Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk was greeted as a "pop star," according to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, while contemporary Turkish authors trying to improve their international reputations were almost mobbed.
Under the motto "captivatingly colorful," the book fair’s guest nation held a myriad of events that gave the impression of a lively, cultural way of life, without resorting to belly dances and other gimmicks that tourists to Turkey often find so appealing.
"This country is in motion, both culturally and politically," book fair director Juergen Boos said.
Turkey had made full use of the opportunities that "appearing on the greatest literary world stage has to offer," Boos said.
More than the "well-known problems"
The Turkish Organizing Committee was visibly anxious to exclude all political elements from its events.
"The name Turkey should evoke more than just the well-known usual problems," Istanbul publisher Muge Gorsoy Sokmen said.
Many of the freedom of expression issues other nations have with Turkey deal with a section of Turkish penal code that makes it a crime to "denigrate Turknishness" and threatens violators with up to three years in prison.
But Sokmen said it was important for her that Turkish writers were perceived "simply as artists" and not as "mouthpieces for the government or dissidents."
Turkish politics in three acts
The contradictions of Turkish life and the political problems in which the country is embroiled were acted out during the five-day book fair.
Pamuk entered the stage for the first act at the beginning of the fair with a soliloquy in which he said, "The propensity of the Turkish state to ban books and punish writers is unfortunately continuing."
President Abdullah Gul commanded the second act when Turkish journalists asked him shortly before he left for Frankfurt to react to Pamuk’s comments and to "negative reports" in the German press.
The questions allowed Gul to portray himself as a defender of criticism and Turkey as a land of free speech by saying there was no book that could not be published and "equally extreme views" would be expressed.
"Turkey is not a country of prohibitions," he added.
Turkish publishers took charge of the third act, like children who had been burnt, but were still unafraid of fire.
They spoke of the state’s and the military’s paternalism and said that not much had changed.
More changes needed
As long as this "authoritarian mentality" remained, freedom of expression would remain limited, Etyen Mahcupyan of the Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos said.
There would be no freedom of expression without a fundamental change in mentality, publisher Ragip Zarakolu said.
In order to achieve this, he said "much more radical changes" were needed "than have happened so far."
For its part, Amnesty International said the book fair could have a lasting, positive effect on the, condition of human rights in Turkey even if the improvements weren’t immediately visable.
"It doesn’t change the situation in Turkey yet, of course, but it is a step on the path towards breaking taboos," Amnesty’s Turkey expert Amke Dietert told German news agency DPA. "As long as there are serious restrictions in Turkey, we can’t talk about freedom of expression." (Deutsche Welle, October 21, 2008)