Turkish TV - a device for social change in the Arab world?

Turkish TV - a device for social change in the Arab world?
By Nezahat Sevim
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The ‘Arab Spring’ has changed several political regimes in the Middle East, shaping modern culture in the Arab World. With Turkey’s political influence on the up throughout the Middle East, how much sway does the country’s TV and movie exports hold?

‘Forbidden Love,’ ‘Mohanad and Samar’ there’s another one ‘Falling Leaves’, I like them a lot,” Auhood, an Iraqi tourist told euronews.

People from all over the Arab world have been flocking to Istanbul in their droves, but why? Thousands have descended on the city because of the growing effect Turkish TV series are having in the Arab world. Our reporter Nezahat Sevim talked with some Arabic tourists in Istanbul.

Jordanian tourist Ahmad said: “I watched some Turkish series and movies like ‘Sakarya Fırat’ and Murat Alemdar (Murat Alemdar is a character in a series). He (Murat) did a great series about Palestine. I consider him a hero.”

Dubbed into Arabic, Turkish television series have become a must-see throughout the Middle East.

According to the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, people from the Middle East are becoming increasingly more influenced by Turkish culture.

The research shows that 74 percent of people from the Middle East, in 16 countries, watch at least one Turkish-produced series and most of them can name one or more Turkish actors.

So what is it about these programmes that have struck a chord with so many?

“(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.

With taboo-breaking scenes that include pre-martial sex, love triangles and nudity, Turkish TV series have been dubbed ‘immoral’ by some religious authorities in the Middle East and in some cases, they have even been banned.

Despite some opposition however, Turkey has become a TV production powerhouse, and a wave of Turkish stars are given the red carpet treatment throughout the Middle East.

The big boom came in 2006, when MBC, an Arabic language channel bought the rights to the Turkish soap opera ‘Forbidden Love’. However, even the show’s producers could not believe their luck, when audience figures reached 85 million.

İrfan Şahin the producer and chief executive of Doğan TV explained: “Right now, we’ve sold approximately 50 series to more than 70 countries. At the beginning, we used to sell each episode for 300-500 US dollars. Sometimes we’d even pay them to buy the series – for promotional purposes. Now we have some productions that sell to the Middle East for more than 100,000 US dollars. There’s nothing to stop us becoming a so-called Bollywood. We have the potential.“

It is not only the cultural ties between the Middle East and Turkey that explains the success Turkish TV series have had – history also plays a part. For more than 600 years, the Ottoman Empire reigned over some Arab countries and now a big budget series has capitalised on this imperial time.

Turkish state TV TRT splashed out around five million euros putting together ‘Once Upon a Time in the Ottoman Empire’ – making it the most expensive Turkish TV production of all time.

The series has already been sold to a Dubai TV station for 75,000 US Dollars per episode. That has some, but not all, Turkish actors with stars in their eyes and dreams of an international career.

Turkish actress Leyla Göksun is not one of them: “Turkish actors and actresses are known globally, they’re like an American star in the Middle East. It’s true but I think it’s not very realistic to think that a Turkish star could make a great international career, especially because of the language barrier.”

However, Turkish actor Tolga Karel thinks otherwise: “I have more than 200 million viewers all over the world. I’m just 33-years-old. People even know me in Vietnam. I’m going to Egypt for a shoot and I am learning Arabic. I think in 10-15 years’ time, Turkey will be called the ‘Hollywood of the Middle East and the Balkans”

From one popular Turkish production to another – ‘Valley of the Wolves’ is a James Bond’ style drama which has caused somewhat of a diplomatic stir in Israel.

The film version centres on the real life raid by the Israeli army on a Turkish flotilla, after it tried to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza in May 2010. The movie’s three main characters then take their revenge on the Israeli soldiers.

A year before the film came out, Israel condemned the TV series and a meeting was called between of the country’s deputy foreign minister and its Turkish ambassador.

Tensions were already running high between the two countries and the production did not help; but there is no such thing as bad publicity and ‘Valley of the Wolves‘ was a huge hit.

According to journalist Seyfullah Türksoy, the secret to its success lies in the Middle East’s quest for a ‘hero’: “It’s a necessity and because of this necessity, people have found a hero who defeats and challenges America and Israel. I think movies like ‘Valley of the Wolves’ will be influential in the future and the effect of Turkey on cinema and art will continue, especially in the Middle East. Maybe there will even be new heroes.”

Today, Turkish TV series have an export market of over 60 million US dollars that includes the Middle East and the Balkans – but could the lifestyle shown in these series have been a trigger for the Arab uprisings?

Sociologist Hülya Uğur Tannöver thinks this may be a bit of a stretch: “Non-dictatorship regimes were less common in Muslim dominated societies, until now. When you break out of a dictatorship regime, you look for political, social and cultural models that are close, but at the same time different from your own.

“People in that region already needed, and liked, the kinds of stories and lifestyles shown in the Turkish TV series, and that’s why they’ve accepted them.”

So can the power of cinema and art bring a sense of harmony to the peace-starved Middle East?

According to Arab producer, Daniel Abdulfettah the answer is yes.

“One of our series was broadcast at the time of conflict between Hamas and Fatah. It was on air at 4.00 pm in the Palestinian territories. For that one hour, the two sides agreed on a ceasefire because they were watching the series. This means if a movie or a soap opera has a love story, a romance, it could stop a fratricidal quarrel and bloodshed – with sympathy and communication,” he said.

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