Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held his first official rally April 28 in Izmir province for the elections that have been scheduled for June 24. Erdogan called Kurdish Arab singer Ibrahim Tatlises to join him on the stage. Known as the "emperor," "Turkish Pavarotti" and "Ibo," Tatlises is a legend with his impressive voice and colorful personality. Since the 1970s, he has captured the media’s interest not only in Turkey but in the Levant with his macho personality. He also owns restaurants and construction companies. He has had several run-ins with the law, and he was shot in the head and sustained permanent brain damage in 2011.
Tatlises, while holding Erdogan's hand, sang a few songs and shared an anecdote explaining why he supports the president. He said that at the time Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul his 2-month-old son had caught a cold as his villa did not have proper heating. Erdogan, he claimed, answered his plea to bring natural gas to his neighborhood. He turned to Erdogan and said, “You remember, right?” Erdogan confirmed. While Tatlises was talking, the fact-checking on social media began. It appeared that his son was 2 years old when Erdogan became Istanbul’s mayor. In a country where children still die due to poverty, Tatlises’ false victimhood story was met with anger on the internet.
Erdogan then announced that Tatlises is seeking nomination to run for parliament on the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ticket. However, the president did not elaborate that this is Tatlises’ fourth time attempting to become an AKP lawmaker.
Tatlises has been with Erdogan during other historic moments, too. In November 2013, for instance, Erdogan met Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani at a public rally in Diyarbakir province. This moment was also celebrated with the return of iconic Kurdish poet and singer Sivan Perwer back to Turkish soil after 37 years. Perwer and Tatlises sang together in Kurdish.
During this gathering Tatlises told the crowd, “If I have a son, I will name him Baris [Peace].” The Perwer-Tatlises duet became unforgettable, with Kurdish activists singing alongside AKP lawmakers.
Most of these Kurdish activists and politicians are no longer welcomed in the Turkish parliament. A Kurdish activist and historian, who asked to remain unnamed, told Al-Monitor, “Tatlises is the epitome of an opportunistic figure whose main concern is his own wealth and safety rather than art. Tatlises has not only betrayed his own Kurdish roots but also his social class. But then again he is not the only one. Look at the so-called artists visiting the troops at the border [with Syria in Reyhanli town, Hatay province] — it was a circus. These are not artists, but rather Erdogan’s cheerleading squad. And Erdogan in full combat uniform is trying to imitate [former] US President [George W.] Bush.”
Indeed, on April 1, photos of Erdogan wearing a camouflage uniform flanked by several celebrities reached the public. Soon videos and detailed reports of the visit surfaced. All the artists present were trying to impress the president and his ministers rather than to entertain the soldiers. Tatlises performed a military cadence with new lyrics, telling the soldiers, "If you find Afrin unpleasant go for a ride to Manbij."
The majority of the Turkish public was not pleased to see such a happy crowd singing and rejoicing at a time of mourning and war. Main opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu did not mince words at the April 3 parliamentary meeting. “If there is a death in our apartment, we respect the family and [don't] even turn on the TV. In Afrin, we lost 52 soldiers. This is not a time to be singing,” he said. Although the pro-AKP media did not publish Kilicdaroglu’s criticism, Erdogan has not been seen since in military gear.
Pro-Kurdish party members along with several social media users denounced the artists supporting and condoning the war. Tatlises faced further criticism following the announcement of his candidacy for parliament on the AKP ticket from Izmir — a western province — rather than his southeastern hometown. Social media users said that he has betrayed his Kurdish identity.
Tatlises' AKP support is not unique, as several other famous figures — from transsexual to Alevi — have rallied around Erdogan. In different conversations over the years, the AKP elites have been consistent in their argument that Erdogan needs "good" Kurds, moderate seculars or others whose identity is under scrutiny; those select few are then showcased as being accepted, as long as they cheer for Erdogan.
One of these celebrities is transgender singer Bulent Ersoy, also known as the Diva. She is a frequent guest at the presidential palace, particularly during Ramadan dinners. Yet the LGBT community has suffered under AKP rule.
Given that Tatlises and other celebrities enjoy lifestyles that are in conflict with the government’s ideology, how can they justify their eager display of support for Erdogan? Ayse Cavdar, a scholar of anthropology, told Al-Monitor, “Tatlises is the symbol of a rags to riches story who would do whatever it takes to become and remain successful. His life story, preferences, attitude and relationships with powerful figures have strong attributes to the shadowy side of Turkey. There is no principle that cannot be sacrificed. The golden rule is to win at any cost. All ways and means to victory is justified through one fact: He has started life at the bottom.”
She said, “Tatlises is a celebrity, people fear him, and they want to be close to him and associated with him. But one thing never happens: No one really respects him. Reputation is a commodity to be bought. Hence it is quite understandable that Tatlises can cheer for a government that has risen to power on the argument of being the underdog and the perpetual victim — but then destroys everything in its path.”
Cavdar added, “It is a fact that we fail to properly address the shadowy factions of Turkish society. Hence that's one of the reasons why we cannot properly explain how the AKP stayed in power for so long, while their biggest success is destruction of all aspects of life.”
Erdogan has managed to generate a controlled environment where only those who unconditionally support him appear by his side. Over time, this has created a circle of pro-AKP celebrities who enjoy a lavish lifestyle and lucrative deals sustained by their close affinity with political power.