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Soap Opera Diplomacy: Turkish TV in Greece

Though Greek culture is famous for its sociability and its nightlife, the country’s economic crisis is making people spend a little more time at home with their TVs. And with Greek TV channels looking for cheaper content, the airwaves are now filled with imported Turkish soap operas, says Asli Tunç, head of the Media School at Istanbul Bilgi University.

“There are only a handful of new domestically-produced serials in Greece, since a single episode of a Greek production costs around €70,000–80,000, whereas each part of a Turkish serial costs merely €7000–8000,” says Tunç, speaking to Record.

Turkish soaps are gaining a worshipful following in Greece, writes Mary Andreou in the Greek newspaperAdesmeftos Typos. A Greek facebook page for Halit Ergenç, who plays Süleyman I in the controversial Turkish soap Muhtesem Yüzyil (Magnificent Century), has nearly 23,000 fans. Another Turkish star, Burak Hakki, acknowledged his Greek fanbase by taking a hundred Greek fans on a Bosphorus cruise.

But there are dissenters, too. Some in the Greek TV industry, as well as members of the Greek Orthodox Church, have expressed their anger at Turkey’s emerging cultural power. The Macedonian parliament has moved to ban Turkish soaps. And in Turkey itself, Prime Minister Erdogan has publicly railed against the depiction of Turkish history in Magnificent Century.

As Greek cultural anthropologist Penelope Papailias argues, the soap phenomenon shows a fragile cultural engagement between the two nations, and a recognition of their fraternal similarities alongside their deep historical grievances. And as Turkish literary scholar Hakan Özkan argues, it also shows the extent to which Turkey is willing to repackage and transmit its culture to the world.

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The Turkish formula

Turkish soaps are an economic and cultural juggernaut. Magnificent Century – Turkey’s most popular and most talked-about soap, which aired in January 2011 and is still ongoing – is watched in 43 countries by 200 million people, according to David Rohde in The Atlantic. The Hurriyet reports that Turkish soap opera exports have grown from US$1 million in 2007 to nearly US$100 million today. Around a hundred different Turkish serials are exported in dubbed or subtitled form to North Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America.

Turkish soaps filled the void left by the political turmoil in Cairo and Damascus – the region’s traditional television production centres – and were the perfect product for an uncluttered marketplace, writes the journalist Jumana Al Tamimi in the Gulf News. They were efficiently produced and cheaply sold.

Yet as the journalist Mary Sinanidis writes in Odyssey magazine, Turkish soaps are slicker than their competitors, with good-looking leads and exotic settings. They use tried and tested plots about forbidden love, affairs, mistaken identities, and revenge.

These plots are seen as “progressive and liberating” by Middle Eastern audiences, says Tunç. An unnamed director working for Magnificent Century told the BBC that the success of Turkish soaps in the Middle East is partly due to “rising aspirations amongst women” in the region.

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Turkish soaps are largely watched by women – and not just women who stay at home. Mazen Hayek, director of marketing at Middle Eastern satellite broadcaster MBC Group, told Daily News Egypt that the company deliberately shifted the blockbuster Turkish soap Gümüs (Silver) from daytime to primetime to attract working women.

Turkish producers argue that soaps present a more visible and complex role for women. In an interview with Reuters, the creators of Magnificent Century said that the show’s dominant character is a woman – a real-life Ukrainian slave-turned-concubine who eventually became Süleyman’s queen. And women participate centrally in the messy business of public life at the Sultan’s court.

“By entering the harem, we made all those untouchable and respected characters of history closer to us. We gave them a material existence as humans, with fears, anger and passions,” the female screenwriter ofMagnificent Century, Meral Okay, told Reuters.

The show is also surprisingly racy. Peter Henne, Research Associate with the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University, watched Magnificent Century during a trip to Doha. “I was a little surprised to see something that would shock my rural PA hometown’s sensibilities on Middle Eastern TV,” he wrote.

Yet if this portrayal of women and sex is radical fare for an Arab audience, Greeks see it quite differently, Tunç says. “The Greek audience, on the contrary, views the Turkish serials with nostalgia for a more traditional Greek society of the past. The plots and characters in the Turkish soaps, simple and naïve, resemble Greek black and white melodramas of the 1950s. I find it quite ironic how audiences in different cultures perceive the Turkish soaps.”

For the Greek author and journalist Nikos Chiladakis, Turkish serials recall a “lost dimension” of Greek life. They portray “a society that is supposed to respect the honor of women, the family and the common table, the mother, father, fraternal relations, and the value of friendship,” Chiladakis wrote for the blog Aien Aristefein.

At their core, Turkish soaps are conservative, says Tunç. “The Turkish soap opera model with its rather shallow storylines and two-dimensional characters seems to be ideal to promote traditional family values and Islamist traditions.”

Soaps and soft power

Soap exports are a key element of Turkey’s “soft power” in the region, according to Ayhan Kaya and Ayse Tecmen, in a working paper for the Istanbul Bilgi University. The researchers argue that soaps have burnished Turkey’s reputation abroad, especially in the Middle East. They point to a 2010 survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation which found that 61% of Arab interviewees thought Turkey could be a model for the Arab World, while 63% agreed that Turkey sets a good example of the coexistence of democracy and Islam.

Recognizing the economic benefits and the soft power of soap exports, the Turkish bureaucracy is increasing its support. The Vice Culture and Tourism Minister Abdurrahman Arici announced that the ministry will help to get Turkish soaps shown in a number of countries, including Kyrgyzstan, free of charge. “With TV series we can enter every house and spread the influence of Turkish culture,” Arici told the Hurriyet.

In January, the soap industry was presented with an award from Turkey’s Tourist Hotel and Investors Association. At the ceremony, Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay pledged further support, and praised the sector for “objectively highlighting the beauty, richness and even the problems” of Turkey to the world, the Hurriyet reported. Cast members of the Magnificent Century were present at the ceremony.

Nonetheless, soap producers are getting distinctly mixed messages. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s denunciation of Magnificent Century, made during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a provincial airport in November 2012, hangs over the industry. And an MP for the governing Justice and Development Party, Oktay Saral, went further, threatening to outlaw the “misrepresentation of historical figures” in shows such as Magnificent Century. “Imposed on Süleyman the Magnificent, a person who spent his life on horseback serving his country and his nation, is a life entirely composed of the bedroom and based on twisted relationships,” Saral told the Sabah newspaper. He has since stepped back from his threatened legislative action, telling news outlet Eurasianet that the law is “no longer a priority.” He didn’t nominate a reason for his change of heart.

Local analysts believe the controversy is rooted in “clashing priorities between a burgeoning TV and movie industry riding a wave of so-called ‘Ottomania,’ and a government that wants retroactively to stamp that era with its own political and social values,” writes Alexander Christie-Miller at Eurasianet.

Borders of Love

After decades of enmity, Turkey and Greece initiated an unprecedented rapprochement in the wake of a devastating pair of earthquakes in Anatolia and Athens in 1999. But the ongoing financial calamity in Greece is complicating that new relationship. The train line between the two nations, opened in 2000, was severed in February 2011 due to the indebtedness of Hellenic Rail. And a dispute over territorial waters has broken out between Greece and Turkey with the discovery of gas in the eastern Mediterranean – a resource that cash-strapped Greece is eager to exploit. Yet on Greek TV, the rapprochement is still in full swing.

Greece’s love affair with Turkish soaps began when a poor Turkish baklava-maker’s daughter fell in love with the son of a Greek shipbuilding tycoon. Yabanci Dama (The Foreign Groom) was first broadcast in Greece in 2005, rebranded as Borders of Love. It was subtitled, not dubbed. It was a novelty, and a talking-point. At the time, Turkey’s only presence on Greek TV came in the form of acrimonious news reports, writes Papailias, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Thessaly.

Borders of Love was refreshing because it was a comic-drama rather than a melodrama, and treated cross-border tensions as a joke, writes Papailias in TV Across the Aegean: The Greek Love Affair with a Turkish Serial. “The Turkish father, upon learning of his daughter’s Greek lover, ate a whole tray of baklava, rather than, say, driving himself off the cliff (as he would have in an analogous Greek serial).” The two father-in-laws later quarrel about whether backgammon was invented by the Greeks or the Turks. A passer-by tells them it’s Persian.

The relationship between the two nations in Borders of Love is still mediated by old stereotypes and self-other categories, but those stereotypes and categories “changed their significance within the new trans-Aegean discourse”, writes political scientist Adrian Staudacher in a PhD research note.

The great revelation of the show for Greeks, Papailias writes, was the similarity of intimate gestures (the rocking of babies to sleep on outstretched legs); the similarity of the internal dynamics within extended families; of eating rituals; and of the fragments of a shared, undubbed vocabulary.

“The Greeks view the family in any Turkish soap opera as their own,” the Greek journalist Pavlos Tsimas told the Turkish newspaper Zaman. “The attitudes, relations and lifestyles of the people in Turkish soap operas are exactly the same as the Greek style.”

The serial was crucially important in “breaking the dam for better relations between Greeks and Turks” in the 2000s, writes Özkan in a paper for the Anna Lindh Foundation and Transeuropéennes.

The cross-border romance theme was taken up again by Iki Yaka Bir Ismail (Two Shores, One Ismail), shown in Greece in 2012. Shot on location on Lesbos in Mytilene, and on the Turkish Aegean coast in Aivali, it follows the affair of a Turkish fisherman and a Greek island divorcee. Where Borders of Love stimulated a run on baklava in Athens, Two Shores, One Ismail has produced a Turkish tourist boom in Mytilene.

“We went from hell in the off-season, due to the repercussions of the economic crisis and cancellations of reservations by foreign tour operators, to our phones ringing off the hooks,” a local tour agency owner told the Southeast European Times.

The persistence of cross-border soaps – some of which feature Turks finding love in the Middle East – is symptomatic of Turkey’s more general interest in foreign literature, other cultures, and other ethnic identities in the 2000s, writes Özkan. Özkan speculates that political change, the democratisation process, EU membership talks, and the open discussion of minority questions fermented this openness in Turkish culture.

Backlash

In Greece, the openness to Turkish culture has its limits. Kostas Spyropoulos, the general manager of Greek state-run TV channel ERT, was fired by the board in December 2012 after he aired a documentary about the effects of Turkish soaps on Greek society. The board accused Spyropoulos of creating “propaganda” that did not reflect the truth about Turkish serials, according to Spyropoulos’s account provided to Turkey’s Anatolia news agency.

As Turkish soaps changed from a rare novelty to an overwhelming presence during the Greek economic crisis, a great deal of heartache and resentment bubbled up from the stalling Greek TV industry. Odyssey magazine reported that screenwriter Rena Rigga – whose Greek production was replaced by the Turkish soapKismet – labeled the Kismet star Burak Hakki a “weasel”. Odyssey also reported that director Manoussos Manoussakis has spoken of the “de-Hellenization” of Greek television.

And racial resentments still remain. The nationalist Thessaloniki Bishop Anthimos, as well as the fascist Golden Dawn party, have condemned Magnificent Century. Greek National Socialist blogs echo the sentiment that Turkish soaps are “propaganda”.

Yet these arguments have gained little popular traction as Turkish shows remain overwhelmingly popular. 1.2 million Greeks tune in to Magnificent Century in prime time, Tsimas told Zaman.

Turkish soaps have begun a dialogue between two cultures, not in the halls of government, but in the lounge-rooms of regular citizens. They have allowed Greeks, writes Papailias, to “peek into Turkish homes, to overhear their conversations, to glimpse their, perhaps unexpected, nostalgias, insecurities, and desires.”

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