Arabesk, the blues of Istanbul

Those of you who know Arabesk, Arabic-style music created in Turkey, will be shocked by the title of this blog post. Defining Arabesk as the blues of Istanbul! Ridiculous! Arabesk is a genre by itself, with its own history and development, you can’t call that the blues of Istanbul! I know, dear readers. Still, the title perfectly explains what this blog post is about.

I went to the Istanbul Film Festival, to a film about Arabesk music called ‘Arabesk from street sound to mass culture’. A short film, only an hour. With not too much depth, as even I could see as a non-expert.

Arabesk started to be popular in the sixties, mainly among poor people with demeaning jobs. Dramatic music, even more dramatic text. Slowly it developed, influenced by urbanisation, economical growth and political turmoil. Unfortunately these factors were only mentioned, and not really explained, even though it raises many questions and awakens your curiosity. It was shown that in time, even the elite started to be interested in Arabesk, and we saw old Arabesk singers who used to sing for poor people, perform in a fancy Istanbul restaurant for rich Istanbulites. At the end of the film, a young modern Arabesk singer sort of jumped onto the screen. A Turk from Germany. He mixed Arabesk with pop music, and won a prize.


The director of the movie, Cem Kaya, was there after the film to answer questions. He didn’t even wait for the first question but immediately asked for the microphone and started to apologize for his product. He defined his film as a ‘Micky Mouse version’ of the documentary he would like to make about Arabesk. The film was made on order for German-French TV channel Arte and German TV channel ZDF. They had a week of programmes about Istanbul, and they needed music too. A pitch was written out, Kaya and two colleague film-makers competed with the idea for this film, and won.

‘They paid for the whole film’, said Kaya, ’so they had a big say in the final product. As soon as it went too deep, we had to switch back to the music. For example we couldn’t handle the influence of the 1980 military coup on the development of Arabesk, because the audience wouldn’t understand.’

And the Turkish-German younger singer at the end? Request from France and Germany. They wanted the East and the West to meet. So apparently this is how Kaya made the East and West meet. Kaya: ‘Yeah, life sucks’. And he mentioned the name of the movie as proposed by Arte and ZDF: ‘Arabesk, the blues of Istanbul’. The audience reacted with laughter and sounds of shock, and Kaya said he resisted that title. It would be beyond every reality to name Arabesk ‘the blues of Istanbul’.


Afterwards I asked Kaya why he sent the film in for the festival when he didn’t like the movie himself. Turns out not he, but the distribution company made that decision. And Kaya didn’t object. ‘On film festivals like this, you can discuss the process of film making, and of how it sometimes works. A product like this is a good start for a discussion. That’s an important function of a film festival.’

A great and honest approach. I hope that at least these commercial productions enable Kaya to make independent films, just the way he thinks a film should be.

7 replies
  1. Cem Kaya
    Cem Kaya says:

    Dear Fréderike Geerdink.

    In general you remember the evening very well. But
    you make things up in this article, I´ve never said or even mentioned. And you quote me on the basis of what you kept in your mind.

    When I first read it today in the morning my name still was Gökhan Bulut, my co-director´s name. Now I see, you at least researched my name correctly. Not bad for the beginning.

    The following things you just made up on the basis of your assumptions. That´s the same kind of mentality in journalism I was criticising yesterday.

    I´ve never said or mentioned this:
    “, so it could fill an hour together with two minutes of commercials.”

    You should know, that Arte does not show commercials between their TV shows.

    I´ve never said or even mentioned this or something similar to this either:
    “And there’s another positive side, of course: with the money earned from this commercial product, Kaya can for some time again focus on the independent films that he usually makes – and loves.”

    I´ve said similar things to what you quote here. Contentwise it´s true. But these are not exactly my words. However you put them as quotations.

    ‘They paid for the whole film’, said Kaya, ’so they had a big say in the final product. As soon as it went too deep, we had to switch back to the music. For example we couldn’t handle the influence of the 1980 military coup on the development of Arabesk, because the audience wouldn’t understand.’

    ‘Then we decided to be persistent, we really couldn’t make that happen. It’s beyond every reality to name Arabesk the blues of Istanbul.’

    In this article you twist my words and make things up. On top of it you try to promote yourself by writing:
    “Still, the title perfectly explains what this blog post is about.”

    How difficult can it be for a journalist just to write the things as they were without embellishing them? We are talking about a Q´n A of a film at a film festival. Nothing important. But still you are not able to reflect it true to reality and you put some of your interpretations into my mouth. I kindly ask you to stop that.

    I hope you find my criticism here as well “A great and honest approach”.

    Best regards.
    Cem Kaya

    P.S.: We recorded the Q´n A.

  2. Fréderike Geerdink
    Fréderike Geerdink says:

    Dear Cem,

    Thanks for your reaction!

    There is a difference between quotation and non-quotations. Quotations are only the parts between quotation marks. The last sentence, for example, is indeed totally my interpretation: I assume you love the independent film making, but you didn’t say that so I also don’t present is as a quote. The same goes for the 58 minutes; I don’t suggest you said that, but I felt I needed to explain why the film lasted exactly 58 minutes and apparently I did that wrong – I took the sentence out.

    The other two quotations you mention (about the coup and about the name of the film), might not be exactly your words, but as you say, contentwise it’s true. It is almost never possible to use somebody’s words exactly, because they are spoken language and it has to be turned into written language, otherwise it’s unreadable or grammatically incorrect.

    When I wrote the blog post, I googled-pictured your and Gökhan’s name to check who of you was speaking. That didn’t lead anywhere, so in first instance I used Gökhans name. That turned out to be the wrong guess, so I quickly changed it. For a publication in paper or magazine of course I would have checked before publication, but online journalism is faster, and as some American online medium says: ‘We are never wrong for long’. Maybe you don’t find that very funny, but at least, it’s been corrected quickly and as you see I’m open to critics.

    By the way, your talk about the film reminded me of my own work. How I, when I sell a story, have to think in the magazines format. Often I can find a magazine for a story that I want to write that fits the format that I have in mind, but of course not always. Real independent work is difficult, because you have to finance it yourself. But I should make more effort to make independent productions too. So the evening turned out very inspirational for me.

    Thanks again, I love discussion on my website!


  3. Cem Kaya
    Cem Kaya says:

    Hello Fréderike,

    thanks for your quick response and also for being so kind to post my comment, furhtermore for being open to critics.
    I appreciate that sincerely, though your arguments for me are not satisfying.

    The distinction between a quotation and a non-quotation is general knowledge. The main problem in your article is that you do not underline, what is what I said and what is what you assumed. This leads to the wrong perception, that I said all that is written there, cause I´m presented as the only source of knowledge.

    That´s the reason why I put in my comment first the things that were wrong in terms of content and emphasized, that I did not say or mention this or something similar to this. Because your article implies I did. Then I went over to the quotations.

    Your assumption I love the independent film making is true and it´s no quotation as you emphasize in your response, but the assumption, that with the money earned from this project, I would now go on making independent films is just wrong and let´s say a very romantic interpretation. However for the reader it sounds, as if I said so.

    With this film I haven´t earned the amount of money that could finance an independent project. I do not have plans to make independent films in the next couple of years. On the contrary, I´m in the making of a documentary film, that again is funded by TV, but in a format, that gives me all the independence I need to make it my film.

    Apparently, what you write is wrong, but you still try to get away with it, by saying it´s no quotation. Tell me, is there any sign in the following that implies, that this is your interpretation?:
    “And there?s another positive side, of course: with the money earned from this commercial product, Kaya can for some time again focus on the independent films that he usually makes ? and loves.”

    As for your argument about quotations. If the spoken language was too complex to write it down, then in my opinion, just don´t quote! There are other ways of delivering content.

    Your argument with online media and print media for me doesn´t work either. As I assume that this is your own blog, you are not under pressure of hastily publishing your articles. And why should you be publishing this one so fast? It´s no breaking news. Still any published content should contain basic informations that are right. We as opinion makers have the sole responsibility of the content we publish and should double and triple check it before going public. You can´t entirely rely on the internet´s potential of sooner or later outbalancing wrongs and rights. I may haven´t seen your article. People read it, while it was not corrected. People still read it, while there are still inaccurate parts. Not everybody reads the comments. You say on Twitter, that you have 6500 visitors a month. Isn´t that a reason to be more careful?

    You corrected wrongs that are indisputable but you present it as a merit and emphasize your openness for criticism. Things you still think you can come away with, you don´t touch and even don´t ask why I think they are wrong. You write:

    “but at least, it?s been corrected quickly and as you see I?m open to critics.”

    I wonder, what other options you may have had as a sincere journalist other than making these corrections quickly?
    And what other attitude is there to show other than being open to critics?

    There´s another thing that came into my mind today, that disturbs me. You did not present yourself as a journalist, when you spoke to me after the film.

    Thanks in advance for posting this too. It´s very inspiring discussing things out with you. See you on Twitter.

    With kind regards.
    Cem Kaya

  4. Fréderike Geerdink
    Fréderike Geerdink says:

    Dear Cem,

    I didn’t present myself as a journalist because at that point I didn’t have the intention yet to write a blog post about it, I was just there as a film festival visitor and I was curious, like I always am. Later I thought it would be an interesting blog post. It’s not breaking news, true, but still, I always feel an urge to publish blog posts as soon as possible, not three days after something happened. Must me part of the journalism blood.

    Apparently, something went wrong here, I can’t deny that, you feel unhappy about it and I’m sorry about that. On the other hand, the blog post does reflect in general what was discussed that evening, and I still think it’s interesting for people to read that and to learn from it. Also from this discussion, by the way.
    I learn again too, it sharpens me and yes, I’ll be more careful the next time!

    By the way, ‘the spoken language’ was not too complex, it’s a general thing: if you write down somebodies exact words, it’s usually unreadable, because spoken language is just different than language you write down. Any journalist can tell you that and I think you know what I mean.

    By the way, do you follow me on twitter? What’s your twitter name then?

    best wishes,



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