Obama ridiculed in Turkey?

. 4/11/09

When video appeared online this week of a Turkish television anchor in blackface, reporting on President Barack Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament, American bloggers leapt to comment on it — despite having little or no idea what the anchor was saying or what he could possibly have been thinking when he applied the makeup.

After posting the video, bloggers from the left and the right of the American political spectrum — including the Huffington Post, Town Hall, Scoop This and Think Progress, among others — started trying to make sense of it.

Readers at Town Hall guessed that the incident was evidence that the Turkish people were rejecting Mr. Obama’s overtures and mocking him. Scoop This asserted that the Turkish anchor was actually denouncing his own country’s failure to denounce “Islamic terrorism,” and “is trying to show shame for what his country has done, so that is why his face is painted in black.” The Huffington Post quoted a blogger from Buzz Feed who guessed that the makeup was “a metaphor for the way the Bush administration ‘darkened’ the face of the Turkish public, and how the anchor hopes Obama will turn things around.” Jonathan Turley at least got in touch with someone who speaks Turkish before weighing in:

The rough translation from the appearance is “Welcome, Mr. Obama. You took our hearts with your hospitality. We appreciate your kindness. We will do whatever America asks of us, as friends. Now, we ask the same of you.”

There may be something lost in translation here. Some have stated that this is an attempt at humor or a spoof. Others have argued that it was meant as a sign of respect.

Here at The Lede, we were fortunate enough to be able to turn for help to Sebnem Arsu, a Turkish journalist who reports for The Times from Istanbul. Sebnem was kind enough to watch the clip for us and give us an explanation via e-mail. She says that what we are watching was broadcast on a channel called “Flash TV,” which generally presents the news in a sensational, tabloid style. Sebnem writes: “They tried to be funny, but obviously, they have no idea what kind of a message their ‘joke’ would convey in your part of the world.”

As to what motivated the anchor to don blackface to make his comment on Mr. Obama’s address to Turkey’s Parliament, Sebnem explains that he was playing off a Turkish proverb that says, roughly, that a person who asks for a favor darkens his face, but a person who then refuses to grant that person a favor has an even darker face. The idea seems to be something like what English-speakers mean when they say that they are “red-faced” with embarrassment. According to Sebnem:

In the traditional culture here, it has not been an easy act to ask something from a person, like “would you please do this or that for me.” It was even considered to be shameful to a certain extent, so “darkening the face” is like hiding behind your real face, or putting a mask on, to hide your shame.

However, if the person facing this demand, knowing how hard it has been for the other person to ask for it, refuses to help, then it’s even more shameful, and can only be concealed by a darker look, or mask.

Sebnem adds that in common usage, the phrase is given a racist turn, so that a person who refuses to help someone else is said to have a face that is not just dark, but “Black or Arab.”

Sebnem explains that the reason for the blackface, then, is that the anchor is asking Mr. Obama for a series of favors: “demanding Mr. Obama’s support for Turkey’s fight against Kurdish rebels, the country’s bid to join the European Union and its rejection of Armenian claims that Turkey had committed genocide.”

The Turkish-American video blogger Cenk Uygur, host of a Webcast called “The Young Turks,” posted his own analysis and rebuttal of the Flash TV commentary on YouTube. In his commentary, Mr. Uygur mentions that it brings to mind another recent instance of cultural insensitivity that sparked a lot of debate last summer on a Times blog about the Olympics: the Spanish basketball team’s unfortunate gesture in an advertisement ahead of the games in Beijing last year. Here is how Mr. Uygur breaks down the Flash TV clip:

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