Turkish Season in France

En route from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport where he had picked her up, the taxi was taking a diminutive lady with no luggage to the Tuilleries Gardens of the Louvre. The radio was on and a DJ with a deep voice was talking about the ‘Saison de la Turquie en France’.

 “We’ve seen a lot of Muslims around here before,” said the taxi driver, a congenial man of Algerian descent, “but this time it’s like all Paris is talking about the Turks!” And then he added, “My wife went there recently. They’ve set up a coffeehouse right at the place you’re going. They serve delicious Turkish coffee. You’ve got to stop there...”

Television, radio, newspapers... One way or another everybody is talking about ‘Turkish Season in France’. And it looks as if they’re going to keep on talking about it for the next nine months... Decided on in 2006 by the then presidents of France and Turkey, following a two-year period of preparations ‘Turkish Season in France’ commenced in style in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower with a Mercan Dede concert and an ‘Anatolian Fire’ spectacular on the Place du Trocadéro.

With the backing of the Foreign Ministries of both countries, the Istanbul Foundation for Art and Culture (İKSV) and CulturesFrance, the ‘Season’, which is going to continue through the last day of March 2010, is intended to present today’s Turkey in all its many facets and dimensions. Some 400 events are planned in genres from cinema and the plastic arts to history and literature in close to 80 cities including Paris, Marseilles, Lille, Strasbourg and Bordeaux.

A cultural event on this scale, spread over almost the entire country, the ‘Season’ is a first for France. Such foreign country ‘seasons’ as well as French ‘seasons’ in other countries have been being held since 1985, but everyone is agreed that none up to now has made such an impact. Most events of this nature have been confined to one or two cities, mainly Paris. Turkish Season in contrast has penetrated down to even the small villages. The village of Bourganeuf, to name one, in the Limousin region where Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Cem Sultan spent the years 1486-1488.

The Season has the backing of France’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture and all local administrations as well as many privately funded cultural organizations. Retired Ambassador Necati Utkan and the President of the Axa Group, Henri de Castries, are the chairmen of the project, and the former cultural attaché of the French Embassy, Stanislas Pierret, and the President of the Istanbul Foundation of Art and Culture, Görgün Taner, are the organization commissioners.

With roots going back to the 15th century, relations between Turkey and France have played a key role in galvanizing support for the ‘Season’ on this scale. It’s no wonder that these relations are as profound as they are considering that there are 5,361 words of French origin in Turkish! But the Season is also intended in part as a reply to those who would downplay those relations. “The Turkish image in France may not always be positive,” says Pierret, “but Turkey is a dynamic and changing country. She just has not promoted herself sufficiently in France.” He added: “It would however be wrong to see the ‘Season’ merely as an instrument for politics. The Season is a cultural project above all else. What is important is promoting Turkish culture, overcoming prejudices and initiating a dialogue in every area.” As Görgün Taner sees it, the positive impact of art and culture on the political and socioeconomic agenda is inevitable. “There are strong indications that the Season is going to be an occasion for a political rapprochement between the two countries,” adds Taner.  

In other words, ‘Turkish Season in France’ is not going to be limited to presenting Turkish culture and art to the French people but is going to have many more benefits for the two countries.

It’s not easy to sustain the same excitement and interest for nine months in a country like France where following cultural events is such an important part of life. But the Turkish team, which is well aware of the high standard of artistic and cultural offerings in France, has worked hard for two years and put together an extremely diverse program to satisfy the interest and curiosity of the French, who are eager to discover foreign cultures. “The basic focus of the program,” explains Taner, “is to establish a bridge between past, present and future. Our aim is to show the French the contributions that Turkey can make to the European culture of the future,” adding that the team have portrayed Turkey in a modern approach in every discipline.

Contemporary art is one of the mainstays of the Season. An exhibition entitled ‘Istanbul Traversée’ which has been organized by Carolie Naphegyi, one of France’s leading curators of contemporary art, and includes the works of Turkish artists who have proved themselves in the international arena, is a key indicator of this modern outlook.

Another point not to be overlooked is the way that French officials have literally mobilized to bring the projects to fruition. For the first time in the history of the Louvre, for example, permission has been given for construction in the Tuileries Garden. A Turkish Coffeehouse, with architectural design by Han Tümertekin, has been set up in an approximately 600-square meter area of the garden and is hoped to be the Season’s meeting place in Paris. Opened on 17 July with a concert by the ‘Bohemians of Thrace’ under the direction of Kudsi Erguner, this venue will remain open until 8 August. The coffeehouse, where conversation and taste are centered around the concept of Turkish coffee, will also host two shows by ‘Kahve Bahane’ (Coffee is just an excuse) in the form of readings with music from literary works describing Istanbul and its coffee culture. Designed as a modern adaptation of the traditional Turkish coffeehouse, the venue will also host exhibitions, workshops and concerts, in a presentation which is inspired by Turkey’s rich cultural history but puts a modern face on that heritage. 

Yet another distinguishing feature of ‘Turkish Season in France’ is that the Municipality of Paris has given permission for the Eiffel Tower to be illuminated with the colors of the Turkish flag. It is said that the tower up to now has been illuminated only for the Brazil and China seasons. Now, for 21 days from 8 to 29 September, the Eiffel Tower is going to be bathed in red and white light. The illumination will begin with the opening of an exhibition, ‘From Byzantium to Istanbul: Port of Two Continents’, at the Grand Palais, one of France’s most respected exhibition venues. Included in the exhibition, which will continue through January 2010, are items culled from Turkey’s leading museums such as the Topkapı Palace Museum, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, as well as from the Louvre, the French National Library and other leading museums in Europe.

‘Turkish Season in France’ is opening the door to the establishment of fruitful and long-term relations between Turkey and France. A number of artists and cultural institutions in both countries have already begun producing joint projects. Since it opened last October, for example, 104, one of France’s leading forums for art, has been developing projects jointly with Istanbul’s Garajistanbul. Meanwhile, the Cité International des Arts in Paris has rented a workshop which will give artists from Turkey an opportunity to work for the next twenty years. Four-hundred events at close to 80 sites around France means an enormous list encompassing everything from music and literature to film and contemporary art, from theater and classical music to dance and street art. This is, in a sense, Turkey’s ‘Tour de France’. The Season looks putting Turkey at the top of France’s cultural, political and economic agenda for the next nine months. There’s a saying in French: ‘One swallow does not make a spring.’ Let’s not forget however that for us a cup of bitter coffee means forty years of friendship!