Turkey's 'David Bowie': Crowds flock to remember Zeki Muren

By Selin Girit
BBC News, Istanbul

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Turkey's first gay icon Zeki Muren

If you know even a little about Turkish music, you will know the name Zeki Muren.

Compared by foreigners to David Bowie and Liberace, he was Turkey's most famous singer for more than three decades.

He was not only a powerful vocalist, but also a songwriter, composer, entertainer and master of Turkish classical music, which has its roots in the court music of the Ottoman Empire.

He was also the country's first gay icon, the first man ever to wear a miniskirt on stage.

An unlikely hero for conservative Turkey perhaps, and yet his death in 1996 plunged the nation into mourning and tens of thousands attended his funeral.

Now an exhibition on his life and work has been pulling record crowds in Istanbul.

Taking its title from his last big hit, Here I am Zeki Muren, the show has been visited by more than 50,000 people in under two months - an unprecedented number in Istanbul.

Trousers backstage

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The exhibition in Istanbul has been drawing unprecedented crowds

The exhibition is about the life of an extraordinary man and is comprised of material that Zeki Muren himself kept - including thousands of photos, diaries, letters, poems, paintings, films and a play in which he took part. He was a multi-talented artist.

He was also a prolific designer, designing his own stage costumes - shiny jackets, bejewelled capes and extra skimpy miniskirts.

He might appear on stage in David Bowie-style ultra-high platform shoes, or wearing big-framed and glittery glasses like Elton John.

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Costumes were sparkly - and self-designed

He would even give his costumes affectionate names, such as Mountain Flower, Moon Prince or The Lover of Dr Zhivago.

In 1970, he wore a costume named Veil of Fortune, a glittery super-minidress accompanied by a shiny cape.

He kept a pair of trousers backstage just in case the audience got upset with his outfit. But when he appeared, he was greeted with applause.

Singing to a mob

Exhibition curator and music journalist Derya Bengi says Zeki Muren should be listed as Turkey's first rock star.

"His androgynous stage persona and the rhythm, theatricality and life he brought on stage are similar to the innovations of Western rock stars," he says.

"He was our first rock star in the 1950s, even though he was not playing an electric guitar."

Music historian Murat Meric agrees. "He did what Liberace did in the US or what David Bowie did in the UK," he says. "He started wearing these shiny costumes long before David Bowie."

"He was a revolutionary, in every meaning of the word. He was always 10 years ahead of his time."

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Zeki Muren never discussed his sexuality in public

Although he was much loved by most, he was occasionally threatened by conservatives who did not approve of his sexual identity or his colourful costumes.

Once a mob armed with sticks waited for him to appear at the stage door. But he invited them in and said: "Just have a listen to my songs. If you still want to beat me up, you can."

They accepted the invitation, entered the concert hall, listened to his songs and put the sticks away.

Zeki Muren never spoke publicly about his sexual identity. The only time he indirectly addressed homosexuality was in a Robert Anderson play called Tea and Sympathy in 1965.

He played the part of a young man who was trying to come to terms with his own sexuality.

"Zeki Muren was openly a gay man, with his costumes, appearance and gestures," says Derya Bengi. "Why do we need a declaration when he shows the courage to appear on stage the way he did?"

He makes a reference to a quote from Marc Almond: "Do they ask Stevie Wonder if he is black?"

'Does this play Zeki Muren?'

Almost two decades after his death, Zeki Muren is still considered a symbol for Turkey's gay community.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activist Cem Gutay says gay men living in Turkey always think of Zeki Muren as a figurehead and aspire to being accepted like him.

"There is a man on screen and he is wearing a skirt, he is wearing high heels. They think there is someone over there like them," he says.

Theatre director Ufuk Tan Altunkaya says that if Zeki Muren had not existed, it would be harder now for gay people to come out.

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Zeki Muren in 1960

Zeki Muren was unique. His voice mesmerised millions of people so much so that in the early days of radio in the 1950s, when Turkish people would buy a radio they would ask: "Does this play Zeki Muren?"

In the following decade there were even jokes about people watching television in their best outfits in case Zeki Muren was watching them back.

For Turkish singers he was a difficult act to follow.

Zeki Muren's songs are used with the courtesy of two charities, Turk Egitim Vakfi and Mehmetcik Vakfi, to which he donated all his wealth.