It’s amazing to think that it’s ten years since I was arrested and charged with ‘insulting the dignity’ of the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was a mere Prime Minister back then in 2006, and I an English teacher at a private university in Istanbul, where I had been living for 20 years. Despite my antipathy to the state religion, nationalism, censorship, miltary conscription, insult laws, and the headscarf, I kept quiet and got along fine.
Ironically, the first article of mine published in 2005 by Counterpunch was in support of several Turkish cartoonists who were being charged with insulting the dignity of Prime Minister Erdoğan with their drawings. Little did I know then the trouble that would shortly ensue between me and him for the same reason, caused by a collage caricature of my own!
In the meantime, however, I became a minor celebrity in Istanbul when I was mistakenly arrested as an Israeli infiltrator at a rally in support of the Palestinians.
But then came the big one. When my collage caricature of Erdoğan was displayed in an anti-war exhibition, one of the organisers (Erkan Kara) was arrested and charged with insult. My effort in court to claim responsibility for the display of the offending collage led to a desperate midnight escape attempt through the streets pursued by a gunshooting cop, and my witness of he torture and brutality in a Turkish prison.
On my release I found myself personally charged with insulting the Prime Minister, and thus began a slow series of trials.
Finding myself on a teaching blacklist in Turkey and with my savings running out fast, I took to telling fortunes with runestones on the streets of Istanbul to earn a living, an occupation which occasionally got me into trouble with the police.
Meanwhile my trials in court continued. I mused on Kafka.
The hearings went on and on.
Eventually in 2008 I was aquitted by the judge, but 6 months later the government said the aquittal was wrong, and ordered the case to be opened again. I fled the country to England, but after failing to find work there, by chance found myself back in Istanbul a few months later planning to take a train to Syria. Before I could book a ticket I learned that my case was about to reopen that week under a new judge.
In 2010 the new judge found me guilty of insulting Erdogan but deferred sentence for a month when I said I would refuse to pay a fine. I was eventually found guilty, although the judge waived the prison sentence and fine if I made no more pictures of Erdoğan within the next five years. The Turkish Daily News wrote about the verdict and called me a ‘Village Idiot’.
No longer entitled to a residence permit, I was forced to leave Turkey every 3 months to renew my tourist visa. On a visit to London 20011 I protested outside the World Nuclear Association’s conference, / and I was arrested and charged with ‘using language likely to cause offense or alarm’ for shouting “NO MORE WAR!” during the 2 minute silence at the cenotaph ceremony to remember the war dead. The trial proper was set for months away, so I ‘absconded’, and returned to Istanbul, where Erdoğan was busy Islamising everywhere.
In 2012 a new law came into being in Turkey making foreigners have to stay out of the country for 3 months before visas could be renewed, so I went on a visit to Israel, planning to do some relief work in occupied Palestine, but I had trouble with the Israeli authorities. Arrested by police at Tel Aviv airport on my departure and detained for 5 hours, I was barred entry back when I arrived in Istanbul before time, so instead I flew to London, where I was arrested at the airport for having missed my trial for shouting. Luckily for me, after the first hearing the case was dismissed.
That year there was the sudden miraculous uprising against the plans by Erdogan to cut down the trees of Gezi Park in the centre of town in order to make a new shopping mall. The protest occupation of the park by the huge crowds of mainly young demonstrators was peaceful and inspiring, but it was met with tear gas and water cannon and thuggish riot police. Thousands of protestors were injured. Erdoğan commended the police action.
After 10 days of a police-free centre of town during the protest, they were back back in force. I had trouble with them over my street fortune-telling, and eventually in October 2013 I was arrested. My tourist visa had expired (having been denied a new residence permit) and I was imprisoned for a week before being deported and denied entry to Turkey for 5 years, after having lived there for twenty seven!
Before leaving Istanbul I had a weird experience where I thought I’d become possessed by the ghost of Michael Jackson.
Instead of returning immediately to my native England I went to Barcelona, where I went slightly bonkers.
After a few days in Morrocco looking for teaching work, my money at an end, I was compelled to return to the UK and seek welfare from Social services, but was told that I was not ‘priority’ for aid, and found myself sleeping for weeks in a cardboard box under a fire escape in Camden Town, and stealing a baby Jesus from a Christmas Nativity crib.
But then I met and joined a group of young Poles who were squatting in an old assembly hall, and I also got a role playing Dick Cheney in Theatro Technis, a fringe theatre in Mornington Crescent.
Evicted from the hall, I moved with the Poles to a deserted pub in Hampstead. I slept out on the Heath some nights, and tried to acclimatise myself to England.
Evicted from the pub, we moved into a vacant police station in Hampstead, but our stay didn’t last long. Evicted again, I got tired of moving and decided to settle in a tent alone in a graveyard for six weeks. I was eventually found by a team who seek out homeless people, and they helped me by finding me accommodaton in a St. Mungo’s hostel in the centre of town, in easy walking distance to Parliament Square, where I went several times to demonstrate, particularly about the British government’s complicity with Israel in the bombing of Gaza and their treatment of the Palestinians, and against the influence of the C.F.I. (The Conservative Friends of Israel) in Parliament.
Last year I also demonstrated in support of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom I, along with many other voters, would like to see elected as Prime Minister at the next election.
It’s been a decade since my arrest for insulting the dignity of Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2006, and now, comfortably housed in a studio flat, with a monthly pension and a travel pass, I look back with awe on all the events and emotions it caused me to experience. I’ve learned a lot about the world that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Thanks for that Tayyip! It’s been a trip!