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Art on Trial in the Capital of Culture

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

The skies over Istanbul were illuminated with firework displays twice recently. First, at the stroke of midnight to usher in the new decade and the crossover from the noughties to the pre-teens. And again last week the firmament sparkled and the streets echoed with bomb-like explosions to celebrate the proud official inauguration of Istanbul as ‘The European Capital of Culture’.

Culture. An interesting word, covering a multitude of ideas, particularly in the Arts, surely. Music, dance, theatre, books, painting, drawing – collage?

I’m an English teacher who has lived and worked in Istanbul for over 20 years, and since 2001 have been making collages in my spare time, usually with a political theme, and often featuring caricatures of British and American politicians, particularly the odious Bush and Blair. I’ve had several exhibitions of my work in bars and cafes in Istanbul with no trouble, until 2006, when police took exception to two caricatures of mine displaying the Prime Minister, Tayy?p Erdo?an (my first pictures of a Turkish politician) as a pet dog of America. This led to my arrest and imprisonment for 10 days, followed by expulsion from the country.

After a brief holiday I returned to Turkey, only to find myself summoned to court, charged with ‘insulting the dignity of the Prime Minister’, a ‘crime’ which can carry a sentence of up to 2 years in prison. The first trial was followed by a second and a third and a fourth as the judge made up his mind as to whether my collages could be construed as ‘art’ rather than ‘insult’, even calling for the opinions of professors of Fine Art from two Istanbul universities.

Eventually, in September 2008 the judge gave his final verdict. As Turkey is keen to join the European Community, he said, and as my kind of artistic comment is not a crime in European countries, he had reluctantly decided to aquit me of the charge. I was delighted. At last I could get back to living without that dark cloud hanging over me.

But then one morning in May 2009 I got a call from a Turkish friend.

‘Did you hear the news?’ she gasped.

‘What news?’ I asked.

She told me that her husband had been watching TV the night before, when suddenly along the bottom of the screen he had read: ‘BRITISH ARTISTS AQUITTAL QUASHED. NEW TRIAL TO OPEN.’

‘Get out of the country quickly before the summons arrives!’ she urged.

Actually, I had already been thinking of leaving Turkey and going back to England but hadn’t set a date, wondering what to do with all the stuff I had accumulated over the years. I’d been taking my time, but the idea of going through the whole business again of trials and threats of fines or prison spurred me to haste. In a kind of panic caught from my Turkish friends to get out before the summons arrived, I fled/flew to England with as much luggage as I could carry, leaving the poor delighted doorman of the apartment building with the contents of my flat – books, tv, computer, Turkish carpets etc. to sell for himself.

In England I made my base at a friend’s house in Consett, in the North East. I signed on at the labour exchange – Jobseekers Plus – applying for jobseekers allowance (social security). Told to sign on every two weeks, I was assured that the application would soon be processed.

No work for English teachers is to be found in Consett – once a busy steel and mining town, now populated by ghosts, pensioners and obese zombies, the Altzheimers Club the swingingest place in town. Not much of any other work either, apart from shelf-stacking at the supermarkets or sweeping up in the bookies. Of course you could always join the Army. Not me, I’m too old, but young British lads are always welcome – the Jobcentre features Army jobs heavily. Good pay – get out of this dump. In the pubs there are military posters on the wall over the urinals – ‘Get A Real Weapon In Your Hands! Join the Army!’

No work to be had for me in nearby Newcastle, nor in London or Brighton, as I discovered over the next couple of months when I visited those cities to investigate, staying in hostels and signing on at the local jobcentres every two weeks, (they annoyed – ‘You’re supposed to sign on in the place where you stay!’)

Eventually, back in Consett, an official letter arrived from Jobseekers Plus. It read:

‘The Decision Maker has decided that we cannot allow your claim for Jobseekers Allowance (Income Based.) This is because you have not been here an appreciable period of time to show that you are habitually resident in the UK.’

It wasn’t even signed.

What was I to do? How was I to earn my living? A friend had suggested that I could probably get a job in Greece, so I went to Athens, with much less luggage, cutting down to essentials to get rid of weight, but I learned there that foreign English teachers must pass a proficiency test in the Greek language, and I really couldn’t speak or read a word.

A Canadian friend teaching in Syria emailed suggesting I might try my luck there, so I thought right – I’ll get the train which goes once a week from from Istanbul to Alleppo.

So there I was back in Istanbul, aiming to get out before any news of the summons reached me. First I had to get a Syrian visa. At the embassy I was told that British subjects must first get a ‘letter of reccommendation’ from the Britsh Consulate. When I went to get it I was shocked to discover that one has to pay an exorbitant fee for the said letter – costlier than the price of the train ticket. Learning that I would also have to pay a hefty sum for the visa and that I wouldn’t be entitled to legally work in Syria gave me pause.

And while I was pausing, staying in a cheap little hotel in a back street (I’m still there) near the vibrant centre of town, deciding what to do, I got a call from my lawyer. The summons had arrived.

And so it begins again. Actually, I didn’t know aquitalls could be quashed. Why did they bother? What do they want? I’ve decided to wait and find out, determined not to pay a fine.

My lawyer and me appeared in court before the new judge on the appointed day. After about half an hour he announced an adjournment until the 27th of January, when he will make his final decision. (Another Decision Maker! Just like the Jobcentre Plus. All these Big Brothers deciding our fate for us.)

Abdullah Gül, the President of Turkey recently made a public statement, saying: “Protecting the freedom of expression is a must for a healthy flow of information to society, resulting in flourishing different views.”

Let’s hope the judge bears the President’s words in mind when making his decision next week. Let’s also hope he remembers that Istanbul currently holds the title ‘European Capital of Culture’.

It would hardly be considered cultured behaviour at such a time to punish an artist for expressing himself with artistic images, and certainly not for the police to close down an exhibition of his work because they don’t like his pictures. (- I’m having a retrospective show of my collages at a bar in town to coincide with my final appearance in court…)

MICHAEL DICKINSON can be contacted through his website – http://yabanji.tripod.com/

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