“Taksim is like hell today,” Ali Berktay, a Turkish publishing executive, wrote me in an email yesterday from central Istanbul. He was telling me about his jailed sister, the writer and pro-Kurdish activist Ayse Berktay. But first, the square.

“The police has come back,” Ali wrote, “and is using intensively the lachrymatory gaz.”

Tear gas never had such a mellifluous ring to it. Ali works at Iskultur, whose headquarters overlook what had come to be called the Free People’s Republic of Taksim Square.

I’d spent much of last week in and around the square. Then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent police armed with water cannons and CS canisters to end the siege of the park, turning it into a wasteland the size of Giants Stadium.

An irony of his putsch, certainly not lost on the likes of Ali Berktay, was Erdogan’s blustery declaration just before the police action, that “they think we do not know anything about politics, arts, theater, cinema, poetry, painting, aesthetics, architecture,” the New York Times reported.

“They” know enough — enough to appreciate the power of art in general and words in particular, which is what brought me to Turkey and the crisis of Ayse Berktay in the first place. She’s been in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy women’s prison for nearly two years. Ali thought she might be released on June 7.
‘Black Beauty’

In her day job, Ayse is a popular translator and adaptor of literature including children’s books: “Black Beauty” is a favorite. She’s also edited influential collections on history and feminism.

In her non-day jobs, Berktay, 58, is a leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which won 36 seats in Parliament in the last election. The BDP was accused — falsely, its members insist — of being connected to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S., the E.U. and Turkey consider a terrorist organization.

At 5 a.m. on October 3, 2011, Berktay was arrested. In all, 144 pro-Kurdish writers, artists and intellectuals plus 34 lawyers associated with them were charged with acting as “a subsidiary organ of a terrorist organization.”
76 Journalists

Also in prison are some 76 journalists and publishers, making Turkey one of the countries regularly spot-lit by PEN International, the global organization defending free expression. Berktay was recently awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. In absentia, of course.

She argues that restrictions on Turkey’s Kurdish population — especially concerning the freedom to teach in their own language — are cultural murder.

“I have always had a very special relationship with language, with the word,” Berktay recently wrote to the three judges hearing her case. “I know that a person’s mother tongue is her identity, and that killing a mother tongue means destroying the memory, identity and culture of a people.”

Erdogan’s stance toward the Kurds is usefully ambivalent. On the one hand, he recently negotiated a cease-fire with the PKK. And yet the people on the cultural side of the issue languish in jail.

Every few months, the prisoners are bused to Silivri, about 90 kilometers from Istanbul. The lawyers argue that there is no basis for the indictments. The three judges listen, then clear the courtroom for a few hours before releasing a handful of prisoners while the trial continues.
Confident Smile

Last Friday Ali hoped that Ayse would finally be freed while the case continued. They waved to one another across the vast courtroom. She was smiling and looked confident, he told me. Fourteen were released, but she wasn’t among them. The next opportunity will come on September 9.

I asked him why Ayse, who is not Kurdish, had taken up their cause.

“Ayse says that when we fight for the freedom of others, we fight for the freedom of all,” he said.

Note to Erdogan: A cultured people does not imprison citizens who fight for cultural freedom.

(Jeremy Gerard, the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News, reported from Istanbul. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Jason Harper on cars.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at [email protected]