Turks Put Twist in Racy Soaps
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN, ISTANBUL —
A topless hunk lights candles in the bedroom. A woman appears in the doorway.“Come on, let’s not be late,” she begs him, although her dark brown eyes say something different. They kiss. He lets down her hair and there’s a flash of his wedding ring as they move toward the bed. A spaghetti strap slips off her naked shoulder.
Just another day at the office for the stars of “Gumus,” the Turkish soap opera that during its two-year run here on Kanal D has offered Turks not only the daytime-television miracle of sexual foreplay, but the standard sudsy compendium of shotgun weddings, kidnappings, car accidents and crazy plot twists like the one when the dead girlfriend of the aforementioned married dreamboat turns out to be alive and the mother of his illegitimate baby.
Usual stuff to American aficionados of the genre. But Turkish television has given the soap a fresh twist by making the connivers, kidnappers and canoodlers Muslims. And it is Arab audiences, even more than Turks, who have been swept off their feet.
Led by “Gumus” (“Noor” in Arabic), a wave of Turkish melodramas, police procedurals and conspiracy thrillers — “Yaprak Dokumu,” “Kurtlar Vadisi,” “Asmali Konak,” “Ihlamurlar Altinda” and now the steamy “Ask-i Memnu,” the top-rated series in Turkey (think Madame Bovary on the Bosporus) — are making their way onto Arab televisions, wielding a kind of soft power.
Through the small screen, Turkey has begun to exercise a big influence at Arab dinner tables, in boardrooms and bedrooms from Morocco to Iraq of a sort that the United States can only dream about. Turkey’s cultural exports, not coincidentally, have also advanced its political ambitions as it asserts itself on that front, too, sending a flotilla to Gaza, defying the United States over sanctions on Iran, talking tough to its onetime ally, Israel, and giving Kemal Ataturk’s constitutionally secular state an Islamic tinge.
Politics and culture go hand in hand, here as elsewhere. If most Arabs watch Turkish shows to ogle beautiful people in exotic locales, Arab women have also made clear their particular admiration for the rags-to-riches story of the title character in “Noor,” a strong, business-savvy woman with a doting husband named Muhannad. Dr. Shafira Alghamdi, a Saudi pediatrician, was on vacation here the other day, shopping with two Saudi friends, and volunteered how Arab husbands often ignore their wives, while on “Noor,” within what remains to Arabs a familiar context of arranged marriages, respect for elders and big families living together, Noor and Muhannad openly love and admire each other.
“A lot of Saudi men have gotten seriously jealous of Muhannad because their wives say, ‘Why can’t you be more like him?’ ” Dr. Alghamdi said. Meanwhile, she was illustrating another consequence of the show: the sudden, spectacular boom in Arab tourism to Turkey. Millions of Arabs now flock here. Turkish Airlines has started direct flights to gulf countries (using soap stars as spokespeople). Turkish travel companies charter boats to ferry Arabs who want a glimpse of the waterfront villa where “Noor” was filmed. The owner recently put the house on the market for $50 million. Until lately he charged $60 for a tour, more than four times the price of a ticket to the Topkapi Palace.
Even fatwas by Saudi clerics calling for the murder of the soap’s distributors haven’t discouraged a store in Gaza City from hawking knockoffs of Noor’s sleeveless dresses (long-sleeved leotards included, to preserve feminine modesty). A recent cartoon in a Saudi newspaper showed a homely Saudi man visiting a plastic surgeon, toting a picture of Noor’s husband, who is played by Kivanc Tatlitug, a blue-eyed former basketball player turned model turned actor who also plays the philandering Adonis in “Ask-i-Memnu.” The man in the cartoon asks the surgeon if he can get Mr. Tatlitug’s stubbled good looks.
“Arab men say they don’t watch these shows but they watch,” said Arzum Damar, who works for Barracuda Tours in Istanbul and was in her office, where a television broadcast Mr. Tatlitug silently demonstrating how to tango before a daytime studio audience of half-faint women. “The men like to see the fancy houses. The women like to look at him.” It’s true. A Hamas leader not long ago was describing to a reporter plans by his government to start a network of Shariah-compliant TV entertainment when his teenage son arrived, complaining about Western music and his sister’s taste for the Turkish soap operas. Then the son’s cellphone rang.
The ring tone was the theme song from “Noor.”
If this seems like a triumph of Western values by proxy, the Muslim context remains the crucial bridge. “Ultimately, it’s all about local culture,” said Irfan Sahin, the chief executive of Dogan TV Holding, Turkey’s largest media company, which owns Kanal D. “People respond to what’s familiar.” By which he meant that regionalism, not globalism, sells, as demonstrated by the finale of “Noor” last summer on MBC, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based, pan-Arab network that bought rebroadcast rights from Mr. Sahin. A record 85 million Arab viewers tuned in.
That said, during the last 20 years or so Turkey has ingested so much American culture that it has experienced a sexual revolution that most of the Arab world hasn’t, which accounts for why “Noor” triumphed in the Middle East but was considered too tame for most Turks. Even Mr. Sahin wonders, by contrast, whether the racier “Ask-i Memnu,” a smash with young Turks, threatens to offend Arabs unless it is heavily edited.
“You have to understand that there are people still living even in this city who say they only learned how to kiss or learned there is kissing involved in lovemaking by watching ‘Noor,’ ” explained Sengul Ozerkan, a professor of television here who conducts surveys of such things. “So you can imagine why the impact of that show was so great in the Arab world and why ‘Ask-i Memnu’ may be too much.
“But then, Turkey always acts like a kind of intermediary between the West and the Middle East,” she added.
Or as Sina Kologlu, the television critic for Milliyet, a Turkish daily, phrased it the other day: “U.S. cultural imperialism is finished. Years ago we took reruns of ‘Dallas’ and ‘The Young and the Restless.’ Now Turkish screenwriters have learned to adapt these shows to local themes with Muslim storylines, Turkish production values have improved, and Asians and Eastern Europeans are buying Turkish series, not American or Brazilian or Mexican ones. They get the same cheating and the children out of wedlock and the incestuous affairs but with a Turkish sauce on top.”
Ali Demirhan is a Turkish construction executive whose company in Dubai plans to help stage the next Turkish Emmys there. One recent morning he was at a sunny cafe in a mall here recalling a Turkish colleague who had just closed a deal with a Qatari sheik by rustling up three Turkish soap stars the sheik wanted to meet.
Mr. Demirhan sipped Turkish coffee while Arabs shopped nearby. “In the same way American culture changed our society, we’re changing Arab society,” he said, then paused for dramatic effect. “If America wants to make peace with the Middle East today, it must first make peace with Turkey.”
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.