Saving The Turkish Theater From State Censure

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants plays to be submitted to public servants before they can be shown, and for inappropriate scenes to be "reformed."

Istanbul Theater Festival (IKSV)
Istanbul Theater Festival (IKSV)

ISTANBUL – The timing for the Istanbul Theater Festival couldn't have been better. It was held in May, a few days after hundreds of comedians, playwrights and stage directors demonstrated against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's threat to privatize state-owned theaters and Istanbul municipal theaters, financed by public funds.

It all started following an editorial in the Islamist newspaper Zaman, criticizing the play Secret Obscenities – a political comedy on Pinochet's dictatorship. The journalist" accused it many things, not the least of which was "state-sponsored vulgarity," although he hadn't seen the play.

The mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, jumped on the bandwagon and announced that plays would now have to be submitted to public servants before they could be performed. Erdogan publicly backed the measure and added that some plays would need to be "reformed" before they could be shown. "We'll finance plays only if we like the script," the Prime Minister declared. This statement led to the demonstrations of early May.

According to Dikmen Gürun, who has been the Festival's director since 1993, "the situation is serious. Mr. Erdogan must know that our municipal theaters are a 98-years-old. He cannot privatize them." This historical institution has ten auditoriums and welcomes 2,000 spectators a day. Apart from municipal theaters, there are national theaters in 20 different regions, all financed by the State. About a hundred private auditoriums can also be found in the capital, hosting about 150 independent theaters companies.

Spending a few days visiting Istanbul is enough to catch a glimpse of these companies' difficulties, but also their vitality. Ekip is one of them. Created in 2010, the company began with five members and now has 15. Among these members is Cem Uslu, 29, The Party"s playwright and stage director. This play is performed in a former billiard room converted into a theater last year.

"The Party deals with petty bourgeoisie's hatred, violence and renunciation," Cem Uslu explains. He doesn't make a living as a playwright, nor does he earn any money with Ekip. Like the other members of the company, he has another job: he does dubbing and plays in the hugely TV series that incite many young people to study acting. According to Cem Uslu, about 3,000 comedians – professionals, students or amateurs – live in Istanbul. An overwhelming majority of them do not make a living out of it.

Honoring a generous patron

The IKSV foundation, created in 1973, has donated more 1.5 million euros to Istanbul theaters over the years. This year, to celebrate IKSV's 40th anniversary, the Istanbul Theater Festival chose more than 40 news plays that will be seen for the first time. Whereas only 0.2% of the State's budget is granted to culture, IKSV plays the role of a second Culture Ministry. And it intends to make its voice heard: "We created a discussion platform to try to find a new model for theaters, with all the actors of the sector, ministries included. The aim is to find a constructive answer to Mr. Erdogan's project," Dikmen Gürun explains.

Others chose to answer with a play, like the company Altidan Sonra Tiyatro, who created A Carefree Play. "Altidan Sonra Tiyatro" means "theater after 6pm" because its members meet after work, as they can't live off their acting jobs. "If theater becomes a source of money, it can have consequences on artistic choices," explains a member.

Altidan Sonra Tiyatro's auditorium is an old shop. On the stage, the comedians act as if they were watching a play themselves. They take a program and turn it so that the audience can see it. On it, the words: "Freedom, not fear."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - IKSV

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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