Who walks in L.A.? Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
It was Orhan Pamuk's first L.A. visit. The Turkish native, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, has taught in New York without making it here -- until he appear at an L.A. Public Library ALOUD event earlier this month. Before things got started, he mosied around downtown with writer Lewis MacAdams, who chronicles the experience in today's books pages.
He asked about the history of Bunker Hill. It wasn't the sleek business towers that enchanted him, but the historic core. "All my friends say there is no downtown Los Angeles," Pamuk said, but clearly he was pleased to see that there was. "There is a downtown here," he noted approvingly. "And it looks very old-fashioned." ...
"I like it when there is history, when there is decay. I'm very much impressed that this city has a decaying face. I identify it with my own."
Pamuk, MacAdams writes, "was strolling down Hill Street, recognized by nobody." What a difference a continent makes. In March of 2007, Laura King reported on an increasing uneasiness among the literary world of Istanbul. This is her report of what those days were like for writers, including the outspoken Pamuk.
March 1, 2007: ISTANBUL, TURKEY -- At a recent dinner party on the shores of the Bosporus, the bookish chatter among the Turkish writers and academics present took a sudden grim turn: Are you under police protection yet?
"We were all comparing notes about which of us had only one bodyguard and which of us had two, and we joked a little about being in competition with each other over this," said journalist and novelist Perihan Magden, who was among those placed under police protection after threats by ultranationalists. "It was comical, but also very tragic."
In the wake of the January assassination in Istanbul of prominent ethnic Armenian editor Hrant Dink, Turkey's intellectual community is feeling under siege to a degree not experienced in decades.
A mass outpouring of dismay and revulsion when Dink was gunned down, illustrated by a funeral that drew tens of thousands of mourners, has given way to a powerful right-wing backlash. Shadowy nationalist groups have issued chilling threats against authors and thinkers who, like Dink, speak out against Turkey's official denial that the mass killings of Armenians beginning in 1915 constituted genocide, or on the power of the Turkish military, or the status of minority Kurds.
As a result, novelists are canceling book tours, once-outspoken professors are maintaining a low profile, and crusading columnists like Magden wonder whether their words will wind up costing them their lives.
The man who temporarily stepped in for Dink has been afraid to put his name on the masthead of Agos, the bilingual Armenian Turkish newspaper his slain colleague edited.
"It's a real climate of fear," said Eugene Schoulgin, a board member of the writers group PEN, which together with other international organizations has been lobbying for repeal of Article 301, a provision in the Turkish penal code that makes it a criminal offense to "denigrate Turkishness."
Many intellectuals had hoped that the brazen daylight shooting of Dink, who received a suspended sentence of six months in jail in 2005 over his views on the slayings of Armenians, would prove a catalyst for abolishing Article 301. Turkey's curbs on freedom of expression are seen as a significant obstacle as the government seeks to advance the country's bid for membership in the European Union.
But amid the increasingly polarized atmosphere, many observers have grown more pessimistic than ever about prospects for reform. And in this election year, Turkish political parties, even mainstream ones, are reluctant to alienate voters with nationalist leanings, who make up a substantial chunk of the electorate.
Analysts point to Turkey's historical tendency to dig in its heels in the face of reform pressures from the outside world. They argue that the outcry over Article 301 is not only hardening domestic resistance but may even be adding to an already profound ambivalence over forging closer bonds with the West.
"Sometimes international groups create a reaction in Turkey, an overreaction, because the language they use is not always constructive," said Onur Oymen, an opposition politician and former Turkish ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Critics should be careful not to produce the opposite reaction to that sought."
Police officials have not disclosed how many dissident public figures have been placed under protection since Dink's killing, but estimates range into the dozens, including acclaimed fiction writer Elif Shafak, who was taken to court last year under Article 301. Her case, like most of the scores of similar prosecutions, ended with the charges being dropped.
Shafak, who was a close friend of Dink, has sharply curtailed appearances to promote her new novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul," a family saga whose complex plot line hinges on the Armenian killings. Now under police protection, she wrote in an e-mail that she remained "in mourning" and declined to be interviewed.
Shafak's husband, Eyup Can, told the Hurriyet newspaper about the couple being shadowed by a police guard whenever they ventured out. "He is inside your life," he said.
Shafak was so distraught after Dink's slaying, he said, that she was unable to breastfeed their baby.
"This is the situation of writers in this country today," he said. "It is really bad."
Orhan Pamuk, the winner of last year's Nobel Prize in literature and another writer to run afoul of Article 301, stood outside Dink's office hours after the Jan. 19 assassination and publicly declared that the editor "was killed because of his ideas, ideas that aren't acceptable to the state."
Pamuk, who has long been vilified on nationalist websites, was subsequently singled out for a seeming threat by Yasin Hayal, who police say has confessed to helping orchestrate the Dink killing, including recruiting the 17-year-old alleged gunman, Ogun Samast.
Pamuk has since canceled a series of readings and other scheduled appearances in Germany and is now staying in the United States.
His Turkish publisher declined to say whether Pamuk had left the country because of safety concerns or was honoring prior academic commitments. Fellow writers said that the Nobel laureate was placed under tight security after a flurry of threats and that when he departed, police guards escorted him to the airport.
Many here say the intimidation of intellectuals brings back vivid memories of the 1970s and '80s, when political violence frightened many journalists and academics into silence.
Police protection is of scant comfort to those who believe the government is passively or actively complicit in the threats against them.
After Dink's killing, allegations surfaced that police had ignored explicit threats against him. And after the arrest of the suspected gunman, TV footage leaked out that showed the man striking triumphal poses with arresting officers, who could be seen helping him carefully position a Turkish flag for the cameras. Investigations of both incidents are continuing.
Another former Article 301 defendant, Ankara University political science professor Baskin Oran, wrote about a months-long ordeal after he sought police protection because of a series of threats that arrived by text message, fax and e-mail. The messages called him an "enemy of Turks" and a "dog," with one vowing, "Turkish nationalists will cut you up one day."
When the identities of some of those menacing him were traced electronically, he said, a prosecutor summoned him and put him face to face with the authors of the threats, urging that he listen to their grievances. Oran said he was frightened and furious at the suggestion, which he refused.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Orhan Pamuk in 2006. Credit: Timothy A. Clary //AFP/Getty Images