Thursday 4 May 2017

"Should I wait for darkness to see the stars?"

Afghan playwright and actor Monirah Hashemi in Sitarah – The Stars

Michael Schmidt

Monirah Hashemi’s slippers slide on the polished floorboards of on the stage at the orientalist Moriskan Paviljongen. The microphone echoes to the rhythmic thumping of her fist against her chest. The audience of arts rights defenders from across the world are silent, horrified, entranced.
Her performance of the play Sitarah – The Stars, a portmanteau tale of the struggles of three Afghan women against patriarchy – of Halima, sentenced to death by stoning in 2013, of Sara, dealing with the aftermath of the civil war in the 1980s, and of Gul Begum, forced into slavery during the 1892 pogrom – is harrowing. One character sums up her pain by asking “Should I wait for darkness to see the stars?” Yet before the play began, Monirah herself answered that “the women who are the stars are screaming – not that they are victims, but that they are fighters.”
And Safe Havens 2016, the second in an annual series of three gatherings hosted by the City of Malmö, Sweden, brought together fighters for artistic freedom from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America to debate challenges and innovations against the backdrop of the swing towards neo-fascism and right-wing populism in countries as diverse as the USA, Syria, Britain, Turkey, Poland, and South Africa.
The overarching theme of Safe Havens 2016 – the defense of cultural heritage and the protection of its defenders – is underscored in a presentation by Iraqi writer and artist Ashraf Atraqchi, whose slide images of the bulldozing of the ancient gates of Nineveh, dating to around 7000BCE and reconstructed in the 20th Century, and the destruction last year of Mosul’s ancient Assyrian sculptures and city wall by Islamic State fanatics reduce him and many in the audience to quiet, angry tears.
Ashraf had worked on a cultural radio programme alongside several writers. Around 2004, he started receiving death threats from a group that evolved into Islamic State (ISIL) – then a friend on the programme was murdered, so he mounted an exhibition in Mosul. The destruction of artworks themselves began in 2006 with the detonation of a public sculpture cast in the early 20th Century.
“I saw they destroyed a most beautiful statue that I knew from my childhood [it was] lying broken on the ground, with people silent around me. I felt responsibility about my city – and someone wanted to delete my memory, my cultural memory.” His response was to document all the city’s sculpture on an Arabic website, an initiative that earned him further death threats. In 2014, ISIL invaded Mosul and Ashraf fled to Turkey. Two years later, ISIL began the wanton destruction of Mosul’s heritage.
“They destroyed the wall around the ancient city. When I saw the ISIL propaganda film I felt as if my body was destroyed because they destroyed my life… I don’t understand why they destroyed the gate and the wall. Before, when they destroyed the sculpture it was an Islamic thing because of some text by Mohammed... I hoped for an airstrike [against ISIL] when they were doing this but nobody cared, the international community didn’t care.” 
Over the past few years, the Middle East and its peripheries have been at the epicenter of Salafist fascist assaults on human rights and freedoms and especially the arts that express those – yet many political and state responses to the crisis in the form of the huge wave of migration it has generated have been as anti-democratically hardline as the original ISIL threat.  
At Safe Havens 2015, the question had been raised in a workshop about what country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could possibly have cities that would fit into the ICORN galaxy. Although Tunisia’s Revolution is troubled by reactionary forces wanting to turn the clock back, as warned by 2015’s keynote speaker Lina Ben Mhenni of the blog A Tunisian Girl, the capital Tunis certainly has potential as a City of Refuge. However, workshop participants felt that Turkey fitted into a list of “grey countries” where it was feared the authorities might abuse the presence of a City of Refuge to whitewash their human rights violations. Then in on 15 July last year, Turkey experienced an apparent coup attempt that gave President Recep Erdoğan the excuse to purge not only the civil service, but the academies and to persecute artists too, which has made the working and living environment for Turkish artists far more dire.
Last year’s Safe Havens organisers decided to take a “deep dive” into the Turkish situation and the first speaker is Sara Whyatt of the Sara Whyatt Consultancy: “When I joined PEN in the 1990s, the number of writers and journalists in prison [in Turkey] was around the 100 mark, already high: most were Kurds held under anti-terrorism laws and others held under insult laws. The scenes were very similar for many decades, but I will jump to the issues still current today. In 2010/11 there was a crackdown on Kurdish writers, activists, lawyers, politicians and their supporters: several thousand were arrested across Turkey… There was very little evidence that any of the writers were involved in terrorism. Ragıp Zarakolu and Büşra Ersanlı are still on trial now, seven years later, though they are released, and it is even worse for the Kurdish writers who spent more time in jail: Muharrem Erbey spent five years in pre-trial detention and he is also still on trial. And this was taking place during the peace process with government talks with Öcalan, and while conditions in the south-east getting easier – but they were getting 10-year sentences. By 2011 there were 85 writers in prison and 79 more on trial. 
“During the 2013 Gezi protests there were thousands of arrests including scores of journalists and 13 people were killed. Yet there was no significant increase in the prison population as relatively few were convicted... However artists and actors are unable to get work, people were sacked, so there was an impact other than imprisonment. As president Erdoğan got more authoritarian, he also got more thin-skinned: around 1,400 people were sued for insult, including even people such as Merve Büyüksaraç, Miss Turkey, who was convicted for a tweet. 
“To look at the current crisis, we need to go back to December 2013 when a money laundering scandal that implicated many high level officials, among them Erdoğan’s son, broke. Erdoğan has accused the scandal of being an attempt to undermine the government, so a purge was started of the academy, judiciary, business, etc. Erdogan pointed finger at exiled religious leader and businessman, Fetullah Gülen, accusing him of orchestrating a plot to overthrow the government. This was the start of campaign to cleanse the judiciary, police and others of Gülen supporters, which by July 2016 had extended to media, academics, schools and latterly business people. Many thousands are under arrest, facing trial, lost their jobs and suffered other penalties.
“Meanwhile we’ve seen the Özgür Gündem case, where supporters of a Kurdish newspaper under censorship – writers, activists, academics and others - formed a rotating editorship. Scores of them have been arrested and their trials are under way. Most well-known are Aslı Erdoğan, internationally renowned writer who was living in a city of refuge in Europe then decided to return to Turkey to support her colleagues. She has been imprisoned for several months.” Note: She was freed later in December to face trial.
Sara screens a picture taken inside a women’s prison showing the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem produced by hand in the prison, with visitors taking pictures of the newspaper by smartphone, then distributing it. 
“Then in July 2016 came the coup attempt and another surge of arrests and dismissals under emergency regulations under which the government can shut down any media organisation, impose curfews, bannings of demonstrations, restrictions of access to spaces, criminalisation of talking about Kurdish issues, no access to lawyers for five days, and even restrictions on who can act as lawyers. Again alleged supporters of Fetullah Gülen were targeted, although very soon others not connected with the coup and once again Kurdish activists are being penalized under anti-terror laws although they were not involved in the coup.
“These events have overshadowed yet another case in early 2016 – the Academics for Peace case where 1,400 academics in Turkey signed a petition ‘Not in Our Name’ in response to a police and military crackdown, sieges and shootings in Kurdish towns, and the response was swift: more mass arrests, job losses and other penalties. 
“What is notable over the past two decades is that while the numbers of people in prison changes, the misapplication of terror and insult laws doesn’t change. Media and freedom of expression is the first target. So ultimately, to stop this pattern being repeated, what needs to be done is a review of laws, to repeal anti-terror legislation, remove insult as a criminal offence, and end the targeting of Kurds and ethnic minorities.”
Responding to Sara is Turkish curator and producer Pelin Başaran, who is based in the UK and Turkey and who founded the Siyah Bant (Black Ribbon) campaign, “to analyse censorship cases and advocate for freedom of expression. Until now, we are documenting censorship cases, and linking some English articles. The website is just one of the media we are using to understand censorship dynamics and modalities: we visited 10 cities around Turkey and spoke to 80 artists about censorship, then published the results in a book that mapped censorship cases in Turkey. 
“We were so much inspired by work done in Beirut in 2012. We collaborated with the university, and collaborated with lawyers and others. We focused on music, art, dance, cinema, and literature: five areas. We designed some research projects: justifying the cases it was not possible to go deeper, so we produced research projects of about 10 pages summarised for the blog. The first was on the effects of cultural policy in Turkey: the peace process in Turkish Kurdistan – nothing changed for artists during the peace process; we talked to curators and artists about freedom of expression. And the next report to come out next week, will focus on questions of soft power and the limits of arts freedom. 
“After that we can also talk about advocacy: we were a bit weak because it was difficult to get people around our work, but their first need was a toolkit. They didn’t understand how to act if something happened to them. We ran the webpage but also disseminated the research articles free to arts departments, schools, etc. We invited arts and law students in two cities and gave training to them about artistic freedom of expression, arts rights, women’s rights, etc… 
“We submitted reports to the UN and regularly report to the EU. We support artists: legal support for them, write letters to the Cultural Ministry, artists come to us for advice, we work closely with artists. Until Erdoğan’s coup we weren’t looking at artists at risk, but we felt it was coming to the arts as well, so we established a hotline for legal assistance. We get lots of information on how to act. Anti-terror and defamation laws are problematic, but there are also non-state actors: many censorship cases happen though informants going to the police who then shut down exhibitions. The state gives impunity to those who attack artists and artistic works. All who challenge norms are under threat, some are jailed, some lost their jobs.”
Pelin screens an image of a man in a crowd at the 2013 Gezi protests. “Here is an actor who is beloved even by the police because he portrays a police character. He tweeted that it was not just about Gezi Park, and he got death threats and is now living in the UK, though he went with a business visa. It is interesting how he became very popular including with the police, then became an artist in exile. One of the documentaries about Kurdish guerrillas, Bakur [North], was invited to the Vienna Biennale, but its film certification was denied so Bakur was denied.
“The Kurdish party was getting support from society, then in 2015 the Kurdish party went for the first time beyond a threshold, but just after, there were many attacks by Kurdistan Eagles and ISIS made attacks, and some 300 people died. In 2015, the peace process ended with PKK, and a curfew was imposed on many Turkish cities; it was difficult because we were aware of what was going on in Kurdistan, and they asked for help and we were not able to do anything. The people who want to stop this state violence in Kurdistan have received many threats, many have lost jobs, and many have had their passports cancelled. In January 2016, there was an ‘I Am Walking For Peace’ march across the country, but two artists [who marched] were arrested; they were released but are still facing trial. There was an exhibition called ‘Post Peace’ in February 2016 in a private gallery: the exhibition was cancelled by the gallery itself – and so it is impossible to talk about peace.
“After the coup, 100 journalists were purged, 100,000 officers and 30,000 teachers lost jobs, 180 radio and TV stations, mainly Kurdish, were shut down… Meanwhile democratically elected Kurdish leaders were arrested, and the government has placed their own people in around 30 municipalities, so the PKK doesn’t govern those municipalities anymore, which affects the cultural activities, as festivals and activities and gatherings are cancelled. Some actors are working as city police because they needed jobs. 1,495 NGOs are closed, 12 of them cultural and most of them based in Kurdistan.”
The situation for artists affected by the rise of right-populism and neo-fascism – especially those artists who have by force of circumstance taken on the mantle of human rights defenders – remains of critical concern to the organisations that will in December this year again gather for the third Safe Havens conference. So in the interim, ArtsEverywhere has facilitated that a cohort of some 60 individual arts rights activists from organisations across the world engage in an ongoing series of learning sessions to share best practice on how to defend our artists within their home countries and how to relocate them to safety should it prove necessary. That process will culminate in the first Arts Rights Justice Academy under the aegis of the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy for the Arts in Development at the University of Hildesheim in Germany over 26 August to 3 September. 
In answer to Monirah Hashemi’s question, the global arts community has responded unequivocally: “We will ignite more stars to banish the darkness!”