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'Only A Dictator' play banned in parts of Turkey

Gezal Acer
January 28, 2018

Turkish actor Baris Atay plays a dictator in a one-man show that is intended to get audiences thinking. The play has been banned in several Turkish cities, but Atay remains defiant.

Atay during a performance of "Only A Dictator"
Image: Privat

After years of performing in the one-man show "Only A Dictator," Baris Atay has been banned from taking to the stage in several Turkish cities.

In Ankara, he was personally told not to perform. In addition, the governors of the northern Turkish cities of Artvin and Hopa have officially banned the play. As has Kadikoy, one of Istanbul's largest and most populous districts. It has been claimed that his play could be a threat to public order and security. 

Read more: Cartoonists in Turkey face growing government repression

The story of a dictator

"Only A Dictator" was written by Onur Orhan and is directed by Caner Erdem. Atay plays a dictator who struggles with an inner conflict. After the show, the audience is invited to form its own opinion on dictators. 

The play started its run three years ago. It was banned only recently in several cities. What happened? "Nothing really changed," Atay said.

Close-up of Atay during a performance of "Only A Dictator"
Atay said Turkey is divided between people who do what the government says and those who question itImage: Privat

The play alludes to Turkey's present government under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Supporters of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) took offense, expressing their anger on social media. Atay said he thinks the decision to ban the play shows how much pressure Turkey's government is willing to exert on critics.

Read more: Turkey 'terror propaganda' crackdown sees dozens arrested for social media comments

A political artist

Atay is known for his political activism and convictions. In 2015, he stated, "If there were a dictator, you wouldn't be watching this play."

When police prevented the play from being shown in Istanbul last week, Atay alluded to his 2015 statement, asking: "Do you accept that this ban means our president is a dictator?"

Atay has starred in several TV series and movies. He is a keen follower of societal developments, and is not shy to criticize the government. With almost 1 million followers on Twitter, he has considerable influence on social media.

"Turkey is divided: There are those who do whatever the government says and those who question it," Atay said, adding that the former are exerting pressure on those who have a more critical mindset. 

Sentenced for insulting Erdogan

His critical attitude means Atay is regularly arrested — even when he's not performing onstage.

Atay during a performance of "Only A Dictator"
Atay has been arrested for criticizing Erdogan in the pastImage: Privat

Last year, he was even taken to court after Erdogan and his son complained about an article titled "Hey, Erdogan" Atay had published in the newspaper Birgun. He was convicted of insulting the president and forced to pay a fine.

Under the AKP government, directors of state and city theaters were replaced. Many artists critical of the country's political leadership had their contracts terminated. Numerous artists who began expressing their discontent following the Gezi Park protests in 2013 lost their jobs or moved abroad. The state of emergency that was introduced after the failed coup d'etat in July 2016 compelled many to move to Europe. Atay, however, chose to stay. 

He said he believes that musicians, artists, theater directors, authors and other creative types need to work together to bring about change in Turkey. Otherwise, pressure on critics will keep increasing.

"If today we are already too fearful to say some things, we must realize that it will soon be impossible to say anything at all," Atay said. "This country will then no longer be one in which we can live."

Atay is adamant that he'll remain defiant and that he will find a way for people to see his performances.

"Just because some people are growing increasingly influential since coming to power and are putting this pressure on us, I will never leave the country that I love," Atay said. "I will keep fighting against leaders who undermine peace."