Living Languages | The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

Nedim Gürsel: Free Speech in Turkey and the Medieval Forerunners of Islamophobia in France

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The IMLR successfully hosted an event sponsored by the Cassal Trust on 11 March 2017 – the one-day workshop ‘Turkey and Islam in France and Europe’. Censored Turkish-French novelist Nedim Gürsel (The Daughters of Allah) met cultural memory studies fellow Matthew Mild (the workshop’s organiser), who here discusses the contribution of this multiple award-winning author.

Nedim Gürsel

While a second Muslim travel ban is effectively being challenged in the States and the anti-Islam party was recently defeated in the Netherlands following a row over campaigning/democracy in Turkey, as was its Austrian counterpart not long ago, our IMLR/Cassal Trust one-day workshop looked at a wide range of subjects, from Joseph Downing’s talk about Islamophobia in France and Jocelyn Wright’s contribution on French banlieue literature (the French elections will happen soon) to the Turkish-French film Mustang which we watched after our conversations. The public quickly began to interact spontaneously with Professor Howard Bowman during his engaging presentation about trauma and long-term memory, which we found refreshing and helpful in discussions of migrant trauma and nostalgia. It was an honour to welcome as our guest speaker the Turkish-French author Nedim Gürsel. I think that his contribution from a Turkish-French intellectual position was timely, in the present international climate.

Nedim Gürsel teaches Turkish literature at the Sorbonne, Paris, and is research director for Turkish literature at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He is an author of novels, short stories, travelogues and essays that have been translated into several languages. His writing uses multiple forms, mixing lyricism, love songs, humor, the epic genre, eroticism, and fantasy. Gürsel’s awards include the 1977 Turkish Language Academy Award, the 1986 Abdi Ipekçi Award for his contribution to peaceful Greek-Turkish relations, the 1990 best international scenario award from Radio France Internationale, the 2004 Fernand Rouillon French-Turkish Literary Prize, and the 2013 Mediterranean award – the author was knighted by the French government for his services to art and literature in 2004.

While offering consecutive interpreting from French at our workshop, I couldn’t help but notice his enthusiasm addressing a London audience at the IMLR. Gürsel opened his talk by sharing his experience being censored and legally prosecuted in Turkey, where he faced a trial for publishing his novel The Daughters of Allah. He spoke about chroniclers of crusades and authors of chanson de gestes epic poems who first engaged in vitriolic attacks of Islam and the prophet Muhammad in medieval France and Europe. I was impressed by his whole-hearted commitment to fostering a nuanced and many-sided discussion of European-Islamic relations. I wondered what he thinks about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the affair of the Danish cartoons, and he surprised me on both issues.

Though he did not agree with my suggestion that the Danish cartoons attacked a vulnerable minority using a satirical medium typically reserved for corrupt politicians and businesspeople, as has been widely maintained in critical cultural studies literature, he said he thinks – like I do, too – that Rushdie’s irony was perfectly respectful and beneficial. Nedim Gürsel set the tone for our useful conversations throughout the day. His contribution was an ode to the witnessing that defeats silence.   

Matthew Mild, Fellow in Cultural Memory Studies, IMLR

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