Letter from Istanbul

Today’s piece is about theater and business in high places. Last week, Turkish and Greek prime ministers Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Costas Karamanlis, attending the Balkan summit in Thessaloniki, said their joint energy cooperation was reaching a strategic level. This Friday, the Greek and Turkish actors attending the 4th International Theater Olympics in Istanbul will join forces to perform «Persians» by Aeschylus as directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos – one of those stage directors determined to mess around with the classics. Business is going okay. A week ago in Thessaloniki, the two top political leaders agreed to boost bilateral ties, especially in trade. They now are aiming to increase trade volume from the current $2 billion to $5 billion. Theater is also doing well in both countries. An excess of show business in Greece never bothers anyone. Meanwhile, «Turkish theater blooms with quality performances» – at least according to Mine Acar, the acting director of Turkish state theaters. Speaking to the Anatolia news agency during the opening of the 7th International Theater Festival of Black Sea Littoral Countries in Trabzon – a city founded more than 1,000 years ago by Greek merchants from Sinop and today the most important city in the region – Mrs Acar said there is an amazing demand for theater in all 81 provinces. «We are performing to almost full-capacity auditoriums in all regions,» she said, adding that «theater is gradually becoming a way of life for Turks.» It is also becoming a meaningful weapon on the diplomatic front. «Waking Up With Art» – an annual festival «held through the efforts of Turkish artists in Kosovo,» as the daily Zaman wrote recently – kicked off two weeks ago in Prizren, Kosovo. Apart from an exhibition of painting at the Gazi Mehmet Pasha bathhouse, the festival will also feature a Karagoz (Karaghiozis) and Hacivat shadow puppet show – extremely well-timed for the allegories of Greek public life. (During an official visit to Qatar last week, Merchant Marine Minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis allegedly used the word «Karaghiozis» to describe many of his fellow politicians, thereby referencing the mischievous and deceitful hunchback of lore). Ignoring most of the blunt warnings by Brussels, Turkey does the best it can, using cultural diplomacy as much as possible. An international puppet festival has also been entertaining Istanbul over the past week. Meanwhile, the port city of Izmir has just realized a long-awaited dream, becoming the first official candidate for the 2015 World Expo, the world’s biggest exhibition. And, a month ago, the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Initiative Committee (ECOC) was finally successful in its labors. The old city from which the Byzantines and the Ottomans ruled two of the world’s greatest empires was finally nominated as European Capital of Culture for 2010. A seven-member European Union jury chose Istanbul over Ukraine’s Kiev, its biggest rival in the contest. Nevertheless, the chairman of the jury, Jeremy Isaacs, explained that «we were attracted not by the local administration or government, but by the people living in Istanbul who took on the responsibility. Residents in Istanbul formed non-profit groups and organizations to put forth their arguments.» However, there are also some «cultural events,» such as the trial of internationally renowned author Orhan Pamuk, that could still jeopardize Turkey’s 40-year dream of joining the European Union. Six months ago, this world-class author of acclaimed novels «Istanbul,» «My Name is Red» and «Snow» ended up in court accused of having spoken of the 1915 massacres of the Armenians and the killing of Kurds in Turkey’s southeast. He is alleged to have infringed Article 301 of the penal code, recently revised – albeit badly so – as part of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. A European human rights convention protecting free speech obliged the judges to halt the trial the day it began, on December 16. With mounting concern about its image abroad, Turkey, now on track to becoming the only secular Muslim democracy in the EU, is advocating cultural diplomacy. And this is a wise way to spend its money. It is art, dance, film, jazz, and literature that continue to inspire people around the world, despite political differences. The institution which best serves cultural diplomacy is the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, founded in 1973 under the leadership of Dr Nejat F. Eczacibasi, who envisioned creating a festival of the arts in Istanbul similar to the ones held annually in a number of European cities. The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, which in 2003 celebrated 30 years since its establishment, organizes Istanbul’s international film festival in April, its theater festival in May, a music festival in June and July, a jazz festival in July and the biennial in the fall every two years. «For many in the West, Turkey is strictly sick chickens,» a student at the University of the Bosporus tells me. «There is no doubt that by cultural diplomacy we can demonstrate our values and can combat the popular notion that because of more headscarves and less raki our secular state faces creeping Islamization. No, it is not true!»