Silver and light: Turkish drama shines brighter abroad

Original text of translated chapter: “Luce e argento: lo sceneggiato turco splende all’estro.” In The Turkish touch: Egemonia neo-ottomana e televisione turca in Medio Oriente. Le monografie di Arab Media Report N. 1 – Dicembre 2013, pp. 37-40.


Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ and Songül Öden from Gümüş (Silver), 2005.

Recipe to change a region: one spoiled young man, one naive but witty girl from the country, one grandfather who runs both his household and his business with the same firm hand, and a family of misfits whom we could all relate to if not for their vast fortune. Place in a beautiful historical mansion on the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus and let simmer over every possible intrigue and twist in the TV drama playbook.

Gümüş (Silver) was a mildly successful program when it hit screens in Turkey in January 2005. Though it never topped the ratings, hovering around 20% of the market share at best, it did manage to stay on the air for a full run of two and a half years (100 episodes) in the fiercely competitive Turkish market, introducing heartthrob Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ to the world in the process. The show’s big break came when it was purchased by Saudi broadcaster MBC, dubbed into colloquial Syrian Arabic, and began airing across the Middle East in April of 2008. Within a month, Noor (Light), as the show was renamed, had become the talk of the Arab world, and when audiences tuned in for the final episode on August 30th of that year, they massed 85 million.

Gümüş is the story of Mehmet (Tatlıtuğ) and Gümüş (Songül Öden) or, for the Arabic-speaking world, Mohannad and Noor, a couple pushed into an arranged marriage by Mehmet’s business-tycoon grandfather, Mehmet Fikri. They warm to each other, fall in love, and suffer a series of mishaps that threaten to tear them apart from time to time, not least due to the conniving of jealous family members. Along the way Gümüş evolves from innocent, small-town seamstress to savvy, fashion business manager and Mehmet sloughs off some of his spoiled rich-kid habits while learning to love his wife and family. Key side plots include the story of Mehmet’s sister, Pınar, who has an illegitimate child by his best friend, Onur, and the couple’s eventual marriage; a love triangle involving Mehmet’s otherwise quite composed cousin, Bahar; the continuing foibles of her inept and power-hungry brother, Berk; a struggle between Mehmet’s mother, Şeref, and Mehmet Fikri’s new wife, Dilruba; the abortion of a child by Gümüş’ childhood friend, Rukiye, along with her subsequent breakdown and eventual recovery; and the revelation that Mehmet’s first love, Nihan, not only survived a car crash presumed to have killed her but also gave birth to Mehmet’s son some months later.

Alongside this usual soap-opera fare, the show tackles some less conventional issues of social significance in Turkey. When Mehmet is knifed by thugs at the behest of a relative, he looses both kidneys, introducing the topic of organ donation to the plot. Two parents who might save the life of Mehmet and others by donating their brain-dead son’s organs ultimately decide against it, but not before compelling reasons for donation are spelled out clearly for viewers. Since donation is relatively rare in Turkey (only 3.7% of the population was registered to donate in 2011) this twist was a big step for the show to take. Ultimately, Gümüş learns that she is an acceptable donor and manages to save Mehmet’s life with one of her kidneys. Of even greater impact is Gümüş’ own brush with breast cancer. Though it turns out that the lump she finds is non-malignant, she alters an entire line of clothing in her design business to participate in a breast cancer awareness campaign. This becomes a central focus of the program in latter episodes, and it actually ties in with a campaign that was taking place in Turkey at the time of the original airing.

While these consciousness-raising aspects of Gümüş may have set the show apart from other programs in Turkey, they were not the most salient points for viewers in the Arab world. The Noor phenomenon has been the subject of numerous academic studies focusing on both audiences and media discourse, with many finding that the program’s recipe for success was the unique combination of the foreign and familiar that media analysts Marwan Kraidy and Omar Al-Ghazzi have dubbed “neo-Ottoman Cool.” In the case of Noor, it seems to have been the combination of an Islamic backdrop, a powerful patriarch, and the typical plot twists such as interpersonal intrigues and the return of dead characters that made the show familiar to Arab-world viewers. If the Muslim identity of the characters and the role of the grandfather made Noor more “local” than US dramas and Latin American telenovelas, though, it was nonetheless the focus on female emancipation and the openly affectionate, mutually supportive relationship between lead characters that made the show stand out among programming from the region. Indeed, investigators at KA Research found that 52% of female viewers in Saudi Arabia changed their views on female employment as a result of the show, while 63% felt that Noor’s popularity reflected a general dissatisfaction with the freedoms and rights granted to women in the Arab world.

While these elements may have been key to the show’s success, they were not the only factors that set Noor apart from typical regional fare. The breaking of sexual taboos such as premarital sex, children outside of marriage, and infidelity were all dealt with to varying degrees (sometimes repeatedly) in Noor, and were the source of much controversy. Although Arab-world viewers generally reported that they didn’t appreciate these aspects of the program, their reaction was of minor significance compared to that of various religious authorities, a number of whom issued fatwas either against Noor or against the networks broadcasting it. Though some of these were low-key suggestions that the show be censored or that people should not pray in shirts depicting characters from the show, one fatwa actually forbade show and, eventually, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, head of the Saudi sharia court, proclaimed that the owners of the channels broadcasting “indecent and vulgar” programs could be put to death through a court proceeding.

Religious figures were concerned that Noor would change the values and norms of the region. While it would be hard to judge whether this happened on a moral level, the norms of Turkish programming certainly did take hold in the wake of the show. In the months and years after Noor, broadcasters bought up Turkish dramas left and right and, more recently, local producers have started toying with variations on the Turkish formula to cater to viewer expectations, courting their own controversies along the way. The rising costs of Turkish drama and political tensions in the region may eventually burst the bubble for exports from the country but, even if this happens, the recipe introduced by Noor is likely to be shared across the region for some time to come.

August 2013

Election war Z?

19 March 2014

UPDATE: The ad has apparently been banned by Turkey’s High Election Board because it was found to use religion and nationalism in violation of article 298 of the elections law.

This morning I came across a video that my friend Ozan had shared on Facebook. It is a commercial put out by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK-Party) for municipal elections that take place at the end of this month.

You-Tube: AK-Party election campaign ad, March 2014

The threat in the message could be any of the various enemies that Prime Minister Erdoğan has been talking about over the past year: the finance lobby, the porn lobby, atheists, the robot lobby, or the preacher lobby. The most likely candidate is the latter — a reference to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind behind a series of investigations that have led to major corruption charges against the AK-Party since December of last year. The involvement of Gülen’s network in these investigations seems highly likely. Likewise, the charges, which include illicit gold trading, rigging of state tenders for construction contracts, direct interference with the sales and operation of Turkish media, and hands-on meddling with judicial investigations, appear to be based on very strong evidence.

What interests me, though, is the imagery of the body pile. As Ozan noted in his Facebook post, it bears a striking resemblance to that from last-year’s blockbuster film World War Z

You-Tube: World War Z trailer, 2013

It is hard to conceive of a situation in which the creators of the AK-Party ad could have been unaware of the parallel between their short film and the scene from World War Z. After all, the scene is the climax of a trailer that has been watched almost 30 million times on YouTube, and the film itself was one of the top 5 foreign films in Turkey last year.

If this is the case, then I have to wonder about the implicit message of the spot. Aside from the clear portrayal of people coming together to protect the honor of the nation, a painfully blatant interpretation is that the AK-Party views its supporters as an army of tireless zombies. Indeed, the rhetoric of armies and crowds has been on the rise since last summer’s Gezi Park protests, when Erdoğan threatened to unleash “his 50%” to the streets. (He said he had been holding them back, suggesting a violent force waiting to burst forth.) Similarly divisive and threatening rhetoric has been used by other top AK-Party politicians.

One fascinating aspect of this situation is that some AK-Party supporters appear willing to perform the role of Erdoğan’s tireless and faithful army. Polls that came out shortly after the corruption investigations began indicated that, while 77% of voters believed the corruption charges against the AK-Party, 48% still planned to vote for them. This represented only a minor drop from pre-corruption levels and, though it is probable that the latter number has shrunk somewhat by now, it is still likely to be very large. Turkish columnist Mustafa Mutlu recently related his experience with an anonymous phone call from an AK-Party supporter that gave a personal side to such statistics. The caller turned every objection to Erdoğan around, suggesting, for example, that if the PM actually had the hundreds of millions in foreign currency he is alleged to have taken in various bribes, this was only because he intended to use it for the good cause of Islam. While the caller in question seemed most interested in baiting Mutlu, other supporters stake more serious claims. As Alexander Christie-Miller has recounted, some will follow Erdoğan “until the end, until death”, giving a rather grizzly testament to the zombie-like imagery from the election ad.

These polls and anecdotes are strands I grasp at while trying to make some sense of the perplexing political scene here. My intention in writing is not to demean the people who plan to vote for the AK-Party. They may well have good reasons to do so, as the most powerful opposition parties don’t seem to have much to offer in the way of alternatives. What’s striking to me is a general trend revealed by this ad: the lack of respect for Turkish voters. This echoes to a large degree the disdain for Turkish viewers of TV and film that I study, and though I think there is something to be said for the role of willful, cynical ignorance in Turkish politics (and TV watching), what I’m more interested in is the discourse and imagery that helps fuel impressions of ignorance. This ad, with its clear reference to zombies, suggests a profound lack of respect for voters from the AK-Party itself, and that is, indeed, troubling.

Being a traveler’s account of the spin that brought the world together rather more quickly than might have been hoped for in the case of at least one species on its surface; his wanderings in time and place; his explorations of media, images, and the border ‘twixt fact and fabrication; his musings on prescriptions and prescriptions and the spectrum they unite; and his lettered thought on matters aesthetic, political, and personal, illustrated in the flash of a keystroke and recounted as overheard in a vinyl-seat-filled cafe on the edge of a continent, weeks, hours, or years before it was widely recognized that such still life made for end times.