2022 Webby Honoree Documents Queer Turkish Icon

23 May, 2022
Long­time Turk­ish icon Zeki Müren (pho­to cour­tesy makingqueerhistory.com).


İlker Hepkaner


“Zeki Müren, you are the best thing that hap­pened to us.” Leav­ing a voice­mail on a hot­line twen­ty years after his pass­ing, a fan of Zeki Müren, over­heard by view­ers of a new doc­u­men­tary, express­es Turk­ish people’s deep love and admi­ra­tion for the most pop­u­lar music per­son­al­i­ty of the 20th cen­tu­ry in Turkey. On the sur­face, the 2022 Web­by Award Hon­oree Zeki Müren Hot­line is a web doc­u­men­tary recount­ing the mem­o­ry of Zeki Müren, who still enjoys wide­spread accep­tance by Turk­ish peo­ple despite pub­lish­ing a man­i­festo on why he wore a skirt on stage dur­ing his per­for­mances in 1970. How­ev­er, Zeki Müren Hot­line, which you can watch in Turk­ish and Eng­lish, also doc­u­ments how queer artists in Turkey expe­ri­ence fame, love, hate, and resistance.

Film­mak­er and edi­tor Beyza Boy­acıoğlu directs with media artist Jeff Soyk. Boy­acıoğlu start­ed with the idea of a film, but her stud­ies at MIT’s Com­par­a­tive Media Stud­ies pro­gram allowed her to explore a dig­i­tal, inter­ac­tive way of telling Müren’s life sto­ry. At the inter­sec­tion of mem­o­ry and tech­nol­o­gy, Zeki Müren Hot­line expounds the unique and queer place the artist still holds in Turkey through sound, image, and word.

Until his death in 1996, Zeki Müren dom­i­nat­ed the Turk­ish music scene while con­tin­u­ous­ly blur­ring gen­der bound­aries with his flam­boy­ant looks, sim­i­lar to Lib­er­ace in the US and Wal­ter Mer­ca­do in Puer­to Rico. Müren start­ed his music career on the state radio in the ear­ly 1950s as a singer, but his cre­ativ­i­ty exceed­ed singing. While pro­duc­ing hits in the genre called “Turk­ish artis­tic music,” which encom­passed clas­si­cal Ottoman music tra­di­tions, he also starred in films. He designed the con­tro­ver­sial cos­tumes he wore on stage.

In Turkey, Zeki Müren is con­sid­ered a nation­al trea­sure for all his artistry, but his rise to fame could not have hap­pened in a vac­u­um. He received tremen­dous sup­port from the Turk­ish state’s cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions. The state’s radio and TV plat­forms were wide open to him while musi­cians pro­duc­ing Arabesque — which was influ­enced by Egypt­ian and Lebanese music — faced state cen­sor­ship in the 1970s. The pub­lic has giv­en him the monikers of “Sanat Güneşi (Sun of Arts)” and “Pasha,” not only due to their nation­wide love for the musi­cian, but also because of their appre­ci­a­tion of his utmost respect and love for his listeners.

Müren nev­er pub­licly stat­ed his sex­u­al and/or gen­der iden­ti­ty but late­ly he has been wide­ly con­sid­ered as a queer icon. Cur­rent­ly, in a polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment pre­dom­i­nant­ly hos­tile to LGBTQ+ peo­ple in the coun­try, Zeki Müren is being redis­cov­ered for his exem­plar artistry and queer expres­sion. Through metic­u­lous archival research and mon­tages of his songs and imagery, Zeki Müren Hot­line not only doc­u­ments the extra­or­di­nary life of one of the most pop­u­lar pub­lic fig­ures in Turkey, but also shows how peo­ple have repur­posed his life and fame since the late 2010s as a reac­tion to Turkey’s new cul­tur­al land­scape, shaped by the AKP regime of almost two decades.

The neolib­er­al con­ser­v­a­tive AK Party’s vic­to­ry in 2002 ush­ered in a con­sid­er­able cul­tur­al change in the coun­try. In the begin­ning, the AK Par­ty (AKP) intro­duced leg­is­la­tion to advance free­dom of expres­sion as a part of Turkey’s EU bid and its agen­da of crip­pling the military’s pow­er over polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions. Hence, the first years of AKP rule wit­nessed an extra­or­di­nary shift in the cul­tur­al sphere: voic­es from the periph­ery, such as Kurds or the reli­gious­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, found more oppor­tu­ni­ties in the main­stream media and cul­tur­al dis­course. The repub­li­can cul­tur­al elite, which was the urban elite as the prod­uct of Kemal­ist cul­tur­al poli­cies of the Turk­ish state, was side­lined. The 2010 ref­er­en­dum bestowed upon the AKP con­trol of the judi­cia­ry branch; it also gave the par­ty the polit­i­cal tools to silence first the repub­li­can elite, and lat­er Kurds since the AKP could stay in pow­er only by form­ing an alliance with the ultra-nation­al­ists in the coun­try. By mid-2010, when Boy­acıoğlu and Soyk start­ed pro­duc­ing the web doc­u­men­tary, the for­mer cul­tur­al elite, the urban Kemal­ists, sup­port­ed by the pre-AKP Turk­ish state, had lost tremen­dous cul­tur­al prowess, and Zeki Müren, hav­ing died in 1996, became a nos­tal­gic fig­ure for a time lost.

By col­lect­ing voice mes­sages from peo­ple who “dear­ly miss” Zeki Müren, the web doc­u­men­tary cap­tures the urban elite’s nos­tal­gia for the pre-AKP era with­in a cul­tur­al land­scape they can no longer rec­og­nize. In this con­text, mes­sages empha­siz­ing Müren’s utmost respect for his lis­ten­ers or his com­mand of “prop­er Turk­ish,” a way of speak­ing Turk­ish accord­ing to the state’s lin­guis­tic hege­mo­ny which oppressed rur­al or non-Mus­lim speak­ers of the lan­guage, are not only about remem­ber­ing an artist who passed away almost 20 years. Those mes­sages are also expres­sions of the urban elite lament­ing the change Turkey has gone through under the AKP rule. Zeki Müren is remem­bered not only as an artist whom the Turk­ish peo­ple lost, he is remem­bered as an unde­ni­able fig­ure of the arts — almost an entire cul­tur­al insti­tu­tion on his own that no longer exists. 

The web doc­u­men­tary also shat­ters a mis­con­cep­tion about Müren’s fame. Zeki Müren was Turkey’s “Sun of Arts,” but some peo­ple chose to remain in the shade. As a young woman recounts how her admi­ra­tion for Zeki Müren start­ed in her fam­i­ly, she is inter­rupt­ed by an angry voice. Her father denies lis­ten­ing to Zeki Müren or encour­ag­ing such admi­ra­tion for him in the fam­i­ly. He does not state why he “would have noth­ing to do with Zeki Müren,” but from his asser­tion and tone of voice, it is not dif­fi­cult to guess the denial is tied to Zeki Müren’s gen­der-bend­ing looks and man­ner­isms. By show­ing the audi­ences such a human inter­ac­tion where voice car­ries the deep­er mean­ing of the words uttered, Zeki Müren Hot­line expos­es the cracks with­in the myth of nation­wide accep­tance of a man wear­ing skirt and make up on stage in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim country.

The mes­sages left for the hot­line are oth­er­wise very pos­i­tive ones. In fact, they show, at a per­son­al and com­mu­nal lev­el, how queer peo­ple remem­ber Zeki Müren and are now turn­ing him into a sym­bol of resis­tance against the patri­ar­chal and het­ero­nor­ma­tive expec­ta­tions of soci­ety. One of his admir­ers men­tions a sign that read “I asked Zeki Müren, he told me to resist” in the Istan­bul Pride Parade, an event that has been banned by the gov­ern­ment since 2016. Zeki Müren did not pub­licly crit­i­cize the state; one of his monikers “Pasha” is a term of mil­i­tary author­i­ty; and he even left half of his estate to Mehmetçik Vak­fı, an asso­ci­a­tion for vet­er­ans. But as the web doc­u­men­tary also shows, his life is now remem­bered as a way of resis­tance and an inspir­ing sto­ry for the LGBTI+ peo­ple in the coun­try. Through these con­tra­dic­tions, Zeki Müren Hot­line sum­ma­rizes the con­tend­ing lega­cies of the artist.

Over­all, Zeki Müren Hot­line is as com­pre­hen­sive as it can be towards an artist who sur­vived three coups d’état and count­less gov­ern­ments while main­tain­ing nation­wide pop­u­lar­i­ty as well as posthu­mous admi­ra­tion. Besides its suc­cess in bring­ing mul­ti­ple com­po­nents of his artistry and recep­tion by the peo­ple, the web doc­u­men­tary suc­ceeds in bal­anc­ing voice, image, word, and dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in telling a sto­ry while mak­ing sure each medium’s strengths are used for the sake of the story.

You might be just start­ing to learn about Zeki Müren or you might be an avid fol­low­er of many memo­ri­al­iza­tions of his life and lega­cy, but you will still learn so much through the effec­tive doc­u­men­tary mak­ing and sto­ry­telling meth­ods uti­lized in the web doc­u­men­tary. Zeki Müren Hot­line can be vis­it­ed here, and it will remain online at least until Decem­ber 6, 2024.