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January 29, 2002
Chomsky's Cat


8:45 AM, Istanbul -- There were three of us by the sea, two young cops and I. In my determination to avoid getting delayed, I'd arrived too early. (Not that anything ever started on time.) "Nobody's here yet," they said, "please wait outside." They were polite, but had large submachine guns and bulletproof vests, so I didn't want to argue the point that it was rather chilly to be standing out there in January.

The Swedish visitors arrived next. I greeted them -- a tall, pleasant man I'd met the previous day (a publishing house director back in Oslo and at the same time a board member of the International Publishers Union) and a woman who turned out to be a deputy consul at Sweden's Istanbul consulate. Accompanying them was a young woman, the cousin of the Kurdish writer whose book of interviews was the reason we were there that morning.

After exchanging greetings I felt the need to inform the authorities present that we were there with "honorable" intentions. "These friends," I said, turning to the policemen, "are from Sweden. They've come to observe the trial." As I spoke I saw that the younger sentries had been joined by a bulkier, more dour gentleman of the higher-echelon police persuasion. "Let them come," he huffed in response. "They're welcome." It was a well-known fact that Turkish authorities simmered upon seeing foreigners attend political trials. No doubt it would be much more palatable if the giaours stuck to beaches and palaces, but there we were, a bunch of people standing awkwardly in front of a gray, faceless building by the water.

The big guy turned to the visitors and, without smiling, offered in English: "Welkome." He paused briefly, and then: "Good mornink!" He stopped, presumably having run out of phrases (polite ones, in any case).

I jumped in, unnerved by the silence. "Shall we wait here still? Or should we go in? What would you like us to do?"

"Whatever their precious hearts desire," the kommissar said, or at least this is what it sounded like in the way he said it.

We chose to go in. Having read all those stories in the Turkish press one expects a Midnight Express kind of atmosphere in the ominously named State Security Court, but the place looked more like the dusty, soul-crunching junior high school buildings a Turkish child knows so well. It had the unmistakable feel of a decrepit government office, a maze in which you were sent from desk to desk in pursuit of the elusive red seal, or of a yellowing piece of paper with the right number of signatures on it. Where were activists shouting slogans, truncheon-swinging special ops? They were not there. Instead chain-smoking clerks shuffled about, and lawyers, journalists (these two groups were tellingly assigned to the same general lounge) walked about among citizens who had been called upon to be there for one reason or another.

A refreshments guy arrived and rapidly set up his stand of juices, sodas, and cookies.

I was trying to absorb the weirdness of it all and convey it to our guests at the same time when I saw something that upped it to the next level. A cat, barely out of kittenhood, was strolling calmly in the waiting area of this concrete box of a building -- a building that had come to be associated with so much fear and iron-fistedness -- enjoying fleeting rubs from passersby, some of them wearing their black courtroom robes.

It's common to see tame street cats in Mediterranean countries, but in a courthouse? I was suddenly filled with hope that perhaps a better day was near. I pointed the animal out to the publisher. "Look at this. Just when you think you have this country figures out, it'll surprise you. Makes sense, though; I'd say a Turkish public building or a commercial enterprise must have one street cat -- at a bare minimum -- it feeds and looks after if the place is to command any respect at all..." He turned to the deputy consul and asked, "How many does the consulate have?" "Four," she replied.

My friend, the defendant, arrived fashionably late. He didn't look like a man who faced prison time for publishing interviews he hadn't even conducted or taken part in. He checked the four trial rooms one by one; each one had a manifest on its door, of perhaps twenty names whose cases were set to be heard that day. All accused of having done something or other, violently or non, to harm the unharmable, unwrongable mighty state. In short order his name was read and we shuffled in, like a group of students being brought before a stern principal.

Five years ago and five hundred miles to the east, this would've been a different scene, but today it looked less like Kafka than Wodehouse. The spectators were directed to the side seats while the defendant was ordered into a boxed area directly in front of the three judges and the prosecutor, all positioned high up and centrally, offering a nice contrast with the lawyer's bench, pushed far to the side and level with everybody else.

The prosecutor outlined the charges. By publishing interviews with "a writer named" Mehmed Uzun, my friend had engaged in seditious and hateful activity. Oddly enough Uzun, a Turkish-born Kurdish novelist who was now a Swedish citizen and who had recently started traveling back to Turkey to see family and read from his books, had not been charged. Another strange aspect of the case was that a bunch of the interviews in the book had been previously conducted and published by mainstream Turkish newspapers; I guess the heinous crime was to compile them into a book and thus disseminate them in more permanent form.

In his own defense, my friend said that he wasn't going to be pulled into debating the content of the book, and that above all he considered it a terrible embarrassment for his country that in this day and age books were still being banned, confiscated, their publishers hauled into courtrooms.

Speaking in a drawn-out monotone the head judge summarized the defense statement for the court reporter; flanking him, the other two judges appeared so bored as to be on the verge of sleep. The lawyer, in his turn, demanded that the books be "released from custody" while the trial went on; the prosecutor objected; the judges agreed and issued a routine continuance. On April 16, it was announced, the court would reconvene to hear this Mehmed Uzun person testify on behalf of his publisher and in defense of his words. "Is he real or a pseudonym?" the panel of judges wanted to know; apparently they hadn't heard of the man who'd been widely credited with pioneering the modern Kurdish novel.

And so that was it. There would be no handcuffs, no beatings, not even harsh words. We would not be manhandled but treated with polite disdain. The way these trials had been going recently, in all likelihood the whole thing would fizzle after another hearing or two, the accused acquitted, the books released from government storage (often wet or mildewy), and the offending parties would be back in the world of official harassment, which over the years had started to wane but refused to completely go away.

Looking into the future one could see the boxy building eventually being defeated by its own boredom and the increasing irrelevance of the laws it stood to protect, perhaps ending up covered by weeds like some abandoned factory or saloon in a dying American town.

Abandoned building in Paw Paw, West Virginia

Barboursville, Virginia

The state's legal machine, clinging to the reason for its existence with a rapidly diminishing fierceness, was like a proud animal, demanding a graceful exit. And in the meantime, it couldn't just sit and do nothing, could it?

After it was over we retired to a cafe along the Bosphorus; its greenhouse design provided perfect shelter from the biting winter winds blowing from the water. The previous day had been spent at my friend's office discussing with our Swedish visitor the state of human rights and freedom of expression in Turkey; now we felt drained, we just wanted to have some tea and talk about books. We tried to gauge where people's stories were going in our respective countries; we revealed to each other open secrets from our pasts, and shared tales of scribes by candlelight, workers and capitalists laboring behind much brighter-burning fires.

In the warmth of the glass enclosure we soon reached a catlike peacefulness and my thoughts veered back toward the furball we'd left behind in the courthouse. In just under two weeks (February 12, to be exact) the resident animal would have the opportunity to meet a much more prominent figure -- Noam Chomsky was going to be there, attending the trial of his publisher to show his solidarity. I had to wonder how that encounter would go, and what kind of impression it would make on the rather detached, clinical writing style of the godfather of the American conscience.

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