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.

File/Kaygusuz Family/AP
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.

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.

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.

"Cin Ali shaped the consciousness of the first-grade students of my generation for sure — those who studied in the 80s," Defne Ayas, an international art curator, wrote in an email. "He was mainly a ball-thrower, but thanks to him, we learned how to read and how to obey basic instructions."

Ayas described Cin Ali as "anonymous, sexless," noting: "He wasn't an example boy-citizen in the sense of Chinese Lei Feng" — a propaganda icon created under Mao Zedong — "He was just a tool and he looked like a tool, like a key, like a thread or ropes."

The daughter of Rasim Kaygusuz, a school teacher who collaborated on 10 Cin Ali books with illustrator Selcuk Segmen, said she wants to form a foundation in the character's name by the end of this year, and eventually build a museum. The daughter, Nevin Kaygusuz, works for a Turkish group dedicated to conserving architectural heritage and is vice president of a small political party. She said Cin Ali books have not been published for two years since the copyright owner closed because of financial problems.

Cin Ali is a stubborn presence in popular culture. A television satire, Leyla and Mecnun, featured a skit in December in which the characters turned into Cin Ali-style cartoons. A Facebook page in his name lists 78,000 "likes."

"In hard times, I feel that he'll revive and come to my side. Like he'll come out from my childhood," writes Asli Gul on the social networking site.

"He is the only guy who never tells lies," posts Kadir Oz.

Last year, Cin Ali became a pawn in allegations of result-fixing in the annual university entrance exam, a scandal that the political opposition used to hammer the government. Ali Demir, head of the examination institution, was the target of student protesters, some of whom held up signs saying: "Resign, Cin Ali."

In Turkish, "cin" means smart or cunning, and also refers to a spirit, or genie. An opposition leader taunted Demir, saying he was less popular than the stick figure. On some level, Cin Ali is a memento of Turkey's old state, led by secular elites that were ousted by devout Muslim politicians who have presided over a decade of change.

Even if Cin Ali were still in classroom circulation, he'd be hard-pressed to compete with his plump, modern, high-tech, multi-colored equivalents on the Internet and television. There is Caillou, an animation character from Canada that is popular among Turkish toddlers, and Pepee, a Turkish cartoon boy who teaches preschoolers about letters, animals, flowers and basic shapes.

In 2005, Dr. Firdevs Gunes, head of a government committee that devised a new school curriculum for young children, said education would emphasize "visual reading and visual presentation" with television and computer aids.

"Children don't care about stickmen anymore," Zaman newspaper cited Gunes as saying. "They want to perceive the totality. They want colored pictures. With this new program, Cin Ali has completed his life."

Some don't forget.

"He was one of my best friends when I was five or six," Candan Inan, who works for an online hotel booking firm based in Amsterdam, wrote in an email. "He was also inspiring in terms of developing my drawing skills as it was easy to draw."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.