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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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; http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Regions-and-countries/Turkey/Turkish-humor-75696.