Sunday, February 14, 2010

Turkish Playwright, Vakit, and AKP Mayor Get Press in Middle America

PHOTO from The Plain Dealer

Controversal Turkish playwright Ozen Yula is the subject of an article this week in The Cleveland Plain Dealer by Tony Brown, which documents harsh criticism Yula and his colleagues received from the Islamic conservative newspaper Vakit. Yula is the writer of "Yala Ama Yutma" ("Lick, But Don't Swallow"), a play that has dawn scorn from some conservatives alleging it to be pornographic.

Criticisms from the Islamist newspaper Vakit have proved the most worrisome for Yula, which according to The Plain Dealer, accused the play of "smearing dirt on human angels." I cannot find the article on Vakit's website, and so am assuming the article in question was removed from the site as a result of the kinds of violent responses it elicited. Radikal features a few of the violent comments (in Turkish), including open-ended questions as to what kind of punishment should be wielded, where it should take place, and who should be assigned to do it. Additionally, the AKP mayor of Beyoglu, Ahmet Misbah Demircan, shut down the play, though the mayor's office has since allowed to open the production; however, as a result of the Vakit criticism, the play has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. Demircan cited safety concerns, including the theatre's did not have a fire escape. As The Plain Dealer points out, this might well have been a reference to the Madimak Hotel in Sivas, where reactionaries burned alive 37 people, mostly Alevis. From The Plain Dealer:
Ozen Yula, a leading Turkish playwright who is spending most of 2010 working and teaching in Cleveland, got an unwelcome invitation earlier this month.

It was an invitation to join a list of people who wound up dead, hunted or silenced after being condemned in Vakit, Istanbul's most widely followed Islamic-fundamentalist newspaper.

Yula earned that distinction as the author of a comedy that was scheduled to open Monday at the Kumbaraci50 theater in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, one of the world's largest cities.

In the play, an angel gets sent back to Earth to do good works in the body of a pornographic movie actress.

Or maybe the play is about a porn star who dreams she's an angel. Like many serious comedies, it's ambiguous.

But ambiguity is not something Islamic fundamentalists tend to appreciate. Which makes life in Turkey -- already complicated -- even more so. Founded in 1923, Turkey is struggling to find its identity as a secular, Western-style democracy with a centuries-long history as part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

On Feb. 2, Vakit (Turkish for "Time") condemned Yula and his play -- provocatively titled "Lick but Don't Swallow" -- for "smearing human dirt on angels," according to one translation of the newspaper's online Turkish text.

That kind of accusation of blasphemy can get a person killed, or at least hunted, as a similar condemnation did in 1989 for Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a "fatwa" -- or Islamic ruling -- calling for Rushdie's death after the publication of "The Satanic Verses," in which a film star becomes the archangel Gabriel, who then describes Islam's founder Muhammad as balding, bespectacled and suffering from dandruff.

After years of running and hiding, Rushdie still receives what he has been quoted as calling a "sort of Valentine's card" from Iran each year on Feb. 14 to remind him his life is still in danger, though Rushdie now dismisses the threat.

Dutch movie director Theodoor van Gogh was not so lucky; he was assassinated by a fundamentalist for his portrayal of the treatment of women in Islam in the film "Submission."

Likewise, the attack on Yula's play is being seen by secularists as a deliberate attempt to whip up militant furor over the play and anybody connected with it. That includes actress Ayca Damgaci, famous for writing and performing in the autobiographical film "My Marlon and Brando," about her dangerous romance with a Kurd, a member of a minority ethnic group in eastern Turkey.

Deliberate or not, the Vakit story has touched off a sensation.

The mayor of Beyoglu, a member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party -- which favors restoring some Islamic practices but claims not to be fundamentalist -- shut down the venue where the play was supposed to premiere Monday.

The mayor, Ahmet Misbah Demircan, has allowed the theater to reopen, but a threat of violence lingers, and members of the creative team are so rattled that the play is not likely to be seen in Istanbul until March, if at all.
Surely this is not the kind of comparison that the government of Turkey is keen to see printed in a newspaper from Middle America, and it certainly goes against the grain of the carefully crafted image of "moderate Islam" the AKP has promoted in the West. The paper goes onto question Prime Minister Erdogan's contention that the AKP is "is not a political party with a religious axis." Here, it is important to note that the AKP and Vakit are two very different forces in Turkish society, and that the latter is much harder-edged and associated with Islamist movements and parties far to the right o the AKP. Yet, Demircan's decision and reference to Madimak brings the AKP into The Plain Dealer's story. Ozen is living in Cleveland for the year.


Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

I watched some TV footage concerning this controversy. The Madimak reference doesn't/didn't seem like an appropriate thing to infer from what Demircan said to the reporter on the program I watched. To me it seemed more like the municipality felt the need to find an excuse to shut down the venue, and that particular code violation just happened to be convenient. It'd be insane for an AKP mayor to imply a Madimak-like fate might befall that theater group.

OK, a bit more history that the Turkish press should have provided. In 1987 a theater (San Tiyatrosu) burned down [due to suspected arson]. Same story with 'insulting religion.' Anyway, I dug up some new claims about how exactly that theater burned down here. You hear the claim there over and over when such things happen: things like that happen because they are deliberately allowed to happen. (I did see that play, BTW. It was called "muzir muzikal" ('muzir nesriyat' was the term Ozal's gov't used at the time to pass the law that got girlie magazines into opaque plastic bags). The dialogues included heavy duty swearing mixed with real verses from the Koran and made-up Arabic (this is a common trick here to put down the pious if not religion itself). Of course there was a lawsuit too using the version of insulting this or that in force at the time and I believe it produced some jail time.)

As for Vakit, yes it is not the same 'force' as the AKP but other than that it is hard to understand who exactly is pulling its strings and why. Its involvement in inciting violence might seem obvious but even that is misleading at times. (One obvious case is the murder of the Danistay judge in 2006 and it is misrepresented in the Cleaveland piece you've quoted. Yes, Vakit did have provocative coverage about a controversial decision of that court along with pictures of the judges but the profile of the murderer doesn't quite fit the 'Islamist' image.)

Overall, I am amazed that Turkish people actually say the things they do when talking to the US press. In what sense were we "more Arabic than Turkish" in the days of the Ottoman Empire? Script? Borders? Why would a US reporter relay a completely discredited account of the Danistay shooting unless a Turk fed it to him? I can understand people retained by think-tanks doing this, but these folks appear to be regular people.

I'll try to find the footage where Demircan spoke and if I do you'll judge for yourself.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Here you go: mayor Demircan on NTV. I watched it again. Your Turkish is probably good enough to get both the tone and the content. Who in his right mind would get a Madimak-like threat out of this?

Ragan Updegraff said...

Thanks, Bulent -- for the comments on the purported Madimak reference, and the media link. It does make you wonder how this American reporter linked the comments to Madimak, and you are probably right in assuming they were fed to him. Keep the Turkish sources coming. I am still limited in terms of how much I can tackle in Turkish, and so digging through Turkish-language news, given my limited language skills and lack of time, is still quite a daunting task. I very much appreciate being pointed to Turkish-language sources relevant to things I post.