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Celebrating Cin Ali: The stick figure who taught Turkey to read

Cin Ali – a stick figure cartoon character used to teach reading in Turkey from  1970 to 2000 – is celebrated in a new art exhibit in Istanbul. Although his storybooks are no longer used in classrooms, Cin Ali still represents simplicity in a complex modern nation.

By The Associated Press / May 24, 2012

Cin Ali, the squiggly stick figure in a cap whose benign adventures in big-print, picture books helped a generation of Turks learn to read in primary school. In this undated photo, teacher Rasim Kaygusuz, creator of Cin Ali, stands with his primary school students.

File/Kaygusuz Family/AP

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Istanbul

If you mess up in Turkey, a common way to laugh it off is to invoke Cin Ali, the squiggly stick figure in a cap whose benign adventures in picture books helped a generation of Turks learn to read.

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Cin Ali, a village character who was created around 1970, is out of sorts in Turkey's brash new world, epitomized by the perpetual buzz of Istanbul, its continent-straddling biggest city. Today, as he's eclipsed by more flamboyant cartoon characters, a few ardent fans are working industriously to revive this faded icon, who helped steer the early consciousness of many Turks who describe him wistfully as a cute, childhood companion.

"I couldn't even draw Cin Ali," goes the self-deprecating idiom, embedded in adult lexicon long after the cartoon boy was officially sidelined from state classrooms nearly a decade ago as an antiquated teaching tool. Today's Turkey barrels ahead, buoyed by economic growth that has so far weathered the worst of the crisis in Europe, its chief trading partner, and intent on pioneering political change in the Middle East.

Amid such dynamism, people like 45-year-old artist Sabire Susuz feel nostalgia for the simplicity embodied by Cin Ali, who inspired her exhibit this month at an Istanbul gallery.

"It was the first original figure I saw in my life, and I thought he was real for a long time," said Susuz. "I wanted to show my fidelity to him."

Susuz uses small clothing labels and pieces of silk and satin, attached with pins, to create tapestries of the stick figure, a more elastic version of the image in the word game, "Hangman."

"In Turkey, people sometimes describe the untalented by saying: 'They can't even draw Cin Ali,'" Susuz said. "My artwork is a response to them. I wanted to say that even art can be made with Cin Alis."

In a series of 10 books, Cin Ali goes to school, has a pet lamb, rides a horse cart and sees a barber elephant in a circus. The stripped-down text and illustrations lack the sophistication of works by childrens' authors such as Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak. But there is something captivating about the spare, flowing lines that form Cin Ali's toothpick of a body, the personification of Turkey's austere past. They are vaguely evocative of the work of American artist Keith Haring, whose simple images were full of vitality.

In Cin Ali's heyday, the Turkish military presided over politics, and the books seem to reflect an authoritarian culture that Turkey, now led by an elected government whose bid to join the European Union has stalled, is still struggling to shed. Rote, blackboard learning was in force, whereas today children are also encouraged to compare and categorize.

"Cin Ali, look. Horse. Look, Cin Ali, look," reads one line. The horse in question has a stick figure and a scraggly mane.

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