Book Review by Julie Ward
STRUGGLE AND SURVIVAL UNDER AUTHORITARIANISM IN TURKEY
Theatre Under Threat
By Burcu Yasemin Şeyben
Published by Lexington Books
In 2011 I was in Istanbul for the final event of a year-long cultural management exchange project between arts organisations from across the EU and cultural organisations based in Turkey. Our gathering took place in the Beyoğlu district with exhibitions, street performances and seminars. One of our venues was Osman Kavala’s renowned restaurant, Cezayir, which provided meeting rooms and a welcome to civil society as well as wonderful food. We were all hoping for a brighter future following Istanbul’s status as European Capital of Culture (ECOC) in 2010 but it wasn’t to be.
Kavala is one of the thousands of people from Turkish civil society who now languish in prison on trumped up charges, a victim of the fascistic state led by President Erdogan. Although Kavala’s name is not mentioned in Şeyben’s exploration of the theatre scene in Turkey, the volume is nevertheless an excellent introduction to the complex and bloody history of the modern Turkish state from Ottoman Empire to poorly constructed fragile republic, clearly laying out the dangers of a heavy-handed mono-cultural authoritarian regime in respect of freedom of artistic expression, and highlighting the need for collective active, unionisation and international solidarity.
Everything in the book pivots to the 2013 Gezi Park protests as the major ignition point between the state and the citizenry, with performative practice and theatre makers at the heart of the stand-off. Having engaged with the initial stages of EU accession as part of its neo-liberal agenda the government was reluctant to address the demands of the bloc regarding fundamental rights of equality and democracy, and the main legacy of the ECOC was crass urban regeneration and rampant gentrification which excluded a burgeoning grassroots cultural movement.
The image of a woman in a red dress being pepper-sprayed by police became the iconic image of the Gezi uprising but few know how this image was politicised by the state to attack a group of theatre professionals present at Gezi Park who had created and toured a ground-breaking absurdist theatre event the previous year in which one of the characters was similarly attired. ‘Mi Minör’, written by Meltem Arikan and directed by Mehmet Ali Alabora, was set in the fictional country of Pinima where a paranoid dictatorial President bans the musical note Mi along with many everyday activities. The play encouraged the audience to follow an online version concurrent with the live production, interacting with both.
Şeyben explains how collaboration with a British tech company along with the red dress were used as spurious reasons for Arikan and Alabora to be accused of orchestrating an attempted revolution. Like so many other persecuted artists, the people behind ‘Mi Minör’ went into exile and now practice from bases in Germany and Wales.
The history of state supported theatre and independent and commercial enterprises is explored by the author through a critical lens noting rare glimpses of a pluralistic approach, largely due to political expediency, for example the inclusion of a Kurdish theatre in the Ottoman Pavilion of the Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition in 1893. The cruel and bloody oppression of the Kurds is a major pre-occupation, and frankly should be a concern for all of us working in the field of cultural and linguistic rights. The book is dedicated to Academics for Peace who came together in 2012 to support the peace process between the state and the PKK, subsequently criticising the government for its human rights violations in cities like Nusaybin, Cizre and Diyarbakir, only to be the subject of political persecution themselves.
Despite attempts by successive state administrations to impose a top-down bureaucratic cultural hegemony on the creative sector and the population at large, Şeyben’s research proves that, at each twist and turn of history, courageous politicians such as Osman Baydemir (the former Kurdish mayor of Diyarbakir) and the CHP administrations in Nilüfer and Kadıköy (where the inspiring ‘My Neighbor Is Theatre’ project took place) along with innovative artists such as Mirza Metin, Berfin Zenderlioğlu, Mehmet Ali Alabora and Meltem Arikan, and cultural entrepreneurs such as Osman Kavala, there will always be resistance and a flame of hope.
For more information about the case of Osman Kavala visit the website https://www.osmankavala.org/en/
Cover of the book:Struggle and Survival litho proof