At dawn, only hours after I arrived in Istanbul, the muezzin at the mosque across the street from my hotel began chanting the call to prayer: Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar, Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah… It was loud. Loud beyond belief. An ancient song amplified by modern technology and audible, I’m sure, all the way across the Bosphorus.
Out on the streets later, I was fascinated by the pace, the crowds, the lively culture. And curious about how in one ten-foot space there could be women in miniskirts and women in full burkas—not just the hijab, but the burka that is all enveloping, all black, with just a tiny slitted opening for the eyes.
I was in Istanbul not just as a tourist, but also for work. SEVEN (or YEDI in Turkish), the documentary play I wrote with six amazing women writers—Carol K. Mack, Ruth Margraff, Susan Yankowitz, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, and Anna Deavere Smith—had been selected for the 18th Istanbul International Theatre Festival, and the Swedish Consulate had invited us to attend.
Sweden and Turkey? Could any two places seem more opposite?
Four of us made the journey—Carol, Susan, Ruth, and I. When we arrived, we were instantly caught up in a swirl of activities related to the performance; the Swedish director and Turkish producer and their crews were all articulate, creative, committed, active artists who believe in the intersection of arts and politics. SEVEN excited them; it tells stories about women who aren’t passive or victims. It’s documentary theatre, told in the words of female activists who work to stop human rights abuses—including government corruption and violence against women. The stories are real—and I think that’s why the play affects people so deeply.
When we had lunch with the Swedish Consul General, Torkel Stiernlof, the mystery of the Swedish/Turkish connection became clear. He told us that Turkey wants to enter the EU, and that Sweden is performing its role as friend to Turkey to help out in this cause. Though Turkey has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and is qualified for EU membership financially, Turkey’s human rights record is a whole other story. Before the country is acceptable to the European Union, it’s going to have to address those issues, among them being violations of women’s rights—not just denial of basic freedoms, but also spousal murders and abuse at the hands of fundamentalist family members. SEVEN/YEDI is helping in that goal, because the Swedes believe in using the arts and humanities to create awareness, start discussion, influence the culture. Hence our presence at the theatre festival. (Sigh…oh that we valued the arts more in the U.S., or at least, that non-artists recognized the value. Oh that we wouldn’t have to constantly defend the importance of what we do, or feel as if it is an afterthought or trivial.)
Later, I was part of a panel composed of American, Swedish, and Turkish women talking about the value of telling women’s stories—because they don’t always get told with truth. What a thrill to be part of this interchange of ideas. Smart, reasonable, calm, creative-thinking women talking about drama in the most modern and ancient sense of the word in a city where so many cultures, past and present, East and West, come together. The play, too, in a venerable old theatre, with a full house, kept the buzz and the discussion going.
This is the dialogue we all crave as women in the theatre. I’m happy that SEVEN has been a catalyst for so much hopeful discussion. With any luck, it will open someone’s mind, set somebody free, even inspire new plays that will go again out into the world and make more ripples.
I am so proud that I am doing women’s work.