Turkey's Cultural Policy

The Dead National Poets' Society

The official cultural policy of Turkey is backward looking and used to propagate state interests. Contemporary works are ignored, argues Klaus Kreiser, Turkologist and publicist

The absence of high-ranking Turkish representatives at the ceremony last October awarding Orhan Pamuk with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade raises a question that needs to be directed to Ankara: What is Turkey's official foreign cultural policy?

Over the past 50 years, the republic has signed cultural agreements with 75 states. Ankara sends string quartets to play classical music in Pakistan, has restored Ottoman edifices in Libya, and emptied the treasure rooms of the Topkapi Palace for exhibitions in New York, London, and Tokyo.

Back in 1957, when the Menderes government signed a treaty on cultural exchange with the Federal Republic of Germany, Turkey was not yet regarded as Germany's "near abroad," a role it subsequently assumed with the arrival of guest workers and decades of immigration.

The German side began by continuing the pre-war traditions of student exchanges, language instruction, and archeological digs. Culturally minded Germans maintained their impression of Turkey as the home of the Hittite pantheon of gods, Greek philosophers, and the sultans of the Ottoman dynasty.

Shortage of books

The Turkey of Atatürk and Inönü, however, boasted radio, theater, symphony halls and opera houses, which were just as much under state control as the country's new factories and refineries. In the provincial cities, the offices of the education ministry were often the only place to purchase books. Almost the country's entire literature was published in Istanbul. Even after its initial experiment with multi-party politics, the state long remained the most important producer of cultural goods.

A special feature of Turkey was and still is the intensive cultural contributions made by banks and holdings. In addition to state orchestras, the cultural programs of powerful sponsors have encouraged the establishment of symphony and chamber orchestras.

The dilemma for state cultural foreign policy becomes even more apparent when one browses through the catalogue that Ankara's ministries produced for the last Frankfurt Book Fair. Readers of this impassive brochure written in broken German would never guess that the partner book fair in Istanbul, organized by the association of book dealers, is an extremely rich and lively event.

Trojan wooden horses and whirling dervishes

In Turkey, there is an informal division of labor between the state sector on the one side, and private publishers and foundations on the other. The state sees itself – and not only since Prime Minister Erdogan has come to power – as the administrator of the pre-republican Turkish and Islamic heritage, while the modern is left to the free market. As the cultural minister has, from time immemorial, also held the tourism portfolio, it is no surprise that Trojan wooden horses and whirling dervishes are indiscriminately used for the purposes of public relations.

It is truly amazing how negligent Turkish cultural politicians have been in addressing their country's modern era, which was strongly influenced by Atatürk and his successor. The Ministry for National Education recently laid its cards on the table with a list of 100 recommended works of literature for junior high school students. It consists of 73 Turkish titles and 27 translated foreign works. At the top of the list, almost as a conditional reflex, comes Atatürk's detail-obsessed mammoth speech on the Anatolian war of independence. This is followed by literary works from the Ottoman and early republican periods.

How daft the selection really is can be seen in the choice of Goethe's Faust as the only German literature recommendation (in Turkish translation) for 7th to 9th grade pupils.

In light of the recent bitter attack on Orhan Pamuk, it is surprising to find the inclusion of left-leaning writers on the list. You can rub your eyes in disbelief and find Sabahattin Ali, who was shot in 1948 while attempting to flee to Bulgaria, the devout communist Nazim Hikmet, who died in 1963 in Soviet exile, and Aziz Nesin (deceased 1995), one of the most successful satirists of modern Turkey, who engaged in breathtaking vilification of his own nation and its leadership.

Have the names of these significant authors been included in order to offset a much larger number of nationalist and religious authors, or is the ministry hereby announcing an end to the polarization between right and left? The impression remains that the only good authors in this virtual pantheon are dead authors.

Serving a very disparate clientele

Turkey still maintains no cultural institutes in Germany. The "cultural centers" housed in some of the consulate generals primarily serve the Turkish population in Germany and lack much profile. A piano concert by a Turkish artist here, a small exhibition by a contemporary painter there – such "good will" events cannot hide the fact that Turkey has no platform in Germany for the discussion of important cultural and historical themes.

These include such issues as the deportation of the Armenian population. It is still unthinkable that the director of a hypothetical "Berlin Atatürk Institute" would ever host a panel discussion entitled "escape and expulsion." Nonetheless, Tarkan (pop music), Fatih Akin (film), and Feridun Zaimoglus (literature) and their likes are conquering the European market. The web site of the Turkish Foreign Ministry is pleased to mention these names on its link for prizes and awards achieved abroad in the field of culture.

Admittedly, Turkey must serve a very disparate clientele with its cultural policy – the apolitical culture and beach resort tourists, Eurocrats from Brussels, Turks – from high school students to academics – living in various EU countries, and the vast Turkophonie that includes the Muslim Kyrgyzians in the Altai region to the Christian Gagauz in Moldova.

At the same time, Turkish institutions responsible for cultural matters are led by wide assortment of administrators – ranging from educated liberals, who can easily talk on topics such as multiculturalism and sub-identities (i.e. Kurds or Armenians), as well as brass hat Kemalists to Turanians (pan-Turkic nationalists), who are exclusively fixated on Turkish issues.

A consistent cultural policy cannot be expected from Ankara. Over and above the many non-official cultural contacts, Germany, as a country hosting more than two million Turks, should be entitled to a cultural institute, which is able to provide a more comprehensive portrayal of Turkey than is found in tourist centers and consulate generals.

Klaus Kreiser

© Klaus Kreiser/Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Prof. Klaus Kreiser is a retired professor of Turkish Studies and works as author and publisher in Cologne.

This text was originally published by Germany's daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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