Nobel-Winners Worthy of the Prize
December 12, 2006
The Nobels were awarded two days ago, and the winners in the two main categories are progressive Muslim men trying to better their societies and, indeed, all of humankind.
Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank (the co-recipients) deserve the Peace Prize. The model of microfinance that Yunus and the bank have pioneered is helping people—with a focus on women—throughout South Asia and far beyond. (The Grameen Bank set up operations in Arkansas in 1986 under Governor Bill Clinton, and Bill and Hillary have been Yunus’s friends and advocates for years.)
Yunus’s life story is an inspiring one. An economist with a Ph.D. from an American university (Vanderbilt), he went back home to Bangladesh and hit upon microfinance—the lending of small loans to the indigent with repayment being guaranteed by self-help groups—as a way to uplift the underprivileged. The Grameen Bank that Yunus founded has become a model for similar attempts across the planet. Very fittingly, nine women Bangladeshi villagers traveled to Oslo to receive the prize on behalf of the bank.
“Microcredit has proved to be an important liberating force in societies where women in particular have to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions,” the Nobel Committee said in its award citation. “Economic growth and political democracy can not achieve their full potential unless the female half of humanity participates on an equal footing with the male.”
There has been a debate about microfinance and about how much difference something like this can make in getting rid of destitution on a large scale. After all, Bangladesh is still wracked by horrendous poverty. There has also been criticism about the high (though low compared with that of moneylenders) interest rates that the Grameen Bank charges. And critics allege that the World Bank has cynically latched on to the concept, since it is capitalism-friendly and does not require social transformation. All these criticisms are legitimate. (See Paula McDermott’s “Globalization, Women and Development: Microfinance and Factory Work in Perspective” for an overview of the critiques.)
But the fact that countless lives have been improved—even slightly—over the three decades since Yunus started Grameen Bank is not to be sneezed at.
In his introductory speech, Ole Danbolt Mjøs, the chair of the Nobel Committee, acknowledged that the events of the past five years shaped the committee’s decision to award the prize to Yunus and the Grameen Bank.
“Since the 11th of September 2001, we have seen a widespread tendency to demonize Islam,” Mjøs said. “All too often we speak one-sidedly about how much the Muslim part of the world has to learn from the West. Where microcredit is concerned, the opposite is true: The West has learned from Yunus, from Bangladesh, and from the Muslim part of the world.”
For his part, Yunus expounded on a range of issues in his acceptance speech. He loftily spoke of the possibility of a world rid of destitution.
“I firmly believe that we can create a poverty-free world if we collectively believe in it,” Yunus said. “In a poverty-free world, the only place you would be able to see poverty is in the poverty museums. When school children take a tour of the poverty museums, they would be horrified to see the misery and indignity that some human beings had to go through. They would blame their forefathers for tolerating this inhuman condition, which existed for so long, for so many people.”
A utopian vision, perhaps, but a Nobel one.
The saga of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is equally motivating. Pamuk has gotten into a lot of trouble in the recent past for comments he made acknowledging the Turkish role in perpetrating the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century and in mistreating Kurds. He was put on trial in a highly publicized affair until the Turkish government withdrew its case after the European Union warned it that Turkey’s membership in that organization would be jeopardized.
Ironically, the trial contributed to Pamuk being awarded the Nobel, since the Nobel Committee saw in him the personification of the persecuted writer. This also led to a less than unanimously enthusiastic response to the award in his homeland, with some Turkish nationalists complaining that the award was made more for political reasons than artistic. (The Turkish President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, refused to congratulate Pamuk.)
Pamuk’s “Istanbul: Memories and the City” is mesmerizing right from the starting sentence. His fiction is said to be equally impressive, with dense, multilayered storytelling that is reminiscent of the best writers of the past two centuries.
“You have made your native city an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg, Joyce's Dublin or Proust's Paris—a place where readers from all corners of the world can live another life, just as credible as their own, filled by an alien feeling that they immediately recognize as their own,” Professor Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said in his presentation speech.
Pamuk’s acceptance speech is amazingly eloquent and personal and deserves to be quoted at length: “The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is:
Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—just as in a dream—I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.”
Pamuk deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature for literary merit. He should be celebrated in Turkey—and the world over—for his writing skills and for his political conscience.
Yunus and Pamuk are beacons of inspiration.