As part of the series “Political Dimensions of Cultural Work and Knowledge Production,” we publish an interview between Portal (Johanna Klingler & Amir Saifullin) and the activist and researcher Kerem Schamberger focusing on the role of culture within the Kurdish oppression, resistance and political organisation. The interview was recorded in July 2020.
Kerem is a research assistant at the department of Media and Communication at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and is currently completing a PhD on Kurdish media. He is an activist with a special focus on internationalism (e.g. Turkey, Kurdistan, Palestine and West Sahara). He is also the author of a book and many political reportages on the resistance and oppression in the regions mentioned above.
Read more about the series — https://syg.ma/@sygma/political-dimensions-of-cultural-praxis-and-knowledge-production
Текст на русском можно найти по ссылке — https://syg.ma/@sygma/ia-priedpochitaiu-kulturu-soprotivlieniia-kotoraia-osuzhdaiet-riesientimient-i-pooshchriaiet-pieriemieny
Portal: Kerem, you are a media scientist and activist with a special focus on Turkey, Kurdistan, Western Sahara and Germany, currently writing your PhD on the matter at LMU Munich. Maybe we could look at the struggles in Turkey and Kurdistan and ask you, which role artists/musicians/cultural workers play in terms of consciousness rising, distribution of knowledge and resistance. Which strategies do they apply and is there an overlap/collaboration between them and other political organisations?
Kerem Schamberger: In Turkey and Kurdistan, resistant culture plays an important role in all the above-mentioned aspects. In particular, music, theatre and film are used to convey critical content that otherwise would be barely recognised in public. Especially today, as 95% of the Turkish media is under the direct or indirect control of the AKP regime, radical culture plays a particularly important role in inspiring a spirit of resistance within the population and maintaining the survival of alternative thinking at all. This resistant culture usually comes from leftists and people who feel connected to the Kurdish freedom movement. But it also has a certain anchorage in parts of the wider society, if you look at the numbers of sales and clicks of Ahmet Kaya’s albums. I will come back to this later.
While the Kurdish freedom movement is often hegemonic in the Kurdish areas of the country, the Turkish left is rather small. State repression against both has been very strong for decades. Here, it is worth taking a look back into history. Certainly, a peak of the repression was the military coup of September 1980, which also turned against progressive and revolutionary artists. More than 400,000 people were imprisoned at that time, thousands had to flee. One example of this is the musician Cem Karaca, who lived in exile in Germany in the 1980s after an arrest warrant was issued against him in Turkey and he got expatriated. All this because of a record he had released on May 1, the international day of struggle of working people. He was accused of “communist propaganda.” Only in 1987, he was able to return to Turkey. Interesting for German readers: in 1984 Karaca released his album Die Kanaken, in which he deals with racism and exploitation in Germany, among other things. Most of the songs can be found on Youtube. Thus, for Karaca, resistant art and culture was not bound to a particular place. Wherever he was, he produced music against the prevailing conditions.
Another example is the Kurdish film director Yılmaz Güney, who died in exile in France in 1984. The film Yol (Engl. The Path), which he produced together with Şerif Gören, won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1982. It is one of the first films in Turkish language in which the word Kurdistan appears and in a certain sense, it marks the beginning of Kurdish cinema. The sole use of the word “Kurdistan” and the echo it produced exemplifies the impact of art and culture. That way, this politically charged term could be introduced to a large audience for the first time. By the way, in Turkey Yol could not be shown officially until 17 years after its production, but of course hundreds of thousands had already seen it unofficially before that. Shortly before his death, Güney was also a co-founder of the Kurdish Institute in Paris, which above all worked to preserve Kurdish culture and language.
The persecution of radical culture and its protagonists continues to this day. For example, the play Sadece Diktatör (Only Dictator) by actor Barış Atay was forbidden in many cities, because it critically deals with an autocratic leader — a parable on Erdogan, of course. Atay himself has been a member of the parliament since June 2018, first for the Democratic Party of Peoples (HDP) and now for the Workers' Party of Turkey (TIP). Besides the well-known director Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who was also a member of parliament for the Left Party HDP, he is another person from the cultural scene who is politically active. This also shows, that there is a stronger connection between the political and the cultural sphere in Turkey than perhaps in Germany.
By the way, for me the concept of a resistant culture also includes political magazines and newspapers, which often had to appear underground in the 70s and 80s and made an important contribution to presenting and discussing alternative culture and politics. They too were subjected to constant repression and were banned almost weekly.
P: Could you elaborate a bit on the every-day reality of people supporting left politics or the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey?
KS: Even though the left has no great political influence in Turkey, it reaches a lot of people in cultural matters. Here are three personal examples:
First, the communist writer and poet Nâzım Hikmet, kind of a Turkish Bertolt Brecht, who spent more than 15 years in Turkish prisons. His work is still being perceived today. Famous artists like for example Fazıl Say and Genco Erkal refer to him. Although Hikmet is a symbol of oppositional Turkey, his influence is so great that even AKP representatives refer to him and quote his poems in speeches. They try to adapt and appropriate a culture of resistance, although they are in power and belong to the oppressors themselves. This also works because Hikmet died in Soviet exile in 1963, almost 60 years ago, and can no longer defend himself against his appropriation.
A second example of the mass influence of radical culture is the band Grup Yorum, which has been making music in different casts since 1985. Hundreds of thousands attend their concerts. Those function, at the same time, as political rallies protesting against imperialism and exploitation. For the 25th anniversary in 2010, 55,0000 people came and filled the Inönu-arena in Istanbul. Grup Yorum express their position on political everyday reality and thus, inevitably criticizes the Turkish government. As a result, they have been banned from performing since five years and are no longer allowed to give concerts. Most of the group’s members were or are momentarily imprisoned. This shows, that the culture they represent is a threat to the Turkish state, which it tries to suppress. The singer Helin Bölek and the bassist Ibrahim Gökçek protested against this restriction of art and culture with a hunger strike. They wanted to achieve to finally be allowed to perform in public again. It hurts to talk about it, but both died in April and May 2020 as a result of their actions as well as of the state’s inaction.
The last example is Ahmet Kaya, one of the most famous musicians and singers in Turkey. He was half Kurdish, half Turkish. His songs were listened to millions of times. He coined his own style, the so-called Özgün Müzik (Original Music). When he announced at an award ceremony in 1999, that, because of his Kurdish identity, he also planned to make songs in Kurdish, he received death threats and a trial was initiated. In case of a conviction he was threatened with up to 12 years in prison. He went into exile and died a few months later at the age of 43 from a heart attack. The AKP also tried to appropriate him, for example by posthumously awarding him a prize. Nevertheless, it is them who are today trying to banish everything Kurdish from the public. A comprehensive article on the life and work of Ahmet Kaya was just published recently.
These three examples show very well how the Turkish state, regardless of the respective government, has always dealt with radical artists. It has locked them up, forced them into exile or even let them die.
P: Could you also elaborate on the specific situation of Kurdish people within this environment?
KS: Kurds in particular were and are massively restricted in their cultural life in Turkey. For decades it was forbidden to speak their own Kurdish mother tongue even in private. Even today, the state still takes action against the Kurdish language in public. AKP sequestrators, who in recent months have been placed at the head of several dozen Kurdish cities in place of deposed and imprisoned Kurdish mayors, stand out through common official acts: they have Kurdish signs removed from the town halls and the accesses to the towns, rename parks and public facilities and ban performances of Kurdish music groups. Thus, not much has changed actually. When talking to Kurds about culture, one hears a similar story of cassettes with Kurdish music buried in the garden, which could only be heard secretly at, while guarding the front door in order to check, if a military gendarmerie was approaching. The cassettes were then packed in plastic bags and buried again. That may no longer exist today, but if you look at how many thousands of people are on trial and imprisoned in Turkey for sharing Kurdish and other critical content in the social media, one could say that the same form of repression has simply spread to the Internet.
Nevertheless, Kurdish culture in the form of music and dance plays an important role today. There are dozens of artists who produce songs with political content. At every election, the HDP stands out with their inspiring and rousing campaign music. Often, joint productions are created, in which many musicians demonstrate and support the HDP in a song. It produces a strong and mobilising aspect, when campaign buses of the HDP drive through Kurdish villages and encounter people with their songs.
P: Are there similar processes of political organisation you encounter in Germany (e.g. facing the rise of right-wing politics, recent wars, treatment of refugees etc.)? In art, authorship, names, protagonists often play an important role — how would you evaluate this in relation to political organisation, does this help mobilising in some cases or does this take away radical potential? How do you think political efforts could be employed strategically through artistic action?
KS: I believe that artistic and cultural activities are essential also for the political sphere — I wouldn’t really separate them. Many more people can be reached on a completely different level. What I try to convey in a 60-minute speech is often much more impressively mediated in a good song or a poem. In this respect, it has strategic importance for political struggle. Here, the term hegemony plays an important role, for example in the fight against the political right. Fascists always try to spread their ideology through music, concerts or festivals. On the one hand, you have to counter this concretely politically, for example by blocking them. On the other hand, however, something must be done to counter it on a cultural level. Of course, there is a long tradition of the “political song”. I am thinking here of Franz Josef Degenhardt, Konstantin Wecker, Hannes Wader or Georg Kreisler — unfortunately all of them are men. The group Floh de Cologne, whose lyrics and songs are still relevant today and get under your skin, has influenced me very strongly. Unfortunately, almost nobody knows them anymore.
To name a current example of the (cultural) hegemony of political protest: I find it impressive how many artists in the USA show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrate against racist police violence. The good thing about it is: they don’t try to take away the radicalism from the protest. For example, when Madonna publicly announces “Fuck the Police,” Star Wars actor John Boyega speaks at demonstrations, or Trevor Noah explains why it is understandable that the massive riots have occurred in recent weeks. This is something positive and, in my opinion, new in this massive character.
To be honest, I missed such a broad solidarity among artists in Germany after the right-wing terrorist murders in Hanau. There was Bist du wach?, a good rap track by Azzi Memo and some others, but many big names of the rap scene are completely missing.
P: Maybe a more general question: where or in which formats or strategies do you see the most important potentials for political organisation, also in terms of their strategic applicability in art and culture?
KS: I think that a combination of different formats and strategies is necessary. The political and artistic levels have to be connected, to complement each other. It is also the case that the leftist movements that have a certain influence always produce their own culture. You can see this very well today in the Kurdish freedom movement, which is very active in the cultural field and has an incredible output despite the repression. Right now, the Turkish army is trying to occupy more parts of Southern Kurdistan, in a region called Heftanin a few days later there was already a first protest song, which supports the resistance of the population and the guerrilla.
In Europe, there are some publishing houses and production companies, which make books and music possible. New music videos are produced regularly. The German state, for example, strongly disapproves this. Last year in Neu-Isenburg near Frankfurt, for example, it banned the Mezopotamien publishing house and the music production company Mir Müzik; thousands of books were confiscated, including language books and even Kurdish translations of Noam Chomsky. At the same time, a complete music archive was confiscated and with it the cultural memory of an entire people. We are somehow used to such things happening in Turkey, but that 21st century Germany still uses such methods of repression regarding cultural thought is somehow scandalous. There has been great solidarity from the publishing scene and the illegalised book titles are now published for the most part by the Münster-based Unrast Verlag.
I think, that one can also see from the state and the positioning of culture, how broadly leftist movements are anchored. I come from the communist movement, was a member of the German Communist Party for many years and still see myself as a communist. Our marginality and our inability to renew ourselves can also be recognised in the fact, that for years (even decades) no progressive cultural output worth mentioning, that reaches many people, has emerged within our environment. We still sing the workers' songs of 50 or 100 years ago. This is fun and serves our own community spirit, but it is not particularly attractive for outsiders.
P: After all this, how would you define political art — what would the criteria be?
K: Just for the record: I personally prefer culture that is resistant, that denounces grievances and encourages change. For me, as I am not culturally active myself, i.e. only consuming, culture is not an end in itself, but should aim at changing this unjust society and thus, not serve to maintain the status quo. Abdullah Öcalan, the initiator and co-founder of the Kurdish freedom movement, describes in his new book Sociology of Freedom (originally published by Unrast-Verlag in 2020) that culture in itself means resistance. “The resistance of cultures is reminiscent of the flowers that prove their existence by piercing through rocks or breaking through the concrete of modernity poured over them and coming back to light” (p. 387). He points out an important thing here: when state repression is so strong that political action is no longer possible, resistance can survive in the niches of culture. There are many examples of this in history.
Of course, there are also other motives for producing art and culture. I am not really in a position to criticize or even condemn that. That is the good thing about the freedom of art. I would only be pleased if artists were to position their political being more openly in their art. Because every public activity and expression, whether as a scientist, writer or artist, is political. Not positioning oneself in today“s times on the side of the oppressed, exploited, excluded, but standing neutrally or as an observer in the “middle” is also a position, namely of the existing and thus of the ruling classes. If I may, I would like to recommend a little reading for the German speaking readers. In Denken in einer schlechten Welt (2018, Matthes & Seitz Verlag, Berlin), the French sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie examines the role of cultural and knowledge workers in today”s society. You can learn a lot there. Desmond Tutu phrased it nicely: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” I have nothing more to add.