The Strange Death of Turkish Satire

Since the AKP became the ruling party in Turkey, a centuries-old tradition of making fun of those in power has been under assault

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The Strange Death of Turkish Satire
A float featuring a caricature of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacking a clown is seen in Dusseldorf, Germany in 2017 / Lukas Schulze / Getty Images

A cover in 1976 of Turkish weekly humor magazine Gırgır (Fun) features then-prime minister Süleyman Demirel naked, upside-down on his head with a boiling pot on his ass, drawn as a calor gas propane tank. “If the increased taxes on calor gas have battered your budget, use the calor gas of Sülügaz that promises to never increase taxes,” reads the speech bubble of the housewife standing next to him with the pot’s lid in her hand. The cover pokes fun at Demirel’s promise to never increase taxes on gas and then doing so anyway. “Humor is a punch; one never knows who it will hit or when,” Demirel famously said about his satirical representations.

Not all who are in a position of power share Demirel’s sense of humor. If this cover were published in 2021, its caricaturist would have been charged with “insulting” the president and probably jailed.

It is undeniable that there has been a surge in defamation cases since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took office in 2014. In the nearly seven years of his presidency, 128,872 investigations into alleged insults against the president were launched. In accordance with the Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code, jail sentences were handed down to a range of individuals including a former Miss Turkey and a 14-year-old boy. Most recently, in February, two of Turkey’s comedic icons, Müjdat Gezen and Metin Akpınar, stood trial for defamation of the president.

Much has been said about the deterioration of freedom of speech in Turkey, and one particularly disturbing aspect has been the bastardization of its long-standing cultural tradition of political satire.

“In a geography that has endured so many wars over the centuries, satire has naturally become a weapon for survival,” actor Şevket Çoruh told Newlines. “The people of Anatolia have always used the language and art of satire to express their grievances and deprivations.” Last September, Çoruh was given the honor of becoming warden of the kavuk, a title passed down to those who carry on the long-standing Anatolian traditional theater genre orta oyunu. This textless, improvised political satire, rooted in the interplay of two characters, has been passed on from master to apprentice since before Turkey was founded.

“Oppression in this geography is the same today as it was in the late 18th century,” Çoruh said. “And it is this oppression that has made the biggest contribution to satire. Because one always finds an alternative way to express oneself, and that is the core definition of satire.”

Çoruh may be right. During the reign of Abdul-Hamid II, the Ottoman Sultan from 1876 to 1909, a similar approach to humor had gripped the country. He had issued a 30-year ban on satire, but humor always found its way back into society. The first Ottoman satirical magazine, Diyojen (Diogenes), secretly printed and distributed its copies. Other publications, such as Tokmak (Knob) and Dolap (Closet), moved their printing business abroad to Switzerland and England, respectively.

“From folk songs in Giresun to stories like ‘Mrs. Louse and Mr. Flea’ and, of course, our language itself, are filled to the brim with comedy,” Çoruh said. “How else could you explain the folk song (about) the water buffalo making a nest on the branch of a willow tree?” he chuckles.

For people like Çoruh, artists who specialize in nuance and hence are unconditionally dubbed “the opposition,” nothing much has changed. Çoruh doesn’t label himself as such. Actually, he is adamant that he is the way he is not because of the regime in place or the period in which he was born but simply because he is somebody with a conscience. It is the role he inherited along with the kavuk. “What I do is not bravery. Bravery is to find the courage to be able to create this art,” he concludes.

Recent crackdowns on political satire have been a blow for many Turks who rely on humor to ease the burden of living in this country.

While the heydays of the mid-70s are long gone, the political appetite for such humor has been waning since the early ’90s when programs like the Plastip Show, which mocked leading politicians in puppetized form as drunks and cheats, aired. In a report for the news show “32nd Day,” journalist Cüneyt Özdemir explained that even then the Plastip Show was a courageous act since Turkey was a “country that still jailed artists, writers, caricaturists for their political commentary.”

The show’s producer, Cihat Hazardağlı, recalled how the privatization of television channels gave him the courage to back such a project. “When we were doing this on a national television channel, there was a certain type of censorship; even if they didn’t ask it from us, we did censor ourselves,” Hazardağlı said in an interview. But, Hazardağlı went on, “Satire isn’t an assault or an attack; it’s a creation, it’s creativity.”

Two patterns can be identified in the political and cultural spheres of Turkey: First, creators of any sort of cultural output have always had to deal with a certain degree of self-censorship and fear of being jailed. Second, the Machiavellian genius of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over its two-decade reign has ostracized political satire from public discourse and decreased its visibility from public spaces.

Today, politically charged productions like the Plastip Show are absent from prime-time television. One of the many examples of this is the upending of the political satire show created by comedian Levent Kırca “Olacak O Kadar” (That Much Can Happen). First aired in 1988 on the national public broadcaster of Turkey, known as TRT or the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, the show ran for 22 years until it was deemed to harbor “hostile” content and improperly portray the government.

Satire and humor magazines have shared a similar fate. Although the rise of social media and digitalization of most mediums has fueled a decline in readership, the closure of major brand names like weekly satirical magazine Penguen has had a demoralizing effect on Turkey’s political culture.

However, outlets such as Bayan Yanı (Lady’s Side) have gained momentum. The women-led satirical magazine was originally published as a one-off for International Women’s Day in 2011 before being turned into a full-fledged publication. This March, Bayan Yanı celebrated its 10th anniversary. Its name is a political reference poking fun at the intercity bus rule, which doesn’t allow men and women to sit next to each other, a requirement not imposed in any other mode of transportation in Turkey.

İpek Özsüslü, a caricaturist at Bayan Yanı, believes that despite growing restrictions on freedom of expression, her job is to be that “laughter at a funeral home.” Part of the motivation for starting a women-focused magazine was to raise awareness about ongoing violence against women. However, since its launch, Bayan Yanı has experienced more hardship, and the situation for women has deteriorated. Femicide has become a pressing issue in 2021 compared to 2011. That year, a total of 130 women were killed in Turkey by a spouse or loved one; the figure so far this year is 189.

“From time to time I asked myself why I do what I do because it feels like I am digging a well with a needle,” Özsüslü said. “Of course, I do fall into the trap of hopelessness. It is inevitable, but then again my work motivates me. When I self-censor, I regret it later. When I don’t self-censor, I spend sleepless nights that this time around, I will get into trouble. I am not a criminal, yet I am treated as such.”

Talk show host and standup comedian Kaan Sekban talked to Newlines about the realities of speaking openly in public. “Those who say that they do not self-censor are lying to themselves,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are far away from 100% freedom of thought. I don’t like the word ‘tolerance.’ It contains hubris. To tolerate something means to find a fault in it. You can tolerate someone who knocks you over on the street or steps on your foot on a crowded bus, but why should you tolerate comedy? Where is the fault in that?”

After working for a bank for over a decade, Sekban made a name for himself with sketches based on the shared complaints and hardships of white-collar working life in Turkey. “Humor is something that should be smart. It should make you laugh, but also think. That is how I like my humor. I want to see wit in it. It is through that wit an audience builds a sense of respect towards the comedian. I can make you laugh without provoking you to think, but the thing you would laugh at wouldn’t be humor.”

Politicians today perhaps lack an appreciation of this intellectual spark in political satire. Such was the case for Attila Taş, the former singer turned social media activist, who was charged and detained over a humorous tweet about the AKP’s emblem, a light bulb. “Edison wouldn’t have invented the ‘light bulb’ if he saw (it) these days,” Taş had tweeted.

The government’s hostile attitude toward humor threatens Turkey’s oldest cultural tradition and those who practice it. But its destructive approach is reflective of a deeper problem. Ever since coming to power, the AKP has harbored a victim mentality in which the country’s intellectual elite has marginalized the party’s broader constituency and the party itself. Under this narrative, the AKP — and Erdoğan — are the real voice of the Turkish heartland, beset by secular urbanites.

Tellingly, throughout its growing dominion over Turkey, the AKP and its followers have been unable to produce conservative satirists that match the caliber of its forefathers, who range from Kırca to Ferhan Şensoy.

More than a sense of humor, political satire requires the capacity to see things in a different light — but that has never been a strength of the AKP.

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