What about culture in the Turkey-Greece dialogue?
I know that some may think that this is the wrong time to talk about culture, when so much is going on in politics or the economy. This is the time of political analysts, international relations specialists, economists and financial experts. Culture is way down the priority list for people who run countries.
But I think I can argue against that. I received a call last week from the press office of a Greek regional theater, the Thessalian Theater. This theater is based in the city of Larissa, a large thriving city, half-way between Athens and Thessaloniki. This theater was founded in 1975, just after the return of Greece to democratic rule following six years of dictatorship. It was the first regional theater and its founding members included major cultural figures like the composer Manos Hatzidakis and the film director Thodoros Angelopoulos. Its aim was to bring theater to the most remote parts of the country introducing plays from ancient Greek drama to contemporary Greek and international repertoire. As of 1983 it was among the theaters which benefited from the new government policy to support regional arts and culture, hence, to increase the number of regional theaters supported by the municipalities and the Culture Ministry.
The person who called me wanted to inform about “a very happy occasion,” as she said. The Thessalian Theater was invited by the organizers of the Bursa State Theater to perform during their International Balkan Countries Theater Festival, which was launched yesterday, June 24, lasting until July 1.
A week of theatrical performances with groups coming from Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. All plays performed in their native language.
I apologized for not being able to attend the performance of the Greek group, but I was consoled by the fact that I could meet them in Istanbul where part of the company plus the director of the play were received by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomeos in his headquarters in the ancient neighborhood of Fener. Patriarch Bartholomeos is not only an environmentalist, but he is also known for his interest in the arts and culture. Actually, that was the first thing he said when he welcomed the four members of the Thessalian Theater in his office. “As the Patriarchate, he said, we are always happy to support anything that relates to the arts and culture.”
I had the opportunity to chat to the actors and the director after their meeting. They were both enthusiastic and anxious to be in Turkey and to perform their play in Greek before a Turkish audience. Although the audience would be able to read the content in subtitles, still, they were curious to how they would react to it. But Turkish acting as well as the Turkish language are familiar to them, they told me. They watch Turkish series on Greek TV and have been impressed with the “immediacy” of the Turkish players’ style. “Language is not really an obstacle. We have the same body language,” one said.
It was only three weeks ago that the foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece met in Athens as part of an ongoing dialogue to bridge their political and geostrategic differences. But, although last year’s tension has gone down, no major concrete outcome has come out yet to speak for a real change. On the contrary, the atmosphere cooled off again with each side blaming the other for “provocative statements.”
However, while the two foreign ministers were meeting in Athens, another interesting meeting was taking place in the northern city on Kavala on a deputy ministerial level, between Kostas Frangoyannis and Sedat Önal. According to diplomatic sources, the two ministers worked on a list of 25 “soft diplomacy” proposals (15 by the Greek side and eight by the Turkish side) which could be set into motion as part of the dialogue. The proposals referred to issues such as economic-business cooperation, the mutual recognition of COVID-19 vaccination certificates, health, environment, education, telecommunication, energy, technology, shipping and social security.
Unfortunately, there was no art and no culture.
Seeing the enthusiasm and eagerness of these Greek theater people to bring their work to Turkey and find bridges of communication with their Turkish counterparts, I thought what a mistake it was not to prioritize theater and all forms of art and culture into any effort to bring people together.
I hope the two ministers would agree to add a few more proposals onto their list.