No longer a sad affair

June 11, 2013

The Turkish uprising in Istanbul and other cities presents an opportunity to struggle for long-sought cultural freedom, writes Alexander Billet.

IT'S HAPPENING again. Another country has been gripped by urban upheaval--both organized and relatively spontaneous--against austerity and degradation. Leaders and mainstream journalists wear faces of confusion. Those of us with our ears to the ground have known damn well that it wasn't going to just cease after the protests at Tahrir died down or the Occupy encampments were raided.

And so it is in Turkey. What started as a tent-city, Occupy-style encampment in late May in Istanbul's Taksim Square was viciously assaulted. The protests have gotten bigger, more emboldened in the face of police repression (nobody can accuse the cops of going easy on citizens; reports indicate that over 1,000 have been hospitalized). Street battles between thousands of protesters and the cops have been daily. On June 4 and 5, Turkey's public sector union went out on strike in support of the uprising.

Predictably, some have pointed in not-so-thinly veiled language at Turkey's ruling party being an Islamic one. But this certainly comes second to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) being a neoliberal party that has for the past 10 years embarked on schemes privatization and "urban renewal" (read: gentrification), with an ever-tightening and authoritarian grip on power. The country is also, of course, a major recipient of U.S. military aid.

Işıl Eğrikavuk
Işıl Eğrikavuk

Artists, activists and other working people have been well aware of what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's policies mean for them. The plans to gut and rebuild Taksim Square--including mowing down one of Istanbul's few remaining green spaces--were the subject of a performance art piece by local theatre artist Işıl Eğrikavuk this past September.

The play, Eğrikavuk told Mashallah News, "included Tahrir Square in order to compare it with Taksim Square." Now those references are proving to be prophetic. Perhaps this reveals why the AKP has such a penchant for repressing and censoring artists.

In mid-April--six weeks prior to these current uprisings--Turkish courts handed down a guilty verdict in the trial of composer and pianist Fazil Say for "insulting Islam." Say, who has been a long and vocal critic of Erdoğan's government, had tweeted out a quote from Persian poet Omar Khayyam criticizing religious hypocrisy. Though Say was given a suspended sentence, his was hardly the first case like it.

IN 2007, a similar case made headlines in alternative weeklies and 'zines this side of the pond--likely because of just how bizarre it was.

After the head of Turkey's OSYM (the state examination board) discovered a YouTube video of a 16-year-old singing a song called "OSYM, Kiss My Ass," the board pressed charges. The song's authors, a little-known punk band known as Deli (Turkish for "mad" or "crazy") had written it seven years prior. They faced up to 18 months in prison for "insulting a civil servant," even though the song had never even been performed in public!

It's one of those weird dramas that can't help but provoke sardonic chuckles from onlookers, Turkish and otherwise. And yet, it also cast a light on the wide gulf that has long existed between Turkey's alienated youth and its oversensitive (yet comfortable) ruling clique.

Much like the American SATs, OSYM tests are known for their torturous length and their favoritism toward the privileged--less than 20 percent of those who take them end up going to college anyway. The attitude of young folks toward the exam itself and the system generally might be roughly reflected in the lines from Deli's song: "I worked day and night / to pass the exam / What's changed now? / My future is unclear."

Meanwhile, Erdoğan has personally made hundreds of thousands of lira suing cartoonists, student theatre troupes, stand-up comics and others who have "insulted his character." The disconnect in opportunity is lost on nobody.

A glance at the list of other artists and musicians who have found themselves on the wrong end of the Turkish legal system reveals just who that system fears: Rappers protesting poverty and gentrification facing charges for "praising crime and criminals." Kurdish music groups serving 10-month jail sentences for "making propaganda for an illegal organization" (this refers in particular to the Kurdistan Workers' Party but also to just about any group advocating Kurdish self-determination). Music teachers who find themselves fired and banned from their profession for comments they made at a performance.

It hasn't been just artists going to prison obviously, but if a nation's freedom can be fairly reflected in the freedom of its artists, then one can imagine the dampening effect that these cases of artistic repression can have. For every publicized case of a musician, poet or painter thrown behind bars, there may be dozens of radicals or union activists not too far behind.

Supporters of the uprising are right to point out that the current protests are about much more than just a few trees at the center of Taksim Square. Still, there's an obvious significance for the occupations starting in Gezi Park--the green space that Erdoğan's urban plans had placed under the bulldozer's blade. The park has been a regular location for outdoor music festivals. This includes the annual Taksim Graffiti Festival, which sees taggers, bombers and MCs converge from all over Turkey.

What Erdoğan is looking to take from working people isn't just one of the few green spaces left in Istanbul, but a vital communal and cultural space. Nobody who lives in America's gentrifying cities, who has seen schools and community centers shut down in the name of "progress," can deny identifying with this.

There's a natural connection between the right to free and accessible culture and the right to live with dignity. One isn't possible without the other. That's a connection certainly being drawn by the thousands digging up cobblestones and building the barricades across Turkey's largest city.

It's a long and hard fight, as we are all getting to know quite well. But without it, then freedom of any kind will certainly remain, in the words of the great Turkish poet and communist Nazim Hikmet, no more than "a sad affair under the stars."

First published at Red Wedge Magazine.

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