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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