Although he left the world stage for the last time more than twenty years ago, Zeki Muren will always have a special place in the hearts of Turkish music fans. Born in 1931, he auditioned for Turkish Radio when he was only twenty. Even then he knew a huge range of musical standards off by heart and is believed to have sung for hours. He claims he learned to sing by listening to his father and grandfather, as well as performers on the radio, on records and in travelling theatres. He got the job and became so well known that according to one joke, when people bought a radio they asked for the one that played Zeki Muren.
During his life he made over 600 recordings and 18 films. They mostly told the same story, of a young musician called Zeki Muren, overcoming obstacles to find love and fame, all giving him numerous opportunities to burst into song. On screen he wore neat suits and did his hair in an understated pompadour. In person he flaunted flamboyant, multi-coloured outfits such as feathered capes, shiny miniskirts and platform heels. Many were of his own design and he liked to give them names such as, “Purple Nights”, “The Prince from Outer Space” and “The Lover of Dr. Zhivago”. He performed in popular Istanbul gazino, nightclubs and cabaret halls, earning thousands of fans with his emotionally wrenching performances. At the Maksim Gazinosu he made a dramatic entrance on a swing and had simulated snowflakes flutter down onto the stage in a style similar to Liberace. His death was as dramatic as his performances.
His death was as dramatic as his performances. He took the stage on the 24th of September 1996 for the first time in years, at the Izmir Turkish Radio and Television Studios. Resplendent in a rhinestone-spangled shirt and shiny purple eye-gloss, the show’s host handed him a microphone. It was the same one he’d used for his first radio performance, 45 years earlier. Sadly, Zeki Muren died abruptly of a heart attack. His death caused the greatest public grief seen in years and his state-sponsored funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners. According to one of his fans, there were long queues in front of every liquor store as people tried to come to terms with his loss.
He still makes his presence felt today. The Zeki Müren Art Museum, established in Bodrum where he used to live, has been visited by more than 250,000 people since it opened in June 2000. All his worldly possessions were donated to the Türk Eğitim Vakfı (Foundation for Turkish Education) and the Mehmetçik Vakfı (Foundation for Disabled Veterans and Families of the Martyrs). His money was used to help young boys complete their military service.
Frustrated by the public persona of Muren as presented by the state, in 2016 film maker Beyza Boyacioglu decided to document what he had meant to his fans. In order to gather stories from them, she set up the Zeki Muren Hotline. The first thing callers hear when they ring is the man himself saying, “Hello, Zeki Muren speaking”, taken from a sound clip from one of his films. They can then record their responses to the role he played in their lives. Some sing his best-loved songs, others talk about the excitement and joy of being at one of his performances, while younger people talk about his status for them as a queer icon. However they remember him, he will always be the man known as “Pasha” and “the sun of Turkish music.”
Like köçek dancers, Zeki Muren garners a huge and diverse fan base. Devout grandmothers’ treasure his original vinyl albums while LGBT Pride marchers hold up posters showing pictures of his perfectly manicured eyebrows, glittery eyeshadow, mascara and beautifully varnished nails. This well-spoken man with an extensive vocabulary, gained popular acceptance on his own terms and is symbolic of the complex and often contradictory nature of gender and identity in Turkey.