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Turkish Nobel laureate focuses on the collaboration COVID has stoked

Orhan Pamuk Says We Are All In The Same Boat -- And Bound By The Same Fear

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Orhan Pamuk is writing a new novel "Nights of Plague" which is a historical novel set in 1901.

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner, thought he was finishing up his latest book, about an outbreak of plague in the Ottoman Empire in 1901, when the coronavirus pandemic began. Then he went back to work.

So when "Nights of Plague" is released, art will imitate modern-day life.

Pamuk, 68 and a native of Istanbul, teaches at Columbia University in New York City.

One of the main themes that runs throughout Pamuk's oeuvre is a comparison and contrasting of the Western and eastern Islamic worlds. Having been exploring this intersection for some three decades, he began writing "Nights of Plague" four years ago.

"Plague," he said, "is one of the litmus tests that helps you think about the difference between Western and traditional eastern Muslim societies."

Asked how the plague-ridden world described in his upcoming book compares with the world of today, Pamuk answered, "There are surprising similarities between old plague pandemics and today's coronavirus. Not because microbes, viruses, germs are similar, but because human beings' [reactions are] similar."

These reactions include "government denial" of an epidemic's existence and of its seriousness. A government in denial is one that makes mistakes in its initial response. "Denial is inevitable," Pamuk said, "because [governments] do not want to hear news [about a pandemic]. No one likes quarantines."

The first thing that happens when a new virus begins to spread, Pamuk said, is that the government denies what is happening. "Second," he went on, "it fights in a very clumsy way and everyone is angry."

Another commonality between 120 years ago and today, he said, is that people start rumor-mongering "about who brought this plague" and spinning conspiracy theories, like the coronavirus is "China's answer to America."

Only in one regard has today's pandemic caught Pamuk by surprise -- by the amount of fear it has wrought.

"I had everything in my novel except the fear," he said, adding that the "characters in my novel were not afraid as much as I was afraid. So I [went back and] made them get more afraid in the novel."

He said TV and other communication channels that beam scenes like the mayhem in an Italian hospital around the world are stoking fear today. "In old times," Pamuk said, "the possibility of getting killed by the plague was 10 times more [than dying from a COVID-19 infection today], but people were less afraid."

"We are scared visually," he added, "seeing dead bodies, the numbers and how [the virus] spreads."

Another difference between 120 years ago and today, he said, is that governments are better at taking charge, at least once reality sinks in. "In the past," he said, "governments scarcely directed people what to do, such as to wear masks."

Today, even Turkey's Islamist government "behaved like an ultra-secularist," closing mosques, Pamuk said. "My prejudice was they would not, but the Turkish government managed this well, surprisingly. [And] because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an Islamist, no one criticized his orders to close mosques for Friday prayers."

Pamuk said there are two factors behind this development, the dramatic improvement in literacy rate in many countries over the decades and the easy availability of information, thanks to technological advances. "Now 98% [of the population] knows how to read and write, [up from] 3% to 5% in the early 20th century," he said.

High literacy and the wide availability of information are paying off globally, in the form of "an immense collaboration of the people," Pamuk said.

COVID-19, he said, "has united humanity more closely than ever." Seeing what is taking place in New York, Australia and around the world, he said, is allowing us to share experiences. "We are all in the same boat," he said. "This never happened before in human [history]."

Pamuk said it is important for countries to further collaborate with one another. He underscored that people should not be misled by "superficial xenophobia." For the first time, "humanity has the same fear, and it is global."