As publications are shut down and once-loyal film producers arrested, artists in Turkey are finding new ways to work under Erdoğan's governmentby Suna Erdem / September 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
As the Sun shimmered over the Bosphorus on a balmy Ramadan evening in June, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s President, stood in the garden of his Istanbul villa welcoming guests. Those shaking his hand included a veteran bottle-blonde pop star, an award-winning Kurdish left-wing folk singer and Hülya Avsar, a beauty queen-turned actress who stood beside the hijab-wearing Mrs Erdoğan in a strapless dress. The Erdoğans also exchanged warm words with the transgender singer Bülent Ersoy, whose extraordinary cheekbones make her resemble Morticia from the Addams Family.
Erdoğan is a devout Muslim who, during his 15 years in power, has become increasingly authoritarian—especially so since the attempted coup against him on 15th July 2016. That evening military officers tried to overthrow the elected government and replace it with a junta. But thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the revolt and calm was restored after only a few hours. Altogether 265 people were killed, and Erdoğan’s response was swift and severe. Thousands of soldiers were sacked and hundreds of journalists imprisoned. The country now lives in a state of uncertainty and fear.
So why would members of Turkey’s most liberal, cosmopolitan community—including someone who is transgender, not normally on the same page as Islamists—want to be seen with a man many see as on the path to dictatorship?
Oppression in Turkey is multi-layered and complicated—and so has been the response of artists. Across Turkey’s arts scene the reaction to Erdoğan and his ruling AKP party ranges from undying love, uneasy compromise, and outright rebellion to simply trying to keep your head down.
Erdoğan’s critics accused the Ramadan guests of cosying up to the president in pursuit of money and fame—or of cowardly self-preservation. In some cases that’s true, but not all. The Kurdish singer Yavuz Bingöl and transgender Ersoy have favourably compared Erdoğan’s troublesome rule with the time when the military controlled politics. Ersoy became an iconic figure when she transformed from a 1970s matinee idol to a nightclub queen in the late 1980s, via a sex change in London. Her exile was forced by the military, for whom she bears a severe hatred.