Across a swath of the Levant from Greece to Iraq, women wanted him and men wanted to be him. With a voice like Sinatra and the looks of Saddam Hussein, Turkish crooner Ibrahim Tatlises—or Ibo to his fans—was considered the greatest singer of his generation. Tatlises’s jet-black mustache, his warbling tenor, and the many, many soft-focus videos of him striding along beaches with women in floaty dresses have been a ubiquitous backdrop of Middle Eastern life for decades.
But Tatlises’s career was cut abruptly short on March 13 when he was shot in the head as he exited a television studio after performing on his regular music show. The Kalashnikov bullet that went clean through his skull left the 58-year-old in critical condition; though he recovered consciousness five days after the attack, doctors say there’s a high likelihood of brain damage and paralysis.
The outpouring of rage and grief at the apparent mafia hit united communities who don’t usually agree on much else—from Orthodox Christian housewives in Athens to Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even personally phoned the Istanbul hospital where Tatlises was being treated to urge surgeons to do everything they could to save Ibo. Erdogan also told Turkey’s police to mount a full-court press in the search for culprits. Ten police investigative teams have so far arrested 20 suspects, all people with alleged grudges against and business disputes with Tatlises.
The singer, born into a mixed Kurdish and Arab family in the hardscrabble southeastern Turkish town of Sanliurfa, embodied a rags-to-riches dream. He never went to high school, and he supported his widowed mother by selling music tapes. He also sang at weddings and restaurants, which is where a music producer discovered him in 1976. He adopted a stage name—Tatlises means “sweet-voiced”—and found stardom almost overnight. In his 30-year career, he starred in and directed a slew of Turkish movies, recorded 38 albums, hosted the wildly popular Ibo Show on Turkish television and acquired a multi-million-dollar business empire that included bus companies and publishers, as well as hotels, restaurants, and construction companies in southeastern Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Opera voice, gutter trained … he was weird, a hick, fearless, and wonderful,” says Thomas Goltz, a veteran Turkey-watcher and author. “Many Turkish intellectuals loathed him as being ‘The East,’ ” embodying the machismo, violence, and patriarchal culture of a tougher, older Turkey. He did—but, says Goltz, “He was more, much more.”
Like Sinatra and his mobster buddies, Ibo ran with a fast and dangerous crowd. Tatlises has survived two previous assassination attempts in the 1990s, and his ex-wife was also shot. He’s been jailed (briefly) for insulting a policeman, tried and acquitted of cocaine possession, and arrested for discharging weapons in residential areas and owning illegal weapons. Stories of his alleged rough treatment of women have been a tabloid staple for years. But somehow all the scandals only strengthened his image as a maverick tough guy with the heart of a poet.
Tatlises’s anti-establishment, outlaw life is a key part of why his appeal is so wide—everyone can identify with a rebel and an underdog. Arabs listen to him even though he sings in Turkish, the language of much of the Middle East’s colonial masters. Greeks, for their part, listen to Tatlises with a guilty frisson of nostalgia for their country’s Ottoman heritage. “Of course our music is oriental. No news there,” one Greek fan named Opamalaka posted on a Tatlises fan site, “Greece’s mind in west, but our heart in east.”
It’s hard to imagine any other figure, whether in politics or the arts, who could command such respect from so many different communities across the region—or even from radically opposite ends of Turkey’s political spectrum. Both Turkish President Abdullah Gul and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who have been locked in a deadly struggle with the Turkish state for 30 years, paid tributes to the singer. Indeed, the PKK wishfully praised Tatlises’s “consistent respect for the cause of the Kurdish people’s freedom”—though Ibo himself, for all his plain talking, was always careful to steer clear of the incendiary topic of Kurdish politics.
As flocks of devotees kept vigil for Ibo outside his Istanbul hospital, though, politics were forgotten as a cacophony of mobile phones and boomboxes played the artist’s greatest hits, like “My Love,” “Evenings Without You,” “You Are My Life,” and “I Was Wrong.” “I am the people’s darling,” Tatlises had told his television audience, with characteristic immodesty, just minutes before being shot. And truly, Tatlises’s poetic machismo transcends not just national politics but also race and religion—a rare thing in the Middle East today.