Sticks and Stones

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

That’s what my mother used to tell me to say when people called me names, and I’ve had need to remember it over the past few insult-loaded days.

First there was my trial for insulting the Turkish Prime Minister with a collage portraying him as a pet dog of America. I was arrested for showing the picture in 2006, went through several trials here in Istanbul, was aquitted, then recharged, and finally found guilty on Tuesday March 9th 2010. "The law’s delay," said Hamlet. It was the same in his days.

"And the insolence of office," too. The judge let me free on the condition that I make no more critical images of Prime Minister Erdogan within the next five years. I am censored. Banned from expressing my pictorial opinion. If I do, the penalty will be excessive. You can learn what the punishment is at the end of the letter I wrote in reply to this anonymous article concerning me and my case which appeared the day after the trial in the Turkish Daily News opinion column, ‘From the Bosphorus: Straight‘. The views expressed "represent the consensus opinion of the Hurriyet Daily News and its editorial board members".

From the Bosphorus: Straight–the Case of the Village Idiot vs. the Prickly PM
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

With apologies to the late sage Marshall McLuhan, we must argue today that if the world has become his famed “global village,” it has also become a place that must cope with the rise of the global “village idiot.” We think this best sums up the now concluded case of MICHAEL DICKINSON, convicted as we reported yesterday of insulting our prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, with a caricature.

British Dickinson is certainly a marginal character. Part-time English teacher, part-time peace activist and part-time artist with all the grace and skill of a portraitist/hawker atop Florence’s Ponte Vecchio or below Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Dickinson now makes his living reading fortunes. A lot of such intellectual loose change tends to show up in Istanbul, the price we must pay for being a city of intrigue and mystery that also conveniently has a Starbucks or two. Do we wish that the Dickinsons of the world would just keep moving? Might we be willing to pass the hat to come up with bus fare for he and his ilk to leave town? Absolutely.

But even village idiots have the fundamental right to speak their piece. This right has been denied Dickinson. This is wrong. That Turkey is being caricatured around the world as a bastion of authoritarianism is just one result of the case of Village Idiot vs. Prickly PM.

This supremely dumb waste of prosecutorial resources began in 2006 at a Kad?köy tent show protesting the war in Iraq. When authorities began looking into the themes, the publicity-seeking Dickinson had to work pretty hard. On his second or third try, he finally succeeded after unveiling in a courtroom his portrait of Erdo?an’s head atop the body of a dog. Tasteless? Of course. A crime? Hardly.

But at Erdo?an’s behest, a prosecutor took the bait. The rest is now history. Dickinson was finally given a suspended sentence Tuesday of a 7,080 lira fine for insulting the prime minister. He was also placed on five year’s probation.

Let’s skip our own freedom of the press beef with Erdo?an. Let’s ignore his call just the other day for columnists “raising national tensions” to be fired. Let’s pretend we didn’t hear the proposal last week by his women’s minister to create a board to clip kissing scenes from Turkish soap operas (quickly followed by her diagnosis of homosexuality as a disease). Let’s just focus on this one small and very dumb case.

Can one imagine George Bush or Tony Blair or Nicolas Sarkozy or even Silvio Berlusconi going after every artist who made an offensive cartoon? Of course not. For they live under a system of principle. We’d like to be confident we are living under the same system of rules. That the likes of a Dickinson has demonstrated we do not only adds insult to the injury endured by our democracy.

* * *

I have been told that the answer below, which I wrote in the comments box on their website, will be published as a Letter to the Editor both online and in their newspaper. This is what I wrote:

"After having been referred to as a ‘village idiot’ by the nameless writer of this piece, I think I deserve the right to reply.

First of all I would like to point out that I have been living in Istanbul for the past 24 years, having come here in 1986 as a contracted English teacher to work for the Istek Vakf? Foundation. During most of that time I have been employed as a full-time teacher of English at schools and universities, including Bilgi university and Yeditepe university. I was working at the latter when I was arrested and charged with insulting the Prime Minister with my collage caricature. After that my teaching contract was not renewed, and other schools and universities refused to employ me. In order to keep the wolf from the door I decided to start telling fortunes in the street with rune stones (which I had studied) and just managed to survive.

To get back to my caricature of your prime minister, Recep Tayy?p Erdogan. Let me explain how and why I made the first picture in 2005. Previous to that I had made and displayed countless collage caricatures of George W Bush, Tony Blair, Putin, Sharon and other world leaders (inluding Blair as a pet dog of America) on my website and at exhibitions, but did not touch any political figures in Turkey. However, when I read an article about Tayy?p Erdogan suing cartoonists for portraying him in animal form I decided to make a picture of him in similar form, as a gesture of solidarity with the sued artists. I showed the prime minister with a dog’s body, being awarded a prize by George Bush. I included the picture with an article I wrote for the political newsletter ‘CounterPunch‘, and it was published on the internet in 2005.

In 2006 I was allowed to include some of my anti-war collages on the wall of a ‘Peace Tent’ organized by the Peace and Justice Coalition on the seafront in Kadikoy, which featured exhibits protesting about the invasion and war in Iraq. A couple of days after having put up the pictures, and pondering the absence of criticism of Turkey’s role in the situation, I decided to add the picture I had made of Erdogan. The tent was crowded and I didn’t ask permission. I simply added the image with the rest of mine on display and left. The next day when I visited the tent I found all my pictures had been removed. I learned that police had arrived the night before, taken all the pictures, questioned the organizers, and charged one of them with ‘insulting the dignity of the Prime Minister’ for displaying the image. If found guilty he faced a punishment of 2 years in prison. In order to help the poor man I wrote a letter which was presented to the court, claiming full responsibility for the showing of the picture. The judge, however, refused to accept my confession, but continued the charge against the organizer.

In an attempt to prove the man innocent I made another collage of the prime minister as a dog, eating a pile of dollars, held on a leash made from the stars and stripes flag, and went along to the court on his trial day, hoping to act as a witness and prove that I was the artist. The trial was cancelled as the accused didn’t turn up. There was a TV film crew outside the court house when I was leaving, interested in the case, and I opened and displayed the picture to them. A guard came out to see what was going on. He grabbed me and pulled me inside, and after that I spent the next ten days in captivity, first in Umraniye Prison, and then at a holding center for detained foreigners. I was then released and told to leave the country by the end of the month, which I did. On my return two weeks later, I was presented with a summons, charged with insulting the PM with my last collage.

So began a series of trials, postponements and delays, until in September 2008, the judge, saying that since Turkey wanted to join the EU, and this kind of art is not a crime in Europe, he had decided to aquit me. My relief was great, but when I learned 6 months later that the aquittal had been quashed and the charges against me renewed, I was shocked and dismayed.

At the new trial with the new judge I said that as a protest against lack of freedom of expression in Turkey I would refuse to pay if he chose to fine me. Again the trial was adjourned, until, on March 9th, the judge announced that he considered me guilty of insult and was going to jail me for 425 days, converted to a fine of 7.080,00TL, but if I did no more pictures of the PM within the next five years the fine would be waived.

So that’s my story. Does it make me worthy of being called a ‘village idiot’? If I was pricklier I might even consider this article ‘insulting’…"

* * *

No-one likes to be insulted; everyone likes to be praised. Prime Minister Erdogan prefers it so much that he recently told Turkish newspaper editors that they should sack columnists who criticize him. He doesn’t get much praise at home. Not surprising when he condemns a recent proposed drop in local transport fares, for instance.

Mind you, he got a bucketful of praise earlier this week when he received the ‘Arab Nobel’, ("The Service to Islam Award") from the King Faysal Foundation in Saudi Arabia. Inviting the Prime Minister to the podium to accept the 200-gram gold medal and 200,000 dollars award, Foundation General Secretary Dr. Aballah Al Uthaim described him thus (my translation):

"Erdogan is the star and bridegroom of this night. He is like a knight, a unique person. A modest man who stands his ground. He never sleeps. He’s very decisive, in spite of hardships, he exerts himself. He uses the Koran as an influence for justice, he continues to use it as a foundation for peace as he goes on. He strives for superiority in everything; he pursues trust and victory. At the international level, he is a leading Muslim founder of the call for rapport between civilisation and a passionate advocate of constructive dialogue, openess, and principles of international understanding and cooperation."

Praise indeed. Erdogan himself said that the nations of the region share the common message of Islam, which is peace. “Wherever we are, we always call for peace, human values, and human rights,” he said.

Try telling that to the human rights defenders, writers, journalists and others who are harassed and threatened with imprisonment simply for speaking or writing about aspects of Turkish history or culture that do not conform to an imposed nationalist ideal, and especially by the notorious Article 301, which makes it illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions.

I suppose it something like the latter law that has been used to ban me from making any new collages featuring Tayyip Erdogan. I don’t really plan to. But this picture isn’t a new one. I made it a couple of years ago. There’s been one change made since then. The face of the flute-player used to belong to George W Bush.

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MICHAEL DICKINSON is in Istanbul. He can be contacted through his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or michaelyabanji@gmail.com
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