Looking Back

James Baldwin in Istanbul: Art and Activism in Exile

While in Istanbul Baldwin used fierce artistry to unmask the USA’s façade as the custodian of freedom and democracy, explains curator Gürsoy Doğtaş.

Glenn Ligon, Installation View at 16. Istanbul Biennale. Short film "From Another Place" by Sedat Pakay, 1970. Photo: Sahir Uğur Eren. Courtesy Istanbul Biennale.

By Gürsoy Doğtaş

The voice is spellbinding—unmistakable too. It speaks from offscreen: “And perhaps only someone who isoutside of the States realizes that it is impossible to get out. The American power follows one everywhere.” In these opening sentences, James Baldwin gives a rough appraisal of his time in exile. He had been living in Istanbul on and off for around ten years. This is captured in part in From Another Place, a short film portrait shot over a period of three days in May 1970 by Sedat Pakay, a student of Walker Evans. Baldwin grants him an intimate view of himself.

Although a sense of history comes through in the images and the medium itself, the film seems timeless. In 2019, Glenn Ligon incorporated it into the exhibition he put on in a palace on Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands. The installation also included strings of lights suspended in the space and spelling out the illuminated word “America.”

Opening shots: Baldwin wakes up. American warships can be seen from his bedroom, out on the Bosphorus. During the Cold War, Turkey was a key geostrategic concern for the US. Sitting by the window, Baldwin smokes his first cigarette of the day.

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“I cannot imagine a country in the world as beautiful as Turkey, a people as nice as the Turks,” confided Baldwin in a television interview he gave in Paris (another place of exile). On August 18, 1969, the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet ran these sentences, fêting Baldwin, at a time when he was once again living in Istanbul. Where can Black people live comfortably? Not in France, and certainly not in the US—but rather in Turkey. That is Baldwin’s message.

The FBI’s 1,884-page file on Baldwin includes this passage from the interview. We may wonder whether Baldwin knew that the agency’s intelligence gathering reached as far as Turkey. When Charles E. Adelsen visited him in Istanbul to conduct an interview for Ebony magazine, he made no mention of it, instead praising Istanbul as a haven of retreat: “To begin again demands a certain silence, a certain privacy that is not, at least for me, to be found elsewhere.”

Pakay’s shots contrive the appropriate images to convey this. Baldwin’s bedroom is the first stop on his brief tour of Istanbul.

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When From Another Place was filmed, Baldwin was already a prominent figure on Istanbul’s cultural scene. Some of his books had been translated into Turkish and were on sale in bookshops. He directed the highly acclaimed play Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which opened on December 23, 1969. All the action takes place in a prison cell. The play combines various of Baldwin’s sociopolitical concerns, focusing, for example, on the racist judicial system in the US, which criminalizes and imprisons civil rights activists and the Black population in general. The FBI’s investigation of him was intent on something similar. But Baldwin’s critique went further, targeting the violent structures of the patriarchic system per se. According to Fortune and Men’s Eyes, even people damaged by these structures perpetuate them. Baldwin’s discourse on homosexuality and homosocial intimacy kicked in here.

Fortune and Men’s Eyes, by Canadian dramatist John Herbert, had previously been staged by other directors in Canada, the US, and England. Herbert’s play deals with his own imprisonment. He was attacked and mugged, but the perpetrators turned the crime on its head by convincing the judge that they had been repelling his sexual advances. Herbert’s homosexuality made him a criminal in Canada at the time.

In the Turkish version, Baldwin renders Fortune and Men’s Eyes as Düşenin Dostu (“Friend of the Fallen”). Engin Cezzar encouraged Baldwin to put the play on in the small theater he operated with his wife, actress Gülriz Sururi. The two men had become friends in New York and worked together there, with Cezzar playing Giovanni from Giovanni’s Room at the Actors Studio. If it hadn’t been for Cezzar, Baldwin would probably never have gotten to know Istanbul.

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At a time when students and activists were occupying the streets of Istanbul—protesting, for example, “against imperialism and exploitation”—Baldwin was a kind of anti-American ally, who would speak out about racism in the United States.

In Düşenin Dostu, Baldwin takes the dialogue between two inmates in the first act of Fortune and Men’s Eyesin which they make racist remarks about Canada’s Indigenous population and turns it into a discussion about African Americans and, therefore, about racism in the US. The Turkish equivalent of the N-word is dropped into the conversation. Baldwin has Rocky—an inmate who wants to dominate the other three prisoners in the cell—say, “Lazy bastards. Has anyone ever seen a N— working? All they do is get welfare from the government.”

At a time when the US was using diplomacy, intelligence networks, and cultural production to present itself abroad as the custodian of freedom and democracy, Baldwin broke ranks and disowned this fraudulent grandstanding.

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The prison play links up with Baldwin’s activism to protest detainment policies. Time and again, the US government would silence the voices of civil rights activists by locking them up. When Angela Davis was arrested in 1970 and threatened with the death penalty, Baldwin published an open letter in support of her in The New York Review of Books. Addressing himself to Davis, and by extension the public at large, Baldwin writes: “The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make black people despise themselves.”

“The American power follows one everywhere” also suggests that Blacks were arrested in other countries at the bidding of the United States. Tony Maynard, a friend of Baldwin’s, was wrongfully accused of murdering a Marine in New York. He was arrested in Hamburg and remanded in custody for six months before being extradited to the US, where he served a further five-year sentence.

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Düşenin Dostu made waves in Istanbul, where it generated some of the early momentum of the Stonewall Uprising. LGBT rights campaigners and activists opposing detainment practices had formed alliances early on. These two elements intersected with one another, as many LGBT people were serving prison terms for their sexuality. Accordingly, one stop on the route of the first march on June 28, 1969, had been at the New York Women’s House of Detention.

The play takes up these questions of identity, while hooking them into local discourses of homosexual love. Translations of the English slang drew on “Lubunca,” a kind of secret language used by sex workers. Derived from slang used by Romani people and contains words from many other languages—Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Russian, Greek, etc.—it still features in the queer community in Turkey: in a hostile environment, it cannot be understood by unwelcome outsiders.

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Activists in France were also campaigning against racism and imprisonments. Jean Genet wrote the introduction for the book Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1970) by George Jackson. This book of letters written from Soledad prison includes messages to Angela Davis. Impressed, Genet declared, “What follows must be read as a manifesto, as a tract, as a call to rebellion, since it is that first of all.” Genet himself had spent many years in prison and repeatedly reflected on prisons in his novels, in his film Un chant d’amour (1950), in interviews, etc. In the introduction, he clarifies for readers a fundamental truth about prison:

“It might be supposed that as the site of absolute malediction, prison, and at its heart the cell, would enforce by its misery upon those confined there a kind of solidarity required by that very misery, a merciful harmony in which all social distinctions maintained in the free air would be abolished. Prison serves no purpose.… That is an idealistic hope which we must avoid or get rid of.”

Baldwin knew the reality of this kind of thing. He had been jailed too—albeit only for a few days—in 1949 in Paris. It was just that he had no wish to “get rid of” his idealism. For Baldwin, prison began someplace else. He points to this in his essay “Gide as Husband and Homosexual” (1954 /1961 reprinted as “The Male Prison”), his critique of André Gide. Maleness itself is the prison. Men’s inability to love isolates them completely. “Nothing is more dangerous than this isolation,” Baldwin realizes, “for men will commit any crimes whatever rather than endure it.”

At the end of the play, two inmates manage to escape the male prison. Mona, an androgynous detainee at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, and Smitty, who, from a position of inferiority, takes over the cell, opt out of a new cycle of sexualized violence.

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Sabri Günay Akarsu of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet was impressed by the play’s unflinching, progressive approach. On January 4, 1970, he wrote, “[The play] is a warning that should be heeded.” Other newspapers chimed in with reviews. Düşenin Dostu had 103 performances and toured Turkey.

In the March 1970 issue of Ebony, Adelsen wrote a piece entitled “A Love Affair: James Baldwin and Istanbul,” in which he explained the performance to American readers and revealed that Don Cherry had done the music for the play.

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In Pakay’s Film, Baldwin says of US, “One sees it better from a distance … and you can make comparisons from another place, from another country.”

When it comes to prison, Turkey and the US now resemble one another. In 2018, Turkey’s incarceration rate per 100,000 of the national population put it in second place after the US.

Baldwin also witnessed something of this side of Turkey when a friend of his, the Kurdish writer and socialist activist Yaşar Kemal, was yet again detained for alleged communist activities and on racist grounds. In Turkey too, Baldwin used his voice to reach out and fight for Kemal’s release.

If Baldwin were alive today, he would probably be campaigning for Osman Kavala, who has been in prison for years on a baseless charge.

 

Sources (selection)

Plastas, Melinda, and Eve Allegra Raimon. “Brutality and Brotherhood: James Baldwin and Prison Sexuality.” African American Review 46, no. 4 (2013): 687–99.

Zaborowska, Magdalena J. James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile. Durham, NC, 2009.

 

 

Gürsoy Doğtaş is an art historian at the University of Applied Arts (“Angewandte”) in Vienna. He has conducted research on James Baldwin’s activism on behalf of political prisoners at the Tarabya Cultural Academy in Istanbul. One initiative that never came to fruition was to have Yarasa Sokak near the German Consulate—the street on which Baldwin last lived—named after him.

 

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