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Pop culture in Turkey pushes the nation’s buttons once again

Friday 13 May 2011, by Emrah Güler

Pop culture continues to bring out the nation’s sensitivities, or, more likely, insecurities. Controversy is sparked by a TV series showing Sultan Süleyman courting women in the harem rather than conquering the known world, and by a comic book showing a young Atatürk beaten by his superior in the military. Both are accused of tarnishing Turkey’s history. But when it comes to the ultra-nationalistic, ultra-violent movie ’Valley of the Wolves: Palestine,’ there’s no reaction

The new TV series “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (Magnificent Century) depicts the imperial life of Süleyman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan.

Turkey is the best country in the world, Turkish history is solely an epic collection of glorious victories and Turks are the greatest people to have ever graced the earth. If these are the messages in your film, TV show or comic book, you are good to go.

But if, by any chance, that same work is seen as tarnishing the image or history of Turkey, you are likely to find an army of sensitive citizens, fanatic ideologues and statesmen (and stateswomen) more than happy to lynch you.

Pop culture tested the limits of national sensitivities in January, with a TV series, a film and a comic book roiling the waters of a nation insecure, intolerant and, at times, paranoid about its identity and how it is perceived by others.

Ironically, the most violent and discriminatory of these three new releases turned out to be the one nobody really found it necessary to make a fuss about. The blockbuster “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine” did not seem to hit a nerve. Killing dozens of onscreen Palestinians and Israelis apparently isn’t much of a problem as long as it is done for the purposes of revenge on behalf of all Turks.

The “Valley of the Wolves” franchise – including, so far, three seasons of a TV series and subsequent films – has been, more than anything else, an unabashed exploitation of Turkey’s sensitivities, or, more likely, insecurities, in the new world order of a new millennium. Its leading character, a rogue nationalist hero, is above the law and establishes his own sense of justice in the name of patriotism. Short and stocky like Jack Bauer of “24,” and a troubled sociopath like Rambo, Polat Alemdar became an instant role model for many young men in Turkey. He fed on their frustrations with being stuck in a limbo between middle class and lower class, between city and rural and between modernity and tradition.

The recently released film cashes in on last year’s Israeli commando attack on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish aid ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists to the Gaza Strip in a trip that ended with the death of eight Turks and one American of Turkish descent on board. The words “cash in” pretty much summarize the sentiments, as the Mavi Marmara-related scene at the beginning of the movie doesn’t tie with the rest of the story, giving the impression that it was tacked on to exploit the death of nine people.

Sultan reproduces through ‘pollination’

In the movie, Israel is absolute evil embodied in one commander. Polat Alemdar and company don’t refrain from killing dozens of Palestinians in their quest to annihilate the evil Israeli commander. There is nothing about peace in the movie, only a disturbing urge for revenge. The movie shows, as previous ones in the franchise also did, that you can get away with pretty much anything as long as it serves to re-create the image of a glorious nation revered in the new world order. It really doesn’t matter whether it is violent, barbaric or, at best, delusional.

When it comes to depicting the great leaders of Turkish history, however, tolerance automatically drops down to nil. Last month’s new TV series, “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (Magnificent Century), proved just that. The trailers promised a long-running series that would depict the imperial life of Süleyman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan, who expanded the empire’s borders to include most of Hungary to the west, most of the Middle East and as far as Algeria in North Africa. His personal legislative changes to education, society and criminal law earned him the title Kanuni, “the lawgiver.”

This being a TV series, it is natural that imperial power games and life in the sultan’s harem are far more interesting – and much less expensive – to focus on than the military conquests of the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Süleyman’s marriage to Hürrem (Roxelana), a harem girl, and the subsequent intrigues are especially ideal TV/movie material.

Seeing that a substantial part of “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” would take place in the palace and the harem, a lynch campaign spearheaded by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç began against the show before it was even aired. Arınç openly threatened the TV channel, asking it to cancel the series. The country’s media watchdog, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television, or RTÜK, received 70,000 complaints, a record amount that even surpassed the number of calls the board typically receives in an entire year.

The brouhaha seems to have started because of Sultan Süleyman being depicted with a wine goblet in his hand and courting the young women (and perhaps the young men?) in the harem. The show’s renowned scriptwriter, Meral Okay, was quick to answer allegations that it portrayed the sultan lusting after women: “Do you think the sultan’s children were created through pollination?” Wait for further reaction from the audience when Süleyman’s cute young son grows up in subsequent episodes, only to be killed by his own father.

Would Atatürk’s nose bleed?

You might remember a time, little more than two years ago, when writer, journalist and documentary maker Can Dündar’s “Mustafa,” a biopic of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was the only subject in the mass media upon its release. While many were happy to see Atatürk portrayed in a realistic light, perhaps for the first time, others who liked to continue seeing him as a deity were disturbed to see the leader depicted drinking, dancing and even being not very fond of the dark. Of course, the huge controversy at the time worked in the film’s favor, with half a million viewers seeing the biopic in its opening week.

A similar reaction, albeit on a smaller scale, met a recent comic book on Atatürk’s life. “Genç Mustafa” (Young Mustafa), written by Yalın Alpay and drawn by Barış Keşoğlu, tells about the future leader’s early military education. The comic book is narrated by five people, including the editor and the young Mustafa Kemal himself.

In the comic book, young Mustafa Kemal is shown being bloodied by a hit in the face from a general, panels that drew an immediate criminal complaint against the book from Şahin Mengü, a parliamentarian with the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP. The complaint was filed on the grounds that the comic book “openly defamed and insulted Atatürk’s memory.” The long text of the complaint basically boils down to an argument asking whether such a phenomenal leader would ever have been beaten, and how this claim would influence Atatürk’s image among young people.

Chalk up these reactions to intolerance, ignorance or fear, but one thing they definitely are is stupid. Similar to what happened with “Mustafa,” the ratings for “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” skyrocketed following the reaction from the deputy prime minister and the subsequent outrage. Now in its fifth week, the series seems to be steadily increasing its audience. Hopefully, normally dismal comic-book sales will also rise thanks to sensitive citizens who believe they are doing their civic duty.

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Source : Hürriyet Daily News, February 6, 2011

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