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Assyrian Composer of 370 Musical Pieces in Exile
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Date: Wednesday, 23 April 2003, at 6:53 a.m.
"Turkey is a strange country. It is hostile to all the different values that grow out of its own soil"
23 April 2003
Assyrian Composer of 370 Musical Pieces in Exile from Turkey
Assyrian composer Abgar, from Urfa [Edessa], is threatened, shot at, and driven into exile because of a film he made with Meltem Cumbul [Turkish singer and actress]. Abgar, who has put his signature to 370 musical compositions as well as a film, is angered by the state that is ruled by a mentality lacking in culture.
By M. Zahit Ekinci
Simon Aram Abgar was born in Urfa in 1965. In his own expression, he was a manual worker in the music field for 25 years. Abgar, who has composed 370 musical pieces to date, plays the mandolin, the guitar, the baghlama, the oud, the piano, and various other musical insruments. He describes the world of such instruments as spellbinding, and far from every sort of evil. He has been a refugee in Europe for approximately a year now, as his life was in danger. I spoke with Assyrian artist Simon Aram Abgar, who says that every sentence in nature, even the blowing of the wind, takes place with musical notes, and who compares his life with a tragic film scenario, regarding his life and his work.
- Can you briefly tell us the story of the area where you were born?
Urfa, the city where I was born, was the site of 16 different civilizations, and well as the worlds first university, and was the midwife to the first cries of a great many thinkers, politicians, and musicians. My childhood took place in a garden of different peoples. It was a virtual mosaic of peoples, with Kurds, Armenians, and Assyrians. We had brotherly ties with all of them. No one was treated differently. And that's the atmosphere in
which I grew up.
- Well, then, how big a role do the Assyrians play in the cultural and artistic life of Urfa?
No doubt the Assyrians contributed just as much as any of the other nations. As is known, the Assyrians have an honorable history that goes back a very long way. Many Assyrian men of religion, such as Mar Yakup from Urfa and Mar Yakup from Suruch, put their stamp on Urfas cultural life. Either three or four of the eight maqams of the Assyrian (Orthodox) Church were written by Assyrian men of religion from Urfa.
- As we know, you have been a musical worker for the past 25 years. How did this passion of music come about?
Passion is impossibility. What gave me these feelings were the dreams and longings that I could never reach So I decided that I could best express these feelings through music. The first instrument that I ever had in my hands was a mandolin. I began with a broken mandolin, then I passed onto the guitar, and finally I began to write lyrics to songs, and to compose the music for them. With time, I began to play the baghlama, the oud, the piano, and other instruments.
Naturally, there is an educational dimension to this as well that's true, this doesn't happen without training. I studied at Antep University between the years 1986 and 1989, and for a year in the conservatory of Istanbul Technical University as well. There, a problem arose because of my Assyrian name how strange was the widespread intolerance for names in ones mother tongue but I was able to get my diploma with the name on my official identity card, Selami Akaltun.
- It is said that you had a music school of your own.
In 1995, I had a project to take music to all the various levels of society, so that it wouldnt be restricted just to certain individuals. But the school that I wanted to open for this purpose under my own name, Simon Aram Abgar, ran up against an invisible wall, again because of my name. I was only able to open a school under the name of Selami Akaltun, which was on my identity card, but which was never my real name. After this music school had been in business for about a year, it was forced to close due to negative propaganda that was being made about it.
- You have a number of compositions of your own?
I have 370 compositions of my own, as registered by MESAM [Turkish Professional Association of Owners of Musical Works]. In addition, a cassette that I was working on was seized by the Ministry of Culture, without any justification, just as it was coming onto the market.
- Is it just the fact that you are an Assyrian that underlies all of these prohibitions and the repressive mentality you have faced?
Turkey is a strange country. It is hostile to all the different values that grow out of its own soil. While on the one hand prohibiting these things, it says that all the minorities are free to speak their own languages and to live their own cultures. The mentality that says the Kurdish language is free today implements the most repressive measures possible against those who listen to cassettes by Xelil Xemgin [Kurdish musician]. It is only natural that the mentality that shows such a disrespectful approach to the art and the culture of millions of Kurds will not tolerate a weed like myself, who is both an Assyrian and a leftist. I dont even consider this to be unusual any more.
- Your music school closed down, and your cassette activity was thwarted. How did this affect you? Are you angry?
Naturally, one suffers great disappointment. An artistic person has to be able to express himself with the values that he finds important to life. When in other countries of the world even the trees that artists lean against are preserved, in Turkey, even forgetting about such treatment, artists are totally abandoned, or left to starve. People like Nazim Hikmet [poet], Yilmaz Guney [film-maker], and Ahmet Kaya [singer] are not born every day. But what has Turkey gained by the fact that each and every one of them was obliged to live and die in exile, far from their home? What flowers bloomed on the mountains because these people died in exile? Most of the dedicated artists who worked for years at Yesilcam [the Turkish Hollywood] died in misery. Naturally, I am angry. My anger is directed at the uncultured leaders of the state, who think that culture consists solely of prohibiting things.
- Well, apart from music, have you engaged in any other artistic
I played the chief role in a film, along with Meltem Cumbul, entitled Twisted Roots, which portrayed the life of an Assyrian. A portion of the filming took place in Urfa. But unfortunately, the film was thwarted by the Review Board of the Ministry of Culture on trumped up charges that it contained separatist propaganda and religious discrimination. As a result, all our effort, as well as the investment of resources, went to naught.
At that time, in order to make a film in Turkey, you either had to portray Malkocoglu, the fighter of Mehmet the Conqueror, or Kara Murat [references to Turkish nationalist figures from comic books and films]. So having had such a great disappointment in my first film, I had to turn down all the film offers that came afterwards.
- Your life resembles the plot of a tragic film. You came to Europe after all these obstacles were put in your way. How did this adventure begin?
Ever since the beginning, the rights granted to minorities have been merely on paper. We were never able to express ourselves in a free atmosphere.
In the southeast of the country, hundreds of Assyrian churches have been turned into stables. And the state is well aware of this. During the filming of the film in Urfa, Meltem Cumbul got death threats on many occasions just because the life of an Assyrian was being portrayed. Fearing these threats, she was obliged to leave the film unfinished. I received similar threats on many occasions. I was taken into police custody. During interrogation, they tried to find out why the film was being made in Urfa, and were trying to find some ulterior motive in this. Last year, in September, someone banged on my door late at night. When I opened the door, bullets were fired. This attack wasn't intended to kill me, but just to drive me away. And since I was unable to face all of these threats and blackmail, I came to Germany, where I believe I will be able to follow my artistic career more freely.
Translated from Turkish by KurdishMedia.com; Originally published in Ozgur Politika newspaper, 22 April 2003)
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