Turkey’s Capital of Culture shrugs off the jibes

The National
January 12, 2010

ISTANBUL As officials at the European Capital of Culture Agency here know all too well, once you’ve been named a Capital of Culture, it’s only a matter of time before the “Capital of Corruption” jokes start. It makes things no easier if your country is already notorious for corruption, and as Turkish economist Osman Altu? puts it, “If there were a corruption Olympics, Turkey would get the gold medal.” Things are harder still if your country is one with a tendency to grind all good intentions into fine bureaucratic dust.

That said, Turkey’s performance does not seem to be notably worse than other cities that have held the honor. The one-year title is awarded by the European Union to a city, or cities, deemed particularly worthy of having its cultural assets showcased. Some 40 cities have been designated capitals since 1985. “The event,” says the European Culture Commission, “is so attractive that Europe’s cities vie with each other fiercely for the honor of bearing the title.” Heaven knows why, since it so often ends in budget deficits, scandal, bitter recriminations and public outrage.

A study prepared for the European Commission by International Cultural Advisors Palmer/Rae Associates noted that “almost all cities” thus far selected “reported that there were problems with their governance structures.” The most commonly noted problems were “domination of political interests, relationship difficulties between Board members and with the operational management team, the absence of representation of cultural interests and the size of the governance structure.” Moreover, they noted, “personality clashes, communication problems, inappropriate experience of personnel and unclear responsibilities and job descriptions” were ubiquitous.

Istanbul will take over the culture capital flag on January 16, along with Essen, in Germany, and Peç, in Hungary. The organizers have said their goals include the promotion of Istanbul as a brand and the development of long-neglected cultural heritage projects: “The name of Istanbul will be associated with culture and arts all over the world,” the Agency’s website proudly predicts, and “the city’s cultural heritage will be managed in a sustainable manner and it will become even more of a magnet than ever.” Jobs, add the organizers in what is perhaps an access of optimism during a global recession, “will be created for a large number of people ranging from communications to organization, education, design, management and creative fields.”

But these admirable goals have thus far been overshadowed by embezzlement allegations, resignations, high-volume public debates about managerial incompetence, and charges that Istanbul’s culture is being destroyed by rapacious development faster than it can be promoted.

Özgül Özkan Yavuz, the Agency’s Tourism and Promotion Director, winced when the subject of corruption came up. The local press, she said, had been irresponsible. Turkish people were prone to jealousy. “People don’t understand. This is the first time we’ve done something like this in this country and people aren’t used to it.” She noted that roughly 2000 projects had been proposed to the agency, of which only a fraction had been accepted by the executive board. “People can’t accept that their applications were rejected because their projects were no good. So they start rumors about corruption.”

As anyone who lives in Turkey knows, this is entirely plausible—and so are the charges of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement. “We didn’t expect this,” said Yavuz of the criticism. If so, it is hard to believe she grew up in Turkey.

A press conference and dinner held by the Agency for foreign journalists in late December displayed the organizers’ good intentions and earnest devotion to the ideal of Istanbul as a European cultural treasure. It also displayed their inability to organize their way out of a paper bag, their bureaucratic infighting, and their naiveté about public relations. Foreign journalists showed up (as foreign journalists will), having been lured by the promise of an expensive meal of salmon and steak, then slapped their heads in annoyance as official after official read from long, droning, prepared propaganda speeches before letting them at the food. They were shown expensively-produced commercials about the projects underwritten by the Agency as the Agency’s own employees rolled their eyes and sank deeper into their cups. They were then sent home with equally-slick lists of impressive-sounding upcoming events that featured no specific calendar date.

As Yavuz tried uncomfortably to dispel the unpleasant rumors about irregularities in the Agency’s accounting, other members of the Agency cornered journalists to complain, off the record, about just that—and about their colleagues, the way their efforts had been sabotaged by bureaucrats in Ankara, and Turkey’s general philistinism. “The extent of the destruction is unbelievable,” said one high-ranking official of the Agency, describing her futile efforts to preserve Istanbul’s archeological heritage from careless commercial development. “This country runs on nothing but greed,” said the journalist seated to her side, prompting sighs and nods of agreement from the entire table. Another Agency official noted that new venues for the arts were being built by contractors with no knowledge of acoustics; still another shook his head and pronounced the entire endeavor a “disaster.”

The detail that somehow summed it up was the singer. An Irishman with a guitar and a powerful amplifier pitched up during the dessert course to wail off-pitch Cat Stevens cover songs, and then took it upon himself to scold the guests for their inattention to his art. It seemed to have occurred to no one that a self-confident cultural capital might prefer to invite an entertainer who in some way represented Istanbul’s own cultural traditions—or any notable European cultural tradition—to perform.

That the Agency has been accused of budgeting irregularities is no shock. There’s hardly an organization in Turkey that isn’t, as a matter of routine, and more often than not, there’s a hint of truth in the charges. But every time a Turkish citizen buys gas, money is siphoned off feed the Culture Agency, so these accusations in particular have a sting. The opposition CHP has produced documents suggesting that the amount unaccounted for amounts to a very considerable sum, and has hinted (typically) that a conspiracy to swindle is involved. Investigations (typically) have been delayed. The chairman of the executive board, Nuri Çolako?lu, resigned in February. Other board members followed suit. Press conferences have turned into protests in which irate attendees have required vigorous eviction.

Some of the projects supported by the Agency certainly do leave the organization open to the charge that their selection process has been made with some criteria other than cultural significance in mind. The most notorious has been the award of a nine-million-lira contract to a residential construction company to re-enact the 52-day circumcision ceremony of the son of Sultan Murad III. Contracts for the restoration of the city’s historic walls, it is said, have been given to bidders so unqualified that archeologists are in convulsions; some hint that as a result, Istanbul is at last apt to be thrown off UNESCO’s world heritage list. The Innocence Museum, named after the most recent book of Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, is not open despite the 750,000 lira thus far spent on it. The renovation of the Atatürk Culture Center—described by the Agency as “one of the most important elements of the 2010 ECOC program,” not least because it is supposed to be the venue for many of the planned events—has not been completed as scheduled, and the project can scarcely be mentioned in Istanbul before someone repeats the rumor that corruption tainted the award of the tender.

More disturbingly, large neighborhoods of Istanbul have been targeted for “revitalization” before the city takes on Capital of Culture title, and in at least two of these neighborhoods, Sulukule and Tarlaba??, what this has in fact meant is the mass displacement of local populations. In the case of Sulukule, this population is precisely what makes the neighborhood culturally significant, in as much as it is believed to be the first permanent Romani settlement since the migration of the Roma from South Asia a thousand years ago. Given the important Roma musical tradition in Istanbul, it is hard to understand quite how the displacement of this neighborhood’s inhabitants—in violation of the UN Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage—has anything to do with cultural preservation.

In Istanbul’s defense, a great many of the proposed projects are obviously laudable. Important restorations of historic structures and mosques, such as the inner part of Hagia Sophia and the kitchen and harem areas of Topkap? Palace, appear as if they will be successfully completed; genuinely interesting workshops, literature days and cultural seminars have been arranged throughout the city. Beyan Murphy, the Agency’s director for Theater and Performing Arts, says that Istanbul’s status as a cultural capital had encouraged many significant performers to agree to come to Istanbul for the first time.

Whatever the truth in the rumors, Istanbul is hardly the first European Capital of Culture to have suffered such charges. Vilnius, named a capital in 2008, is still trying to recover. Its first director, Elona Bajorinien?, was forced to resign amid allegations of embezzlement. The prosecutor’s investigation into the project’s finances is ongoing. Liverpool’s tenure as a Capital of Culture, in the same year, left a legacy for the city of a new £29 million debt. The list of further examples is long.

The Palmer Report suggests that financial irregularities are the rule, not the exception. “Certain cities,” they noted, “had difficulties in furnishing even basic information. In other cities, two or even three sets of figures were received that were sometimes difficult to verify, and frequently summary figures mentioned in final published reports of individual cities did not match with the budgets submitted.”

Following the press boondoggle, some of the guests were told that the Irish singer hadn’t even been invited; he had simply crashed the party, and no one had known who was responsible for controlling him.

“Typical,” sighed one of the Agency’s exhausted emissaries.

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