Turkish Prime Minister takes on historical soap opera
07 Dec 12

In Turkey, television drama is big business. A handful of big-budget productions attract millions of viewers every week, both at home and abroad. According to Abdullah Çelik, the head of property rights department in the culture ministry, more than 65 million dollars were received from foreign television companies in acquisitions of TV dramas, with more than ten thousand hours of screen time exported overseas. Such costly, and bankable, television productions thrived over the last decade, partly thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit that came with the governing AK Party’s policies of economic liberalisation.

But according to Turkish prime minister and leader of the AK Party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the industry’s success story has a sinister undercurrent that needs looking into. Erdoğan believes that one particular show is toying with the national values of Turkey’s Ottoman past. “We alerted the authorities on this and we are waiting for the judicial decision on it,” he said during a public speech last month. “Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson within the premises of law.”

Erdogan was referencing The Magnificent Century, a show that is currently the biggest production television drama in Turkey. The latest season of the series had a production budget of over three million liras with an all-star cast featuring some of Turkey’s most famous actors. Last month, the Turkish edition of GQ magazine honoured the show’s producer and two of its leading actors in its Men of the Year event.

The Magnificent Century, which first aired in January 2011, has long been subject to controversy and Erdogan’s pointed comments about its “false depiction” of the private lives of Ottoman rulers was but the latest, and probably the most high-profile, example of complaints about the show. Every episode of the drama series narrates another chapter in the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning sultan and caliph of the Ottoman Empire, acknowledged by historians as one of its most successful rulers.

Although many people I talked to about the issue seemed to share Erdoğan’s complaints about the show’s historical inaccuracies, none of them agreed with the idea of taking any form of legal action against it. In fact, even the descendants of the Ottoman empire are against such a move. In an interview with Vatan newspaper, Prince Şehzade Orhan Osmanoğlu, a descendant of the last Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II, said their family wouldn’t take legal action against the programme because it was not “a documentary but a work of fiction.” However Osmanoğlu added that his family was very disturbed by scenes which depict the harem, resulting in some of the juiciest moments of the show. Osmanoğlu said they would go to court if his ancestors were portrayed as figures involved in immoral acts, including having extra-marital affairs and fathering illegitimate children.

The centerpiece of Erdoğan’s complaint was that while most of Suleiman’s life had been spent on horseback and in battle fields, the show had continually depicted him in the middle of sexual intrigues taking place in the harem. When I asked Sonat Bahar, who writes a weekly column on Turkish television series for the popular Sabah newspaper, about her take on the issue she said production conditions of the show might be dictating this choice.

“Shooting battle scenes is costly, that’s why they can’t do it,” she said. “The real problem is the discrepancy between the show’s title which claims portraying magnificence and the limited view of the emperor’s life presented to us. I would rather they named the show Roxelana.” Roxelana, Hürrem Sultan’s name before she married Suleiman, is widely agreed to be the central figure in the series, and it is her charming and often times deceitful depiction that draw many to their television sets.

Although critics and historians acknowledge problems with the show’s historical approach, more worrying is the preparation of a new bill presented to the parliament last week, introducing fines for television producers who “misrepresent” historical figures.

“This show begins with a disclaimer that says its characters were ‘inspired’ by historical figures,” a popular television blogger who writes under the pseudonym Ranini told me. She said such bills, if they become law, would ignore the fact that those series were, after all, intended as entertainment. “If people really want to learn about real lives of Ottoman rulers, then they should read books, instead of watching these soap operas,” she said.

This is a point shared by Ümit Ünal, one of Turkey’s most successful film directors and scriptwriters. “This is just a harmless soap opera, nothing more,” he said. “Like many television series, it intermingles a set of complex love affairs with a faux-historical decor. It is a highly commercial work. I can understand why prime minister is angry about it but I am also at a loss to understand the new standards of censorship in this country.”

According to Ünal, all Turkish artists are born with the knowledge that their works will be subject to political restrictions, which leads to the graver problem of self-censorship. “If a Turkish artist comes to tell you he doesn’t apply self-censorship in his work, then he is lying,” he said. “When the field of artistic freedoms get even smaller, how can we, as storytellers, produce works without being subject to the wrath of politicians afterwards?”

Kaya Genç is a journalist and novelist

By Kaya Genc

Kaya Genç is a contributing editor to Index on Censorship magazine. He is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His writing has appeared, mostly online but also in print, in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, Prospect, Time, Salon and Guernica Magazine.