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Today's Zaman

Cartoons tell political journey of Turkey

12 October 2008, Sunday /ESRA MADEN
Definitions of it vary in different sources, but what we know is that cartoons have a long history for Turks, mostly revolving around the theme of politics. Drawing a cartoon is the act of "molding a real model's appearance in a strange way but keeping the basic outlines of it untouched," as described inthe first issue of the comic magazine "Kalem," dated Sept. 4, 1908.

Nowadays, there are three famous weekly political comics published in Turkey -- Leman, Penguen and Uykusuz. They reflect the political as well as the social agenda of the country through a humorous point of view. Yet, a large importance is placed on their content since they are highly influential, especially on young people. Zaman daily columnist Ahmet Turan Alkan says these comics affect people and the majority of them are issued by people who have leanings to the left of the political spectrum.

"Political cartoons have always been drawn from the opposition point of the most popular points of view. We have always been a bit socialist," Bahadır Boysal, one of the head cartoonists of famous Turkish weekly comic Leman, said to Sunday's Zaman, verifying the opinion of Alkan. Boysal further said even though the caricaturists are generally leftists, they would not have any reservations in drawing cartoons which would criticize leftist parties if they were the ruling parties. "If it were the Republican People's Party (CHP) -- which is known to be leftist -- in power, there would be cartoons satirizing them as well," he insisted.

Apart from the leftist tendencies of the cartoon magazines, there is another thing that both Boysal and Alkan agree on; the freedom of cartoonists. During the interview, Boysal emphasized the independent character of the cartoon magazines and the magazine he worked for. Yet the caricaturists are not completely free. "There is not a censorship system within the magazines and a cartoonist can draw anything he wants. But there are unwritten rules that we know. For example, you cannot exaggerate the joke and the cartoon. Everybody knows the lines which should not be crossed, but they are minimal for magazines such as ours," he noted.

Boysal further emphasized that although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not welcome the criticisms from comic magazines, former Prime Minister Turgut Özal was also drawn widely yet had no problems with his depictions. "Erdoğan has filed several lawsuits at various times against comics, however, he has never won a single one of them, as far as I know," he stated.  Boysal also said the editors do not intervene in their work and no one asks the other to justify why they drew a cartoon. "It is a supremely free atmosphere," he stressed.

As a caricaturist who has drawn many political cartoons, Boysal said he constantly follows the news and knows what is going on in political circles: "Since we do not have regular working hours, I do not sleep every day at the same hour. I sleep in my living room and there is always a news station on my TV." He also said they try to read every kind of newspaper. As for the Ergenekon case, a shadowy crime network accused of plotting against the government, Boysal said he has never drawn anything about it, expressing the view that it is not a very clear case. "It seems strange. There is not really any information about it. Is there even a crime? It is like sentencing one to death without proving that he committed a crime," Boysal claimed. However, as Boysal also accepts, it is only one aspect of the interpretation of Turkey's political agenda from a cartoonist's point of view.

Another comic magazine has announced its imminent arrival, Cafcaf, promises a different point of view from others. Political cartoons will also appear in Cafcaf and they will feature cartoons about the Ergenekon case, unlike other magazines. "We could not find any reactions about the Ergenekon case in other magazines. It is clear that someone has tried to censor the topic and people should object to this," said the editor-in-chief of the magazine, Asım Gültekin, to Sunday's Zaman.

Gültekin also finds it ridiculous that political cartoons are always drawn by leftist people. "Such a claim would be as wrong as saying, 'Cartoons should only be drawn by religious people,'" he said.

The magazine already accepts the name it will be labeled with after being released on the market: religious. "We will be published as a weekly comic magazine like Uykusuz, Penguen or Leman. We already accept that our magazine mostly consists of religious people. I want to tell people about this before they hear about it from other people. We are not on the left side of the spectrum like others. We are not ashamed of our religion [Islam], but we can talk about things in a comic way," Gültekin said.

How did the art of drawing cartoons develop in Turkish history?

Cartooning began to become an art after the second half of the 18th century in Europe. Then comic magazines began to be published during the 19th century. The world saw political cartoons in the 18th century drawn by Spanish painter Goya. A British painter, William Hogarth, also gave a place to cartoons in his many works. Cartoons were also seen for the first time in a French newspaper. A French painter, Charles Philipon, established La Cartoon newspaper in 1831 in Paris. At the time British and Germans began to use cartoons in their newspapers. Famed British comic magazine Punch led this trend.

Cartoons came into Turkish history during the Ottoman period with the first cartoonist Ali Fuad Bey, who started working as a journalist in 1869 and was a lover of the art of cartooning, as journalist and historian Orhan Koloğlu claims in his book called "Türkiye Karikatür Tarihi" (The History of Turkish Cartoons). Later during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid, the drawing of cartoons was prohibited in the empire until the second Constitutional Period in Ottoman history in 1908. Author and caricaturist Ferit Öngören says in his book, "Cumhuriyet Dönemi Türk Mizahı ve Hicvi" (Turkish Humor and Irony during Republic Period), the year 1908, when the Young Turk Revolution occurred -- which led to an awakening of a national consciousness instead of domination by the sultans -- was a turning point for Turkish cartoons. At this time, traditional Ottoman humor began to be replaced by more Western styles of humor. Comic magazines began to be produced by Turks and the first caricaturists emerged during that time. In 1908, Ali Fuad Bey, who fled to Europe came back to the Ottoman Empire and launched a new magazine called "Karagöz," referencing traditional Turkish comic puppet characters. The prohibition of the publication of cartoons within the borders of the Ottoman Empire led caricaturists to draw abroad. Thus, Turkish cartoons from 1878 to 1908 were produced abroad.

The first comic, Diyojen, came out in 1869 and was produced by Ottoman journalist and author Teodor Kasap, who has Greek roots. Kasap was the first cartoonist in Turkish history to be imprisoned for his Karagöz-style cartoons. A man is talking to Hacivat with his hands cuffed. Hacivat asks him about what is going on and he replies, "This is what freedom means in the department of law."

During the republican period, which started from the establishment of the modern Turkish republic in 1923, and continued until 1928, when the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet in Turkey, political party organizations and a democratic atmosphere determined the humor expressed in Turkey. Öngören says further in his book that the republican period witnessed cartoons written in the Ottoman language and that they were celebrating the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

While Turkish cartoons were widely drawn by artists who were educated in Europe or by non-Muslim artists of the Ottoman Empire, Cemal Nadir Güler started a new phase in Turkish cartoons with his simple style that was closer to that of the Turkish people. He drew cartoons over the period between 1920 and 1945. 1945 was another turning point in Turkish cartoons since it was the year when the multi-party system was introduced.

The coming of opposition parties caused some political cartoons to be favored over others and it created another problem. Some magazines were closed by ruling parties because they were criticizing them. One of them is "Uykusuz," which was closed several times, so it was published under different names. The longest-lived Turkish political comic, Akbaba, was first published in 1922 and lasted until 1977.