Fazil Say, a 42-year-old Turkish pianist and composer, was only 17 when he moved to Germany to study music. At 21 he was teaching at the Berlin Academy. His success carried him to New York, where he lived for seven years; during that time he performed with major orchestras like the New York Philharmonic. He eventually moved back to Turkey, “partly because I missed my country, and partly because I wanted to contribute to the art environment there,” he wrote in an email.
Yet he did not find peace at home. Last week the Turkish court accepted an indictment against him for allegations of insulting Islam. About two months ago, the openly atheist Say wrote a tweet mocking the muezzin, a person who leads the call to prayer in a mosque. “The muezzin finished the azan in 22 seconds. What’s the rush? A lover? A raki table?” he asked. He also retweeted a verse attributed to the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyám: “You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern for you? You say two houris await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?”
He no longer tweets and recently disabled his account. “First I have to clear these charges against me. I’ve been libeled,” he says. “I did not insult Islam. I just retweeted a verse that I thought was funny. 165 others retweeted that verse the same night but I am the only one being tried.”
The Say incident did not spark a much-needed freedom-of-expression debate in Turkey due to the systematic disparaging of the pianist by many pro-government commentators. But he received support from international media and pro-secular Turkish columnists, and a Turkish classical-music magazine organized a petition. Say, a persona non grata in the eyes of the followers of the AKP, the hugely popular governing party, is no stranger to isolation in Turkey. In 2007, when the AKP came into power for a second term, he announced his plans to leave the country. AKP officials often target him, and most recently one Parliament member wrote on Twitter: “Which brothel were you born in Say?”
At the same time, Say is a superstar among secularists in Turkey’s highly polarized environment. In 2010, when his Istanbul Symphony debuted in Istanbul, the crowd cheered him with a 17-minute standing ovation. His political comments and occasional flings with famous women polish his celebrity status, while classical-music experts admire his talent. He tours approximately 250 days of the year. But he did mark on his calendar Oct. 17—the date his trial is to begin—to be in Istanbul.
“Everybody knows that separating musicians from an instrument for more than three-four months will ruin their career,” he says about the possibility of imprisonment. “But I don’t want to think about it now.” Would he consider leaving Turkey again? “I’ve lived abroad for 17 years, and perhaps it’s time to move on,” he responds. “Moving to Tokyo is a possibility, I think living in the Far East will be good for me.”