Dear Cyprus, please unite around a different anthem

Part of the border wall separating Greek from Turkish Cyprus. The graffiti sums up what a lot of people think

Part of the border wall separating Greek from Turkish Cyprus. The graffiti sums up what a lot of people think

This week, the leaders of Greek and Turkish Cyprus began talks to unite the country, which has been divided by a wall – literally – since 1974. That’s part of it above.

Will they succeed? Er… fingers crossed! But if they do, can the United Nations please not pick the country’s new national anthem (the Greek part currently uses Greece’s anthem; the Turkish side, Turkey’s)?

In the early 2000s, Kofi Annan put forward this awful tune to be the country’s anthem as part of a unification plan:

It was rejected by voters, along with the rest of the peace deal, presumably for musical as much as political reasons.

The proposed anthem was wordless, something the UN seems to feel is essential if anthems are to help heal decades of trauma. The logic seems to be that uniting a country is hard enough; forcing words upon people – potentially in a language they don’t understand, and filled with symbolism they disagree with – is going too far. Hopefully the music will be inspiring by itself.

The problem is that wordless anthems don’t help. They just leave a vacuum, which people can sing their old divisions over. Bosnia’s anthem? Wordless. Kosovo’s? Wordless. Spain’s? Wordless. You would hardly call those countries good examples of how to avoid ethnic divisions.

For more on wordless anthems, see my book. It has a whole chapter on them.

Being a beauty queen’s more dangerous than you thought


Back in 2014,  Merve Buyuksarac, Ms Turkey 2006, posted a satirical rewording of her country’s national anthem to her Instagram account. She changed a handful of its words to reference a corruption scandal involving the country’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan.

I am like a wild flood, I smash over the law and beyond
I follow state bids, take my bribe and live.

Almost immediately afterwards she was arrested.

This May – two years later! – she was found guilty of insulting the president and sentenced to 14 months in prison. The sentence was only suspended on the condition that she doesn’t insult Erdoğan again in the next five years.

Yes, I should have written about this back in May when it happened, but I somehow only learned about it yesterday while reading about Erdoğan’s crackdown on journalists in his country. He’s jailed 120 so far.

I’ve never heard of someone being sentenced to prison for satirising an anthem before, which isn’t a surprise as if it was a common occurence they’d be literally hundreds of offenders in jail. Imagine how many people have rewritten the words to God Save the Queen and the Star-Spangled Banner.

Turkey’s anthem, the Independence March, turns up surprisingly regular in the country’s political life. People used it frequently earlier this year during the coup that was trying to remove Erdoğan, seeing it as a way to motivate people to get onto the streets, while it also played a major part in the country’s last presidential election.

But this? This is just a disgrace.

For details of more controversial anthems, see my book.

An anthemic coup

Has a national anthem ever kickstarted a coup; soldiers singing it for inspiration before jumping into their tanks, as if to say, “This is what we’re doing it for, boys”?

Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea! But Turkey’s did play a little part in inspiring people to go out on the streets last week to counter the coup against Tayyip Erdoğan, going by posts like this on Twitter:

Turkey coup tweet

Why does Turkey’s anthem, The Independence March, mean so much to people that they would think of it in the middle of a crisis?

Partly, it’s because they can’t escape it – its words are hung in every schoolroom – but it’s also because its lyrics have an intensity you just can’t forget. It’s all about the country’s flag, but features people talking to it as it were a person. “Why the anger? Why the rage?” they ask it at one point, calling on it to smile upon the country instead.

Here are the opening two verses, the ones people sing, to give you a proper feel:

Fear not! For the crimson banner that proudly ripples in this glorious dawn, shall not fade
Until the last fiery hearth that is ablaze in my homeland is extinguished
For the flag is the star of my people, and it will forever shine
It is mine, and solely belongs to my valiant nation

Frown not, I beseech you, oh thou coy crescent
Smile upon my heroic nation. Why the anger? Why the rage?
Our blood that we shed for you shall not be worthy otherwise
For freedom is the absolute right of my God-worshipping nation

This is only the most recent example of Turkey’s anthem playing a part in the country’s politics. In the last election, it bizarrely formed a major part of campaigning. I fully expect Erdoğan to start playing it everywhere soon. After all, he needs to stoke nationalism right now to bolster support for his crackdown on opposition.

How Turkey’s anthem decided its election

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu's anthem grave gaffe action shot

Things not to do in an election campaign:

1) Visit the grave of the composer of your country’s national anthem, a song displayed in every classroom
2) Announce to dozens of cameramen that your father and him were best mates
3) Wistfully read aloud the words to that anthem
4) Get its name wrong

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old politician running in Turkey’s presidential election, somehow managed to do exactly that last week, mistaking a poem called Martyrs of Galipoli for the country’s anthem, the Independence March (that’s him getting ready to make the gaffe in the photo).

He admittedly only had a slim chance of beating Tayyip Erdogan in the 10 August vote before saying it. But now… Yes, he’s screwed, isn’t he?

It’s a big shame, as the election’s important, especially if you’re a fan of women laughing in public. Ihsanoglu was Erdogan’s only serious opposition. But, if you can’t recognise the words to your country’s anthem, should you be allowed to be in charge of it? (“Yes!” I hear you shout, but that’s not what a 50-year-old builder in Istanbul’s going to think now is it?)

Ihsanoglu’s been trying to defend himself ever since, saying things like, “I learnt the anthem while sucking my mother’s milk.” It hasn’t helped – no one needs that image in their heads!

The BBC’s got a great primer on the election here. Go and have a read like and see an awful photo of Erdogan shamelessly clambering for votes by playing football.

‘What country are we in again?’ and other anthemic tales from Wikileaks

Julian Assange singing

This weekend, I spent a couple of hours trawling through the US diplomatic cables Wikileaks released a few years ago, looking for mentions of national anthems. It’s the sort of thing that seems a good idea when writing a book!

I was hoping to find some nuggets of information revealing the importance of these songs – ambassadors panicking because they were being sung at protests, that kind of thing.

I did find a lot of that: several hundred cables featuring ambassadors panicking everywhere from Burma to Iraq. I even learned about conflicts I’d never heard of before, like one involving the Bakassi,  a rebel group hoping to split from Cameroon. According to one cable, a US official met the group’s leader who told him his men would “rather die like dogs on the side of the road” than live under Cameroonian rule. He then promised his men were ready to have their own country. “We’ve already picked an anthem!” he said, as if that were enough.

But some of what I found was more unexpected. One cable with the title, ‘What country are we in again?’, is all about how a leading Ukrainian politician has the Soviet Union’s anthem for his ringtone.

Then there’s one from Saudi Arabia about the country’s former king, Fahd. It said he must be on his last legs because he could no longer stand for his anthem (a brass flourish that lasts a whopping 33 seconds). The cable was sent in 1996; Fahd lived for another nine years.

There’s also one from Turkey relaying complaints about treatment of a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Oddly the Turks seemed more annoyed that this man was having the Star-Spangled Banner blasted at him repeatedly than they were about him being stripped naked and made to bark like a dog.

I could go on (there’s a cable from an official in Kyrgyzstan talking about women “lustily” singing their anthem at him), but it’s probably best to just let you search the cables for yourselves.

Just pick a word – any word – to look for. Ok, not swear words. I mean these are diplomatic cables we’re talking about. They have standards. Hang on: 4 f***s and 81 s**ts! Tut tut!