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6 March 2019

Elif Shafak’s Diary: The retreat of liberal democracy, a night of Irish spirit, and Istanbul’s undesirables

It is a sign of the times that I find myself defending liberal values in London, the city that welcomed me like it has so many others.

By Elif Shafak

I am asked to speak – and to read from one of my novels – at the memorial service of David Mepham, the former UK director of Human Rights Watch, an organisation I deeply respect. For so long Mepham had tirelessly defended minority rights, rule of law and freedom of speech in every corner of the world, including my motherland, Turkey. He wrote open letters to British governments urging them not to remain silent in the face of human rights violations in countries they had political and economic ties with. I feel honoured to be at the service, along with Mepham’s family, friends and colleagues. It was profoundly moving and very honest. A last farewell to a great man.

London loves

Afterwards I took a walk by the Thames, absorbing the sounds and colours of London. It has been ten years since I left Istanbul and settled down here. This city welcomed me like it did so many others – and restored my broken parts. London is where I feel most at home – free to write, free to speak. Wherever we are based, none of us has the luxury of remaining indifferent to what’s happening elsewhere. We have entered a new age in which we all need to become activists for human rights.

Values judgement

The next day I take part in a debate organised by Intelligence Squared: “Blame Liberals For the Rise of Populism”. Matthew Goodwin and Daniel Hannan are arguing against John Simpson and me. The panel is chaired by BBC’s Ritula Shah.

As we kick off, it suddenly feels surreal. I am used to defending liberal democracy in a country such as Turkey – where freedom of speech remains but a distant dream, minority rights are trampled upon and there is zero appreciation for pluralism. But I never thought I’d see the day when I’d feel the need to defend liberal values here in London. And yet the fact that we are having this discussion says so much about the times we are living in.

Demagogues vs democracy

Today “liberal” might be the most misunderstood word in the entire English language. People conflate “political liberals” with “neoliberalism”, even though they are completely different creatures. Since the 1980s, neoliberalism, the pervasive ideology of unrestrained free-market capitalism, has been fetishising corporate profit and greed, widening social inequality and damaging democracy. As Noam Chomsky points out, “neoliberalism is neither
new nor liberal”.

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Most of the confusion about liberals, however, is whipped up by populist demagogues who prefer to keep the term as vague as possible. That way they can lump together everyone who disagrees with them. The right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh defines liberals as “the New York arts and theatre and croissants crowd”. Victor Orbán in Hungary calls them “the liberal blah blah”. Freedom of the press, separation of powers, anti-sexism, anti-racism – the values that people such as David Mepham championed – are now being endangered by populists. After the panel I wonder if people who come from countries where things are darker can better grasp what is really at stake. Those used to living under liberal democracy tend to take their freedoms for granted.

Spreading the words

The next day I stay at home and read for the Wellcome Prize. It has been an honour to chair the prize this year. With my fellow judges, Viv Groskop, Jon Day, Kevin Fong and Rick Edwards, we have chosen a shortlist that we are all proud of and can’t wait to share with the public.

In the middle of the week I correspond with the Norwich-based National Centre for Writing – a vibrant hub for culture, creativity and literature. The British Council and the centre have asked me to choose ten women writers from all around the country. Their works will be showcased at the London Book Fair in collaboration with the English branch of PEN International.

Life after death

The following morning the postman brings the proof copy of my new novel: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. Scientists have found out that after the moment of death the human mind continues to work, in some cases for as long as 10 minutes 38 seconds. What can a dead person remember in this time? My novel tells the story of Tequila Leila – a woman, an Istanbulite, a lover, a prostitute. She has been buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless – a real place in Istanbul where all “the undesirables” end up: people who die of Aids, victims of honour killings, suicides, alcoholics, drug addicts, members of the LGBT community, as well as hundreds of refugees who have drowned while trying to cross over to Europe. As Tequila Leila remembers her life, the book tells the story of a country through the eyes of its outcasts.

Under the Irish sky

Over the weekend I travel to the west of Ireland for the Ennis Book Club Festival. Across from my hotel there is a church built during the famine, and in its garden, a sculpture of open hands. A sign explains that it is “acknowledging the presence of immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and fellow EU citizens in our community”. I love Ireland.

In the evening, I am interviewed by Seán Rocks. He has read eight of my novels to prepare for the conversation and I am amazed by that. In a conference hall packed with passionate readers, we talk about books, storytelling, politics and mysticism for two hours. It is one of the most inspiring events I have done. The book signing finishes towards midnight. The festival organisers and I walk back on the streets of Ennis under drizzling rain. Light pours out from the pubs, with sounds of laughter and singing in the background, and I feel, under this vast sky, how profoundly connected we all are, fellow human beings, beyond all national borders and imaginary tribes.

Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash