Broken English by Frank Deasy

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BBC Radio 4, 15 February 2008

This play tells the story of the Ay family from the Kurdish area of Turkey, who were detained in Dungavel (a Scottish detention center) for over a year and living under the constant threat of deportation. Their plight became a cause cÚlebre in Great Britain in 2002, raising questions in the Houses of Parliament, the House of Lords and beyond. Despite several pleas, plus a petition submitted to the government with over 20,000 signatures, the family had to leave the country. Currently they are living in Germany, with the threat of enforced repatriation to Turkey continually hanging over their heads.

I have to say that this radio play proved extremely difficult to review. It received a commendation at the Amnesty Media Awards in 2008 for its depiction of an innocent family – a mother and her four children aged between five and fourteen years old – held against their will in a deportation center. They had already spent three years living in Gravesend in south-east England; however, they were refused political asylum and their father was sent back to Turkey without the rest of the family’s knowledge. We later learn that he has been killed. Broken English’s subject-matter is certainly emotive, reflecting poorly on Great Britain’s reputation as a supposedly democratic country which shows scant concern for individual asylum-seekers (especially when the government seeks to maintain a good statistical record of dealing with illegal immigrants).

On the other hand, I am not sure that Broken English is a very good play. It invokes familiar stereotypes of the sadistic prison officer (Carolyn Bonnyman), contrasted with her more even-handed male counterpart (Stuart McQuarrie). There is a liberal-minded lawyer (Mark Straker), the children’s concerned teacher Jayne Cummings (Robin Weaver) and the bishop John Mone (David Ashton) who initiates a nationwide campaign to have the family remain in Britain, after having visited them in the detention center.

The play also invokes familiar (and unhelpful) images of Turkey as a police state, in which people of different ethnic identities are inevitably suppressed. While there are ongoing problems involving the Kurdish minority in the eastern part of the country, there have also been certain initiatives designed to promote negotiation between the various parties. In early 2007, for instance, Great Britain created an all-party group of Members of Parliament, who listened to the arguments expressed by the Peace in Kurdistan campaign, and subsequently put pressure on the Turkish government to resolve the situation. This seems especially significant in view of Turkey’s ongoing application to join the EU. As with many similar situations in other parts of the world, there are at least two sides to every argument. This aspect was conspicuously absent from Broken English, whose representation of the Turkish state recalled Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1979), which made no attempt to adopt an even-handed approach to politically sensitive material.

Nonetheless, the central performances of Livia Arditti (Beriwan Ay), the fourteen-year-old eldest daughter who becomes the family’s main spokesperson, and her younger sister Yurdagul (Pembe Peri-Natgi) were both excellent and made for riveting listening. If nothing else, this play was performed with total conviction.