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PoliticsMiddle East

Turkey bans Kurdish-language play in Istanbul

Burcu Karakas
October 17, 2020

Bans on Kurdish cultural events or activities are not rare in Turkey. The outlawing of the Kurdish-language play "Beru" has been condemned as the latest attack on Kurdish culture.

Theater Vorhang
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Jens Wolf/

"It all happened very quickly," said Kurdish director Nazmi Karaman. The police suddenly appeared outside the theater and everyone was forced to leave, he said.

"The play has been performed in Turkey for three years now. The authorities never had a problem with it before, but suddenly they appear to have changed their mind," the director complained. Shortly before "Beru," which translates as "Faceless," was due to be performed for the first time in Istanbul's municipal theater, it was banned by the administrator of Istanbul's Gaziosmanpasa district for "disturbing public order."

The two-act play, due to be performed by the Kurdish theater group Teatra Jiyana Nu, is an adaptation of a satirical play by Italian writer Dario Fo. Almost 4,000 people had already seen the play performed in the last three years, both in Turkey and abroad, but it would have been the first Kurdish-language performance in the 106-year history of Istanbul's municipal theater. Director Nazmi Karaman believes that its staging would have sent an important signal to Turkish Kurds and Turkish society at large.

Read more: Turkey's Erdogan cracks down on pro-Kurdish politicians

Theater in Istanbul
The production Beru has already been performed 4,000 timesImage: privat

'The whole thing is like a tragicomedy'

Karaman regards the whole business surrounding the ban on Beru as something of a tragicomedy. "No matter whether it was in Diyarbakir, in Van or in Batman, it was customary to submit scripts to the police. They would come by, watch the performance and film the whole thing. Then they would issue a permit. There were never any problems."

Shortly before the authorities moved to ban the performance, Aydinlik, a newspaper close to the government, published an article entitled "From Istanbul city stage to PKK theater group” — for some, an obvious attempt to link the theater with the Kurdish militia PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization in Turkey and the EU. According to the director, the theater group had frequently received bad press, but had always ignored it.

Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya justified the ban by saying that it was necessary to scrutinize the play because there had been allegations that it contained "PKK propaganda." The mayor of Istanbul — Social Democrat Ekrem Imamoglu — on the other hand, expressed support for the theater group, writing: "Dario Fo’s play had already been performed in Turkish several times. Now it was being performed in Kurdish. What is the difference?" On social media, too, Karaman and the actors received numerous expressions of solidarity under the hashtag #KürtçeTiyatroEngellenemez (Kurdish theater cannot be stopped). 

Türkei Bürgermeister von Istambul Ekrem Imamoglu
Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu defended the theaterImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Pitarakis

Ozkan Kucuk, a member of Susma Platform, a pressure group fighting restrictions to freedom of expression in Turkey's culture, art and media, said Kurdish cultural and artistic activities are suppressed in many different ways. He told DW that over the last five years in particular, Kurdish cultural events had been subject to censorship more and more often. "The Kurdish language is being placed under systematic pressure. It is not just about the language. It is about the culture in its entirety. The banning of a play is happening now in the heart of Istanbul, but it is something that people experience constantly in the Kurdish regions," according to Kucuk.

Read more: The Middle East's complex Kurdish landscape

Beru is not a first

Kucuk recalled an incident when two musicians who sang in Kurdish at a wedding in the southeastern Anatolian city of Sanliurfa were arrested on suspicion of spreading "propaganda for a terrorist organization." This, he said, showed that things had now deteriorated to such an extent that a district administrator could even ban languages. The activist fears that Ankara is trying to stamp out the Kurdish language altogether.

There have been other examples of Kurdish cultural events being censored in recent years. In 2017, Istanbul Bilgi University banned an event entitled "The Kurdish Theater Conference from the past to the present," forcing the conference to change venue. It was subsequently held at Istanbul Bogazici University.

A year later, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) outlawed the show "Cevdet Gülbay ile Govend Show." The Turkish broadcaster Yasam TV was fined approximately €1,400 ($1,640) and forced to give up five of its slots after a complaint that one participant in the program had exchanged a few words of greeting in Kurdish and had used Kurdish song lyrics that had not been officially translated.

Theater in Istanbul | Özkan Küçük
Actor Apaydin says she has seen more and more intolerance of Kurdish cultureImage: privat

In 2018, the children's channel Zarok TV was also fined and subject to broadcasting sanctions because two songs that were broadcast in Kurdish were classed as "terrorist propaganda." Some musicians were fined in the same year because they had played Kurdish music in the street at a wedding in Izmir. Shortly after that, the public broadcasting company TRT banned 66 Kurdish songs. Then in 2019, the Kurdish Theater Festival was banned by the governor of Adana, who alleged it was a threat to public safety.

'I feel sorry for art and theater in general'

According to Rewsan Apaydin, one of the five actors in Beru, more and more intolerance is being manifested in Turkey towards the Kurdish language and Kurdish culture. But she is adamant: "Kurdish art and Kurdish theater cannot be stopped. We will always reach our audiences with our Kurdish plays."

Director Nazmi Karaman is keen to stress that the ban on Beru is not just something that affects him and his actors: "I feel sorry for art and theater in general." While Karaman dreams of a world in which theater and other art forms are not subject to any kind of censorship, he says that the many expressions of support and solidarity had made the situation easier to bear.

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