Theater Ensemble Targeted in Turkey for Kurdish Performances; Accused of “Terrorism Propaganda”

ŞANLIURFA, Turkey — What gets a 40-year-old Italian comedy about a cosmetic surgery mishap banned from the stage? Performing the play in Kurdish in Turkey, a theater troupe discovered.

Police raided a municipal theater in Istanbul last autumn, just hours before Teatra Jiyana Nû, the city’s oldest Kurdish-language ensemble, was to stage Nobel Prize-winning Dario Fo’s 1981 farce Trumpets and Raspberries. Officers accused the actors of threatening public order.

Another performance was halted in the city of Şanlıurfa in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast in November, and Teatra Jiyana Nû canceled the rest of the run, anticipating more bans.

“The government views us as political because we believe that the almost 20 million Kurds living in Turkey have the right to experience theater in their own language,” said actor Cihad Ekinci, who plays a surgeon in the adaption called Bêrû (Faceless in Kurdish).

In a country where Turkish is the only official language, speaking Kurdish is sometimes seen as an act of rebellion. Teatra Jiyana Nû, or New Life Theater, has struggled to find stages to perform its repertoire, which includes original works and classics by Bertolt Brecht and Neil Simon. Though cast members have been detained and faced police intimidation outside venues, it has managed to perform Bêrû in a handful of Turkish cities, as well as at festivals in Russia and Germany, since 2017.

“This was the first time Kurdish theater was given space in the repertory of the City Theaters — an official, public institution — and that is what provoked this reaction,” Ekinci told Hyperallergic.

Bêrû poster (courtesy Teatra Jiyana Nû)

Authorities insist that theater in Kurdish is permissible if it avoids “terrorist propaganda,” and vowed to investigate whether Teatra Jiyana Nû acted as a mouthpiece for the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But the play — a lighthearted critique of capitalism written before the PKK even existed — has been staged in Turkish at public theaters. The company denies links with the outlawed group, which has waged a 36-year insurgency at the cost of 40,000 lives.

Teatra Jiyana Nû’s travails are part of a broader crackdown that has not spared the culture community since a peace process with the militants collapsed in 2015; Erdoğan fended off a military coup the following year and pivoted to a strident strain of nationalism.

Writers, actors, and scholars are among the tens of thousands of people in jail as a result. Osman Kavala, a prominent arts benefactor who supported dialogue between Kurds and Turks, has been incarcerated for more than three years without a conviction.

“Anti-democratic measures once used solely against Kurds now affect almost every part of Turkish society,” Ekinci said.

Yet Kurds have borne the brunt of the government’s ire. Kurdish-language newspapers, broadcasters, even a children’s cartoon network have been banned. Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan now lives in exile after nearly three years in jail for painting scenes of military operations against the PKK.

Thousands of Kurdish activists have been imprisoned, including politician Selahattin Demirtaş, the former leader of Turkey’s second-biggest opposition party. Almost every mayor elected from his party has been replaced with a state-appointed trustee, and their city theaters have all been shuttered.

Speaking Kurdish has long been perilous in Turkey, where the language — the mother tongue of as many as 40 million people worldwide — was illegal until 1991. Four Kurdish lawmakers were jailed for a decade after taking their oath of office in Kurdish that year.

In the ensuing decades, restrictions eased, and Erdoğan expanded some rights for Turkey’s largest minority to woo Kurdish voters. He launched a state TV channel in 2009 that continues to broadcast in Kurdish.

Yet Kurdish language and literature programs at universities have been stymied, and independent schools banned, including Istanbul’s influential Kurdish Institute, which taught thousands after opening in 1992.

Teatra Jiyana Nû’s performance of Bêrû

The institute’s founder, Musa Anter, is credited as Turkey’s first Kurdish-language playwright with 1965’s Birîna Reş (Black Wound), initially performed secretly in basements. Anter was assassinated in 1992 at the age of 72 by unidentified gunmen.

“The Kurdish issue is a state security policy, and since our language is part of the issue, it too is under pressure,” said linguist Zana Farqini, who ran the Kurdish Institute, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Turkey tells the world Kurdish isn’t banned, but in truth the state has been largely successful in making Kurdish invisible again, [and] Kurds have withdrawn into their shells, afraid to explore their culture.”

This has deprived a generation of art in parts of the country where Kurdish is the primary language, Mevlüt Güneş, a lawyer in Şanlıurfa, told Hyperallergic. There, most Kurds over the age of 40 did not complete enough schooling to master Turkish, and many are illiterate, he said.

“For them, communication is spoken or visual. You can put my mother in a room full of books, and she won’t understand a thing. Theater is one of the few ways she can access culture,” he said.

Bêrû was supposed to provide lawyers with comic relief during the coronavirus pandemic, but police arrived at Güneş’ bar association with a summons saying the actors were under investigation for belonging to a terrorist organization, and the show could not go on.

It is unclear when the ensemble will take the stage; besides the looming terrorism probe, theaters across Turkey closed in December as COVID-19 cases peaked.

But it’s not lights out for Teatra Jiyana Nû, which is working on a new play based on the real-life arrest of a cast member when he stepped into the wings during a performance in the 1990s. The comedy of errors includes the other actors’ attempts to prolong the epic to avoid their own arrest.

“The finale may not be very funny, but it will offer hope. This is Kurds’ story: There is comedy in our tragedy,” Ekinci said.

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