When the 2006 winners were announced, Orhan Pamuk and Muhammad Yunus were among this year's nobel laureates-marking the first time in history that two Muslims received the prestigious award in the same year.
"Muslim heroes-not terrorists-in the headlines? It seems too good to be true," Bruce Lawrence, Duke professor of religion and director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke, wrote in an e-mail. "Especially after 9/11, when most headlines are negative, reflecting violence associated with Muslims."
This year's Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Pamuk, who the Swedish Academy cites for "discover[ing] new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."
Pamuk, 54, is the first Turk to win the honor. He made the news last year when he said about one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey during World War I. In the outrage that resulted, one official demanded that Pamuk's books be destroyed.
Erdag Göknar, assistant professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke, translated one of Pamuk's works into English.
He called Pamuk an "excellent choice by the committee," but said the author's relatively young age made the news somewhat surprising. Göknar said it was Pamuk's most recent novels that put the author in the running.
Peter Burian, chair and professor of classical studies at Duke, added that the announcement would generate a better understanding of Turkey.
"Since Pamuk writes in the European modernist tradition, [his win] opens up a window in Turkey for us, that is particularly accessible because Pamuk is writing in literary traditions we are familiar with and love," Burian said.
Pamuk's wide body of works deals with issues of identity and cultural conflict between Eastern and Western nations. His novels all have a deep sense of place, an attachment to his native city, Istanbul.
"Istanbul's fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am," he told Reuters India.
Pamuk's books have been translated into several languages. "My Name is Red" was translated into English by Göknar.
The Duke professor's translation was especially important because the panel of Nobel judges does not usually read nominated works in their original languages. English, a familiar language in dozens of countries, was the means by which Pamuk's renown spread.
"'My Name Is Red' was Pamuk's breakaway book. It sold 200,000 copies in English and put him on a new level as a writer," said Göknar, who has always been interested in Pamuk's work and is good friends with the author.
Göknar is currently writing a book, "Between Orient and Nation: Pamuk and the Turkish Novel."
Pamuk is now at Columbia University as a visiting writer in residence.
Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist, was the other Muslim to win a prestigious Nobel Prize this year. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts "to create economic and social development from below."
In 2004, Yunus spoke to a group of Duke students at the Fuqua School of Business. The school gave him its 2004 CASE Leadership in Social Entrepreneurship Award.
"The awarding of the Peace Prize is significant because it points out another side of Muslim culture that we are not fully familiar enough with," Burian said. "They always have had a great interest in charitable work and self help."
It is unprecedented that two Muslim individuals received Nobel honors at the same time. "This is a global first, even more stunning that it took place during the holiest of months for Muslims, the month of Ramadan," Lawrence said.
Both Göknar and Lawrence said there is hope that this huge recognition of Muslim talent will encourage student interest in the Muslim Cultures Focus, which will be offered for the first time this spring.
The program is currently underenrolled and has not reached the minimum 20 students needed to make it viable. As part of the program, Göknar will be teaching a seminar on Turkey, which will cover Pamuk and parts of "My Name is Red."
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