Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

In Turkey, a TV talent show reflects a national awakening

Kurdistan isn't officially a country, but it does have a reality talent show, replete with a trio of judges, a perky presenter and a wide range of talent, Piotr Zalewski writes
Vedat Demir impressed the judges with his rendition of a ballad based on a 400-year-old Turkish poem. The performance prompted audience members to sing along and flash supportive victory signs.
Vedat Demir impressed the judges with his rendition of a ballad based on a 400-year-old Turkish poem. The performance prompted audience members to sing along and flash supportive victory signs.
To anyone acquainted with the semantics of televised talent shows, the setup on Min Ciyawazim is predictable, run of the mill stuff. A recipe mixing good looks, talent and age yields a familiar trio of judges: the doe-eyed starlet; the young-yet-accomplished pop singer; and the greying maestro. The stage is dramatically lit, the show's logo prominent, the LED screens immense and the presenters inevitably peppy and cute.

If the United States has its American Idol, France its Nouvelle Star, and if Britain's Got Talent, then Min Ciyawazim is the glittery entertainment extravaganza of choice across Kurdistan. The formula may be roughly the same the world over, but with one exception - that Kurdistan, unlike America, the UK or France, does not exist.

Dispersed by war, internecine conflict and linguistic differences, the Kurds are the world's biggest nation without a state. About 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, roughly six million more in Iraq, up to seven million in Iran, and more than two million in Syria. The past century has not been kind to them - anywhere. The dream of a Kurdish homeland, briefly rekindled by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, gave way instead to assimilation campaigns, rebellions, wars, subjugation, repression and the denial of cultural and language rights.

In the past few years, however, the Kurds have begun taking their revenge on history. In Syria, where Bashar Al Assad's government has lost control across a number of provinces, they appear on the brink of self-rule. A powerful Kurdish militia based in the country's north-east recently announced plans to establish a "national people's assembly" and declare partial autonomy. In northern Iraq, where they sit atop geysers of oil, gas and cash, the Kurds have already managed to forge a secure, prosperous quasi-state, the envy of the country's smouldering south. And in Turkey, peace talks with rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) look set to deliver some measure of autonomy for the Kurdish majority in the south-east after a 30-year campaign that has left more than 40,000 dead and millions displaced. The idea of a "Greater Kurdistan", reuniting Kurdish areas across the region, might still be a pipe dream. But for the 30 million or so Kurds of the Middle East, the notion of unity across borders is fast gaining ground.

It's a phenomenon that hasn't been lost on the makers of Min Ciyawazim. Until recently, the show had been taped and produced in northern Iraq, also known as Iraqi Kurdistan, where it first aired in 2009. During the 2012-2013 season, however, its makers decided to turn Min Ciyawazim into a pan-Kurdish affair.

"We wanted to bring together all Kurdish dialects and all four Kurdish regions, and to broadcast to all Kurds," Abdurrahman Macit, the show's 35-year-old co-producer, told me before the day's shooting began. The early rounds had taken place across Iraq and Turkey but also yielded Kurdish contestants from Iran and Syria. The semifinals, where I had met Macit, were being held in Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city. On paper, that made some sense: over the past decade, the Turkish government of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has granted the Kurds some cultural autonomy, allowing the use of Kurdish in the courts, launching a Kurdish TV channel, and introducing elective Kurdish courses in schools. The recent peace talks with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, were expected to give the Kurds yet more rights. Even so, in a country that long denied the Kurds' very existence and banned the use of their language well into the 1990s, the public staging of a show such asMin Ciyawazim, conducted entirely in Kurdish and loaded with political overtones, came as a shock.

The audience consisted of Kurdish women in Islamic headscarves, rows of youngsters who intermittently broke into a rowdy halay, a traditional line dance, and dozens of mustachioed men who looked as if they had just stepped out of the corner tea shop. As the show began to get underway, I turned to my neighbour, Ali, a middle-aged man who had been plying me and a friend with paper cups brimming with hot tea, to ask if he spoke Kurdish. He did, he said, but only haltingly. To make sure, I asked whether he was himself Kurdish. Ali's goatee widened and crept up his chin as he smiled. "I am assimilated," he answered. Seconds later, I asked Ali if he knew the translation of "Min Ciyawazim", which is Kurdish. He hesitated. "It means, 'I'm psyched'" he said. Macit, sitting in front of us, shook his head dismissively. "Not at all," he said. "It means 'I'm different'."

Most of the acts were forgettable: two men, a drum, a saz and plenty of winding songs about broken hearts. The jurors, though often less than impressed, tried to play nice. An Iranian contestant whose only talent turned out to be an ability to write with both hands - a black marker in each, he spent 10 gruelling, awkward and painfully silent minutes dotting a whiteboard with tiny letters - received a few friendly words and a lukewarm round of applause. There was no room for abrasive criticism or meanness at Min Ciyawazim, Rumet Serhat, the show's commercial consultant, told me during one of the breaks. "It's not part of our culture."

Rumet Serhat had only been working with Min Ciyawazim for a few months, he said, but he had already had his share of frustrations - not with the show itself but with the political controversy, real or imagined, that followed it. Finding a location for the Istanbul show had been a nightmare, he said. Rumet and his team had contacted a number of Turkish universities to ask whether they could stage the show in one of their auditoriums. "Most of them rejected us outright," he said. Another college board agreed in principle, he said, only for its president to axe the idea at the very last minute. In the end, Min Ciyawazim struck a deal with a high school in Bahçelievler, kilometres away from the city centre, in an improbably large auditorium in which we were seated. The agreement nearly fell apart once the school authorities realised exactly what they were in for. "They were in a cold sweat, in shock when they saw it was in Kurdish. They wanted to back out," Rumet said, laughing. "But later they received us as human beings."

The Kurdish factor also scared off potential sponsors. Most Turkish businesses simply refused to give Min Ciyawazim the time of day, said Rumet. In recent years, fast on the heels of booming business and trade contracts, most of Turkey's major air carriers have launched connections to Iraqi Kurdistan, the home of Min Ciyawazim's makers. But, said Rumet, "none of them even wanted to meet with us". With the exception of a few businesses, each of them run by Kurds, he added, "there isn't a single Turkish company sponsoring us." The show's main patron, its logo displayed on screens on both sides of the stage, was a Kurdish construction company based in northern Iraq.

As we spoke, the lights dimmed. A skinny young man, wearing face powder and rouge, a pusi, grey shirt and loose black trousers, glided onto the stage. His name was Bilal Kaga, he said, he was 22, lived in Istanbul but came from Batman, a grim city two hours north of the Syrian border, and he was going to treat the audience to something they'd probably never seen in their lives - stand-up comedy, in Kurdish.

He began with a round of swipes at a former Turkish prime minister, Tansu Çiller. Çiller, he joked, had just sent the producers of Min Ciyawazim a letter to apologise for the thousands of disappearances, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings of Kurds perpetrated by Turkish security forces under her watch. Çiller, who governed from 1993-96, was said to have set up a hit squad tasked with killing PKK members, as well as their sympathisers and financial backers. "Those who shoot for the state are as respectable as those who get shot for it," she once remarked, defending a state-contracted killer. "May I be blinded for my crimes, may my head fall, and may I not see tomorrow's light of day!" Kaga cried, mimicking a penitent Çiller. For Rumet, the joke struck close to home. In the 1990s, he told me, his father, a prominent Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist, had worked pro bono on a number of cases featuring teenagers suspected of involvement with the PKK. He had also defended Kurdish businessmen linked to the drugs trade. On a Friday night in November 1994, he and his wife were driving through Erenköy, a neighbourhood on Istanbul's Asian side, when a car cut them off. A man bearing an Uzi submachine gun stepped out, and opened fire. Rumet's mother took 14 bullets, but survived. His father did not. The gunman was never found.

Kaga moved on to his next target, a recent minister of the interior and one of the AKP's more hardline politicians, Idris Naim Sahin.

In late December 2011, Turkish army jets pounded what appeared to be a column of PKK fighters close to the Iraqi border, killing 34 men. Within hours of the attack, it became clear that the victims, some of them as young as 13, were local villagers smuggling fuel into Turkey. Sahin, given a chance to diffuse tensions and apologise for the botched air raid, instead branded the dead villagers common criminals and PKK "extras".

In Kurdish country, he had become a hate figure par excellence.

Kaga would now see to it that he got his comeuppance.

"I came across Idris Naim Sahin once," he said. "I asked him, what are all these policies of yours, what are you trying to achieve, to what good?" Sahin, he said, grew nervous.

"Bilal, B-B-Bilal, I really love Kurdish people," Kaga's fictional Sahin stuttered. "What did you say Idris?!" Kaga thundered. "In the name of God, say it again."

Back in April 2012 in Erzurum, an eastern town, a 60-year-old man had approached the cortege of officials and bodyguards assembled around a visiting Sahin in order to tell his minister how much he loved him. "Prove it," Sahin had ordered him, grinning. "Do a somersault for me." The man, dumbfounded but keen to comply, began to skip, hop and dance clumsily around Sahin to the beat of a drum, huffing and puffing inside his jacket and felt cap. The minister had a good laugh. Most Turks, who saw the incident on TV, did not.

With the episode firmly embedded in public memory, there was only one thing that Kaga could say once the fictional Sahin began to plead with him for forgiveness. "Bilal, how can I make you believe me?" Sahin begged. "Do a somersault!" Kaga shouted. The crowd roared. Comedy, in a flash, had become catharsis.

Kaga took his leave, giving way to Vedat Demir, yet another singer, armed with yet another saz. If stand-up had been a trip into uncharted territory, this was to be a return to familiar turf. Demir, 24, shuffled onto the stage dressed in jeans, looking as if he had just stepped off the Metro, sat down, strummed a few chords, opened his mouth and - in three or four seconds - bowled the crowd over.

To do justice to the ballads that Demir had chosen to sing, including a song based on a 400-year old Kurdish poem, you needed a voice that was just as deep, resounding and pained as it was graceful. The voice that forced its way out of Demir's throat and reverberated across the hall was all those things. That it belonged to a 24-year-old amateur, instead of an iron-lunged crooner twice Demir's age, only doubled the shock. One of the male jurors appeared to be fighting back tears. The audience was singing along. A girl ululated. A group of young men stood up and flashed victory signs.

In a hall outside the auditorium, Nazim and Pakize Alcili, both Kurdish, both in their 60s, were trying to process all that they'd seen. "We heard about the show from neighbours, but we were anxious about coming," said Nazim. "There's never been such a thing in the past." It was the first time they'd heard Kurdish onstage, he said. It was, he said, "special".

Most of all they liked Bilal Kaga, the funny man. "The problem," Pakize added, smirking, "is that we don't speak Kurdish, so we didn't understand most of the jokes." They'd forgotten their parents' language, she said. Having never had a chance to learn it in school - it was only last year that the government allowed elective courses in Kurdish - she and her husband had become illiterate in their own culture. "We tried to learn, and we tried to educate our children in Kurdish," she said, "but we failed."

Having advanced to the finals, Kaga and Demir were taking a load off in a reception room near the exit, squeezed into a leather couch. A black and white photograph of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of post-Ottoman Turkey - his eyebrows raised, his mouth slightly ajar, and the index finger of his left hand pointed fixedly toward some unspecified destiny - hovered over their heads.

I told Kaga about my conversation with Nazim and Pakize. It was a pity to see how much damage assimilation had done to the Kurds' cultural heritage, he said. "We, as artists, have to keep this language alive." Twenty or thirty years ago in Turkey, said Demir, his voice as dark in speech as it was in song, "you couldn't even speak Kurdish in public. If you did, people would throw eggs, tomatoes, whatever at you from their balconies."

It was only at the end of the 1990s, Demir said, "that I began to understand the world I was living in." He had been living with his parents and two siblings in a village near Mardin, a town in south-eastern Turkey. "It was a time when every Kurdish family's doorbell would ring," he said, referring to a wave of arrests of Kurdish activists and PKK sympathisers across the south-east. Demir's own father was detained during one of the sweeps. He may have been held for no more than a few days, Demir said, but to a child it seemed an eternity. "I missed him a lot. I always asked, where is he, where is he?" he recalled. "One day, our doorbell rang and I opened the door," he said. "It was my dad. But if you saw him, you wouldn't tell it was a human being. He was bruised all over. They gave him electricity, they poured water all over him, they did a lot of things to him. I couldn't recognise him."

Things were very different today, Demir said, some of the damage assimilation had done to the Kurds' was being undone, but one fundamental problem remained. "In Turkey, Kurds can do anything, they can be anything, but they are still not allowed to be Kurds."

Kaga walked me out of the room. The conversation, by then, had returned to the difficulty of communicating the Kurdish experience through art or, in his case, comedy. Kurds weren't familiar with stand-up, Kaga said, neither as an art form nor as a word. He had racked his brain for an appropriate synonym in Kurdish. In the end, he had chosen qesmerî, which, he said, translated to "court jester". "Except that I'm not here to make the court laugh," he said, with a hint of rehearsed pathos. "I'm here to make the king cry."

Just over a month later, on March 21, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK's imprisoned leader, was to cap several months of negotiations with Erdogan's government by declaring a ceasefire. Attempts at a negotiated solution to the Kurdish conflict in Turkey have come and gone. This time around, however, with Öcalan at the heart of the process, an end to the fighting finally appeared within reach. The PKK, labelled a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU and Turkey, had a shot at an amnesty and, as such, legitimacy. Erdogan, the most powerful Turkish prime minister in decades, had a chance to make as big a stamp on his nation's 21st century as Atatürk did on its 20th.

News of the ceasefire made me think of another Min Ciyawazim contestant. Firat Ogur, a 21-year-old rapper, had reached the finals with a song dedicated to his elder sister, a slain PKK fighter. Its first few verses were about longing. "Sometimes I look at pictures of you / Come and lift me up like you used to, give me a kiss," Ogur sang. The last ones were about anger, the suffering of a family uprooted by war, and of hope.

I am wasting away here, away from my homeland

In '92 we were forced to leave.

Settled in the city, life was very hard

Some were killed and some blinded

Some lost themselves, became strangers to their culture ...

But as long as the world remains we will raise our flag.

I met Ogur on April 25, the day that the PKK officially confirmed that it was withdrawing its fighters from Turkey into northern Iraq. For Ogur, who works at a textile factory - rap does not pay the bills, he says - it was also a day off. I asked him about the peace process, and whether he thought it might, or should, pave the way for Kurdish secession from Turkey.

"We're not the same society, we're not the same culture," he said. Perhaps he figured that sounded too radical, too belligerent, not only to Turks but to millions of people such as Nazim and Pakize, who feel Turkish first and Kurdish second, because Ogur immediately backtracked.

"All that Öcalan and the PKK were asking for was the right to education in Kurdish, an amnesty for PKK fighters, and partial autonomy for the south-east. If Turkey would meet such demands," Ogur said, "we could live together as brothers."

Performing at Min Ciyawazim, he said, had filled him with pride - not as a rapper, but as a Kurd.

"When they asked me to me to come, they said there'd be Kurds from everywhere, but I didn't think it was going to be so serious. I thought it'd be somewhere underground, in some secret, small place."

He was astonished when he saw the big auditorium, the cameras, and when he realised the whole show would be conducted in Kurdish. "It meant a lot that Kurds could make a programme like this," he said. "It meant nothing's the same as before."

The show concluded in late June, in Erbil, the capital ofIraqi Kurdistan. Vedat Demir came second. A month later, following a wave of anti-government protests in Turkey and uncertainty about the next phase of the peace process, negotiations between Turkey and the PKK are beginning to show signs of strain. Still, there is reason for some optimism: the ceasefire has held.

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer living in Istanbul.

Updated: August 3, 2013 04:00 AM