“I've been looking forward to this trial as a runner looks forward to a race he can win,” says Genco Erkal, as Socrates did in the play “Barefoot in Athens.” It is the scene when the philosopher learns that he is charged with impiety against the gods of Athens, and the corruption of the youth of the city-state through his “conversations” with his students.
Like millions of Turks, I watched the great thespian on stage for the last 40 years as he incarnated Socrates or Galileo, or poets Nazım Hikmet and Can Yücel on stage. With dark, protruding eyes, a slight, bent figure, and a grave voice, he became intertwined with these figures of conviction and defiance. When I saw him on stage for “I Bertolt Brecht” a few years ago, he was still tireless and in complete command of the stage as he climbed a mountain of chairs, ranting about poverty and injustice. I have yet to see him on stage for his latest play, “On Living,” in which he recites Nazım Hikmet’s free-verse manual on life: “Let's say we're in prison and close to fifty/and we have eighteen more years, say /before the iron doors will open./We'll still live with the outside,/with its people and animals, struggle and wind.”
Earlier this month, Erkal joined the long list of actors who have been charged with insulting the President. The octogenarian actor defended himself against the charges on years-old social media posts by saying, “It was not my intention to insult anyone. My job is political theater and I have been doing that for 60 years. What I do is to criticize what I see wrong, on stage or on social media.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt and the 2019 local elections, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost two key cities, Ankara and Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stepped up his crackdown against critics through arbitrary detentions and court cases - if necessary, by digging into the social media timeline of dissident voices. News of journalists, politicians, or actors facing detention for some old tweet is no longer surprising or exceptional. Nor does it seem to matter that the post or a tweet is a well-known quote or an image used by all newspapers. At times, it is a prosecutor who “remembers” that tweet or that post on Instagram, at times it is a “responsible citizen” (read troll).
In the case of Erkal, a “citizen” made the complaint about the actor’s tweets that criticized the victory marches following the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016. Other tweets, from 2016 and 2020, were on the actor’s objections to the presidential system. “I was not expecting to have an inquiry against me, but others had told me to be careful, that something would happen,” Erkal said.
This Macbethian “pricking of my thumbs” was also expressed by Müjdat Gezen, another octogenarian actor whose words to the president took him to court. “I am constantly in touch with my lawyer,” Gezen admitted on a talk show broadcasted by HalkTV in December 2018. “Before I appear in any show, I go through with my lawyer of everything I will say, and he tells me if I risk anything. The problem is that he does not know full well what could happen either, he merely says ‘normally’ it should be OK.”
But it wasn’t. Angered that the President had accused the residents of Istanbul’s several districts that voted for the opposition “of not caring whether Turkey burnt or soared,” Gezen said, “You cannot question our patriotism.” Then he flung back to the President one of his favorite political expressions, “Know your place.” He was immediately slapped with a court case.
So was Metin Akpınar, the other participant of the talk show. Akpınar is known for (and untouched for) his political parodies that mocked the military rule and censorship of the 1980s. “Maybe political leaders could be hung from their feet or poisoned in cellars” if Turkey’s democratization process couldn’t be achieved peacefully, Akpınar said. It sounds very close to the lines of a play written by another actor/director of the same generation, Ferhan Şensoy, entitled “They Shoot the Shahs, don’t they?”
Both Gezen and Akpınar were acquitted of charges earlier this month when İstanbul’s 8th Penal Court of First Instance concluded that the remarks carried no damage to “a person's honor, dignity, and reputation.” But instead of putting the case to rest, the president’s attorneys appealed the decision. Insulting the president is punishable with up to four years of imprisonment and the law is used as a Damocles’ sword over artists, politicians, journalists, and even schoolchildren.
The laundry list of actors, artists, and musicians who have faced the wrath of the President and his cronies is a long one: Levent Kırca, a satirist of the same generation as Akpınar, spent his last years before death in 2015 in one trial after the other for his political skits; Zuhal Olcay, best described as Turkey’s Catherine Deneuve, faced trial for using the name of the president in a parody song (“Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, all is empty, all is yarn,” she sang in that misty voice of hers). Young dramatists, who have been outspoken during the 2013 Gezi protests, have been removed from their posts and/or were forced to flee the country.
President Erdoğan often laments that culture is one of the areas where AKP has failed to make an impact. Like all the areas where the president feels challenged, his response lies in sharp polarization: financing, praising, and promoting those on his side and intimidating and excluding those he perceives as dissidents. Political plays are closed down, theaters (like Erkal’s Dostlar Tiyatrosu, founded in 1969) are deprived of funds; contracts are denied, doors of state TV and pro-government TV channels slammed down.
A few of the critics, such as award-winning actor Haluk Bilginer and composer Fazıl Say seem to duck of from the President’s wrath through the sheer genius of their work and perhaps through luck. Unsurprisingly, it was Say who called on the cultural sector to stand by Erkal, particularly the young “stars.” “He is taking a hit because he is standing up for all of us,” he said. It is worth seeing who in the new generation of actors will stand in solidarity with Erkal and the icons of theater at the risk of losing jobs. So far, I have seen scathingly few.