‘Speaking Welsh makes me feel less like a stranger’ says actress who fled Turkey death threats

Pinar Ogun

Llinos Dafydd

An actress who fled Turkey amidst death threats has said that speaking Welsh has given her a new sense of belonging.

Pinar Ogun, 33, originally from North Ossetia, has been living in Wales with her husband, Memet Ali Alabora, since 2013.

They fled Turkey after pro-government media accused them of inciting the protests through a play about repression and rebellion.

She has now become the first Turkish actress to play a Welsh speaking role in a TV series on S4C, appearing in Un Bore Mercher – broadcast as Keeping Faith on BBC One.

And she says the Welsh language has helped her put down roots in her new home.

“English has always been a language that underlined the fact that I am a foreigner,” said Pinar Ogun.

“I don’t feel like a stranger learning Welsh. On the contrary, I feel welcomed by a big family.

“I was about 10 when I started learning English yet it’d never become a language I needed to express myself until I came to London to study acting at LAMDA in 2006.

“Since then English has been the language I communicate internationally but also it is what makes me feel like a stranger.

“That’s why for me with Welsh there is a different story. I am inspired by Welsh, I enjoy learning the language and I try to use it as much as I can.

“English is now part of my identity and I express myself in English but what is so fascinating is that there is also Welsh, which is a part of life here.”

‘Encouraged’

The importance of the language became apparent to her through new friends in Cardiiff who “took me as their family” after her traumatic move from Turkey five years ago.

“I observe how important protecting the culture and language is for them. I highly value that, respect it so much that I wanted to speak with them in Welsh!” Pinar said.

“I discuss issues in Welsh, and most importantly do my job, as in ‘act’ in welsh.”

The journey to learn the language hasn’t been a smooth one, and there have been many barriers, she said.

“It takes some time to get used to it,” she said. “But now it is so exciting to be able to follow the conversations, listen to the radio, watch S4C.

“I’m not fully understanding everything yet but I’m trying to make the language a part of my life. It makes me feel like a child because I try to listen and respond when people converse around me.

“I try to understand what is being said even it is about most complicated subjects like politics. I make silly mistakes but I love the compassion and support from people, I feel encouraged and that keeps me going.”

A ‘traumatic’ move

It’s been five years since Pinar moved to Wales, but it’s a journey she still tries not to think about too often.

In 2013, an estimated 3.5 million people took to the streets of Turkey in a protest that left a number killed and thousands injured.

Pinar, her husband Memet Ali Alabora and writer Meltem Arikan were accused of inciting the riots because of a play they had performed six months before.

“It’s not easy for me to talk about this still, even though it has been five years since moving to Wales,” says Pinar.

“Remember the Bruce Springsteen concert in Cardiff July 2013? A day before the concert, together with so many people travelling to Cardiff, two women came out of that station holding two small pieces of luggage together with suppressed fear and anxiety.

“Myself and Meltem, my friend. We stopped for a couple of minutes outside the station, it was hot and I remember the heavy feeling on my chest from holding everything together.

“Meltem wrote a play called Mi Minor and we staged it in Istanbul. The Gezi Park protests started soon after Mi Minor was over.

“And we were targeted by the government authorities followed by the media. Especially my husband Memet Ali Alabora.

“Our lives become upside down followed by the death threats. It was just every second almost we were receiving nothing but harmful messages, tweets, emails. One day I found a note written on my car saying, ‘you are dead’.”

‘Home’

They decided to leave as there was no way for them to survive in those circumstances, says Pinar.

“Meltem had visited Wales years ago and she felt she belonged here and when we were discussing where to go she doubtlessly said, ‘my home’ meaning Wales.

“She was right. It was a wise decision. Wales has been so nurturing, loving and caring. It had become our habitat.

“We were wounded emotionally and physiologically so much so that I honestly thought I will not manage to survive.”

“Wales has adopted me. And I founded my company Be Aware Productions in 2013, and we are five artists from Turkey.”

“Some of us were forced to leave our country four years ago for political reasons, and we settled in Wales because of our writer’s obsession with the country.

“Last year, we staged a theatre play and toured across the whole of Wales. Now we are preparing a new play, which will be the first play in the world to be presented in Welsh and Turkish.

“Meltem Arikan, our writer, strongly believes that she is Welsh, and the play derived from her feeling towards Wales.”

They’ve toured across Wales recently and have met people, talked about belonging and identity.

“It has been in an incredibly emotional process.”


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