Love Turkey, hate this artistic suppression

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 2.39.57 PM.png

For 30 million worldwide tourists a year Turkey means either offers sparkling white sands and a twinkling azure sea or the hurly-burly and heritage sites of Istanbul.  Along it’s Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines there are beach resorts for all types, from the Bodrum Peninsula to Kalkan and Marmaris. Alongside the usual swim, drink and dine; you can marvel at turtles, enjoy a mud bath, visit caves, rock tombs and ancient architecture. Whilst Istanbul offers trendy roof-top bars, diner at Bosphorus-front fish restaurants or puffs on a nargile (water pipe) in a courtyard garden. And you’ll never be far from the bulbous shadows of an Ottoman mosque – Istanbul is, unlike any other city in the world, straddles Europe and Asia.

But herein lies the problem of Turkey’s not-so-sunshiney bits. It’s a big, complex, disjointed country. It’s got expression issues – suppressing freedom of speech, human rights are being abused. And it’s got some rather gnarly relationship issues – the Kurds, Syria, Israel, Russia, Greece.  We’ve watched in sympathy a flow of refugees turn from trickle to torrent. And recoiled in horror at the targeted ISIS attacks on travellers and tourists in Istanbul. But now the cauldron of unrest is very near boiling point. The failed military coup of last Friday and the now iron-fisted response from President Erdogan (more than 50,000 people have been rounded up, sacked or suspended from their jobs) must mean anyone planning a holiday there this summer is checking their holiday insurance.

And alarm bells should be ringing. For some in the West this is all very concerning – an indication even that we are engaged in a bloody and uncontrollable race to the bottom, “This is not “just another” terror attack, or “just another” round of repression in the Middle East. This is a NATO country, increasingly divided and anti-Western, careening between two dark futures with no end in sight and no peaceful escape from a showdown”     (James Poulos , The Week). The world is (apparently) turning.  It looks like passive, weak and increasingly irrelevant, Western governments have no strategy to deal with what appears to be the implacable strength of Muslim extremists.

Others are more sanguine, military might, bloody street battles and take-over coups – bah – just an idiosyncrasy of Turkish politics. Conspiracy, paranoia and plots – all typical symptoms of this country’s political  development.  (James Palmer, The Vox).

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 3.12.06 PMBut Erdogan’s recent reprisal arrests and his mass purging of state institutions feels very threatening (thousands have been affected in a swift and brutal crackdown).  Turkey appears to be turning away from democracy, maybe even towards a dictatorship. It’s once upon a time desire to keep religion from dominating politics and  preference for the modern and the urban seem to be slipping in favour of traditionalism, conservatism and religious conviction. Istanbul,  long loved for it’s unique spiritual heritage, a veritable melting pot of cultures and peoples, open-hearted and open-spirited is being taken over by mullah calls,  the cloaking of women, and a restriction on alcohol availability (Norman Stone).

And then there is the general crackdown on freedom of expression and with this has come a very real threat to the cultural community. Journalists, writers, actors and academics, “Turkey’s cultural intelligentsia” have enjoyed, to varying degrees, a thriving, vibrant voice (though it’s judged just 10% of the media is “free” of government control or influence now) observing the country’s traditions and heritage and questioning it’s society and State institutions –  revealing to those of us on the outside, the depth of Turkish  passion and soul.

But “most of Turkey’s art community distrusts or even loathes Erdogan” (and no doubt this is being inflamed right now). Turkey currently leads the world in numbers of imprisoned journalists and writers. There’s tension too over the censorship of social media – threats to down Twitter and Facebook are frequently made.

There’s history to this animosity, in 2005 Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk was accused of “insulting Turkishness” (he spoke about the million dead Armenians and Kurds in an interview). He was arrested, tried and his books burnt before eventually being vindicated by a secular court.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.55.33 PM

Pamuk is probably Turkey’s most well-known writer of international standing, followed closely by Elif Shafak.  Together they are often accused of “leading” what the Turkish authorities call an “international literature lobby.” Both have spoken up – (most bravely I would suggest,  – about the impositions placed on artistic expression of any form in Turkey. Being an artist is a constant struggle in Turkey says Elif Sharak. “If you are a woman, the struggle is harder. In a collectivistic, patriarchal society, writers and artists try to carve out an independent and individual space for themselves. The education system does not encourage creativity. The culture, in general, treats difference as a problem. There is an ideology of sameness, which I find very problematic. We should resist any emotional nationalism that reduces us to a single identity.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 3.01.00 PM


As we’ve seen on our screens this week, the tension between Erdogan (and his supporters) and more Westernised, liberal Turks is worsening. Any perceived weakening in Erodogan’s distrust of the artistic community (in fact any part of society he feels a lack of control) is well and truly over.  Artistic criticism of Turkey’s politicians is chalked up as “American Interests” or spying activity. Famed and celebrated novelists are also accused of being “not human”.

Writers have been attempting to tell the world the gravity of their situation – as opined by video artist, Ali Kazma in his 2014 essay, Something Rotten in the Republic of Turkey. Here he spoke out loudly, criticizing the re-elected prime minister, for his “corruption, clamps on personal freedoms, internet censorship, and devious and authoritarian use of his power.”

See also The Art of Resistance by Ali Kazma

In the face of increasing film censorship has increased too Siyah Bant (Black Bar) was established in 2011 to research and document cases of censorship in the arts in Turkey and to defend artistic freedom of expression. Since 2015 cases of censorship at film festivals in Turkey have become increasingly common, more visible and have brought about devastating changes.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.41.40 PM

A rundown of other clashes can be read here; Turkey’s artists face growing government pressure

So what can those of us who are relatively free to express our views without fear of arrest or reprisals do to help? Well we can support the artistic Turks, read and watch their work; enjoy it and let them know they are not alone.

(He may despise liberal arts but the life of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his leadership would likely make a good cinematic story.  And by the way – 11m Turks are not on their way here,  Turkey’s current leadership is not that bothered about joining the EU…)


To Read: Turkey has produced some very esteemed writers and there are many lists of recommended books.  Here are some of my suggestions;

Orhan Pamuk – a Nobel peace prize winner who has also faced trial for his work. Many of his books focus on Istanbul, the city where he grew up. One of his most widely sold books, was “My Name is Red.” Set in 16th century Istanbul, it was translated into 24 languages.

Another recommended read, is “Istanbul. Memories and the City.” In this book, Orham Pamuk talks about his childhood and elder generations, who experienced turmoil during the earlier part of the 20th century, when the Ottoman dynasty fell apart.

Elif Sharak –  one of the most influential women writers in Turkey today, her works have been translated into many different languages. She is known for her fictional novels which explore contemporary themes in both Turkish and international cultures. Her most well-known The Bastard of Istanbul reveals different viewpoints of women and was long-listed for the Orange Fiction prize. I preferred Forty Rules of Love.

Irfan Orga – Portrait of a Turkish Family .  A haunting evocation of a childhood in late Ottoman/early Republican Turkey where the abrupt collapse of a single family’s fortunes mirrors the disintegration of the old state and a dogged determination to rebuild a new life from, literally, the ashes of the old.

Alev Scott – Turkish Awakening. Born in London to a Turkish mother and British father, Alev Scott moved to Istanbul to discover what it means to be Turkish in a country going through rapid political and social change, with an extraordinary past still linked to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and an ever more surprising present under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


To Watch:

The New Wave Cinema Of Turkey. Over the last twenty years, a new wave of Turkish film directors has resurrected the nation’s cinema on the international art house scene.

Winter Sleep – Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, this story, set in Anatolia, examines the significant divide between the rich and poor as well as the powerful and powerless in Turkey. Winner of the Palme d’or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Over three hours and sixteen minutes,  audiences feel the intense conflicts between a complacent brother and his critical divorcée sister, an egoistic husband and an unhappy young wife and also a naive philanthropist and a resentful villager.  With dollops of distrust, prejudice, loneliness, fear, suffocation, delusion, cynicism, hopelessness and hatred this is a thought-provoking movie, managed by a master director and performed by impeccable cast.

Mustang (2015) – Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Early summer in a village in Northern Turkey. Five free-spirited teenaged sisters feel the force of change as their futures become determined by others.  A powerful and timely portrait of female empowerment.

Innocence of Museum (2015) –  Orhan Pamuk’s multimedia creation The Museum of Innocence – and the novel of forbidden love that inspired it has been made into an absorbing meditation by Grant Gee. Written in 2008, the book is about the affair between an engaged man and a shop girl; he obsessively collect objects associated with her.  A real-life museum which houses the objects that trace the fictional love affair described in the novel was opened by the author in 2012. Simon Schama described this film as “the single most powerfully beautiful, humane and affecting work of contemporary art anywhere in the world.” Available to watch on BFI player now

Hamam – The Turkish Bath (1997).  Ferzan Ozpetek’s film is about happiness and love and finding your true place in life.  Set in Istanbul this is just as much about physical place as  emotional. Everything is beautiful about this movie, the people, the love between the family and Francesco. Beautiful scenes of Istanbul and a great performances by the cast, especially Alessandro Gassman.


To Listen:

Guardian Live podcast – Critic and broadcaster Mark Lawson talks to acclaimed Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk about his life and writing and in particular, his ninth novel, A Strangeness In My Mind.

Elif Shafak talks about her writing, language, politics and religion. This is an extract about Sufism, mysticism and storytelling from the Dalkey Book Festival, Zurich, June 2016.

The Media Show (20.7.16)- BBC iplayer. Discussion on the recent media crackdown in Turkey in Turkey are of P24 – an initiative to support independent Turkish media.


To Look:

A look at the ten best Turkish artists and where to find them. Contemporary artists from Turkey are deeply engaged with their identity as a nation, sitting across the East and West. The current socio-political climate provides a source of inspiration to both the untamed artists that have conquered the global stage and other emerging talents.

10 Contemporary Turkish Artists You Should Know

Featured image: By Osman about protests in Istanbul, Turkey.