- Afternoons in Asia Minor, Beyoglu at Night
This year marked the 15th International Istanbul Theatre Festival and the 4th International Theatre Olympics, brought together under the theme "beyond the borders." The Olympics were initiated in Athens in 1994 by a number of world theatre figures, including Theodoros Terzopoulos, Tadashi Suzuki, Robert Wilson, Heiner Müller, Nuria Espert, and Wole Soyinka. So, the current border-crossing reference—coupled with this year's theatrical representation from Europe, Russia, Japan, and the U.S.—amply serves to reinforce the organizational aim of recognizing the diversity and achievement of many cultures.
Though I had come to Istanbul for the arts events, it was an inescapable fact that besides aesthetic borders at this historic moment I would be confronted by more volatile cultural struggles across social, political, and religious lines. Certainly among the most explosive of current issues is the woman's headscarf, which is outlawed in government offices, Parliament, and universities. This highly sensitive subject moved to the forefront early on in my stay because of daily news reports concerning the recent assassination at the Council of State in Ankara of a Turkish judge who had refused to relax the rules on the wearing of headscarves. No sooner had I settled in the city in the latter part of May than I witnessed a demonstration by Turkish lawyers on Istiklal Caddesi, in the Beyoglu district near my hotel. A statement was read by the head of the Istanbul Bar who said, "I call on all people and institutions that are partly responsible for the attack to respect all the institutions of the republic and obey the judicial rulings." Based on my observation, it was also true that the vast majority of women walking day or night around lively Beyoglu, home to numerous restaurants, shops, galleries, theatres, foreign embassies, and cultural centers, were not wearing headscarves.
Not long after this disturbance, it was reported in the June 1, 2006 edition of The New Anatolian that the Turkish president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, and his wife refused to attend a recent dinner for the King and Queen of Sweden due to "their reluctance to sit at the [End Page 65] same table as the 'headscarved wives' of politicians." The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose AKP (Justice and Development Party) regularly undermines its own pledge to uphold the secular principles of the country and create a bridge between Turkey's more religious citizens and those identified as secularists, recently had created an incident in Berlin, publicly embarrassing the Turkish Ambassador over the complaints of Turkish women living in Germany concerning the inability to have their passport photos taken while wearing a headscarf. Pondering the complex emotions this issue elicits, which is difficult in so short a stay for an outsider to understand beyond its simple outlines, I was reminded that in the great drive toward secularization after the First World War Atatürk had outlawed the male custom of wearing the fez because of its reference to the old Ottoman Empire.
Far more worrisome than the headscarf issue for those secularists who want to see Turkey fully embraced by the European Union is the ongoing censorship and trials of Turkish writers, journalists, publishers, and scholars who referred to the post-World War I Armenian "genocide," whose million and a half deaths Turkey officially defines as the result of a "war" that followed the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, those who satirize politicians, disparage the military, and insult Atatürk's memory, can also be prosecuted under Article 301 of the new penal code. Last winter Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most well-known writer, was charged with "insulting Turkishness" for mentioning the Armenian massacre in an interview with a Swiss journalist. The charges were later dropped for the author who gave the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture sponsored by PEN and Cooper Union in New York last April. Pamuk's translator, Maureen Freely, in the New York Times Book Review of August 13, 2006, reminded readers that Nazim Hikmet, Turkey's great modern poet, died in exile, having spent much of his life in prison, and that "during the 70's...