The Soft Power of the Idiot Box – Turkish TV in the Arab Spring

The Turkish word for a TV series or soap opera is ‘dizi’ – and ‘dizzy’ is probably a good word to describe the effects that Turkish TV series are having these days in this part of the world. For a start they are huge business in Turkey itself.  There is a series for every niche market in the country. From the working class lives of ‘Coronation St’ and ‘East Enders’, through the decadent wealthy suburbia of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and the James Bond machismo of ‘Valley of the Wolves’, there is a local show with appeal for every sector of Turkish society.
Sultan Süleiman and his desperate housewives

If you promise to keep my secret, I will confess that most weeks I sidle alongside my good lady, Dilek, on the couch in our living room and up-date myself on the constantly frustrated attempts of the eponymous heroine to bring her rapists to justice in the series ‘Fatmagül’, and more recently, the on-again off-again relationship of Kuzey and Cemre[1]in ‘North and South’. Lead actors in these shows are household names in Turkey, commanding salaries comparable to the CEO of a medium size business. Their pictures and latest escapades are everyday fare in the gossip pages of local newspapers, and scandal-hungry paparazzi lie in wait behind every Ferrari and Audi SUV.

So seriously do Turks follow the labyrinthine twists and turns of their on-screen heroes and heroines that some have difficulty separating the actor from his or her role. It was reported that one avid fan had slipped a note into the hand of Selçuk Yöntem, the thespian playing middle-aged Adnan Ziyagil in ‘Forbidden Love’, warning him that his young wife Bihter was cheating on him. Beren Saat, the real-life persona of beautiful Bihter, is adored by thousands of adolescent male Turks, whose tender hearts have been dealt a bitter blow by her recent engagement to local pop star Kenan Doğulu.
But it’s not just Turks who are going dizzy over the dizis. Waheed Samy, general manager of Egypt-based Memphis Tours, was reported as saying he believed that Turkish TV series ‘are responsible for a 50% increase in the number of tourists to Turkey.’ ‘Forbidden Love’, based loosely on a 1900 novel known in Turkish as ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’, was one of the first Turkish series to be dubbed into Arabic. It reportedly attracted 85 million viewers at the peak of its popularity, setting off a trend that has grown into a multi-million dollar industry with far-reaching effects in the Arab world. One journalist referred to the phenomenon recently as ‘the Turkish TV series spring’ – a reference to the more violent events taking place in public squares of the same countries.
Abdullah Çelik, a spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, was quotedas saying that revenue from the sale of local TV series abroad had reached $65 million by the end of 2010 – up from zero in 2006. Monetary figures were not available for 2011, but he went on to say that 10,500 hours of TV series had been sold abroad that year. Not a small thing in times of global economic recession.
Of course, it is not merely the economic effects of this ‘soft power’ revolution that is attracting attention. A recent article on Euro News reported interviews with young people from Arab countries explaining the appeal of these Turkish shows:
“(What you see in this series is) you can be Muslim and you can be modern. They show that part of life (that) some of the Arabic people (are) deprived of – technology, nice living, modern life. They show the part of life that we don’t have in some of our countries,” said Auhood, an Iraqi tourist.
“It (the series) shows all the Muslim people can be open minded, open life, they can have modern life style,” added Asma, from Egypt.
It could be said that the possibility of Islamic culture coexisting comfortably with modern democracy as portrayed in these programmes is doing more to undermine autocracy and inequality in Arab countries than all the munitions supplied by the arms industries of the major world powers.
Still, it seems not everyone in Turkey is happy with the direction the Turkish film industry is taking. An Istanbul MP said she believed that these series hurt the image of Turkey abroad by glorifying corruption and immorality. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, entered the debate in the past week with pointed criticism of the enormously popular ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’, set in the 16th century Ottoman Golden Age of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. His beef seemed to be that the real Suleiman spent much of his life in the saddle, leading his victorious armies to conquests throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, even to the gates of the Hapsburg capital, Vienna. The screen version of the illustrious Padishah, known to Turks as ’The Lawgiver’, seems to have a preference for other mounts in the inner sanctum of Topkapı palace’s harem.
Well, you can see the PM’s point, and, as a keen amateur historian, I have some sympathy for the argument that says young Turkish kids are getting a distorted picture of the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power – an image perhaps more in line with that of Western Orientalists, who portrayed the ‘Grand Turk’ and his ‘Divan’ as dissolute, debauched and degenerate, ready to avail themselves of sexual opportunities in whatever form they came most conveniently to hand.
Conversely, not everyone is as devoted to the search for historical truth as we may be ourselves. I watched, in a cinema not so long ago, another recent product of the Turkish film industry, ‘Çanakkale’. Çanakkale, as my readers will know, is a town on the Dardanelles Straits that lent its name to the First World War fiasco we in the West know as the Gallipoli Campaign. The ‘Çanakkale War’ is dear to Turkish hearts, being the only theatre of the ‘Great War’ where Ottoman forces achieved significant success. The details and myths are well known to every Turkish child, and the film reinforces them all – from the heroic exploits of artillery corporal Seyit, single-handedly lugging 12 inch shells for the shore-based batteries, to the fob watch of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) which saved the future president from a shrapnel fragment in the heart.
The thing is, though, I have yet to meet anyone (and I mean Turks here) who actually liked the film. Sad to say, bayonet charges, sinking Royal Navy battleships, and life in the trenches may be true-life events, but they don’t capture the hearts and minds of cinema-goers and couch potatoes. We don’t get to know anyone in the film, and consequently we don’t engage with it. Steven Spielberg understood this, which is why he didn’t call that film ‘The Normandy Invasion’ – but invented a GI private by the name of James Ryan, thereby generating a touching story with human interest, and probably making a good deal of money into the bargain.
Furthermore, there may well have been younger generations of viewers for whom ‘Saving Private Ryan’ brought to life an important historical event that might otherwise have remained remote and meaningless to them. There may even have been some who left the theatre with an urge to learn more about the war their grandfathers fought in all those years before. For the rest, it was a couple of hours of entertainment; incidentally presenting to the world out there an American view of themselves they would like us all to believe. And why not? Cinema as nationalist propaganda is not to be underestimated. Just ask the Greeks.
Huh? Run that by me again. How did the Greeks get into this? Well, apparently the board of their state-run TV channel ERT just last week fired their general manager over a documentary focusing on the effects of Turkish TV series on Greek society. It seems that series such as ‘The Magnificent Century’, ‘The Bitter Age’ (‘Acı Hayat’) and ‘The Tulip Age’ (‘Lale Devri’) have gained a large following on the other side of the Aegean – and this is disturbing divines of the Orthodox Church and ultra-nationalists of the so-called ‘Golden Dawn’ movement. The ERT board evidently bowed to political pressure and Mr Kostas Spyropoulos’s head rolled.
So what’s the answer? I’ve never been a big TV watcher, so personally, I probably wouldn’t care much if all the series, soap operas and made-for-TV dramatisations of great classics disappeared from the air waves. Nevertheless, I recognise that I represent a tiny minority of the world’s population, most of whom are mesmerised by what they see on the idiot box. For that reason if no other, it seems to me that Turks should be pretty happy about how Turkish television is forging a new image for their nation on the world stage.
My step-daughter, Perin, for her doctoral dissertation, came up with an interesting term ‘Wild-Westernisation’, to describe the uncontrolled processes by which the Republic of Turkey has been assimilated and is assimilating itself, into the modern world. Turkey has long suffered from a poor image abroad, as a result of forces largely beyond its own control. It’s my feeling that there is currently a parallel reverse process going on which we might term ‘Wild-Turkification’, whereby a new image for the country is being shaped by media events like ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ and the ‘Eurovision Song Quest’. I think, if I were representing the country at a political level, I would be inclined to go with the flow, and bathe in the reflected glory, now that those uncontrollable forces have taken a turn for the better.

[1] Pronounced Jem-reh


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