Monday, April 20, 2009

Imagine you were Pınar Selek

First, the reason I have been away for a while: I was working on a longer piece. Since I started keeping this blog, I have had the feeling that I should put everything I write here for the sake of completeness. It's hard to get over this self-imposed obligation. But that piece is too long, so I will keep it to myself for the time being. But of course, it's just a step along the way. There will be a next step, which is this post.

But then I thought, my previous post was the perfect ending to this blog. "There's no happy ending - mutlu son yok." The only child wakes up to the reality that life is not easy, and it's not enough to do less than what she needs to do just because. She's not entitled to anything more than everyone else. The purpose of the stars and people is not to align themselves so as to make her wishes come true there and then. Sometimes she should align herself. Sulking because "this or that should have been easier" doesn't make it easier. Actually, taking good care of and nurturing anything takes hard work. And nobody is an exception. And so I thought, I have matured a little bit since I've started writing here. This is a good point to end.

But then, there's no happy ending and no absolute wisdom. I keep getting new ideas. For example, I've had this dream where I actually remember saying to myself, "these are two really good ideas, I should write them!" In the dream I was sure I would remember them, but of course I don't remember them. Maybe all they were was the happy dream, the idea of a good idea. Then this morning I came up with a new idea but then completely forgot about it.

And I keep seeing new examples of what I've written about before. At first, out of laziness disguised by a noble sense of originality, I say: "I've written about this before, I shouldn't repeat myself!" But the injustice is going on. As long as the injustice is going on, we shouldn't content ourselves with having said something once. We should say the truth, we should speak our minds as many times as the truth is overlooked and the justice is violated, at the expense of repeating ourselves and boring people. It's the obligation of those who are aware.

This story I wrote. It's more a diary than a story. Again, out of laziness disguised by a noble sense of sincerity, I haven't been able to write any fiction so far. I say to myself, I am not able to feel strongly (the emotional energy mentioned in the Golden Notebook) about anything that doesn't personally touch me. So I consider myself unable to imagine what someone else could be going through, feeling, imagining worlds. I feel like truth and sincerity would escape me if I were to talk about someone else, I could never forget myself.

Performing vs. feeling. In What Philosophers Think, one of the philosophers made this distinction. Being too aware of your feelings drains the truth out of them. The philosopher there gave the example of becoming aware that you are feeling sorry for someone, and then thinking, "how noble of me to feel sorry!" This isn't putting yourself in that person's shoes and genuinely feeling sorry for them. This is staying squarely in your own shoes.

If you are doing something, if you are somewhere, when your heart is somewhere else, you are actively and consciously performing. Sometimes when the plane lands you hear the voice of the flight attendant, and it sounds more like a performance than someone really speaking. (Or you get the impression that a voice that exudes that much self-importance cannot be real. She must be kidding us!)

You get the point. I'm afraid of this performing seeping into and infecting what I write. Pretending I care about something when in fact I only like the idea of caring about it, I like being that kind of person, who cares about such things. That would be forcing it. I don't want to force anything. So far I've only gotten feelings and ideas out of the world. Will I be able to create worlds out of feelings and ideas? Go from someone feeling sorry for someone suffering to someone understanding and feeling what suffering is like? Maybe I don't have what it takes, and I should suck it up.

Anyway, as I was thinking about these things, I came across J.K. Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard University. (The things I get out of people's profiles in the Facebook! Social networking will speed up the development of humankind.) She says:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I have been reading a lot about Pınar Selek in Radikal lately. She is a Turkish sociologist who tried to imagine when she could have had a very comfortable, respectable life had she chosen to look over these things. She imagined what it would be like to be a transvestite, a child living on the streets, a young boy (or older boy) doing his military service, and a member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). She advocated pacifism and women's rights. She put her money where her mouth is and talked to these people, lived with them. She tried to grasp their truth.

Because of her stance, her attitude, because of her choosing to be who she is rather than denying herself, she was accused of being involved in a 1998 explosion in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. After spending two and a half years in jail she was acquitted, but the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned this decision. To this day it is not clear whether the explosion was due to a LPG container or a bomb, but now she's being charged again. The prosecutor demands a life sentence. Radikal columnist Yıldırım Türker writes on 13 April:

Pınar Selek’le bir keresinde hapishaneden çıktığında buluşmuştuk. O sıralar 29 yaşındaydı. Hayalî bombacı olarak iki buçuk yılını Ümraniye Cezaevi’nde geçirmiş, kanlı bir ‘Hayata Dönüş’ operasyonu ertesi tahliye edilmişti. Çok şey görmüş, çok yaradan yaralanmıştı. Ama kendi olma, kendi kalma mücadelesini sürdürmeye yeminliydi.

Güneşli bir sabah Pınar Selek’le iki ajan gibi buluştuğumuzu hatırlıyorum. Ardındaki gazeteci ve diğer meraklıları atlatarak randevu yerine geldi. Kendimize bir sığınak bulup uzun uzun konuştuk. Beni en çok şaşırtan, hiç acılaşmamış olmasıydı. Coşkusundan, iyi bir dünyalı olma hevesinden hiçbir şey kaybetmemişti. İnsana şu dünyada durduğu yeri zindan ediveren içtenliği hiç yara almamıştı. Önce ondan sonra kendinizden kuşku duyar hale geliyor, bu gencecik insanın inceliği, yumuşaklığı, sevecenliği karşısında kilitlenip kalıyordunuz. Kendi hakkında bir şey anlatırken mahçup olan, tutuklandığında yaşadığı işkenceden bahsetmeyi uygun bulmayan, mağduriyet dilinin refahına bir an olsun sığınmayan Pınar, kendini mümkünse unutturmak istiyordu. Kahramanlığa, önde durmaya yatkın değildi, dünyayla yüzleşme yordamı.

Yıllar önce daha gencecik bir kızken sokak çocuklarının arasında onlardan biri olarak dünyaya tutunma çabasına tanık olmuştum. Sonra Ülker sokaktan üstlerine şanlı bayraklar sallanarak kovulan travestilerle birlikte, aynı kuytuda sabahladığına tanık olmuştum.

Pınar Selek hakkındaki duygularım hiç değişmedi.

Militarist vahşilerinki de.

Onlar, bu genç kadının bombalardan daha güçlü olduğunu erken fark ettiler.

Her acıdan, her zulümden yüzünde aynı ışıklı gülümseme, aynı tevazuuyla çıkışı besbelli onları deli etti. Onu benzetemediler. Pınar, etrafına mutluluk ve güç saçarak kendi seçmiş olduğu hayatı, kendi seçmiş olduğu hayatın müttefikleriyle birlikte sürdürüyor çünkü.

Kadının özgürleşmesinden, heteroseksizme karşı direnmekten, barışın önemli bir tetikleyicisi olan vicdani redden dem vuruyor çünkü. ‘Barışamadık’ kitabının bir bölümüne epigraf olarak Gandhi’nin bir sözünü koymuş: “Barışçıl mücadelede en ufak bir kuşku başarısızlık için yeterlidir. Sonuna kadar başarılı olmanın yolu saflık ve dürüstlüktür.”

Onun yıllarını çalan, işkencecileri üstüne salıp canını yakan, anasını alan, hayatı ona zehretmeye çalışanlara rağmen hep saf ve dürüst kaldı."

Recently I stepped out of Waitrose with bags in my hand. A dark lady, with dark hair and eyes (saçları, gözü kara) caught my eye. She stopped me and started explaining her cause, she was a member of the Iran Liberty Association. Apparently Iran is putting pressure on Iraq to return the residents of Camp Ashraf, who are members of the Iranian opposition party. I tried to escape, I have never made a donation on the street before. She said her brother was killed, and she had the choice between going on with her life in the US, where her daughter is, and coming to the UK to take part in this campaign. "We all come to this world for a reason," she said. I said I didn't know whether my contribution would be going towards a good cause, and she said she "wouldn't be standing there for 10 hours every day if she didn't believe that it was." Maybe it was a mistake I donated without doing due diligence of who is right. Maybe it is not possible to know who is right. A few days later I received a receipt by post, as she had promised.

Today a Tamil group was protesting in front of the US Embassy. During our two-hour wait we listened to them chanting "Obama-Obama" and their drum beat.

I might have been annoyed had they been a Kurdish group protesting against Turkey.

But we should all work on our imaginations to grasp the truth.

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