Meltem Arikan has been nominated for the Freedom of Expression Awards 2014 of the Index on CensorshipTM. This essay supports her nomination and describes what Meltem experienced in 2013, which goes far beyond traditional censorship. Abusive attacks on prominent performance artists, up to and including threats on Meltem's life, were to stifle dissent and artistic freedom in the entire Turkish arts community.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Meltem Arikan knows censorship. She experienced that in 2004. What she experienced in 2013 was far more culturally dangerous, rising to the level of intentional persecution and repression of dissent entirely. Censorship implies the rule of law is at least operational in a society. Meltem did not have the benefit of the rule of law in her native Turkey in 2013.
Meltem’s 4th novel, Yeter Tenimi Acıtmayın (Stop Hurting My Flesh), was banned in early 2004 by the Committee to Protect the Minors from Obscene Publications, with the accusation of “writing about the non-existing incest fact in Turkey, attempting to disturb the Turkish family order with a feminist approach.” The ban was lifted after a two-month legal process.
Subsequently, the Turkish Publishers’ Association awarded Arikan the “Freedom of Thought and Speech Award 2004.” That was back when the rule of law and modern civilization still held sway in Turkey. Differences of opinion surely existed, but at least one could take a dispute to court and seek a rational judgment.
What Playwright Meltem Arikan experienced in 2013 was far worse. She has had to leave her home country to save her life, because politicians stirred up a psychic epidemic, a witch-hunt, against her and the main creative team of her play, Mi Minör. What ensued was much more than the persecution of an individual writer, resulting in her choosing to leave her country to save her life. It stifled dissent, especially artistic dissent, throughout Turkey.
It is justice and the rule of law that Turkey has lost since 2004, when Meltem battled her country’s censors. If the issue is only censorship, at least rational and educated people can ultimately make the right decision. Even a loss along the way can ultimately lead to a better society. But Turkish politicians now resort to the logic of the mob to serve as their censors. As Dr. King also famously said,
“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Regrettably, the arc of history in Turkey has been bent backward, toward a stifled society. Such societies can become more and more repressive for a time, as the 20th and 21st centuries have clearly shown, but ultimately they fail, as Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (“USSR”) proved on a grand scale.
It is the role of artists to challenge the status quo, knowing that only by breaking old intransigent attitudes can new attitudes emerge to improve life for all. Meltem Arikan’s play Mi Minör accomplished that with creativity, spontaneity from her audience, and joy. It included the audience in music and dancing, letting the audience experience their interactions with their own attitudes, and thereby forging changes in perspective.
I will first give you a sense of the story of her play, and then describe what happened to strip Meltem of her rights. Mi Minör is set in a dystopian society, with many ham handed regulations, none of which are actually regulations of an existing government, at least not to my knowledge. Meltem and her collaborators had fun developing somewhat whimsical and nonsensical regulations, from banning the treble keys on all pianos, the source of the play’s name, to forbidding women to eat ice cream cones.
The venue for the play is comparable to an ice hockey rink or other indoor sports arena. When the audience arrives for the play, they learn that they are to be the citizens of a fictitious country, based on the mathematical function Pi (π). The fictitious country of Pinima has a population of 3,142,857, an area of 314.285 km2, and national borders in constant change, with the Pinish language spoken by most. Its elevation is 3.14 meters above sea level. The audience has the option of sitting in the bleachers or participating in the action on the floor of the arena, which becomes “Pinima Square.”
The government of the country is a “deMOCKracy.” But there is little justice present. One of the two lead characters, The President, makes all the decisions, which means he never sleeps. He runs for office under the imprimatur of both major parties. There are no other candidates allowed, even for the cosmetic purposes we have them in the United States, and he siphons the wealth of the country away in hollowed out gourds, the country’s major agricultural export.
Mi Minör has a unique and innovative extra feature in that every performance becomes a global social networking adventure. The audience is invited to bring and use cameras, smart phones, notebooks, and laptops, and Wi-Fi is provided to the house. The play sports a live twitter feed under the rubric #MiMinor, which is projected on the wall of the arena.
The problem arises in Pinima when The Pianist, a lowly street pianist, who is the other lead actor, is stopped from her Pinima Square performance, and police tape is put over the treble keys of her piano, because, she is told, they sound too much like a woman screaming. The Pianist gets more and more angry, as various rights are taken away, until she begins to promote demonstrations against the government’s edicts. She broadcasts all of the events in Pinima Square to everyone in the world through her smart phone using Ustream™. Digital actors, the audience, and anyone in the world with access to Twitter™ or Facebook™ can interact with the live performance.
Over the 25-performance run of Mi Minör, more than 10,000 people attended the live venue in Istanbul, from December 1, 2012 to April 14, 2013. Even more remarkable, more than 17,000 people from 27 countries as far away as Mongolia participated in one or more of the performances live. The play was frequently “TT” (“top Tweet”) in Turkey during its performance, including during its premier, and it even reached the top 10 of global Tweets for one remarkable 15 second period.
The two lead actors were interviewed many times on Turkish television, including CNNTurk, in long comprehensive conversations. Nothing was hidden from the authorities. No one complained. Permissions were taken from the governorships of each of the three venues where the play was performed.
It was only after the play closed that the witch-hunt began.
About May 28, 2013, a peaceful demonstration began to save the few remaining trees in downtown Istanbul at Gezi Park, adjacent to Taksim Square. The government over reacted, with violent repression of the demonstrators. Meltem attended some of this demonstration as a private citizen, but was not one of its organizers. As the situation escalated over the next few days, more violence was used, and the world community began to bring pressure on the government to calm things down.
That’s when the government used the “oldest trick in the book,” diverting attention from their growing embarrassment before the world community. As part of a concentrated propaganda campaign beginning June 1, 2013 several officials and their political party functionaries denounced Meltem Arikan, blaming her and members of the creative team for causing the Gezi Park demonstrations.
They asserted Mi Minör was intended by Meltem Arikan and members of the main creative team as a rehearsal for the Gezi Park demonstrations, and amounted to an attempted coup d’état against the Government of Turkey. This allegation was preposterous to anyone who attended the play or followed the bloodshed and violence perpetrated by the Turkish authorities, but tens of thousands of people at various government rallies and in television audiences knew no better than the narrative of the authorities. Because of the attacks on a popular play like Mi Minör, the attacks had a chilling effect on the entire arts community.
Throughout this period there were negative social network hash tag campaigns, and threats to Meltem’s life and to the lives of the main creative team began to emerge from the general public, with emotions instigated by all of these artifices. All of them felt they had to leave the country for their own security.
The result of these events is that artistic expression has been severely repressed in Turkey as a whole. What should we call it? Was it censorship of the entire artistic community of Turkey, in effect? Or is it persecution and repression by the functionaries of a sitting government?
I will be the first to acknowledge that we have bully politicians in the United States too. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is a case in point in our current political cycle. But, in his case, the United States Attorney is investigating allegations of abuse of power, and he may find his way to jail. God knows several of the recent governors of our State of Illinois are sharing prison meals for their misconduct in office, and on January 21, 2014, former Governor Bob McDonald of Virginia and his wife were indicted for accepting bribes. Who will set things right in Turkey and return the rule of law? Even censorship by a legally appointed authority would be better than living in a country where injustice prevails, and the government maintains its power by the rule of the mob.
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