Not All Turks Admire New Nobel Literature Winner

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's Nobel win is viewed with ambivalence in his native country. While he has his supporters, Pamuk is viewed by many Turks as a sell-out to the West. Pamuk's controversial public profile is rooted in his comments on the disputed Armenian genocide of 1915.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has been announced in Oslo, Norway.

Mr. OLE DANBOLT MJ�S (Chairman, Norwegian Nobel Committee): The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank.

INSKEEP: That's Ole Danbolt Mj�s, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Muhammad Yunus is known as the developer and founder of what's called microcredit, the extension of small loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. He's been a major force in fighting poverty around the world.

Now, yesterday the Nobel Committee announced the winner of the prize for literature, and for the first time it went to a writer from Turkey. He's Orhan Pamuk, who won for his novel that deal with Turkey's complex identity.

Yet many Turks seem puzzled if not outright suspicious of this honor. To explain, we've called NPR's Ivan Watson, who's in Istanbul. And Ivan, what have Turks been saying about this honor?

IVAN WATSON: Good morning, Steve. There are very mixed reactions here. The Turkish government congratulated Pamuk, but you go out on the street and many people are quite angry, actually.

I talked to one bookseller and asked him about Orhan Pamuk, and he responded with an English four-letter word that I can't say on the air. Other writers and poets I talked to, they accused the Swedish Academy of making a purely political decision of rewarding Pamuk for his political statements, not for his literary achievements.

INSKEEP: So what are those political statements, and why would they make him so controversial?

WATSON: Well, he has been quite critical about Turkish society, in particular for comments made about the massacre of ethnic Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. That's a subject that's still quite taboo here. He famously said, quote, "Thirty thousand Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

He was taken to court facing charges for insulting Turkish national identity for that statement. Those charges were dropped under great international pressure, but that did little to reduce the perception here that Orhan Pamuk is a sell-out to the West - that's what many people here tell me - and that he has been rewarded with this Nobel Prize for betraying Turkey, for insulting Turkey.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's a problem of timing here too, because not too long ago there was a French parliamentary vote, a vote to make denying this Armenian genocide a crime in France.

WATSON: Exactly, Steve. In fact, the vote passed in France yesterday, just an hour before Orhan Pamuk's victory with the Nobel Prize was announced. So you had a lot of people linking the two. There were dark mutterings of some kind of conspiracy, and the nationalist politicians here have made great use of this. There's a rise of nationalism in Turkey right now, Steve, because many Turks are feeling embarrassed towards the European Union.

Turkey has been trying to join the European Union, and there has been a backlash from European politicians, and there's a sense of humiliation growing here. So all of this kind of feeds into itself to make this even more controversial.

That said, the Turkish government has commended Orhan Pamuk, and many of the newspapers have said this is our national pride, though they then go on to quote prominent writers and politicians who have gone on to say that Orhan Pamuk, this is a disgrace, somebody else should have gotten this award in Turkey.

INSKEEP: Ivan, if Turks do not like how Orhan Pamuk described the Armenian genocide, how is it that Turkey is describing the Armenian genocide?

WATSON: Turkey's official version is that there was no genocide, that there were mutual massacres, that ethnic Armenian Christians were fighting Muslim Turks, they were fighting, battling for primacy and killing each other in those chaotic days during World War I as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing around them.

And they've offered to do a joint investigation with Armenian historians to try to further clarify this period.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Ivan Watson in Istanbul, reporting on the mixed reaction to a Nobel Prize for Orhan Pamuk.

And by the way, in an interview on NPR yesterday, Mr. Pamuk dedicated his prize to Istanbul, the city of his birth.

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