Turkey’s Artists at Risk: Dramaturgies of Resistance vs. Politics of Fear

NATIONALISTIC ‘CULTURAL’ POLICY

There is also a nationalist aspect to the spectatorship that is being shaped here, which became clear when after the coup, on 28 August 2016, the director-general of the general directorate of state theatres, Nejat Birecik, announced that from now on only ‘national plays’ would be staged. He even stated that this would stir the nationalistic, conservative and patriotic feelings of the audiences. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and even Dario Fo were on the black list. Dario Fo responded jokingly, on 2 September 2016 in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera:

“I am honoured. I’ll be sending a thank you note to Erdoğan for including me in such a prestigious circle. They’re all dead except for me. Let’s hope Erdoğan doesn’t find out. … I consider it my second Nobel Prize”1

One month later, he would unfortunately pass away2 but he indubitably had the last laugh since due to the ban, his plays were played across the country. He also said in this interview that he assumed that his Morte accidentale di un anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist) must have bothered the government a lot “because it must have read like an accusation against the Turkish police and its methods,”3 thereby referring to the heavy police coercion we have seen since the Gezi uprisings.

Although the police violence was a shock to many a young protestor, the para-militaristic use of special police forces against so-called ‘anarchist’ citizens has a longer tradition in Turkey. When it comes to the Kurdish South-Eastern region, the state of emergency4 was declared permanently already back in 1987 to keep armed conflict at bay. This involved occasional checks by special security forces in spaces that would attract crowds. As a result, theatre performances in this region are more often than not stifled by security checks and by occasional curfews that limit audience participation. In a Siyahbant report, the police was said to be acting as ‘unofficial dramaturges’ since they would also check the play texts and highlight what should not be expressed.

It should not come as a surprise that in the current nationalist environment after the coup, the Kurdish theatres and artists are also being targeted. In the recent year, there has been on-going series of arrests, purges and attacks in mainstream and social media, directly affecting artists, novelists and journalists with a Kurdish ethnic background: journalist and painter Zehra Doğan5, singer Xece Herdem, artist and teacher Fatoş Irven, and latest, Zaza-author, poet and columnist Fadıl Öztürk have all been reportedly arrested and/or imprisoned. Citizens who are not Kurdish but who have supported the Kurdish struggle, however, have been affected too, among whom novelist and columnist Aslı Erdoğan, artists Pınar Öğrenci, Atalay Yeni, Arzu Erdemir, Pınar Ercan and Aziz Kılıç. On 1 November 2017, the arrest of Turkish activist philanthropist Osman Kavala, who through cultural work is known to facilitate peace and reconciliation between Turks and Kurds, has only increased the anxiety among the cultural circles6. This string of events leaves the future of artistic production in the independent sector very uncertain.

Moreover, significant Kurdish cultural institutions are getting closed down, thereby affecting the very fabric of cultural production for the Kurds. The Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality City Theatre (Diyarbakır Büyükşehir Belediyesi Şehir Tiyatrosu, DBŞT), which staged theatre plays in Kurdish dialects Kurmanji and Zazaki since its 2006/2007 season, was closed down in January 2017. Government-appointed trustees put Batman and Hakkari’s municipal theatres out of operation7. Some theatre workers were assigned to jobs elsewhere and some were just fired. Kurdish cultural centres as well as arts and culture associations were targeted, too. The NGO Kurdish Institute of Istanbul, which is concerned with the Kurdish language, dictionary and literature since 1992, was shut down by emergency decree8. The police raided the Feqiyê Teyran Arts and Culture Centre in Hakkari, purportedly due to “intelligence on militants about to attend a meeting”9. The Seyr-î Mesel in Istanbul and various other branches of the Mesopotamia Cultural Centre (MKM/MÇM)10, are permanently closed.

Dario Fo held, in this respect, a warning finger towards the Turkish government:

“It’s always a bad sign when you strive towards cultural autarchy. And when its rage turns against the theatre, against culture it means that you’re afraid of someone else’s point of view; that they see you as a threat. Fascism was at its worst when it agonized. In that sense, when it comes to Turkey, you can only hope”11.

Aslı Erdogan, who was also in prison for her links with a pro-Kurdish newspaper, commented along similar lines:

“If a country has begun to be fearful of its writers, it means it has a serious problem with facing reality. Only heavily totalitarian regimes burden themselves with their writers. By cutting off the writer, the academic, the journalist of your country – you actually cut off your own language. So, I ask: What is this hatred about? By hating me, you actually show the hate you have for yourself. Because I am you”12.

In Heiner Müller’s post-dramatic universe, Hamlet is Fortinbras. He might as well have been a Turkish Kurd, or any other repressed identity in Turkey, an Alevite, an Armenian, a peace academic, a queer, or any ‘hyperdiverse’ mix. But the Turkish State would not acknowledge such ambiguity. He is probably just a terrorist. Evidence is not required. There is a saying: “You are all Kurds now!”13. Wir sind alle Hamlet, right?

  1. Manin, Giuseppina. “Dario Fo Banned in Turkey”. Orig. in: Corriere Della Sera (2 Sept. 2016). Trans. http://www.union-theatres-europe.eu/UNIQ152079822914614/Erdogan_bans_foreign_plays. []
  2. Dario Fo died on 13 October 2016. []
  3. Manin, Giuseppina. “Dario Fo Banned in Turkey”. Orig. in: Corriere Della Sera (2 Sept. 2016). Trans. http://www.union-theatres-europe.eu/UNIQ152079822914614/Erdogan_bans_foreign_plays. []
  4. In Turkish ‘OHAL’ (Olağanüstü Hal Bölge Valiliği), which literally means “Governorship of Region in State of Emergency”. []
  5. Just in March 2018, a new Banksy mural was unveiled in downtown Manhattan in solidarity with Zehra Doğan. She was imprisoned because of her oil painting depicting the destruction of the Turkish town of Nusaybin, “with Turkish flags flying over the rubble”. The latter was seen as propaganda in favour of terrorists, i.e. the PKK.
    Chow, Andrew R. “New Banksy Mural in New York Protests Turkish Artist’s Imprisonment”. In: The New York Times (15 March 2018), http://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/15/arts/design/banksy-mural-new-york-zehra-dogan.html. []
  6. Further information. []
  7. Ince, Elif & Siyah Bant, “Turkey’s State of Emergency Puts Kurdish Theatre in a Chokehold”. In: IFEX, Defending and Promoting Free Expression, 5 Jan. 2017, https://www.ifex.org/turkey/2017/01/05/kurdish_theatre/. []
  8. https://stockholmcf.org/the-assets-of-the-kurdish-institute-of-istanbul-seized/ []
  9. Ince, Elif & Siyah Bant, “Turkey’s State of Emergency Puts Kurdish Theatre in a Chokehold”. In: IFEX, Defending and Promoting Free Expression, 5 Jan. 2017, https://www.ifex.org/turkey/2017/01/05/kurdish_theatre/. []
  10. The Mesopotamia Cultural Centre (Mezopotamya Kültür Merkezi/MKM in Turkish, or Navenda Çanda Mezopotamya/MÇM in Kurdish) constitutes a vast network of regional offices and cultural centers in urban areas in Turkey, such as Diyarbakir, Van, Sanlıurfa, Mersin, Adana, Izmir, Mardin, Siirt, among others. Its first office was established in Istanbul in 1991 just after the ban on the Kurdish language was lifted, both for print and recording (law 2932).
    Stansfield, Gareth & Mohammed Shareef, eds. The Kurdish Question Revisited. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press 2017. []
  11. Manin, Giuseppina. “Dario Fo Banned in Turkey”. Orig. in: Corriere Della Sera (2 Sept. 2016). Trans. http://www.union-theatres-europe.eu/UNIQ152079822914614/Erdogan_bans_foreign_plays. []
  12. Sert, Aysegul. “Turkey’s Writers Face Yet More Trials”. In: The New Yorker (26 June 2017), https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/turkeys-writers-face-yet-more-trials. []
  13. Özkırımlı, Umut. “You are All Kurds Now!”. In: Ahval (8 Jan. 2018), read the full-length article on the expression here. []

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