ISTANBUL — A gay peasant, a nymphomaniac and a lecherous imam all figure in a bawdy theatrical play about Turkey highlighting contemporary issues such as consumerism, emigration and the proliferation of a confessional talk-show culture.  

The lead character is a young man about to perform his military service who, to his macho father’s consternation, enjoys dressing up in women’s outfits and dusting the house. Concerned relatives decide to banish the problem by employing the lecherous imam to marry him off to the village nymphomaniac. Two wrongs make a right goes the play's skewed logic, sending up in the process traditional Turkish villages that view homosexuality as a shame to be hidden rather than discussed.

“It tells us how ignorant and homophobic we are,” said Eran Cesar, 22, the lead actor who impersonates the gay son. “Because we discuss dangerous issues, we have to criticize them indirectly and in a closed scene. If we spoke about them openly we could be killed. We try to fight with humour rather than stones.”

Turkish newspapers have ignored or criticized the play, calling its actors ‘homosexuals’. The play broke new ground in employing two trans-sexual actors in its cast. Although both are graduates of Istanbul’s prestigious Conservatoire, they have not been able to find new roles since their gender-change operations.

“By putting them on the stage, we tried to make a revolution in Turkish society,” said Cesar. “But we failed.”

The play is called "Cins’ler Problem’ler", which is Turkish for "Sexual Problems". But the word-play also means "Djinns’ Problems" in a nod to the folk belief that nymphomaniacs are possessed by demons.

Istanbul has the Middle East’s most public gay scene. Whereas Saudi Arabia and Iran execute their homosexuals, the Turkish Constitution’s Article 10 pronounces all citizens equal. Even so, a recent string of vigilante-style killings omens ill for societal acceptance of alternative lifestyles.

A gay physics student named Ahmet Yildiz was shot to death coming out of a bar in Istanbul over the summer in a suspected gay honor killing. Next, several of Istanbul’s transvestite brothels inexplicably burned down overnight. Iranian gays waiting out the result of their refugee applications in a half-dozen traditional Anatolian cities report daily harassment and beatings by gangs of homophobic youths. Last month, a transvestite was shot dead in the capital, Ankara.

Nevertheless, Turkey held the region’s first Gay Pride in Istanbul last summer. At the same time, homosexuality has become another bone of contention in the ongoing culture wars between secularists and Islamists. Human Rights Watch detailed “extensive harassment and brutality” in a May 2008 report urging the Turkish government to extend greater protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-sexual groups. 

“Turkey remains a deeply conservative, if highly heterogeneous and regionally differentiated, society gripped by a patriarchal and militarist state ideology rooted in the foundational myths of Kemalism,” said Kerem Oktem, a research associate at St Anthony’s College, Oxford. “The trans-sexual condition is particularly threatening to the ideological constructs of modern Turkey’s very essence, the clearly circumscribed roles of men and women in the public sphere.”

So it was not surprising that no official theatre would take on such controversial subject matter as "Cins’ler Problem’ler", the production staff confessed. Instead, they perform in Chadir (Tent), a stage-bar in Istanbul’s waterside Ortakoy district rigged with fittingly camp décor. The room is designed like a cavern, with golden-sprayed rocks glinting in the dark, windowless interior dotted with couches, tables and chairs.  

At least one of the actors appears under a pseudonym so as not to jeopardize any other jobs in the public sector. During last summer’s Gay Pride weekend, the play was staged in the French Cultural Center and "Cins’ler Problem’ler" has toured Turkey’s liberal Aegean coast region.

Controversial subject matter aside, the play is solidly rooted in Turkey’s centuries-old "orta oyunu" vernacular tradition of farce enacted by amateur actors in the village square. A contemporary twist has the characters settling their differences in a Jerry Springer-style, trash-talking morning show. Arguments break out with the same regularity as commercial breaks featuring household appliances in a send-up of the consumerist wave currently sweeping through Turkey’s formerly impoverished villages.  

“It’s successful because it forces you to face your prejudices,” said Ozgur Gezer, an audience member. “The girl wants to sleep with everyone but this also empowers her. Aggressive female sexuality is powerful because it’s a threat to society.”

Turkey's society is experiencing enormous structural change as it seeks entry into the European Union. Despite enjoying the coarse humor, not all audience members support the play’s fundamental message of tolerance. Instead, they see it as mirroring a deterioration in Turkish morals.

“In the last 20 years, we have been submerged in talk of the EU,” said Sardar Ozen, a 32-year- old car salesman. “But we’ve only picked out the morally inferior aspects. For this sad state of affairs, American culture is to blame.”  

(Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Turkey on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

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