Islamic popular culture

A match for Bollywood – the rise of Turkey's dizis

Turkey is the second-largest exporter of TV series in the world, boasting a growing presence on international screens from Pakistan to Chile. The "dizis" offer audiences an elaborately staged alternative to Hollywood and Bollywood. Marian Brehmer reports from Istanbul

When Imran Khan urged his country to watch the television series Resurrection: Ertugrul, claiming it embodied exemplary Islamic values, he had no idea of the mass movement he was about to unleash.

On the Pakistani prime minister’s instruction, the state broadcaster PTV began showing the Turkish historical series dubbed into Urdu just as Ramadan began, on 25 April. And so, the battles and love stories of Ertugrul – originally intended for a Turkish audience – found their way into millions of Pakistani homes. Whole families spent weeks devouring the dramatic storylines, despite the occasional brutal fight scene.

By the last week of Ramadan, the production had reached over 130 million viewers across Pakistan. Ertugrul also received millions of clicks on PTV’s YouTube channel. Resurrection: Ertugrul is a Turkish Game of Thrones of sorts, based on the life of Ertugrul Gazi, father of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which endured for six centuries.

Ertugrul has five seasons and is one of several Turkish TV series to have found international fame in recent years. Yet the reasons behind the huge success of Ertugrul in Pakistan are more than a simple symptom of boredom during the COVID-19 lockdown.

A Turkish janissary in front of the setting sun (photo: imago/Seskim Photo)
Turkish TV series are taking the world by storm: the "Suleyman the Magnificent" series is just one of many Turkish TV productions that are attracting huge interest from viewers worldwide. They symbolise Turkey's efforts to position itself as a "soft power" beyond the cultural power of the West, writes Marian Brehmer in his article

Series speaks to Islamic sensibilities

One possible explanation is that Ertugrul offers Pakistani audiences an expensively produced alternative to Hollywood and Bollywood; two industries of which many of the country’s viewers have grown weary. Pakistanis can identify with the characters in the drama more easily than with glamorous American stars: from the heroism of the virile leader, who derives his courage and constancy from his Islamic faith, to the actresses‘ colourfully-embroidered dresses, which resemble the traditional costume of Baluchistan in south-western Pakistan.

Above all, however, the series speaks to the Islamic sensibilities of Pakistan’s Muslim majority. They identify readily with the protagonists’ pious behaviour, though this had led to some curious controversies: 27 year old Esra Bilgic plays Halime Hatun in the series, Ertugrul’s faithful wife. Entranced by Bilgic’s thespian guile, Pakistani men began following her on Instagram, but were soon disappointed to discover that Bilgic behaves quite differently to the demure 13th century Ottoman character she portrays.

Suggestive bikini pictures? Is that appropriate for a Muslim woman? As Aimun Faisal noted in her comment piece in The Dawn, “Ertugrul, Esra Bilgic and the frustrations of Pakistani men”, Bilgic confronted a division existing in the minds of Pakistani men: that between brown, Muslim women obliged to follow religious law and desirable, white women from abroad, whose forbidden behaviours made them all the more appealing.  In Bilgic they suddenly encountered one person in whom both models of womanhood sat side by side.

In Pakistan, Ertugrul also became a screen onto which it was possible to project pan-Islamic evocations of a transnational Muslim community sharing a common destiny. This reflected Pakistan’s longing, after years of being viewed as a terrorist state, for cultural and historical greatness, showcased in the poems of the national poet Muhammad Iqbal. There is also President Erdogan’s popularity among Pakistanis.

For years, Erdogan has been praised as a strong Muslim leader, campaigning in the interests of oppressed Muslims among the Rohingya, in Kashmir, and Palestine.

A Turkish mosque (photo: Getty Images/AFP/ S. Erkan)
Turkish TV series offer glimpses of an exotic country: featuring magnificent mosques and images of a glittering Istanbul with its hip and trendy districts, they are also an advertisement for Turkey as a holiday destination. Locations used in filming the series attract mainly Arab tourists

In Pakistani media, Ertugrul fans never tired of pointing to historical intersections between the two countries, above all the Khilafat movement, a political movement among Muslim British-Indians, which sought to reinstate the Ottoman caliphate following its downfall.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro even went so far as to visit the set of Ertugrul in 2018. The series is symbolic of Turkey’s efforts to position itself as a soft power beyond the cultural power of the West. In the same vein, Turkey has been opening branches of its Yunus Emre Institute in primarily Muslim countries since 2007, teaching Turkish and promoting Turkish culture abroad.

Yet its most powerful weapon is undoubtedly its televisual exports: Turkey is now second only to Hollywood as an exporter of television series. How did it get there?

A genre all its own – with a Turkish flavour

In Turkey, a television series is called a "dizi". Dizis form their own genre, employing a typically Turkish theatrical style, alongside home-grown storylines and soundtracks. A typical Turkish dizi often comprises dozens of protagonists, with the glitzier side of Istanbul generally providing the backdrop: a view of the Bosphorus, flashy cars and modern city apartments in sought-after districts. Many of the productions are classic soap operas or lively comedies, portraying the lives of the city-dwelling upper middle classes.

Unlike U.S. series, however, as is often noted, Turkish productions do not celebrate individualism and promiscuity, instead taking as their basis traditional family storylines and Islam-friendly relationships. Turkish TV shows have enjoyed international success for years, particularly in the Balkans and the Gulf states, but also in countries such as Russia, China and Korea. There’s even a big market in South America with Chile in first place, just ahead of Mexico and Argentina.

While the Latin American affinity for the shows can be explained by cultural similarities, the success of the dizi in Arab countries is thought to be a longing for a more liberal lifestyle, but with a foundation in Islamic culture: the actors in modern Turkish series kiss openly and drink alcohol, but they respect their parents and go to pray in the mosque.

 

The international ascent of Turkish TV began in 2006 with the production Binbir Gece (1001 Nights), a smash hit in over seventy countries and which even found many fans in Israel, which has had strained relations with Turkey for years. But the undisputed blockbuster of recent times has to be the Ottoman drama Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Glorious Century), which follows the love story of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan, a concubine of Ukrainian heritage. Like Ertugrul, Muhtesem Yuzyil was a production on a superlative scale: 25 people were employed just to work on the historical costumes.

An influx of Arab TV tourists

President Erdogan took against Muhtesem Yuzyil for a time because, in his view, the series distorted Ottoman history – as a consequence of this, the state airline Turkish Airlines removed Muhtesem Yuzyil from its in-flight entertainment schedule. Nevertheless, the drama became a symbol for the neo-Ottomanism of the AKP government. The series is estimated to have had half a billion viewers worldwide.

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But the series wasn’t just profitable for Turkey in terms its viewing figures. As the series gained in popularity, the number of Arab tourists visiting Istanbul went through the roof, such that the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism began charging Arab states broadcast fees.

 

In some parts of the Arab world, however, political and religious resistance to Turkish TV culture has begun to emerge. Last February, Egypt’s Dar Al-Iftaa (its main Islamic advisory body responsible for issuing fatwas) accused Turkey of wanting to use its ‘sphere of influence’ in the Middle East to regain power over Arab countries with neo-Ottoman rule.

Ertugrul was held up as proof of this. In a statement by the Dar Al-Iftaa, allusions were made to Erdogan’s government: “They are exporting the idea that they are the leaders of the caliphate who are responsible for supporting Muslims worldwide and rescuing them from oppression and injustice, while simultaneously wanting to impose Islamic law. They conceal the fact that their primary drivers in these colonialist aspirations are material and political gains for Erdogan.”

By 2018, the Saudi media group MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) had already stopped broadcasting Turkish series. Yet this shows no sign of halting the dizi’s unstoppable rise. According to the Turkish film sector, the dizi industry will have brought in over one billion U.S. dollars by 2023.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

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