Arabesque music as ‘high treason’

Arabesque music as ‘high treason’

Fazıl Say, probably Turkey’s most prominent pianist, has recently become a politically controversial figure because of his public remarks. The latest of these not only created yet another discussion, but, more importantly, also brilliantly summarized a powerful political philosophy in a few simple words. “Listening to Arabesque music,” Say said simply, “is tantamount to high treason.”

For those who are not familiar with Turkey’s tunes, let me tell you what “Arabesque” is: It is a genre that emerged in the 70s that combines some Oriental melodies with modern tones and, of course, with Turkish lyrics focused on sad love stories and broken hearts. For some reason, it is very popular among taxi drivers, hence some even relate to Arabesque as “taxi music.”

In other words, Arabesque is usually not a “cool” thing to listen to for members of the Turkish upper class, who rightly or wrongly consider themselves sophisticated. And Say, as a proud member of that class, has of course the right to find Arabesque music unbearable. There is nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, musical tastes can sometimes be seen as a reflection of various social groups in other countries as well. In the United States, for example, a person who whose loves Mozart or Bach is more likely to be, say, a university professor rather than a construction worker. The latter would probably be more prone to listening to rock or rap music.

However, our imaginary professor would probably not define rock or rap music as acts of “high treason.” That would be an unimaginable comment and would be considered insane.

The reason why Say differs here is not that he is insane, but that he is under the strong influence of Turkey’s eight-decade-old policy of authoritarian cultural Westernization. This tradition presumes that there is one true authentic culture for society that the state has the right to define, promote and even impose. The state, for example, can execute people for refusing to wear the Western-style brimmed hat, or ban Turkish music on the radio all together as it did in the 20s and 30s.

One irony here is that this imposition of Western norms of culture is clearly at odds with the Western norms of politics, which we call liberal democracy. (Hence Turkey’s cultural Westernizers have always despised both liberalism and democracy.)

The second irony is that some of the social segments that have been oppressed by the authoritarian modernizers in fact share their oppressors’ basic assumption: there should be one authentic culture for Turkish society, and everybody should be expected to follow it. They only disagree on the content of this “one authentic culture.”

For example, not all but many religious conservatives would be happy to see their norms imposed by the state. They, like Say, probably even see acts of “high treason” around them, in their fellow countrymen who show cultural traits they find foreign.

As long as this idea of a monolithic nation with a single authentic culture remains strong in Turkey, our cultural wars will not end and our political system will remain illiberal. Only when we understand that we can be a multi-cultural nation in which both the most Oriental and the most Western mores can co-exist without defying each other, we will find some peace of mind.