Erdoğan and the Penguin: satire in modern Turkey

It’s usually a happy coincidence when something you’re writing about comes barging onto the topical agenda, but when the bull takes the form of the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the china shop is satire itself, it’s rotten luck you’ve fallen on (although it certainly vindicates your focus).

Erdoğan was lampooned last month by German satirists in a short skit, shown above, entitled ‘Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan’ – a parody of 1980s pop track ‘Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann’ (‘Any way, Anywhere, Anytime’) by German singer Nena (of 99 Luftballons fame). (The Turkish president is a relevant subject on account of Germany’s large Turkish-heritage population, as well as the countries’ high-profile dealings on European politics.) Erdoğan, a man of considerable conceit, made a formal complaint to Germany. In a follow-up rendition, another comedian, Jan Böhmermann, backed his colleagues, deriding the prickliness of Erdoğan (who’s not averse to his own moments of verbal faux pas) by throwing down the gauntlet in a raucous poem accusing him of heavy-handed repression. This time Erdoğan got really wound up, pressing Chancellor Angela Merkel herself to prosecute Böhmermann. With the EU leaning on Turkey to help it stem large migrant flows in the Aegean region, Merkel capitulated and announced that Böhmermann’s prosecution could go ahead. It may not come to anything, but it’s the symbolism that matters, particularly to Erdoğan, who revels in swagger and his fantasy of a rejuvenated nationalist Turkey – and isn’t afraid to lock up anyone who gets in the way.

It would disappoint Erdoğan to know that the practice of cutting the vain down to size is not a perniciously alien ‘western’ habit but a noble art vigorously shared and adapted in Turkish society from bygone ages. Not that this should surprise him if he were aware of Turkey’s history. The Anatolian peninsula that forms it has been, by way of bloody and weary Christian-Muslim contestation, inevitably subject to cultural contact and productive exchange. The complex, interwoven social patterns that came of this are the very things we might call uniquely ‘Turkish’. The area’s Islamisation up to and after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, a drawn-out process, was itself such a melding; a phenomenon reflected in debates on whether the conversion of some unorthodox local Christian groups produced mystical Islamic sects now almost exclusive to Turkey; and embodied elsewhere in the Church of Hagia Sophia’s famous conversion into the Ottoman Empire’s most iconic mosque.

Western Europe’s industrialisation in the 19th century, and the increasing and imperial interferences of Britain and France especially in the traditional Ottoman stomping grounds of the Middle East and North Africa, gave cultural contact a new dimension. As European-influenced modernisation was gradually rolled out, so too came all its trimmings – including the emergence of a mass press. And with it, for our interest, the birth pangs of modern Turkish satire.

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Diyogen magazine, first published 1870 (named after Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes). Diyogen, founded by Teodor Kasap and Namik Kemal, and based on similar French and Greek publications, was the Ottoman Empire’s first satirical magazine and served as a model for later Turkish satirists.

Satire in the Ottoman Empire is a magnificently rich seam in itself and will surprise anyone who associates the Middle East with introspection-free sternness and not that much to smile about (including Erdoğan, no doubt). Certainly, the comparative caliphal confidence that enabled this has been somewhat bruised, but the tradition is there – and deserves dedicated attention on a different occasion.

This tradition has fortunately found its successors in the modern era, blending, as they always have, a visibly relatable medium that we take for granted in the North Atlantic with the very particular challenges and conditions of Turkey’s household and neighbourhood.

Satire in Turkey as we know it today only really gets going in the mid-20th century. For decades after the end of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic had – in a manner not unduly reminiscent of post-revolutionary Ireland, as described in a previous post – doubled down on national fervour in a very earnest way within what for a long while was a de facto one-party state.

Although humorous magazines existed during this period, the landmark progenitor was Markopaşa magazine, set up in 1946 by left-wing writers disgruntled with the authoritarian republican government, primarily Sabahattin Ali and Aziz Nesin. Ali was jailed for an article he published in the magazine, and subsequently died in 1948 in what is thought to have been a political murder. Mercifully, Nesin stayed with us until the 1990s. He was a noted humourist: early on, when Turkey enacted a Surname Law, his choice of ‘Nesin’ (= ‘what are you?’) was suitably ironic.

The magazine’s namesake, featured on the masthead of each edition, was Marko Paşa, a famous Greek Ottoman doctor whose reputation for exceptional pastoral compassion in addition to his medical care turned him into a catchphrase for attentive listening: “Anlat Derdini Marko Paşa’ya” (Tell your troubles to Marko Paşa). As a log of gripes, the magazine played cleverly on this idiom.

Markopasha magazine, issue 13 (1947). Marko Pasha, the listening doctor, features in the masthead. Note that since the 1920s, Turkish has been written in the Latin script.

In what is perhaps testament to its substance, the left-leaning publication was surprisingly popular with those on the political right who despised republican statism – and circulation actually fell when these readers realised Markopaşa‘s editors weren’t cut from the same cloth as them. Yet this doesn’t detract from Markopaşa‘s remarkable peak circulation of over 60,000 copies a week – matching sales of even some of the better-selling Turkish newspapers at the time. It had a reputation for sly, sarcastic humour, and came with varying subtitle headings like ‘published when it is not censored’ or ‘published when the writers are not in custody’. Such quips, sadly, were truer than frivolity let on, and the magazine was continually dogged by censorship and lawsuits. It closed in 1947, having lasted a mere six months. Attempted resuscitations – Merhumpaşa (The Deceased Pasha), Malumpaşa (The Usual Pasha), Bizimpaşa (Our Pasha) – were short-lived, and the pashas bowed out in 1950. Ali and Nesin had, nonetheless, blazed a trail on which others were soon to follow.

High among its successors was Gırgır (Jocular or Fun), founded by brothers Oğuz and Tekin Aral. Life is a hassle: scraping a living, boredom, heartache, fighting with your spouse over money…, announced the magazine’s first issue in 1972. The solution? Gırgır and more Gırgır.Setting out to shake up these conservative norms, it was packed with cartoons, art, sex, politics and social criticism, particularly piquing to a young population dulled by grey state monopolies in 1970s Turkish radio and television. Gırgır quickly became one of the best-selling magazines anywhere, with a circulation upwards of 450,000.

Front cover of Girgir from 1980, probably by Oguz Aral, published in the wake of the 1980 Turkish coup d’etat. 1970s Turkey was wracked with unstable coalition governments and left-right political tensions exacerbated by the Cold War context, leading to street violence and hundreds of deaths. In 1980, the Turkish army decided to intervene (as they had done twice before, in 1960 and 1971), led by General Kenan Evren (hanging on the wall above). They claimed they were (and were initially welcomed for) preventing the national situation from escalating, although not without helping to stoke some of it themselves for effect, as well as detaining thousands of people in the process. The man on the chair is ousted prime minister Suleyman Demirel, who is tossing his own portrait to the floor to join that of his predecessor, Bulent Ecevit. The label beside Demirel translates as ‘a man for all seasons’.

Gırgır really set the tone for what we see in Turkish satire today. Before its closure in 1993, the magazine was a stable for a whole raft of Turkish artists who later went on to found their own prominent outfits. (The Gırgır title was revived in 2008, though with no connection to the original.) Limon (Lemon) was founded in 1985 by a crop of Gırgır graduates who were even more radical in their editorial intent than their alma mater. In 1991, the year in which Limon‘s pips finally squeaked, their scions in turn created the subtly-titled Leman (Mistress) magazine, which today numbers among Turkey’s big three satirical magaziness (in total around twenty exist). In order of seniority, these are Leman, Penguen (Penguin) and Uykusuz (Sleepless). (It won’t surprise you to know that Penguen‘s cartoonists are Leman veterans, and Uykusuz‘s staff broke off from the Penguen team.) Of these, Penguen ranks as the most popular by circulation (its mascot is indeed a penguin – one who endearingly in vain seeks flight on each issue’s masthead with a pair of makeshift wings).

Penguen cover from the summer of 2013, during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. The protests began as a local anti-development issue but ballooned to express general discontent with the authoritarian encroachment of the AKP government. The protests’ iconic image was of the ‘woman in red’, Ceyda Sungur, who was pepper-sprayed while innocuously walking through the park. Concisely summarising women’s plight, the image went viral. Penguen‘s cover reverses the image, sending up police heavy-handedness, but also the photo’s easy shareability. ‘Demonstrators attack police!’ squawks the mock headline. ‘Everyone’s selling, and we’re also selling a magazine,’ it then wryly notes in the corner.
A Leman cartoon from June 2015, showing an ‘AKP iftar’. Iftars are fast-breaking evening meals usually eaten communally by observant Muslims during Ramadan. The AKP, or Justice and Development Party, is the conservative of the two main political parties in Turkey; the other is the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). The AKP’s ideology follows a familiar shape for a right-wing democratic party: socially conservative, economically liberal; although its social conservatism has increasingly leaned towards Islamism. Led by Erdogan, the AKP has been the party of government since winning the 2002 Turkish general election. In 2013, the party was rocked by a major corruption scandal which, like the UK expenses scandal, has hung over Turkish politics ever since; senior government figures, including Erdogan, became extremely paranoid. The Leman cartoon reminds us of the distance in the AKP between its pious public pronouncements and murkier aspects of its machinations.

Uykusuz cartoon from September 2015 commenting on a furore involving the then newly-appointed Minister of Family and Social Policy, Aysen Gurcan, in the AKP government. Gurcan was the first Turkish government minister to wear a headscarf after the AKP reversed a long-standing prohibition on the garment in public roles instituted by post-Ottoman republican reforms. She courted more controversy for conservative mores when she was found to have written on her Twitter account that ‘if a Muslim woman does not know how to make borek [a type of traditional Turkish pie], then her family is doomed to disintegration’. Here, Uykusuz contrasts Gurcan’s sanctimonious comment with the tragic reality of frequent murders of women in Turkey, depicting her standing over a dead woman saying ‘Remove that newspaper, I’ll cover it – I’ve rolled out the dough…’
 Erdoğan has been staple fare on the covers of all three magazines for a decade. Erdoğan founded the AKP in 2001 and has long been a Marmite personality. After serving as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he was imprisoned on grounds of inciting racial hatred for publicly reciting a jingoistic poem (ironically enough). Serving out a ban on political participation until 2002, Erdoğan then become prime minister after winning an election in 2003. Although regarded as having boosted the Turkish economy, political opponents accuse him of edging towards a power grab in a bid to enact Islamist social policies that he has always hankered after, and to return Turkey to prime position as standard bearer for the Muslim Middle East.

Leman cover from the 2015 Turkish general election. Erdogan ran for president in 2014, winning a bare majority of the popular vote. Opponents were alarmed by his designs for a more interfering and executive presidency (the Turkish system is nominally prime ministerial, with a ceremonial presidency). They were even more alarmed by the prospect of him cementing this via the legislature: with a 3/5ths parliamentary majority, the AKP could put forward constitutional changes that Erdogan wanted. Leman doesn’t fudge its opinion on this (‘anayasa’ = constitution). In the event, the June 2015 election left no party in control and the government in limbo; a second election in November 2015 gave the AKP victory (though short of a supermajority). The remarkable turnaround of the AKP’s fortunes at the expense of the HDP, the Kurdish and minority party, which did well in June, fuelled speculation that Erdogan and the AKP deliberately played to his right-wing and nationalist base during the interim.

Although Leman has been around since 1991, Penguen arrived in 2002 and Uykusuz in 2007, meaning the AKP leader has never really been off the agenda. For his part, and perhaps somewhat betraying the megalomania his decriers lay into him for tending towards, Erdoğan rarely finds himself on back-slapping terms with press critics, and has made no secret of his deep disdain for caustic humour. There is, in fact, a separate Wikipedia page in Turkish dedicated to ‘Cartoons of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that have been the subject of litigation’.

‘Tayyip World’ (2005) depicts different zoo animals with Erdogan faces. Penguen drew the cover to ridicule Erdogan’s (unsuccessful) suing of Musa Kart, a cartoonist with the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhurriyet, who had depicted him as a cat. Erdogan gave Penguen the same treatment, although the courts threw his second huff out a lot sooner.

In a telling preface to the latest German kerfuffle, Erdoğan brought another case against Penguen last year, this time on a cover commenting on his increasingly neurotic and hard-knuckled treatment of Turkish journalists. The case came to trial just last month, and unfortunately on this occasion, the court handed down a hefty fine to cartoonists Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan, having very kindly lowered the initial sentence of  14 months in prison. The case attracted quite widespread international attention, prompting hashtags and the like.

Two officials stand outside Erdogan’s newly-completed taxpayer-funded $615m presidential complex to congratulate him on its completion. ‘What a bland celebration. We could have at least sacrificed a journalist,’ grunts the president. Erdogan was oddly less offended by this suggestion of bloodlust and more preoccupied by the man he is depicted shaking hands with. Erdogan fumed that this guy’s other hand was making a gesture implying that he is gay. Contrary to the idea of bringing a libel case, Erdogan instead rather enhances the general perception that he is homophobic, bruises journalists, and cannot identify when someone is merely buttoning up a jacket.

Thankfully, there are reams and reams of worthy Erdoğan-related send-ups in the pages of Leman, Penguen and Uykusuz unharassed by litigation. Exhibited below are a mere fraction, highlighting a handful of the quirks and quarrels of Erdoğan’s lengthy reign.

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A Leman cover from 2013. A historical TV drama series called Muhteşem Yüzyıl (‘Magnificent Century’) was recently all the rage in Turkey, a sort of Game of Thrones-meets-Downton Abbey equivalent set in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, the most famous sultan of the Ottoman Empire and a sort of Henry VIII-like figure in the Turkish imagination. The comparison was too good for Leman to resist: highlighting Erdogan’s revivalist ambitions, he and his AKP cabinet are shown in the guise of the cast, with the parody title Muptezel Yuzyil (‘Junkie Century’). Cleverly, the implication is that, like the show, the Erdogan’s notions are actually fake, a romanticised and dangerous drug-like delusion.
During a trip to Latin America in 2014, Erdogan claimed Muslim sailors reached the Americas centuries before Columbus, a remark that caused much bemusement. Penguen suggests Erdogan might even go as far as to claim Mona Lisa was a Muslim.
A Leman cover from July 2013. Within Turkey’s population there are various intersections. The ‘WASP male’ equivalent in Turkey is a Sunni Turk – which, unsurprisingly, Erdogan is. Over 99% of Turkey’s citizens are Muslim (although there is a sizeable chunk of irreligiosity, particularly among the young and in liberal coastal areas, which is not expressed due to public stigma about atheism). Of these, around 4/5ths are Sunni. Of the remainder, most belong to a remarkable syncretic Shia denomination known as Alevism. Alevis have been subject to discrimination and open violence in Turkey for a long time. The AKP’s brand of Islamist politics is distinctly Sunni majoritarian, and there are ongoing fears that Erdogan’s policies have heightened Aleviphobia. Leman‘s cover ridicules a tweet in which Erdogan said, ‘Why are people trying to separate Sunnis and Alevis? If Alevism is about loving the caliph Ali, I am the perfect Alevi.’ [Alevis particularly revere the caliph Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law.] One response to this patronising pronouncement was of a Turkish gay rights activist, who tweeted back asking Erdogan to declare himself ‘the perfect queer’.
Uykusuz cover, March 2015. Turkey’s troubles with its Kurdish minority are well-publicised and go right back to the country’s modern founding. Many Turks and Kurds have been killed over the years in communal conflict. Recent hopes of rapprochement between the Turkish government and the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) have been dashed by developments in the context of the situation in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. There is an ongoing military curfew in Kurdish-majority areas in the south-east of Turkey. Last year Erdogan made a speech, in which he fulminated, ‘Tell me, my Kurdish brothers, what don’t you have? What’s missing?’ Uykusuz delivers the sobering retort. ‘My son’s bones,’ says the old woman, simply.
Penguen cover from 2013, during the drawn-out (and undissipated) headscarf debate. The non-wearing of the headscarf in Turkish public office was not only an issue of religious choice but also went to the heart of the Turkish republic, whose constitutional founders deliberately discarded tangible reminders of Ottoman imperialism and piety, which they saw as anti-modern. The AKP were instrumental in repealing it. Penguen shows Erdogan gesticulating at an old photo of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s Washington, exclaiming excitedly, ‘Look what I found in the encylopaedia! Even Ataturk wore a headscarf!’
A quite self-explanatory Uykusuz cover from March 2016, when Erdogan declared on International Women’s Day that ‘a woman is above all else a mother’, a knowingly contrarian remark in light of violence towards women in Turkey and aforementioned controversies, satisfying none save his AKP base and conservative supporters.
Leman cover published during Angela Merkel’s diplomatic visit to Istanbul in October 2015. The German chancellor is depicted as the consort of Sultan Erdogan, an allusion to the shifting power balance between the two leaders in the wake of ongoing crises in the Middle East. ‘How did I fall here?!’ laments a bewildered Merkel.

It is a trying time to be a satirist in Turkey at the moment. Let alone that – for anyone of journalistic persuasion, really. The editors of Zaman, a conservative daily newspaper akin in stature to The Times [of London] and Turkey’s biggest-selling title, were kicked out when their operation was seized by the AKP government in March. Perturbing in its overreach, Erdoğan’s cowing of Merkel has turned out to be a triumphant calculation while on a similar roll at home. We mustn’t lose sight of the situation’s severity; but let us be buoyed that satirists still scribble, and let us be reassured that – heeding the example of the short-lived Markopaşa – truth to power will have its disciples; and that, while political careers seldom avoid ignobility, in Turkey, even penguins can draw in prison.


Major sources & references: Enis Dinç, ‘On the Limits of Oppositional Humor: The Turkish Political Context’, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Vol. 5 Issue 3 (2012), pp. 322–37;

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