Turkish artists and intellectuals in exile

Turkey's academics, doctors, engineers and journalists are not the only ones who are leaving the country. A growing number of artists, writers and intellectuals now live in exile. Many of them face prison sentences in Turkey if they return home. Ceyda Nurtsch report

By Ceyda Nurtsch

"Political abuse is very similar to domestic violence. It creates fear, self-pity and has the potential to drag you to a very dark place. I wanted to kill myself. I hated life. I felt that there was no chance for me to move on […] I desperately needed someone to tell me what to do."

With these dramatic words, Turkish-born actor Pınar Öğün, who now lives in exile in the UK, describes in a CreativeMornings talk on YouTube what it was like to be politically persecuted. Just like many others in the creative sector, Öğün went into European exile because of the investigations and gruelling court cases following the Gezi protests.

Like Öğün, many artists came out in solidarity with the huge array of societal groups protesting in the Gezi Park protests of 2013 against the authoritarian policies of the AKP, which had been in government for 11 years at the time. The Supreme Court in Istanbul sentenced many of them in April 2022. The trial, which merged the charges of the Gezi trial with those of the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, is seen as arbitrary to this day.

Civil rights activist, businessman and arts patron Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned without evidence since 2017, was sentenced to life in jail. Seven others were each sentenced to 18 years in jail. Among them were the film producer Çiğdem Mater, the 72-year-old architect Mücella Yapıcı and the human rights lawyer Can Atalay. While still in prison, Atalay was elected to represent the province of Hatay in parliament in May 2023, although he remains in jail. They were all accused of organising the protests with the aim of toppling the government.

Police use water cannons to disperse Gezi Park protesters in 2013 (image: picture-alliance/AP Photo)
The Gezi Park protests took place ten years ago. They were triggered by government building plans in Gezi Park, the small green area on the edge of Taksim Square, but soon turned into a broader protest for civil rights and freedom. Many artists demonstrated side by side with a wide variety of groups in the Gezi Park protests against the authoritarian policies of the AKP

"This trial is a trauma"

With the tenth anniversary of the Gezi Park protest falling in the republic's centenary year, Pınar Öğün uses her social media channels to report from her exile in England, where she lives and still works as an actor, and to share her dismay, anger and helplessness. The channels are her link with the homeland. On the April 2022 sentencing, she wrote: "This trial is a trauma. A deep pain within me. To all those who see this torture and distance themselves, break off relations, who are indifferent or who prefer to forget, I offer hands full of tears."

For actor Memet Ali Alabora too, who also moved to England, the Internet has become a virtual home. The image of Bora, as he's known, arm-in-arm with fellow actors, became one of the symbols of the Gezi protests. Now he's facing a life sentence in Turkey. In an interview, Alabora explained that the verdict had shocked him, but at the same time released forces within him. Today he runs the online platform @bak, which campaigns for a societal rethink, organises a comprehensive online arts program via @gatherin.life and connects Turkish-heritage people from all over the world via @istanbulelsewhere.

"My life became more absurd than the play I wrote"

One of the charges against Öğün and Bora concerned their involvement in "Mi Minör", a play by writer Meltem Arıkan. She too has been in England since 2013. "My life became more absurd than the play I wrote," she says. She wrote the play two years before the protests, without any particular message or intention of criticising the country, she says. But Melih Gökçek, the mayor of Ankara at the time, incited local sentiments against her. When it became unbearable and she felt her life was in danger, she left the country – virtually overnight.

Film producer Çiğdem Mater and 72-year-old architect Mücella Yapıcı in prison (image: Murat Utku/DW)
According to Ceyda Nurtsch, "striking human rights violations, the almost total collapse of the rule of law and the desolate economic situation in the country – in particular since the coup attempt of 2016 – are driving more than just the politically persecuted to leave the country." Film producer Çiğdem Mater and 72-year-old architect Mücella Yapıcı (pictured here in prison) were both sentenced to 18 years in prison for their role in the Gezi Park protests

Intensified brain drain

The striking human rights violations, the almost total collapse of the rule of law and the desolate economic situation in the country – in particular since the coup attempt of 2016 – are driving more than just the politically persecuted to leave the country. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), the country is currently experiencing its biggest brain drain of recent years. It says that 140,000 Turkish citizens left the country in 2022, twice as many as in 2016.

The International Organisation for Migration says that it is primarily architects, engineers, academics and public health employees who are leaving. More than 1,400 doctors left the country in 2021 – that's 27 times more than a decade ago. In March 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded with the words: "Let them go. We'll simply employ the doctors who've just graduated from university." His words caused outrage.

"I chose myself"

"I've stopped following what's happening in Turkey. I don't listen to Turkish music, I don't read Turkish books and don't watch the news," says Arıkan. "I'm not saying that because I think it's a great thing. But you have to make sure you don't go mad. If you're alone in a country, you have to make a choice. And I chose myself," she says.

Since she's been in England, she's become a different woman and she's grateful for that, she says. Since the identification of her autism, she has been focused on learning more about neurodiversity and working primarily as a therapist. She doesn't harbour any resentment towards anyone, she says. Looking at Turkey from the outside, she feels neither hope, nor disappointment.

Activists hold pictures of Can Atalay during a demonstration in support of human rights lawyer Can Atalay, Izmir, Turkey (image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS)
Human rights lawyer Can Atalay was elected to represent the province of Hatay in parliament in May 2023, although he remains in jail. Many others have left the country and are building new lives for themselves abroad

"We must learn to understand one another"

People of Turkish heritage who live abroad are often expected to engage in a kind of "Turkey-bashing", says writer Ece Temelkuran in an interview. The political thinker moved to Zagreb in late 2016 and then to Berlin in 2023. She rejects the term "exile" because, as she says, "people living in nations with authoritarian regimes are also leading a life in exile." Temelkuran sees the problem as more fundamental and more comprehensive and is concerned in her work with the development of fascism and capitalism, which recognise no national borders.

To be able to continue their lives and their work, journalists such as Can Dündar, academics or writers in exile such as Aslı Erdoğan and Barbaros Altuğ or the Kurdish writer Meral Şimşek have all made Berlin their second home. From here, they've become an important voice for a more democratic Turkey in a more democratic world.

"Until we learn to understand each other, Turkey's destiny will not change," says Meltem Arıkan. "We're losing sight of the human being. Instead we're only seeing ideologies, philosophies, right, wrong." Distance has sharpened her view of this, she says. She also has a different perception of her "old ego". "Only when people are free of ideologies, when life comes first for them and they give individuals the chance to be more themselves and accept one another, can something change," she continues, adding that she has no desire to go back to Turkey.

Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon