The state of emergency following the failed coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016 resulted in increased pressure against artists. The already-ongoing attack against freedom of art has accelerated after the coup attempt. Artists are trying to keep their heads up under the pressure, while the government is planting the seeds for a total transformation of the cultural scene.
By Yiğit Günay INSIGHT
“For the first time in 35 years, I’m concerned if we’ll be able to do theatre in the near future.” It is hard to swallow to hear this from a veteran of Turkish art scene. Kemal Kocatürk, 52, is an actor, playwright, director and poet with numerous awards throughout his career. Kocatürk was one of the six artists who were suspended from the Istanbul City Theatre, following the coup attempt in Turkey on 15th of July, claimed to be organised unsuccessfully by a religious sect headed by a Pennsylvania resident imam called Fethullah Gülen.
The Gülen movement had been an ally of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since they won the elections and became the government in 2002. Around 2012, the alliance started to decay, which ultimately resulted in the conspirative religious movement attempting to overthrow Erdoğan through their cadres inside the army. The attempt was defeated due to the facts that a small portion of the army actively participated in the coup, the plan and practice of the putschists (coup-attempters) were clumsy in many aspects and pro-Erdoğan thousands took to the streets to stand against the tanks and soldiers, thereby shattering the already minimal legitimacy of the coup.
Kocatürk was reading a book in his house in Istanbul on the evening of Friday 15 July 2016. “After I received a phone call from a friend about the military mobility, we turned on the tv. We were watching it alive, but things were not adding up. What is the point of cutting the traffic on the Bosphorus Bridge? It felt like a badly-written, third-class comedy play.”
This sentiment of a coup ‘too-bad-to-be-real’ was shared among all the elder generations, who witnessed the coup on 12 September 1980. The coup resulted in death penalties for hundreds, torture and jail time for thousands, and a still effective, insultingly oppressive constitution. The coup remains as the paradigmatic break in the history of Turkey.
Kocatürk was 17 back then, a youngster interested in arts and especially theatre. He was arrested with the accusations of “possession of illegal publications and membership to an illegal organisation” and spent 52 days in prison. He definitely has a good understanding of what a military coup would mean for the art scene.
“If you gathered together with more than three people, with whatever purpose, they breathed down your neck. People were even avoiding going out on the street as much as possible.”
It practically meant a shutdown of all social cultural activities. However, Kocatürk evaluates that it was not a total political blackout, but the contrary: The military junta was deliberately enforcing right-wing politics, especially the Islamist rhetoric.
“In the mosques, politics was being practiced and propagated in every sense of the word, but a theatrical play? No sir,” says Kocatürk, and draws a parallel to the actuality of Turkey: “The actuality today is a direct reflection of the politics of those times. The fear of a socialist revolution resulted in a country, whose streets are now full of jihadists.”
Factually, Kocatürk has a point. Fethullah Gülen started his cemaat, his religious movement in 1970s. When the army took over the government in September 1980, the Gülen movement was content with it. The leading article of the October issue of the magazine of the movement, Sızıntı (which, ironically, means both leakage and infiltration in Turkish), was warmly saluting and praising the junta:
“Thus, here we are now, full with a thousand hopes, with a thousand joys, we consider this last resistance, which is the dawn of our long-awaited expectations, as the insignia of the existence and perpetuity of the last sentry; we salute once again the Mehmetçik [the popular name for rank-and-file soldiers], who have come to our rescue like Hızır [Khidr, a righteous servant of the God for Muslims].”
Gülen and his movement did not receive any serious intervention under the military regime.
An unexpected assault
Kemal Kocatürk and his family had booked a vacation for the 16th of July. Late Friday night of the coup attempt, the family, upon understanding that it would not succeed, decided to go to bed. The next morning, they drove out of town. Four days later, all public workers were called to immediately return to work and report to their superiors. The theatres were closed, but the bureaucracy, in a state of total shock and dismantlement, did not listen to any excuses. The family returned to Istanbul.
At this point, Kocatürk was not expecting any imminent aggression against himself. The coup attempt was defeated, it was revealed that it was an attempt by the Gülen movement, and Kocatürk, “a life-long defender of socialism” as he defines himself, had nothing to do whatsoever with the Gülen movement. “A few years ago, when we criticised the Gülenists, pro-Erdoğan people would aggressively counter us,” says Kocatürk.
But this was not a naïve sentiment: Kocatürk was already facing a lot of pressure. Many artists working for the Istanbul City Theatre were aware that those who did not support the government faced imminent threats of legal cases or loss of job. The pro-government media often published articles criticising repertoire, the supposed nudity in certain theatre plays, sometimes naming certain artists, other times calling for a “radical transformation” of the theatres. And for Kocatürk, the threats had already been realized. In May 2016, an institutional investigation was started against Kocatürk. At the beginning, the accusation was “making political comments like an ordinary citizen”. Public workers cannot become legal members of political parties. Then they changed the accusation to “insulting the President”. The same accusation was made against German comedian Jan Böhmermann, making Erdoğan’s already nationally wide and well-known cases against artists and intellectuals internationally infamous.
It was not only Kocatürk, who was targeted. Two other directors, Ragıp Yavuz and Arif Akkaya were also involved in the investigations. And the administration of the theatre was defending these political investigations in a twisted but revealing way. Kocatürk tells:
“During an administrative board meeting, our situation was brought to the table. One of the administrators said, ‘In fact, the government has sent us a list of 50-60 artists. We avoided that pressure by only starting investigations against three people.’ They presented the investigations against us as the survival of all the artists!”
On 29 July 2016, Kocatürk received a phone call from the administration of the theatre at 16:30, half an hour before the end of workday. “There is an urgent yellow envelope for you, you have to pick it up before 10:00 AM on Monday,” the caller said.
Upon Kocatürk’s question of what if he didn’t, the caller explained, “he would be served the envelope by law enforcement officers”. It was obviously a serious thing. A yellow envelope was indicative of a bureaucratic matter. When Kocatürk went to the theatre on Monday, he recognized he was not alone. They were six artists: Actors Arda Aydın, Mahberi Mertoğlu, İrem Arslan, Mahberi Mertoğlu and Sevinç Erbulak and directors Ragıp Yavuz and Kemal Kocatürk.
They went for the responsible person from whom they had to receive their envelopes, but the responsible person was not there. Then started a Kafkaesque runaround – they were being tossed from door to door, everybody rejecting to give them their envelopes. Telling me the details of their comical and desperate endeavors to receive their envelopes, Kocatürk starts laughing and asks me if I know the ‘Turkish hell’ joke. I don’t. He tells:
“A group of Turks die. The demons welcome them at the gates of hell. One of the deceased also holds a US passport, so the demon asks him if he wants to go to the Turkish hell or the American hell. ‘What is the difference’ asks the dual citizen. ‘In the Turkish hell, they make you eat a ladleful of shit every day. In the American hell, you eat a spoonful of shit every day,’ explains the demon. The dead chooses to go to the American hell. Several weeks later, he decides to visit his friends and goes to the Turkish abyss. His friends look quite pleased. ‘I cannot endure eating that spoonful of shit each and every day, how can you bear it?’ he asks. One of his friends respond: ‘Well, we haven’t eaten any shit yet. One day there is no ladle, the other day there is ladle but no demons, another day there is ladle, there is demon, but no shit. They never come together.’”
Finally, the director himself came to the theatre at 13:00 and delivered the envelopes. They were laid off from their jobs. Reason? “Law number 657, article 125” was the reason stated in the letters. It is the article that lists all possible disciplinary punishments for public workers. The artists asked the director what the reason was. “It might be that you did not protest enough against the coup,” he answered. Kocatürk tells that they asked the art director, the municipality, the governorship of Istanbul, and nobody had an answer to give. It was unexpected for the artists. Not the fact that they were being targeted, but the fact that they were targeted as ‘supporters of the coup attempt’. “I very much prefer the ‘insulting the President’ accusation’,” says Kocatürk, “but being accused to be part of this Gülenist attempt is defamation.”
The ‘cleaner-artists’ get ‘cleaned’
Apparently, it was the beginning of a political purge against “blacklisted 50-60 artists” in the Istanbul City Theatre. On the 12th of August, 20 more artists were laid off: One musician, one dramaturgist, one choreographer and 17 actors. These 20 artists did not have the status of public workers. On paper, they were contractual staff for the subcontractor cleaning company. The government was not opening any new positions for theatre artists for years, despite the need for new ones and the openings from retired or deceased artists. Instead, they were hiring the new artists through a cleaning company.
The contracts of the artists were for three months and were being renewed every three months – a way to deny them the rights severance pay in case they were fired. When this policy first started, the veteran artists, including Kocatürk, were thinking to protest against it. “But the young artists told us, ‘Please don’t, don’t risk our earning breads, this is the only way we can do art,’ so we didn’t make a huge fuss about it,” says Kocatürk. The 20 artists made a collective statement, saying the reason for their being laid off was “low performance”, but no authority explained to them who and with which criteria evaluated their performances.
These “cleaner-artists” are not second role actors. They are crucial for the plays of Istanbul City Theatre, many playing leading roles. Kemal Kocatürk has assessed the damage: “There are 35 plays in the repertoire. Without these 20 and the six of us, only five out of the 35 can be played. Thus, it is not possible for the theatre to open its curtains in the new season.” The website still does not have the programme for the upcoming season for autumn.
This was the biggest blow for Kocatürk and other artists’ resilience in the Istanbul City Theatre. They were already struggling to continue their artistic endeavours. The City Theatre is under the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, which is controlled by Erdoğan’s AKP. This fact increases the provocative, targeting news in the pro-government media against the artists there. Like, when the Islamist mouthpiece Akit newspaper published a piece titled ‘Foulmouthed Ragıp earns his bread from Istanbul Municipality’, mentioning Istanbul City Theatre director Ragıp Yavuz’s critical tweets. Or when a columnist in the same newspaper implied actress Sevinç Erbulak’s mother “was a whore” because she cheated on her husband in an article written after the actress attended a meeting of the Enlightenment Movement (Aydınlanma Hareketi), a mass campaign for defending secularism and opposing the Islamization policy of the government. There was also pressure inside the institution. Kocatürk tells that most times, when he suggested a project to the art director, the art director would reply to him, “I haven’t even read it,” ten days later and the project would be put aside to be omitted.
Kocatürk thinks that the idea of pro-AKP directors of the theatre is to get rid of all “unfavored” artists inside the institution, which would mean – as right now is the fate the theatre is facing – that the number of plays the artists inside the institution produce would significantly drop. “Then,” Kocatürk continues, stating his opinion, “they will start to outsource plays to some small, independent but pro-government companies who produce plays which would be entertaining but void of any significant meaning or message.”
This is already on the way. Many local municipalities in Istanbul which are controlled by AKP select this way to make use of their theatre halls. And, because, as a result of the urban transformation many independent halls are getting closed, independent theatre groups fight hard to acquire places to play. Most of the available places are small halls for a few dozen people at most.
This is why Kocatürk confesses his concern about being able to do theatre. He starts thinking loudly, asking himself “if he is going to bow down, if he will lose his hope”. Then he turns to me again, and says, “I am considering street theatre”. He tells about a recent experience. He was to perform his play ‘Can’ in the Thracian city of Edirne. The governorship prohibited the performance. So he decided to take it out on the streets. “The municipality is controlled by CHP [the social-democratic opposition party]. They also supported my decision and prepared a beautiful street stage. The result: The audience was 2500, when it would have been 250 in the hall if they had let me.”
Increasing animosity towards artists
The Islamist AKP’s relation with the art scene and culture in general has been problematic since it gained power in 2002. Cases of censorship have become a routine agenda on the daily editorial meetings of local newspapers. Erdoğan has developed this habit of having dinner with “artists” every couple of months, which has the not-so-tacit purpose of demonstrating which artists are openly supporting him. The first few days following the coup attempt on 15 July 2016, Erdoğan’s statements were very aggressive. However, seeing this tactic of further strengthening the already existing polarisation in the country would not work well in a situation where the government could not trust anybody anymore inside the state apparatus, Erdoğan and the AKP government shifted to a “national reconciliation against the putschists” rhetoric.
Yet, this new period of reconciliation between the parliamentarian political parties did not reflect quite so to the art scene. Zeytinli Rock Music Festival was first prohibited, then postponed. The Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival got canceled for the entire year. The concerts of Joan Baez and Muse were canceled by the artists over security concerns, but the play about Turkish communist poet Nâzım Hikmet and Bertolt Brecht by the reknowned actor Genco Erkal was prohibited by authorities, due to the state of emergency declared by the government. After much reaction by the public, the prohibition was revoked. And going deeper into the localities, artists facing the same repression cannot make their voice loud enough to create a similar public protest, like in the case of Armenian guitarist Ari Hergel, who was fired by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality from his eight-year job as a guitar teacher with the absurd accusation of “being part of the coup attempt” which was organised by an Islamist faction.
Maybe not visible as much, but certainly equally dangerous is the reactionary sentiment growing amongst the pro-government masses against all cultural activities and artifacts and artists in general. The day after the coup attempt, the crowd which gathered in İzmir’s main square attacked the city’s historical, symbolic Clock Tower, damaging the architecturally important monument and the clock mechanism. It was thanks to Feti Pamukoğlu, member of a family which has been responsible for the maintenance of the clock for three generations, that the mechanism was saved. He climbed up the tower, “stole” the dial plate and took it to his home to protect it from the attackers. The occasion was obviously a continuation of frequent cases of vandalism against sculptures in İzmir’s metro stations in the last few months.
When famous pop singer Sıla Gençoğlu tweeted “I am absolutely against the coup but I don’t prefer to participate in such a show” to announce that she would not go to the demonstration organised by the government in Istanbul, it triggered a social media lynching against her, including harsh insults and even threats of murder. All municipalities controlled by AKP canceled any already-booked concerts by the singer, and, obviously exhausted under the psychological pressure, the singer announced that she decided to “take a vacation” and cancel all her concerts for a period. The culmination of this general ill-sentiment against culture was uttered by an imam. Erol Olçak, the man behind AKP’s publicity campaigns, was killed along with his son by the putschist soldiers during the night of the coup attempt while protesting near the Bosphorus Bridge. During their burial ceremony, in the presence of Erdoğan and other top government figures, the imam said, “Oh God, please protect us from the evil of the educated ones” during his prayer.
Numerous cultural institutions and organisations are issuing statements about raising concerns for the art and culture scene in Turkey. On 2 August 2016, PEN International called the international public to send appeals to Turkish authorities, expressing their concerns against “increasing crackdowns on freedom of expression and human rights in the country” under the state of emergency.
Turkish Publishers Association warned the government against making use of the possible authoritarian authorisations to ban books. The government has not used its newly acquired authority under the state of emergency to start a massive campaign of banning books or cultural activities, but it has used it for a much sinister aim. On 12 August, at midnight hours, an eagerly and hastily working Parliamentary Commission of Planning and Budget accepted a resolution, giving the Privatisation Board the authority to take over, privatise or shut down approximately 100 public cultural entities, including the Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the Turkish History Institution, State Theatres, State Opera and Ballet and the Turkish Language Institution. The coup attempt did not change the direction of Erdoğan’s government’s policy suppressing the culture scene, but accelerated it.
On the 24 August, as a bunch of friends from university years, we are sitting in a patisserie in Nişantaşı, the fanciest neighbourhood of Istanbul. The waiters have a hard time emptying the ashtrays full of hastily, frequently and angrily smoked cigarette butts. Hamit Demir, 49, an actor, raises his voice: “Guys, Friday evening we have a theatrical play, if any of you would like to come, it’s on me, please do.” A prolonged, awkward silence follows the question. At last, one of our friends responds: “Maybe, if Taylan gets released, we will all come together.”
Taylan Eren Yenilmez is the son of Hamit Demir, and a close friend of mine. A brilliant academic with a PhD from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, he is a researcher in Istanbul University. Or, better said, he was. Taylan’s house was raided by the police on 20 August and he was arrested under the criminal investigation against the Gülen network behind the coup. It didn’t make any sense, as an atheist and leftist economist, he had nothing to do with either Gülen movement or AKP. But, under the state of emergency, even the lawyers could not get to see him for the first five days, and the concrete accusations were a secret. His friends had been waiting near the police station in Nişantaşı, along with his parents.
A kid raising his head thanks to art
Taylan’s father, Hamit Demir, is this person who dedicates his life whole-heartedly to art. His grandparents were assimilated Greeks, praying as Muslims but still speaking their ancient language. When Demir was six years old, Turkey invaded Cyprus, once again raising the nationalist hatred against Greeks inside the country. His grandparents cautioned the little boy not to tell anybody that they were speaking Greek. When the military coup happened on 12 September 1980, Demir’s introvert personality even got stronger. A few days after the coup, he was walking on the street to buy some bread. His elder brother, a leftist, was on the run. His father was a worker in Saudi Arabia. It was his duty as the only “man” in the family. He passed a primary school, apparently turned into a prison; screams of torture were spreading from the building. A soldier pointed his rifle towards him, telling him to get lost. While he was escaping, some older boys called the 13-year-old child on the street, asking if he was a leftist or rightist. He did not know what he was, which resulted in him getting beaten anyway. He started to think by himself, deciding he was for equality, justice and respect; “thus, I decided I was a leftist,” remembers Demir.
The uneasy, cautious daily life after the coup prevented the boy from constructing his personality and overcoming his introversion. “I always held my head down, as if there was a huge burden on my shoulders, afraid to look up to the world,” tells Demir. “A couple of years later, my bigger sister took me to a play of the State Theatre in Ankara. The play, of course, did not have any political message. But there was this scene, where the female character was giving birth to a baby, as a result of a rape. She was in agony, screaming forcefully. I drew a parallel between the actress’ screams and the screams of the tortured people. I was charmed, mesmerized. That’s how I decided to become an actor, and finally get my head up.”
This start of his career has always been lingering in his mind: Theatre and art meant a social responsibility, especially for children. When the earthquakes took place in Van in October and November 2011, resulting in hundreds dead and dozens of thousands of homeless people, he went to Van and played between the debris to the children. It was his sympathy for another kid that cost him his rare, well paid job for a tv-series.
Berkin Elvan was 14-year-old boy. During the Gezi Protests, he was shot in the head with a tear gas capsule by a policeman. After months of struggle for survival, Berkin died on 11 March 2014. The government was refusing to identify the suspected policemen and punish the responsible people. Hamit Demir took part in a video clip prepared by a group of artists, asking, “I am Berkin Elvan, where is my murderer?” to the camera. “I was playing a shaman in a tv-series for the state channel TRT. It was one of the main characters, and the production company had promised me that I would have a role in each episode for three seasons. The week after the clip, I wasn’t invited to the movie set. My character was in the middle of a plot from the previous episode. When I watched the new one, they had changed the script, making a character say ‘The shaman went to the mountains to pick up some herbs’. A few weeks later, they called me on the phone and told me that I was fired.”
He disclosed the political nature of his getting fired. “I have never been a very famous actor, but the reaction on the social media to my messages were huge. So many people were expressing their support. Later I understood that, in fact, this kind of firing was not rare, but other artists were afraid to disclose it.” The fear of the other artists was not in vain. After his comments on social media, the producer called Demir and told him that “now he was blacklisted and should not expect any roles for any tv-shows for a few years”. It was a pure example of how the government was politically controlling the private companies in the culture industry. And it continued: The state sent inspectors to a cultural association and a theatrical company Demir was involved in, and imposed fines worth of dozens of thousands of dollars.
Still, he did not expect the post-coup attempt investigations to hit him. “Of course, I knew that the pressure over art would increase. We revised the texts of all our plays, replacing any political criticism explicitly citing a political figure by name with more obscure but still obvious formulations playing with the words.” Demir thinks that the repression of art from the state “was already there and will increase”, but the more dangerous notion in the post-coup attempt atmosphere is auto-censorship. “Let me tell you, all theatres are revising each and every play right now.”
But watering down the language of the plays was not enough for Demir, because the investigations hit him not through his cultural practice, but through his son. “It’s a blasphemy to cite our names along with the Gülenists. My son has fought against the ideas of AKP and the Gülen movement all through his life. I think, his inclusion might be the result of a search for vengeance over Taylan’s open letter which he wrote during the Gezi protests criticising Erdoğan and the government.”
I personally know Taylan’s character, and was sure he would stay strong in prison. When I asked Hamit Demir about his son’s situation, he said, “I have total confidence in him. But, to confess, when I read Aslı Erdoğan’s letter in the newspapers, I could not keep myself from doubting the health of my son.”
The price of supporting Kurdish rights
Aslı Erdoğan is an internationally well-known novelist. Same age as Hamit Demir, she graduated from the top university of Turkey, Boğaziçi University (like Taylan) as a computer engineer, worked at CERN as a particle physicist between 1991-1993, made her PHD in Rio de Janeiro and returned to Turkey in 1996 to start her career as a full-time writer.
The evening of 16 August 2016, police raided her house and detained the author. She was a columnist for the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, and was also a member of the symbolic Advisory Board of the paper. The accusation against her was “provoking the people” and “being member of an illegal organisation”, both, in Turkey, implications of being accused for supporting the national Kurdish movement’s struggle for ethnic, democratic and cultural rights.
Aslı Erdoğan’s arrest triggered a chain of protests from many literary associations, including Turkey’s Trade Union of Writers and PEN International. Hundreds of intellectuals signed a petition for her release, and several demonstrations were held protesting her arrest. On 24 August 2016, Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet published a letter from the author.
Erdoğan told about the inhumane conditions of her imprisonment: “I have health problems with my bowels for the last ten years. But they have not given me my drugs for five days. I am diabetic, thus I need a special food regime but can only eat yoghurt. The bed I have to sleep on was urinated upon. Though I have asthma, I was never let to the yard to get some fresh air. They treat me in a way that would result in permanent damages for my body. I could not have endured the circumstances if I did not resist unrelentingly.”
Resisting unrelentingly has a different connotation in the words of Hamit Demir. The actor, with his air of wisdom rooted in the millennia of cultural tradition of Mesopotamia sided with his long, white beard, mentions the example of the ancient lineage of dervishs – Sufi Musli ascetics known for deserting all ego and material self-interest to reach God.
“We have been here, at this point, forever, and still we are. They are the ones changing their positions and betraying each other. We shall not move an inch from our position, stand our positions like a dervish, as if we are standing in the center of the world and it would shatter into pieces if we move.”
POSTSCRIPT: Taylan Eren Yenilmez (in the middle with the blue shirt) was released and greeted by his friends and family on 1 September 2016, after the article was written. He will still stand trial, but is out of the prison. Aslı Erdoğan remains under arrest by the date of publication of the article.
Yiğit Günay is a journalist and art historian based in Istanbul. Former editor-in-chief of Turkish alternative newspaper soL and co-author of the book ‘Arab Spring Legerdemain’ published in Turkish in 2013, he does freelance journalism and is part of the MOKU collective.
Photo on top of this page: Kemal Kocatürk, a renowned actor, playwright and director, has been laid off from his job in the Istanbul City Theatre after the coup attempt in Turkey.
This article is part of a Freemuse INSIGHT series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in September 2016.