By Lucy Komisar
Dec 25, 2008
British playwright Harold Pinter died last night. He was a man committed to political freedom and did his part to promote it.
In 1990, I visited Turkey and learned about a dinner in his honor given by the U.S. ambassador that left the host quite out of joint. I interviewed several of the guests, including the ambassador, playwright Arthur Miller, the French envoy and some of the Turks. Here’s the story.
In March 1985, Pinter and American playwright Arthur Miller went to Turkey to express solidarity with dissident writers, many of whom were imprisoned.
In Istanbul, where most Turkish intellectuals live, they met people from the Peace Association; they talked to people who had suffered a lot. They tried to see jailed playwright Ali Taygun who was an honorary member of American and British PEN, which Pinter and Miller supported, but they couldn’t get permission, so they visited his wife.
Then they went to the capital, Ankara. They asked for meetings with several government ministers, including Prime Minister –zal, but were refused.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé, an arch-conservative Ronald Reagan political appointee, hosted a dinner for them. The 30 guests at a long table in the ambassador’s residence ran the gamut of Turkish society: journalists, members of parliament, a doctor who was a leading human rights activist, some dissidents, the French ambassador, someone from the Turkish foreign ministry.
Erdal Inönu was there as the leader of the social democratic opposition. As a graduate student at Caltech, in Pasadena, California, Inonu had gone to Los Angeles to see Death of a Salesman, and was very pleased to sit near Miller. Nazli Ilicak, a conservative journalist who had been briefly jailed by the junta that ruled from 1980 to 83, was opposite Pinter.
Miller was a calm man; Pinter was somewhat emotional. Near the end of dinner, the rising sound of an argument between Pinter and Ilicak attracted everyone’s attention.
When Ilicak was in prison, common prisoners there told her of being tortured with electricity. She hadn’t believed such things went on before, but then she understood that there was torture in Turkey, not only for political prisoners. However, she was also viscerally anti-leftist.
Mr. Pinter, this is none of your business, she told the British playwright. This is a Turkish problem and it is going to be solved by Turks. Turks have to remain and face the realities of their country. You come here and listen to what the leftists tell you and you can go home and put it all into a profitable play.
Pinter shouted his reply: That is an insult and was meant as an insult and I throw it back in your face.
When the dinner was over, Strausz-Hupé stood up, tapped his water glass, and made a short speech welcoming the distinguished playwrights and thanking his guests. He talked about the developing democracy in Turkey. He looked at Pinter, This demonstrates that all viewpoints are welcome here. Here is democracy, right here, and we are proud of it. Imagine this happening in a communist country.
Miller answered him: I’m a playwright, so I observe people, and I must say what I see. That’s the only way to be successful in my field, and I must be truthful to what I see. What I see here is something reminiscent of an era I represented in one of my plays, ‘The Witches of Salem.’ In that play, I represented the state of affairs in a place in the states where the people in that city were taken in a sort of hysteria. They thought they had the right to punish people for their ideas, just to prevent them from doing bad things, to save them from devils. But essentially it was simply their ideas they were criticizing and this took the form of torture and crimes against other people, and it was a mass hysteria which lasted for some time.
And what I see now in Turkey is something similar to that event. The ruling regime in Turkey is suppressing people, is oppressing people for their ideas. This is clearly and certainly against democratic principles. If there is such a practice in a country, this country cannot be called democratic.
Miller went on: The ambassador gave the impression that democratic practices may change from country to country according to historical, cultural differences, but there are some principles without which a democracy cannot be called a democracy no matter in which country you are, and if you oppress people for their ideas, by putting them in prison, by torturing them, you can’t convince anyone there is democracy in that place. In Turkey I have seen that situation. I am sorry I must say this.
Strausz-Hupé was quite taken aback by this speech. He replied, Well, if I were occupying my university post as I was before I became ambassador, if I had that freedom, I would also engage in the analysis of the situation and I could prove to you that democratic practices may change from place to place.
In any case, I can tell you that there is democracy in Turkey still, because we are discussing these questions freely. You are criticizing Turkish practice freely, and you are not afraid you will be suddenly attacked and taken to the Politburo or the KGB, so at least you can make your criticism freely. But in any case, it’s better if I leave the floor to the Turkish politicians who can tell you better than I can of the situation in Turkey.
He looked at Organ Soyzal, an MP from the ruling party, but Soyzal didn’t want to say anything.
Then Inonu interjected, I would like to say some things. I am so happy to see Mr. Miller, a distinguished playwright I have always admired. Thank you for the frankness with which you expressed your observations. All the things you said were true. He raised his glass and called on everyone to toast the visitors.
Then, they went to the sitting room for coffee.
There can be lot of opinions about anything, remarked Strausz-Hupé.
Not if you’ve got an electric wire hooked to your testicles, riposted Pinter.
Strausz-Hupé was furious: Mr. Pinter, you are a guest in my house.
Pinter concluded he was being thrown out. I have insulted your ambassador and have been asked to go, he told Miller. We’d better get going. They went off for a brandy with the French ambassador, Eric Rouleau, who had been a journalist for Le Monde.
There were stories about Miller and Pinter in major Turkish newspapers the next day. The writers had a press conference, but government censors called every newspaper and ordered them not to mention it.
The visit got a lot of publicity and provoked a momentary euphoria among democratic forces. Niyazi Dalyanci, an editor and ex-political prisoner, thought Pinter’s behavior great. Miller was well-known and the educated Turkish public began to realize that some Americans were critical of government human rights violations. For the government, it was another headache.
Three years later, Pinter wrote Mountain Language. Based on the repression of Turkey’s Kurds – called “Mountain Turks” by the Turkish government which refused to recognize their ethnicity — the play describes a brutal society that forbids a minority of its population to speak its own language.
For the playwright, it was another act against political repression.