Last month, the Duke Middle East Studies Center (DUMESC) had the honor of hosting Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk for a series of events at Duke University. With co-sponsorship from the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, Duke Global Education/Duke in Turkey, Franklin Humanities Institute, Arts of the Moving Image and Mellon Foundation’s Partnerships in a Global Age grant, Pamuk’s visit included a public conversation at the Nasher Museum of Art auditorium hosted by DUMESC Director Erdağ Göknar, and a faculty forum. He also sat down with Göknar for an interview at Duke Studios.

Göknar, who authored the 2013 book “Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel” (Routledge, 2013) and was the English translator for Pamuk’s Nobel Prize- winning “My Name is Red” (Knopf, 2001), said Pamuk’s work – nine novels to date — “embraces the idea of the novelist as archivist and curator.”

“Since winning the Nobel award in 2006, Pamuk’s work has continued to push the boundaries of literary form and content,” said Göknar, adding that it “brings together narrative strains such as Ottoman Turkish history, the confines of identity, double-ness, excavations of the city, conspiracy, Islamic art, Sufism, the power of the Middle Eastern nation state, the (1980) coup, obsession, mystical love, the archive, collecting, lament and the Istanbul melancholy known as khuzun.”

All of this plays out through the city of Istanbul that in Pamuk’s words, is a space that has become “the memory of his fiction.”

Ethnography and “A Strangeness in My Mind”

Pamuk’s work is a social history, an ethnography that’s been heavily researched. For “My Name is Red” he went to libraries to look at 15th, 16th and 17th century Ottoman and Persian manuscripts. For “Snow” he went to the northeastern Turkish town of Karst, “stayed for awhile and met people.” For a year, between 1994-95, he just read books every day.

It took Pamuk six years — “a long process” — to write his latest novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind” (Knopf, 2015) a fictional account of a street vendor, Mevlut Karataş, who eventually loses his job to the changes brought by the modern era and the emergence of Istanbul as a global city. While the novel chronicles Istanbul’s economic development and the economic hardship Mevlut faces, Pamuk said he also “tries to render the richness and imaginative visions that (Mevlut) sees as he tries to sell boza in Istanbul between 1970 and the early 2000s.”

Pamuk himself also has a great love for walking through Istanbul’s deserted city streets at night, said Göknar.

The novel is told from the point of view of the lower classes who immigrated to the city from poor Anatolian villages. Istanbul grew from about 1.5 million in 1969 when “A Strangeness in My Mind” begins, to nearly 15 million today.

As Göknar describes the protagonist Mevlut, “He’s an Anatolian migrant to the city, whose strangeness, is the alienation and displacement of a rural migrant who enters the city for the first time – the strangeness from being in a scene yet seeing oneself from the outside, an uncanny narrative doublevision in which the familiar is de-familiarized and made new.”

Pamuk said once he began to research the book he began to see that the street vendor’s story was “deeply intertwined with the stories of people who came to Istanbul, penniless almost, but with some connections, and built their own shanty houses with their own hands.” The area is now built up with 40-50 floor high-rises.

Heavily based on oral histories, Pamuk talked to many boza (fermented yogurt drink) sellers and rice and chicken vendors in preparation for “A Strangeness in My Mind,” with help from some of his cultural anthropology students. He also talked with a police officer who had overseen one of Istanbul’s main streets in the ‘70s.

Pamuk read the opening paragraph of the book aloud in the public conversation with Göknar, held on November 12:

“This is the story of the life and daydreams of Mevlut Karataş, a seller of boza and yogurt. Born in 1957 on the Western edge of Asia, in a poor village overlooking a hazy lake in Central Anatolia, he came to Istanbul at the age of twelve, living there, in the capital of the world, for the rest of his life. When he was twenty-five he returned to the province of his birth, where he eloped with a village girl, a rather strange affair that determined the rest of his days: returning with her to Istanbul, he got married and had two daughters; he took a number of jobs without pause, selling his yogurt, ice cream, and rice in the street and waiting tables. But every evening he would wander the streets of Istanbul, selling boza and dreaming strange dreams.”

Boza is a slightly fermented alcoholic beverage — 3 glasses is equal to about one glass of beer. A 400-year Turkish tradition, it was enjoyed by the Ottomans, even though Islam forbids the drinking of alcohol. That’s because, as Pamuk explained, it was “sometimes considered not to have alcohol in it” – ie “Muslims could enjoy it in good conscience.” With the creation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular Turkish Republic in 1923, alcohol was legalized.

Boza was popular through the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. By the mid ‘70s, Pamuk said, there were probably 2,000 vendors calling out “boza” in the streets at night.

In Pamuk’s childhood yogurt was not a bottled product, but was sold in ceramic cups by street vendors. Born in 1952, he recalled how his grandmother in the ‘50s and ‘60s used to call the boza seller to her window at 10pm at night and all the grandchildren would gather around wanting a taste.

As time passed yoghurt drinks would be sold in boxes and then in plastic bottles. People changed the way they drank yoghurt.

He said that when one buys boza, “most of the time you are interested more in the ritual”—explaining that 90% of the boza sellers knew that their appeal was “the ritual, and romantic evocation of the Ottoman times.”

“The motivation, energy, of the book is related to my enchantment with my encounter with this person who seemed not only to have been coming from the poorest of the poorest Anatolian villages but he seemed to be coming from Ottoman Times,” Pamuk said. “This is the romantic setting of buying boza and enjoying boza. That it’s this ritual of inviting someone up to your apartment and buying something strange that is associated deeply with old times. I’m not exaggerating.”

Goknar described a scene in which a boza seller is called up to a secular modern party and the party-goers want to have a talk with Mevlut. “It’s slightly demeaning, they are sort of talking down to him a bit.”

But Pamuk said his intention is not for his protagonist to be pitied; he wants to avoid the kind of melodrama that’s seen in Steinbeck, Tolstoy, and Dickens’ novels.

“In this book there is not one middle class intellectual who feels guilty and worries about the well-being or terrible situation of the lower classes. And in fact lower classes do not consider themselves in this situation,” he said. “Perhaps the upper class mobility, perhaps the economic boom especially in the last two decades we have witnessed in Turkey helps my character out. A lot of effort went into making this novel humorous to avoid melodrama or making characters teary, crying for the poor guy. Poor guy does not feel himself to be poor guy.”

For 40 years Mevlut survives in Istanbul, and is successful, “but never as successful as his cousins and other friends.”

Portraying the lower classes was not necessarily easy.

“The challenge in this book was that the main character was lower class while the writer (Pamuk) is upper middle class intellectual so to speak,” Pamuk said. “We read a novel not just to enjoy other people’s lives but the novel’s sense of what’s important in life. Like my previous novels “A Strangeness in My Mind” is also an exploration of what is valuable, what is dear, what is ideal and morally important. Is it friendship, jealousy, family, a commitment to a cause, political values?”

While Mevlut doesn’t have strong political opinions the reader is exposed to a lot of politics in the book through Mevlut’s friends — some of whom who are ultra right wing nationalists and Alevi Turkish Shia leftists. The character even visits a sheikh of a modern dervish lodge in the late ‘90s.

“He’s hiding… his connections with various different groups in the city from each other,” Pamuk explained. “Characters with strong moral and political convictions cannot navigate from one corner of that society to the other. That’s why Mevlut doesn’t have strong opinions.”

Pamuk said, without wanting to give too much of the plot away, that he wanted to write a story that covered “all the political, cultural, religious, ethnic, contradictory groups in Istanbul” — a repressed society. And in order to do so he “invented a character who is optimistic, well-meaning, and is not too much argumentative…an everyman.”

He also wanted to highlight that he “gave a lot of energy to rendering his (Mevlut’s) humanity, his married life, his sexuality.” “A Strangeness in My Mind” chronicles, over a period of 30 years, Mevlut’s friendship with his wife.


Istanbul is a recurring theme in all of his nine novels, though Pamuk said that “the idea that I’m an Istanbul novelist came to me late.”

“I didn’t have those ambitions. I just wanted to be a normal fiction writer. Fiction writers write about human being they know best. I lived all my life in Istanbul and I wanted to write about what I knew about humanity, and indirectly since I came across humanity in Istanbul, I was not aware at the beginning that my novels were set, most of them, in Istanbul. They began to get translated and I began to get some fame in the mid 1990s, then internationally they began to call me “Istanbul writer.”

Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” — a book (Vintage International, 2008) set in Istanbul with a connected museum project (that opened in Istanbul in 2012) — is an account of the 1970s love story between wealthy businessman Kemal and shopgirl Füsun, a poorer distant relation. In his pursuit of Füsun for eight years “Kemal becomes a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his lovelorn progress—amassing a museum that is both a map of a society and of his heart.”

The museum’s objects trace the tale of the couple’s doomed love in Istanbul, and are the starting point for a trip through love stories, landscapes and the chemistry of the city.

Observed Göknar : “The cluster of works he produced around the Museum of Innocence alone… is a characteristic example of Pamuk’s blurring of traditional genre boundaries and his radical intertextuality.”

Pamuk said he’s writing his novels and doing museums to preserve “our memories.”

“Not that I’m nostalgic,” he continued. “There is a common human desire to protect the details of the lives we have led which is why I made this museum –Museum of Innocence.”

“A novel is of course both lots of facts together … and the writer’s imagination,” said Pamuk, explaining that his novels are “a galaxy of little details,” and the “plot is the tree that holds all the leaves of these details.”

“We can imagine in our mind a novel as a tree with 40,000 leaves and many branches and a trunk. No one can imagine preconceiving the whole thing in one breath. It takes years. You start with three tree branches and 300 leaves and as you execute and write the details of these, the others come. For me a novel is not something you have in one snapshot, one moment of enlightenment … The idea of a novel may come to you at one point but its all about development, writing, re-writing, changing, new inspiration, revisiting the things that you have written, so forth and so on. A novel, human memory, is limited as well as human imagination. You cannot preconceive a 600-page book before it’s written. Novels, in the scale I want to write them … are invented, realized, not in one single imaginative moment but with slow and deliberate patience.”

That patience and imagination are certain to hold.

Pamuk, who’s been teaching a course at Columbia University a semester a year on the art of the novel, said he sees himself as a “youthful, post-modern experimental writer (who) is still alive and kicking.”


ISLAMiCommentary Editor’s note: Göknar tells me that since the publication of “A Strangeness in My Mind,” boza has has become trendy again in Istanbul; there’s been a resurgence of boza vendors on the city streets. 


Video of the entire public conversation between Göknar and Pamuk and two clips from the Duke studios interview — from which the above essay was drawn — are embedded on this page. There is also much more to learn from Pamuk and Göknar in these videos. See also a Duke Chronicle article on Pamuk’s public talk here. 

On Nov. 13, Pamuk also convened a faculty forum with Rey Chow (Duke Program in Literature), miriam cooke (Asian & Middle Eastern Studies), and Michael Moses (English Department). This was not taped. 


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary.

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