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Friday, May 11, 2007

Diplomatic Licence [2]

Analysis by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Britain is trying to cash in on its cultural commodities, can Turkey do the same? Britain is trying to cash in on its cultural commodities, can Turkey do the same?

Tarkan's Cultural Value

The phrase "cultural diplomacy" stands for something important: it is an exchange of cultural values, that can not only complement, but enable traditional diplomatic channels. With its rich historical cultural resources, Turkey is well equipped for cultural diplomacy. British cultural institutions like the Royal Academy of Arts have enjoyed a good relationship with their Turkish counterparts, for example. Their Turks exhibition about Turkish civilisations was one of the most successful ever put on by the society.

In terms of contemporary sources, Turkish music artists are one of Turkey's largest pool of cultural exports. As it was Turks that first shaped our view of orientalism in music in the West, it was a Turk again that changed the soundscape of pop on the European continent with a kiss (a.k.a Tarkan), and the style of the Eurovision song contest with dance (à la Sertab Erener). Success may not be constant, but when they win, they win big.

In 2004, two big cultural events that represented Turkey in Russia and Germany both fronted Tarkan (with two other of Turkey's major exports, Sezen Aksu and Sertab Erener helping out at the Berlin festival). Two years on and the President of the European Turkish Tourism Council, Hüseyin Baraner, recently mentioned how Tarkan was still the saviour of Turkish tourism. "He is still a superstar in Russia," he writes. "If ever you get in trouble in Moscow, offer out a ticket to a Tarkan concert. See how things go smoothly then." More recently still, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake survivor supermodel Petra Němcová gave a party celebrating her return to modelling in New York by playing Tarkan's music at the star-studded bash.

It is not hard to realise that thanks to artists like Tarkan, between Turkey and other countries, the success of its cultural events can create a web of informal, yet invaluable, connections.

Web Diplomacy

In the past foreigners saw an image of Turkey only as it was projected to them as the West thought it to be. In American schools children are still screened the undoubtedly racist (as a product of its time) movie "Midnight Express"; though - especially since America has been on the receiving end - more are now questioning what they see, and sharing their views about it on the Internet.

In the same vein, Ali Yildirim is doing a lot for the "Turkish image". His contributions on Turkish culture, directly and indirectly, have become a bridge to connect us to the "other"; with arguably the most important benefit of his virtual presence being the flipside to the 70s Hollywood mythos that all Turks are moustachioed babarians. Moreover, at a time when Internet resources and simple overviews of the large soundscape of Turkish music were minimal, the first informative page was his page at this blog, becoming a template for the high standard article now found at Wikipedia. In time, such works will come to be understood as the foundations for a new type of cultural diplomacy.

Increasingly in such ways, people outside of Turkey are learning about its culture through direct encounters with Turks abroad, or through virtual encounters on websites like MySpace and YouTube. In a sense, everyone is a diplomat now. Such cultural spaces can literally provide forums for a different kind of political debate away from official negotiating tables, especially as Turkey is on the brink of entering the European fold. As a dominantly Muslim country trying to enter a union of Christian domains it once tried to colonise for its Empire, Turkey has naturally had a hard time.

Yet, it possibly has the largest role to play. For its part, it needs to avoid underestimating the value of culture - and its assets like Tarkan - as a positive force in international relations. The government needs to spend lots of time and money trying to find out those who are actually making the country great. Turks need to capitalise on their successes not to strengthen national pride at home, but to strengthen the bridges built that have helped them, despite the anti-Turkish lobbyists, to connect globally with the world.

Picture reprinted from BBC News online (Helen Mirren).

Main | Part one | End of part two | Part three | More Mayhey articles

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