I am in Oslo this week. I give a talk at the Nobel Peace Centre. The audience is from all backgrounds and age groups, and they have lots of questions. I’d rather focus on literature and art, but inevitably I am asked about Turkey and the Middle East. When you are a writer from a wobbly or wounded democracy (such as Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt or Venezuela) you do not have the luxury of being apolitical.
Afterwards I head to the Oslo Freedom Forum – an annual conference that brings together international human rights advocates. The dinner is crowded. To my left sits a Norwegian journalist and to my right a Mexican minority rights lawyer. Activists from all corners of the world. The next day I give a talk on Turkey, populism, freedom of speech and the need for global solidarity.
As free as a bird
On the way back from Oslo I check my emails. PEN International is about to launch a campaign for academics on hunger strike in Turkey. “We all need to work for the rights of people we have never met and probably never will,” writes the PEN board member and my friend Burhan Sönmez. “Doesn’t that give you hope about humanity?”
The fact that in 2017 we still need to fight for basic human freedoms makes me sad but I also know he is right. I waver between pessimism and optimism, unable to let go of either. Gramsci would have liked my endless confusion. The pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the heart.
Face the music
The next day I am on my way to the Hay Festival. This year I am prepared for the rain – boots, scarves and raincoats. I remember the first time I went to Hay as a young novelist. I stopped by a road sign just because it was written in Welsh and English. I had never seen anything similar in Turkey. It was unthinkable: a simple road sign written in Turkish and Kurdish.
I arrive at Hay and the sun is shining. In the artists’ green room I run into friends, old and new. My first programme is BBC Arts Hour. Writers and musicians, we join Nikki Bedi for a wonderful conversation. In the evening we have a writers’ Question Time. We’re anticipating questions on British politics and the EU, and Trump’s dangerously irresponsible withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The first question comes from a middle-aged Welshman: “I’ve listened to you on Desert Island Discs,” he says to me. “How can you possibly enjoy heavy metal and write fiction to that kind of music?”
I blush. It is something I don’t usually talk about – my passion for Gothic, industrial, folk, progressive and alternative metal. I do not have piercings or tattoos and people tell me I am a calm person. As a result, they do not expect me to listen to that kind of music.
Return of the rose
The next day, William Sieghart interviews me about my novel Three Daughters of Eve. Then there is a book signing. A little girl arrives with her mother, one arm in a cast. I sign a book for her. She eyes the paper rose on the table, which the organisers hand to every speaker. “May I give this rose to you?” I ask. Her happiness is touching. The queue is long and about an hour later there she is again. She went to the back of queue just to ask me if I’d like to sign her cast. I feel honoured. I know that she is including me in her circle of friends and family. We smile at each other. I don’t believe in ideologies. I only believe in small acts of kindness. Those are the ones that leave the biggest impact.
At night, tired and tipsy – both from the wine and the talks – I sit down in the B&B in the countryside and stare outside. For a moment I am isolated from the world. The next moment I turn on social media and suddenly there it is, the awful news. London Bridge. Cruel, horrific and utterly cowardly. My heart aches. It loses its meaning – what is the point of our debates on art, creativity and literature when life is so fragile? I want to think about Adorno. I want to think about how they’ve done it in the darkest times. Is poetry possible in a world gone mad?
Ticket to ride
Back to London, travelling on the same packed train – writers, editors and journalists. Some sit on the floor. Others offer their place to strangers. There is kindness. There is sadness. I tweet about London Bridge. Immediately people react: “Children died in Afghanistan,” says a Turkish follower. “Why do you only care about their pain?”
This is exactly what is killing our world. This appalling duality of “us” versus “them”. Why shouldn’t we be able to care – equally and simultaneously and sincerely – for people dying in Kabul and Baghdad and Istanbul and Brussels and London and everywhere? I find it awful to be told that we cannot feel for entire humanity. I find it awful when we are told that we ought to go back to our tribes. At the end of the day, isn’t this exactly what fanatics want?
Home sweet home
I take a cab in London. The driver is listening to the radio, and we start to chat. “You wouldn’t want to know my views,” he says. “I am quite far-right.”
“Um, does that mean you want to kick out immigrants like myself?” I ask.
“Nope,” he says. “Not you. You are fine. Only the Muslims.”
I sigh. He is genuinely puzzled when I tell him I come from a Muslim country.
The next morning I give a talk at the Arts Club, interviewed by the Israeli journalist Danna Harman. Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Israel, Russia, Pakistan . . . Countries with massive cultural and historical baggage.
In the evening we have a debate at Intelligence Squared on the future of Europe. Then the introvert in me rebels. I have a pendulum within: between optimism and pessimism, emotions and intellect, public talks and solitude. . . I go back to my desk, close the door, return to my new novel. Here I am, in my homeland: Storyland. I won’t be going out for a long time, but I know that I can never shut the world outside.
Elif Shafak’s novel “Three Daughters of Eve” is published by Penguin