“To get a weeping nation to laugh, even to crack a smile, is a blessing.”

In this interview, renowned actor Ilyas Salman talks to Ahval about the legacy of Turkish cinema, ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey, and his activist work for women’s rights. As one of the comedic icons of Yeşilçam Cinema, named after a street in Istanbul inhabited by actors, studios, and filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s (akin to Hollywood in Los Angeles), Salman also discusses fellow icons of Turkish comedy, the importance of truth, and the futility of regret.


On his current project:

“I have been writing a lot these days. I wrote a screenplay called ‘Parliament of Insanity.’ As members of the Turkish parliament discuss increasing their salaries, in my ‘Parliament of Insanity’ parliamentarians will discuss how to increase literacy rates. My screenplay still has not been approved by the board of censorship, so the Ministry of Culture has not given me funding. As a result, I am searching for sponsors to help produce the film.

I am going to play myself in this film, as Ilyas Salman. To be honest, I am a bit crazy. That is, when held to general standards and circumstances, I would be considered crazy. Otherwise, I have no doubts about my own sanity.

The insane and the trees die standing, but the guilty croak in power. This is my fundamental principle… Let me say this up front, the foulest smell in the world is the stench of a hidden idea. Even money smells rotten when hidden, but not as foul as a hidden idea. An idea taken to the grave does no good to anyone.”

Ilyas Salman
Ilyas Salman

On being an ethnic and religious minority as a Turkmen (Turkic people also found in Iraq and Syria) Alevi (a branch of Sufi, non-orthodox Islam):

“In [the city of] Maraş, a mother was stabbed in her gut for being an Alevi… In Malatya, rumors surfaced that Alevis would bomb a mosque — bear in mind we have never been antagonistic to different religious beliefs — and Alevis were massacred. In Sivas, many Alevis were burned alive. The annals of history will condemn these acts.

[The Ministry of Religious Affairs’ claim that Alevis should worship in mosques was] a malicious mistake. I do not participate in ceremonial worship. I practice my spirituality freely.

I neither describe myself as a believer, nor a non-believer, because religious belief should not be marketed for social or political capital. If the people exploiting the Prophet for votes nowadays are Muslims, then I am not a Muslim.

If the people who have made a bloodbath of the Middle East just because they have guns claim to be Christians, then I don’t believe in that either. Jesus’s innocence would wipe away their existence. In my eyes, violence justified through religion is the most severe form of violence.”

On regrets and accomplishments:

I detest the word “regret.” Do we have the ability to turn back time, even for a second? No. So regret is not for me. I am glad I have done what I did, and I am happy with where I am. I owe nothing to regrets.

The best decision I ever made was to become a harlequin. I am faced with a nation that weeps from the suffering we are made to endure. To get a weeping nation to laugh, even to crack a smile, is a blessing.”

On his participation in an International Women’s Day protest, in which he dressed half his body as a man, and the other half as a woman:

“There’s a saying, ‘If beauty is not mine, I do not call it beauty.’ I have flipped that saying, because I always identify beauty, regardless of whether it is mine or not. In our protest, we tried to emphasize respect for women. We tried to spark a flame in this movement. Our mothers gave us not only birth, but creation. Women are God’s surrogates on Earth. This is what we tried to explain in that protest…”

... at International Woman's Day protest
... at International Woman's Day protest

On ending violence against women:

“To overcome this issue, women must unite and enact violence against men. Men who oppose women’s abuse must join women in whaling on abusive men. Once they understand the pain of violence, they will give up their ways…

Historically, the position of the powerful is crucial. If they impose their might on us, then we will respond with force. This is the only way to make them empathize.”

On a powerful instance of self-censorship, in which a group of actors publicly shared a picture from a group meal, but before taking the picture hid their rakı (an alcoholic anise drink) under the dinner table:

“Freedom is the most sacred of values. The government and the police should not prevent me from eating, drinking, and consuming whatever I want. I have seen more people drink water and stumble in a drunken stupor than those who have consumed rakı and walk around drunk. There is not much to say on this matter, other than this: Only the ignorant stand in the way of the free.”

On finding out about the death of Kemal Sunal, a close friend of Salman and one of the most famous comedians of Yeşilçam Cinema:

“We lost Kemal very early. Kemal was not someone we should have lost so early. The state has made this nation suffer so much, the military has made us suffer with coups every decade, the police have made us suffer…But as the nation wept from suffering, Kemal Sunal made us laugh. He left our world far too early…

We still laugh at his jokes in our daily lives. We still live his tragicomical stories. At Kemal’s funeral, a journalist asked me to describe feelings. ‘What can I say…my children’s favorite toy is broken,’ I said. The journalist’s eyes gleamed: ‘Are you calling a giant like Kemal Sunal a toy?” I asked the journalist if he had children, and he responded that he did not.

If he had kids, he would have understood the weight of my words. Sometimes, in children’s eyes, toys become more important than even their mother or father. Could I be so vile as to see Kemal Sunal as a toy? He was both a dear friend, and a fellow actor from my hometown. May he rest in peace…”

As Abbas in the 1982 comedy "Çiçek Abbas"
As Abbas in the 1982 comedy "Çiçek Abbas"

On differences between Yeşilçam and today’s Turkish cinema and comedy:

Yeşilçam was one with life, whereas today’s cinema is not. To be quite frank, they are pimping out stylistic democracy. They try to be funny by making faces, cursing, and using bodily functions. This is the state of today’s cinema, unfortunately.

I am not a moralistic man. I have not spent much time thinking about ethics. But all of today’s comedy films have become foul. What kind of principles do these people have? What kind of comedy is this? I am at a loss for words for this new generation of comedy.”

On grudges and forgiveness:

I am not upset with anyone. Small grudges waste our vast future. I have had small disputes with people, but they are forgiven, and they are welcome to visit my grave when I die.