? Or perhaps the awareness that behind every warm smile was a shadow of doubt, some lingering question regarding my origins, my purpose, my curious nature? What of Shabbat meals with friends, mixing water with wine, and reading the kiddush from a Turkish script? Would people care about my evening runs along the Bosphorus promenade that stretches from one end of the city to the other? While excited at the prospect of returning home and sharing these thoughts, my happiness was tempered by the Pamukian melancholy that always sets in at the end of an adventure.

Orhan Pamuk at the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul (photo credit: courtesy Refik Anadol and the Innocence Foundation)
Orhan Pamuk at the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul (photo credit: courtesy Refik Anadol and the Innocence Foundation)

Turks were also confronting their past that week. On August 9th, a Turkish military bus was bombed outside Foça (near İzmir) by the PKK, leaving two dead and a dozen wounded. İzmir, located on the Aegean coast, is as far as one can get from the bloody Turkish southeast, the site of a decades-long conflict between Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish military. Precisely for this reason, in a summer which has witnessed a rise in violent attacks and kidnappings, the PKK chose to target the Turks most removed from the issue.

The public debate sparked by the bombing reminded me of a 2005 interview that Orhan Pamuk gave to a Swiss magazine, in which he declared that “Thirty thousand Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.” In a country that continues to refute the Armenian genocide and many Kurdish civil rights, his comments were deemed a sufficient reason to warrant his prosecution. He faced three years imprisonment for “insulting Turkishness.”

There are many lessons that Israelis can take away from the Turkish model. Both of our nations developed a modern narrative based on a historical connection to the land. We both reinvented our languages in order to reenforce the transition from past to present. We continue to be straddled with the challenges of realizing nationalist dreams while sharing space with minority populations both within and alongside our borders.

When our reality is not being altered by ball bearings and fertilizer, we tend to forget about our problems. If we indeed wish to improve our political and social reality, it is critical to take Pamuk to heart, and “be able to talk about the past.” I fear the day that our generation looks back on missed opportunities with longing, like the mementos frozen in time at The Museum of Innocence.

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“Turkish Travels” is a series of dispatches from Turkey, in which the author is addressing questions relating to modern Turkish culture, society, and politics. Parts I, II, and III can be found herehere, and here

About the Author
Gabriel Mitchell is a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Born in the United States, Gabriel moved to Israel in 2005. He writes regularly about events in Turkey and Israel and has been published in a number of newspapers and journals, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The New Republic, The American Interest, Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs. Gabriel holds an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University and BA in European and Middle Eastern History from The Ohio State University.