Cultural exchange amidst the culture wars | Music | DW | 14.06.2012
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Cultural exchange amidst the culture wars

Beaches, kebabs and ghetto blasters: That's the image of Turkey for many Germans. A panel discussion in Istanbul took up the issue of what cultural education can do to foster understanding between the two countries.

A newly founded German-Turkish university, three Goethe Institutes across the country, a selection of Turkish literature published by a German foundation - at first glance, it seems as though German-Turkish cultural cooperation is one long success story. The names of authors like Feridun Zaimoglu and Emine Sevgi Özdamar are well-known in Germany, as is filmmaker Fatih Akin, whose film "Crossing the Bridge" was financed in part with public cultural funds.

Deutsche Welle has also expanded its Turkish language program activities. And a DW project called "Beethoven ile buluşma - Encounters with Beethoven" includes workshops in Istanbul with Turkish cultural journalists and musicians.

A scene from Akin's film Crossing the Bridge

A scene from Akin's film "Crossing the Bridge"

What can cultural exchange achieve?

The big question is whether cultural cooperations of this sort can achieve what they intend. Can cultural education really help promote dialogue between peoples and encourage political integration? Which methods help along the way?

These issues formed the basis for a podium discussion at Bilgi University in Istanbul as part of DW's Encounters with Beethoven project. Taking part in the event: a former secretary general of the Goethe Institute, Joachim Sartorius; the director of the theater Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, Shermin Langhoff; conductor Cem Mansur as well as Cem Erciyes, a journalist with "Radikal," a Turkish daily. DW's Head of Program Projects Gero Schliess moderated the discussion.

Meeting face to face

The participants agreed on one thing: what cultural exchange should not accomplish. Offering support to established artists and musicians is only of use to the musicians themselves, said Cem Erciyes. Instead of awarding expensive, prestigious prizes, a better use of resources would be investing in exchange programs for young people, he added, praising the inclusion of Turkey in Europe's university exchange program, Erasmus. Erciyes stressed that personal contact with people from other cultures helps overcome prejudice.

Gero Schliess and Cem Mansur at the panel discussion

DW's Gero Schliess (l) and Cem Mansur (r) on the podium

Cem Mansur is at the helm of a similar project. His Turkish National Youth Philharmonic Orchestra is currently taking part in a German-Turkish workshop, which DW is sponsoring in Istanbul. For Mansur, it's not just about the musical training for the young musicians. For him, the values transmitted are the important thing: "In music, just as in democracy, it's about learning to be together."

Shermin Langhoff believes cultural policy can help break up stereotypes and limit persecution. The theater he pursues "is not about bringing Turkish folklore to Germany. Instead, it's about showing that the stories of Turkish immigrants are part of German culture." For German-Turkish relations, he believes it's important to focus on the similarities between the two countries. After all, the issues of immigration and internal migration play key roles in Turkey, too.

Culture wars in Turkey

Turkey's cultural scene faces much different obstacles than artists do in Germany. Sartorius described the turn away from Turkey's traditional Kemalist ideology as like removing a straitjacket, but not everyone in attendance agreed. Fears about budget cuts in the area of culture and limitations on artistic freedom were expressed from the audience and from the podium. Those fears have taken concrete form with the recent case of pianist and composer Fazil Say, whose Twitter messages seen as being critical of Islam have landed him in court. Others discussed concerns about planned cuts of theater financing.

Turkish born pianist Fazil Say performs during a concert at the Lucerne Festival Piano

Fazil Say's comments on Twitter have created a legal battle

Cem Erciyes summed the issue up as a cultural war that involves much more than the question of whether theaters must close. He sees one side's goal as limiting freedom in general. Erciyes would like to see reforms that guarantee freedoms while offering more financial support to cultural institutions.

It is clear that a joint cultural policy cannot solve these problems. But it can promote dialogue and reflection on the political developments that do take place.

Author: Claire Horst / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker

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