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I used to be a guitarist, now I am a ‘terrorist’

Turkish folk musician IBRAHIM GOKCEK explains why he is on a death fast in the face of persecution by Erdogan’s authoritarian government

I AM in my room, watching the outside, looking out at a garden in a neighbourhood of Istanbul’s slums. 

I could easily see the Bosporus if I were to go outside. I am, however, lying in my bed. I weigh just 40kg. My legs are not strong enough to carry my body any more. I can only dream about the Bosporus, at least for now.

I am on the stage. My guitar is hanging on my neck, with my favourite star patch on it… 

There are hundreds of thousands of people in front me, singing Bella Ciao with their clenched fists up in the air. My hands, like those of a virtuoso, strumming the strings. My legs are strong, firm enough to run around Istanbul.

Both stories are true. I am both of them, this is our reality. Because I live in Turkey and am a member of a music band that performs political music. 

So my story is just a reflection of the larger story of my motherland. Until today, I have been refusing to eat for 310 days. Let’s say: “This is how I express myself, by starving.” 

Or to put it another way: “They took my bass guitar away, so I turned my body into an instrument.”

I am Ibrahim Gokcek. I have been playing bass in my band Grup Yorum for 15 years. 

The band was formed 35 years ago by four university students and its history is full of ups and downs, very much like the history of Turkey. 

This history has culminated in these days, where we had to starve ourselves to death just to be able to play live music.

A member of our band, my dear comrade Helin Bolek was laid to rest on April 3, as she was on the 288th day of her hunger strike. 

I took over the lead. Now, you may say: “Members of a music band are dying and for the sake of what? Why are they choosing a terrifying method such as hunger strike unto death?”

The answer lies in that burning reality for the sake of which Helin sacrificed her 28-year-long life and I risked my self-dissolution: we were born amid the struggle for rights and freedoms after the 1980 military coup in Turkey. 

We have released 23 albums that brought together the popular culture with socialist ideas. Our albums sold more than two million copies. We sang the songs of the oppressed people in Anatolia and in the world. 

We have been through whatever has been experienced by those who stood for their rights, the dissidents and those who dreamed of a free and democratic country. 

We were detained, arrested. Our concerts were banned. Police raided our cultural centre ceaselessly and crushed our instruments. 

And for the very first time in the history of the country, under the Justice & Development Party (AKP) regime, we have been added to the list of “wanted terrorists” with price tags on our heads.

This is why I refuse to eat: because of this situation which, I assume, must be surprising for you. Because I do not feel like a terrorist, despite the price on my head.

I am not allowed to live, so I am dying.

Here is why we are on the list of “terrorists:” we are singing songs about the miners who have to work seven floors down below the earth, the workers who were killed in workplace accidents/murders, the revolutionaries who were killed under torture, the farmers whose habitats were plundered, the intellectuals who were murdered, the dwellers of the slums pushed to poverty, whose homes were demolished, the oppressed Kurdish people and those who resist oppression. Doing so means “terrorism” in Turkey.

You’re wrong if you think that such a form of art would not have any purchase, especially in the last three decades with the socialism discredited worldwide: we as a band organised the highest-attended paid concert performed by artists in Turkey in the entire history of the country. 

In that concert, 55,000 people sang the songs of revolution in Istanbul’s Inonu Stadium. 

And I was there with my bass guitar, accompanying a wonderful choir of 55,000 people. 

About a million people attended our last free public concert, part of a series of concerts called Independent Turkey.

We hosted intellectuals and artists for four years in a row. Even Joan Baez took the stage in one of them, with a guitar destroyed by a policemen when they raided our cultural centre.

Throughout the years, Grup Yorum was effectively oppressed by different governments. We discovered, however, things would get worse when the AKP declared a state of emergency after 2016 and began a crackdown against the journalists, intellectuals, academics — in practice all sections of the society. 

One morning, we woke up to see the names of our six members in the list of terrorists. I was in that list too: a guitarist who was in concert performing for a million people five years ago has suddenly been turned into a “terrorist.”

The ruling party was coming down heavily on the more prominent sections of society as its crisis deepened. After the list was made public, our cultural centre was raided nine times within two years. Almost all our members were arrested, one by one, replaced, courageously, by others. 

A moment came when there were no free members of the band. We then had to overcome the ban and find musicians to play for a concert. We organised online concerts by the young people who came from our public choir-training activities. 

We have organised press statements and petitioning campaigns. The oppression, however, did not end. I was arrested in February 2019 during a police raid on our cultural centre. 

We declared a hunger strike on May 2019 with the following demands: the bans on our concerts must be lifted; the raids to our cultural centre must be stopped; arrested members of our band should be released and their legal cases must be dismissed; and our names should be taken off of the list of terrorists. 

Then, our hunger strike with Helin Bolek turned into a death fast. This means that we choose to starve ourselves until our demands are accepted — even if we may die.

As our legal cases went on, Helin and I were finally released. The government, however, turned a deaf ear to our demands, despite the support of the people and the continuous efforts of many intellectuals, artists and deputies. 

When visited by a group of officials, Helin said: “I would end my hunger strike action if they promise to let us have a concert.” 

They did not promise anything. We were even banned from holding a funeral the way she wanted.

Now, Helin is buried in a graveyard in Istanbul with a white wedding dress lying on top of her grave. 

The room next to mine where we starved in solidarity for months is now empty. 

And I: I do not know where my final destination will be, whether death or life will win this war that is being fought through my body across history. 

But I know this very well: I shall hold the life I have and continue walking up to death — until our demands are met.


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