On Trojan horses and Greeks bearing gifts

lindos-view-2009The proverb tells us to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This dates back to the legend of the Trojan horse, when something that was apparently benign, perhaps miraculous, and surely harmless, turned out to contain all manner of nasties. The gullible Trojans willingly pulled the horse into their city, only to be overrun by the Greek forces hidden within.

Appropriately enough all of this took place on the Aegean shore, where today refugees arrive in large numbers, assembling in the Turkish city of İzmir, not far from the ruins of Troy, to attempt the sea crossing to the Greek islands, toeholds in the EU. The refugees, many of whom hail from Syria, are sometimes portrayed as a modern-day Trojan horse – feigning refugee impoverishment but really the vanguard of an Islamic cultural inundation that threatens European identity.

Such a characterisation is utter tosh, of course, and to further turn the Trojan horse on its head this time it is the Greeks who are doing the welcoming.

In fact, the stories of generosity and compassion coming from Lesbos, among other islands and other locations on the Greek mainland, are legion. As reported in The Conversation, one fisherman from Lesbos explained, “There is not much choice when you find a boat full of scared people in the night.” Caught up in the immediacy and the drama, Greeks have responded with a largeness of spirit that The Conversation says has become contagious amongst Greek communities – but that appears to be in short supply elsewhere at present.

In Lesbos, islanders’ welcoming of refugee communities is said to be having a detrimental effect on the forthcoming season’s tourist bookings in Lesbos, but that doesn’t appear to deter the locals from their good deeds. This speaks volumes of the humanity of the residents of Lesbos. A recent article in The New York Times urges travellers not to turn their backs on the long-suffering Greeks.

It’s not as if Greece doesn’t have enough troubles of its own at the moment. For years it has been wracked by financial turmoil, but neither does this deter Greeks at large from extending a supporting hand to refugee arrivals. In fact, as the government is stretched it appears that individual volunteers and private donations are filling the breach.

Some of this generosity stems from the personal histories of many Greek families. For many Greeks the refugee experience is not that far removed – in the early decades of the 20th centuries significant numbers of Greek families were uprooted from Anatolia, where they had lived for centuries, and made their own passage across the Aegean as refugees to forge a new life in cities such as Thessaloniki and on islands such as Lesbos. The memory is fresh and their empathy (which comes from the Greek ἐμπάθεια, meaning “physical affection”) is strong. In fact, one Greek woman in the mainland town of Idomeni remarked that lending a hand to refugees is a “moral obligation”.

This all stands in marked contrast to the reactions of countries like Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia, which have thrown up razor wire fences to prevent refugees moving northward into Europe. It was these very countries that not so long ago languished on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and who hankered for the freedom that the West offered. That they offer no passage to refugees now is nothing short of mean spirited. They appear to have forgotten that geopolitical fate operates without mercy and sometimes leaves the deserving on the wrong side of artificial boundaries.

But the Greeks at the rocky fringes of Europe are fully aware of the power – and necessity – of the humanist gesture and they seek no recourse in cheap retellings of Trojan Horse allegories. And as this video demonstrates, the refugees arriving are not warriors with evil intent hidden within any metaphorical horse, but people who are filled with hope and gratitude for the hospitality and benevolence that the Greeks are bestowing upon them.

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On borders, or the crossing thereof

Gjirokastra-01

Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]

epirus-01

Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]

van-train-station

Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]

 

[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1

 

 

On football matches: to mark silence or to boo

Greek-Turkish-trinkets

FOOTBALL IS known as the beautiful game. There are plenty of people who like to see sport as metaphor for life. Like many things, football is really just one of many *parts* of life, so perhaps we should recognise it as such and not read too much into it.

Still, based on several recent incidents, I can’t help but wonder if people’s behaviour at football matches doesn’t offer a perspective on societal dynamics, perhaps on a nation’s psyche or even the deeper workings of the human spirit.

Last Friday, a football match in the Greek city of Larissa was delayed when players, coaches and officials sat down as a protest to urge authorities to work harder to cater to refugees coming to Greece and as a mark of respect for refugees who had lost their lives in recent days attempting to cross the Aegean.

It was the Greeks, after all, who gave us the concept of philanthropy (φιλανθρωπία), which translates literally as “love of humanity”.

Apparently in Greek, there are four different words for love, one of which is agápē (ἀγάπη) from whence we get “agape”, but which translates as a sense of brotherly love and charity. Thomas Aquinas saw agápē as the wishing of good upon another.

I can’t help but compare the actions of the footballers in Larissa with the Turkish football fans in Istanbul who booed and jeered during a pre-game minute of silence for the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris last November, just as fans at a match in Konya had earlier disrupted a minute’s silence for the (mostly Kurdish and leftist) victims of the Ankara bombing in October.

Observing a moment’s silence as a mark of respect is not a commonly recognised practice in Turkey, but the actions of the Turkish crowds raised eyebrows around the world, to say the least.

In considering the Turkish crowds, the uncouth behaviour of a portion of a football crowd should not be taken as a reflection of an entire nation or people. The Greeks and the Turks have much more in common – in cultural, social and culinary terms – than nationalists of either strip would ever admit. But for a fleeting second I wondered if, after years of living, travelling, working and researching in Turkey, perhaps I should have been spending my time on the other side of the Aegean…

Until I stumbled across the reaction of Fatih Terim, the manager of the Turkish national team, who decried the “cruelty” of the booing Konya crowd and said better that Turkey had lost the match (after which it qualified for UEFA 2016) and not one life had been lost.

 

 

Neo-Ottomanism hanging in the balance

NEVER ONE alert to treading on toes, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while visiting Prizren  recently, caused a minor diplomatic furor by remarking that ‘Kosovo is Turkey’.

It’s a curious comment, to say the least, but in a region still beset by nationalist sensitivities, and in a territory that the Serbs still see as rightfully theirs, it displays a remarkable lack of diplomatic nouse. Serbia duly demanded an apology for the ‘scandal’ and declared its intention to pull out of tri-partite talks with Turkey and Bosnia, which began to great fanfare in 2010 with the aim of dispelling long-running hostility in the region.

Perhaps on some level Erdoğan has a point. To my interloper’s eye (not having ever visited Kosovo, mind), there are many similarities in landscape, architecture, artistic traditions and modes of everyday life across the Balkans/Turkey/the Caucasus.  In my experience as a visitor, the vibe(s) in Albania/Bosnia/Republika Srpska/Macedonia/northern Greece/Armenia/Georgia is/are not unlike that in Turkey. There may be more lamb and less pork on the grill in certain places, more church spires or minarets in others, but, as I see it, the pace of life, traditions of hospitality, the levels of gregariousness, neighbourliness and conviviality are remarkably consistent.

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Erdoğan riffing on affinities and/or commonalities – however clumsily – doesn’t necessarily equate to aggressive intent (which is how the Serbs have construed his comments), but it’s hardly statesmanlike talk, particularly given the traumatic history and tense geopolitics of Kosovo. Who knows if Erdoğan’s was an off-the-cuff remark, or if is just more evidence of a lack of strategic thinking, and an unhealthy degree of hubris (and thinking that he can say whatever comes into his head without repercussions).

The comment was another hiccup in Turkey’s efforts to buddy up to its neighbours, a policy begun under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and efforts to assume a leadership role in southeastern Europe. Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began with what appeared self-generating momentum back in the day but has been scuppered in recent years as the Arab Spring has gone haywire. As one Turkish journalist points out, Davutoğlu can rightly claim that events beyond his control, particularly in the Arab world, have meant his aspirations are all but unattainable, but it’s also true that Erdoğan, and his bluntness, have made things less tenable in the case of Syria and now Serbia.

Whether Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional leader were ever realistic is difficult to say. As has been noted, at one time its brisk economic growth and the relative stability of its political arena certainly meant it was well placed, but it appears that any window of opportunity is now firmly slammed shut (or perhaps shattered). Some may breathe a sigh of relief at this, but ambitions on the part of Turkey in its near-abroad need not have been sinister. There has been much talk of neo-Ottomanism as either some post-modern form of imperialism, or at least a desire on the part of the Turks to exact some sort of revenge for earlier territorial and military retreats.

Implicit in such interpretations lies a degree of Islamophobia that construes any proactive Muslim-majority state to be intrinsically hegemonic or expansionary (with missionary intent). But it may be more reasonable to see that at its heart the zero-problems-with-neighbours policy is only neo-Ottoman in the sense that it involves rekindling relations with the states within what was once the Ottoman realm. These are Turkey’s immediate neighbours, so it only makes sense that Turkey enjoys good relations, cooperates on strategic issues and trades with them.

For all of the fallout from Erdoğan’s inopportune comments and the traumas in Syria and Egypt, Turkey maintains good relations with Georgia, and these look set to continue under newly incumbent President Georgy Margvelashvili. Turkey also continues to be a country of opportunity for Greeks fleeing the economic malaise in their own homeland. In recent weeks, Ankara has opened the doors for Greek doctors to practice in Turkey, and in fact it is well documented that increasing numbers of Greeks, many of whom have studied the Turkish language, are finding work in Istanbul and Izmir.

Meanwhile, in a recent diplomatic flurry, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has started patching up relations with Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the stage is now set for neo-neo-Ottomanism.

Meeting and mixing in Sarajevo

HIGH LEVEL delegations have been buzzing between Ankara and Sarajevo in recent weeks. There has been a round of diplomatic activity between Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia, not in response to any faux pas or fracas requiring delicate diplomatic manoeuvring, rather it has been part of regular tripartite meetings intended to foster economic and trade cooperation between these particular southeastern European nations. As well as signing an agreement in Ankara aimed at enhancing trade links, delegates declared themselves intent on forging a common, bright future and overcoming entrenched intercommunal prejudices. That’s gotta be a good thing.

In earlier posts I’ve written about Turkey’s increasing presence in the Balkans and the whole concept of neo-Ottomanism. This a term that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu allegedly dislikes, even while he is the architect of Turkey’s reaching out to its neighbours (most of whom were formerly subject territories). Neo-Ottomanism is busy terminology – there is a lot going on in there! – and it is certainly open to pejorative interpretations, although it need not always be. The Guardian recently ran an article looking at Turkey’s re-engagement with the Balkans, deeming the whole affair a “gentle Ottoman reprise”.

sarajevo-the-loversAs noted by The Guardian, Turkish investment has increased in the Balkans, particularly in Croatia and Serbia. Significantly Turkish business investors are not interested to the same degree in Bosnia. While there is much talk of shared culture and history between Turks and Bosnians, it would seem that Sarajevo doesn’t present the same economic opportunity or certainty that its former Yugoslav neighbours do. There is however a private university in Sarajevo that is backed by Turkish business men, and this is attracting Turkish students.

And of course, Turkish soap operas are all the rage in Bosnia, and in other countries across the Balkans (as I have also posted on before). It has been reported that the appeal of these shows, apart from intricate story lines and superb acting (you know, the soapy bits!), lies in the values that they are projecting. It would seem portrayals of patriarchal families and their assorted goings-on strike a note with viewers in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and even Serbia.

The biggest hit of all remains Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), the show which depicts the life of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. He was the very embodiment of a patriarchal fellow, but it could hardly be stated that his domestic arrangements were akin to the modern nuclear family. Still, patriarchy is carrying the day amongst Balkan soap opera watchers, and I can’t help feeling that there is something of a patriarchal, or at least paternalistic, element in Turkey’s return to the region. An increasingly confident Turkey sees itself as having a leadership role to play in the region, a source of wise counsel, a model to be emulated, perhaps…

sarajevo-chessMeanwhile, another legacy of the Turkish presence in the region, Sufism, is also reasserting itself in Bosnia. The mystical branch of Islam (to use a very simplistic, reductive definition) was always a significant presence throughout the Balkans, but during the traumatic war years of the 1990s a (hardline, conservative, literalist) Wahhabi element appeared. The pendulum appears to being swinging back now, Sufism, in particular the Mevlevi order (they being the dervishes who whirl), reappearing, with a new tekke (lodge) opening in Sarajevo.

And while a gentler strand of Islam may be re-emerging, it appears that ethnic divides and strictly nationalistic identities are not quite what they were previously in Bosnia. During the wars of the 1990s, distinct identities were asserted, often vehemently, but a canvassing of opinion in late 2012 found that 35 percent of people in Bosnia identified as on a national basis as Bosnians and Hercegovinians, rather than as ethnically Serbian, Croatian or Bosniak (Muslim). This was particularly the case with younger people. Bizarrely enough, people who identified themselves as such in the census completed in April will be categorised as ‘other’ in national records.

Of course there has always been a great deal of cultural overlap in Bosnia, despite what may be imagined after the internecine wars of the ‘90s. And even then, there were plenty who conceived of an identity broader than just narrow nationalistic ones. In besieged Sarajevo, Yugoslavian national football (soccer) player Predrag Pašić established a multi-ethnic football school. On its first day, despite the threat of snipers and mortar shells, the school attracted around 200 boys from across the city. As reported in Al Jazeera, Pašić “taught a philosophy of unity and teamwork through sport”. Sport was the great leveller – despite intercommunal conflict the Bosnian boys had something in common.

Turkey’s soap-led cultural flowering

IS IT PART OF A prime minister’s role to pass judgement on the nation’s prime-time TV broadcasts? It may remain open to question, but as noted in an earlier post, Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expressed his disapproval of the hugely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl. The Turkish viewing public doesn’t appear to be taking his tut-tutting to heart if the 1.2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook for the series are any indication (as noted on the official website). Muhteşem Yüzyıl and other historical TV series have been credited with inspiring interest in other Turkish artforms, particularly novels, both within Turkey and beyond.

In fact, the popularity of the TV series is increasing beyond Turkey’s borders. Sociologist Nilüfer Narlı, from Bahçeşehir University, notes that soap operas are raising Turkey’s profile in the international arena, particularly in the Arab world and the Balkans, a projection of soft power in the  cultural sphere in formerly Ottoman domains. This is happening not only at an diplomatic level, as government officials from Turkey and its neighbours interact, but also at an individual level as the television-watching public ponders the narratives, events and themes of historical Turkish soap operas and of the history (or histories) that lie behind them.

blue-mosque-2010At the vanguard is Muhteşem Yüzyıl, appropriately enough as the series focuses on the life of Süleyman, perhaps the most celebrated of all Ottoman sultans, and commander of the Ottoman campaign against Vienna in the 1520s. Formerly known only as a ruler and military figure, Süleyman, through this portrayal, is now seen as an individual, a lover, a human figure, which is prompting – presumably only in some quarters – a reappraisal of the Ottoman era in the Balkans.

As reported in the SE Times, revisiting history can provoke different reactions.  Birgül Demirtaş, an Ankara-based Balkan expert, argues that in the wake of Muhteşem Yüzyıl the Ottoman centuries, previously regarded in the Balkans as a “black page”, are now being re-evaluated through a prism of “common history”. On the other hand, Milica Mijovic, from the Serbian publishing house Narodna Knjiga, while conceding that “everyone across the region watches it”, remarks that period dramas such as Muhteşem Yüzyıl have made the “Balkans almost nostalgic for a not-so-fabulous past”. It’s not unequivocal enthusiasm, is it?

The Bosnians, perhaps most likely to be fans on the basis of their shared Islamic faith, are lapping it up. A competition, which attracted hundreds of applicants, was run on the Bosnian channel Televizja OBN to find people who most resemble Sultan Süleyman and his bride Hürrem and who would ring in the New Year in Sarajevo. Well, presumably the competition was to find people who look like Halit Ergenç and Meryem Uzerli, the actors who portray the great sultan and his one true love respectively, rather than the actual real-life historical figures. (For mine, Meryem Uzerli has something of Kate Hudson about her, but I’m not sure if the real Hürrem did…)

aya-sofya-2008One can only wonder if the Turkish premier approves of a sultan-look alike performing a midnight countdown, but his earlier condemnation of the series resonated in some quarters. Turkish Airline THY promptly dropped Muhteşem Yüzyıl from its inflight entertainment services after Erdoğan’s criticism. However, one carrier’s loss is another’s opportunity, it would seem, because Emirates promptly snapped up the series for its own inflight channels. This is the first Turkish TV series to have featured on any of the Arab airlines, a situation which will probably win the drama an even wider viewing audience.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s outburst, which was duly echoed by various of his AKP parliamentarians, has been greeted with dismay from many observers. The Erdoğan government had earlier been praised by demonstrating itself willing to confront aspects of Turkey’s history which had been taboo and to make some efforts to address, or at least discuss, past wrongs. There are various skeletons in closets that the AKP were willing to examine, but which had long been denied or glossed over by the Kemalist apparatus, or on which debate had been stymied by staunch Kemalists. The AKP’s approach was initially welcomed as part of a grand reckoning  that could see Turkey casting off historical millstones and forging on in a new era of openness and accountability. However, as columnist Semih İdiz has written, it would appear that AKP is no more an impartial in its approach to history than the Kemalists were. Agendas are still imposed, and histories must be viewed through particular prisms, just different ones to those in play before.

Perhaps it’s just history repeating itself – a historical re-enactment, if you will – this time with different actors and different spectators choosing alternative rose-coloured glasses to embellish the view.

Sharing sacred spaces

ohrid-dance-1A new issue of the Levantine Review has just been published, and appropriately enough in the lead up to Christmas it includes my review of Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean, a scholarly volume of papers from European anthropologists and ethnologists detailing shared customs, rituals and devotional practices.

Christmas may not necessarily be a ‘space’ that is shared, but in our globalised world it is observed well beyond the bounds of Christendom. Perhaps this is partly due to pervasive Westernisation, but of course the Christmas story and festival has echoes and parallels in other traditions, and Jesus, at the heart of the celebration, in theory at least, is revered in Islam as well as Christianity.

Christmas is often sold as the season of goodwill to all men (OK, humanity may be more appropriate); Sharing Sacred Spaces records many an instance of goodwill amongst adherents of various faiths. It is an investigation into shared experiences, intermingling, communal living and devotional practices in the Mediterranean littoral, from Morocco to Lebanon, by way of Turkey and the Balkans. I have already referred to this volume in earlier blog posts, including one about St George and one about Sarajevo (a post which, two months old, is still receiving a gazillion hits – anyone got any idea why?).

gazi-husrevThe chapters of the book are ethnographic studies, most of which include the ‘thick description’ that was called for by the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that is, close observation of cultural and social practices, human activities, everyday rituals; what makes the description truly ‘thick’ is the in-depth analysis of the political, environmental and societal contexts in which these events occur.

Even though the volume may be looking at sharing and intermingling in sacred spaces, it struck me how commonplace so many of these interactions were, not out of the ordinary but part and parcel of daily life as it has been unfurling for, in some cases, centuries, life as it had been before the encroachment of the perils and constraints of modernity. There may also be something of the all-happy-families-are-the-same/every-unhappy-family-is-unhappy-in-its-own-way dictum in the intercommunal and interconfessional interactions recorded in this volume for they are as complicated as they are diverse.

ohrid-taxiAnd while this is a scholarly collection, there is enough observation of ritual, custom and practice to appeal to some general readers with an interest in the cultures of the Mediterranean. Some of the chapters are exercises in immersion, or so they seemed to me as I read. They evoke the feel of olive-wood tesbih/rosary beads, the curls of incense smoke, the excitement of crowds gathered, the whisper of feet on flagstones, light through arched windows, icons, candles. The miscellany of religious practice, the accoutrements that contribute to sanctity, the power of objects invested with spiritual dimensions, the soulfulness of things.

The various authors who contributed to Sharing Sacred Spaces clearly spent a long time in the field: to observe, analyse, and in some way understand the customs, events and ritual related. It was enough to evoke some melancholy on my part at missed opportunities in my own itineraries over the years, places that I have observed but not sought to truly comprehend, places like St Anthony’s in Beyoğlu in İstanbul, the neglected, yet operational, Armenian churches in Diyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast. These are places where tradition persists and modern practice evolves and people come and go despite perceived divisions that may exist between them and despite sometimes hostile political environments. Intercommunal interaction can continue in places such as this, as Galia Valtchinova elegantly put it in her chapter of this volume, as long as there is an ‘equilibrium between earthly powers and divine order’. Long may this equilibrium reign…

In a lather: Ottoman soaps

bosphorus-2008ALL HISTORY is contested. This is pointedly true in Turkey, a country which for decades wilfully ignored its imperial history, but which has – all of sudden – rediscovered its Ottoman past. Increasingly, Turks are taking pride in an era when the Turkish polity was the dominant player in the broader region, when the sultans, ensconced in the so-called Sublime Porte, called the shots in southeastern Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.

This is yet another aspect of neo-Ottomanism, a multi-faceted concept, which for some means a projection of soft power, for some signals resurgent expansionary intent on the part of an ‘Islamist’ government and for others Turkey’s re-acquainting itself with its neighbours.

In the cultural sphere, neo-Ottomanism means renewed appreciation for and use of the motifs, iconography and tropes of Turkish history. It also means soap operas. And the biggest soap opera inside and outside of Turkey at the moment is Muhteşem Yüzyıl (literally “Magnificent Century”), which depicts the life of Sultan Süleyman I, widely regarded as the greatest of all Ottoman sultans.

So, what’s to be contested? Plenty, it seems… Rather than allowing the Turkish viewing public an escapist, broadly fictionalised, weekly instalment that allows them to muse on the glories of the House of Osman, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has weighed in, decrying the series. He declared that the government had issued warnings to the producers and had suggested the judiciary rule against the series. Erdoğan’s beef appears to be with certain historical inaccuracies and the show’s unhealthy preoccupation with the goings-on of the harem and depiction of Süleyman engulfed in miscellaneous palace intrigues rather than in the saddle, where, as Erdoğan has it, he spent 30 years, on campaign, extending the boundaries of the realm and the glory of Islam.

Blogger and academic Ece Algan has posited that Erdoğan sees himself as a latter-day Süleyman, the man who will lead the Turks to another cultural and geo-political zenith, thus tawdry portrayals of Süleyman detract from his image as a statesman, a world leader.

Whatever the case it seems to have escaped Erdoğan’s notice that Muhteşem Yüzyıl is a soap opera. Aimed at a mass market. The show is about entertainment, not historical accuracy, nor projections of soft power. In fact, a real-life descendant of the Ottoman sultans has remarked as much. The son of the last Ottoman şehzade (prince), Osman Selaheddin Osmanoğlu, told Hürriyet Daily News he watches the show “but I don’t take it seriously since it is only a soap opera”.

And an entertaining soap it is. (Plenty of episodes, beginning with the first, are viewable online.) It doesn’t qualify as a bodice ripper (Islamic sensibilities are at work here, whether historically accurate or not!!), but there’s plenty of sumptuous costumes, the full measure of outlandish Ottoman headgear, elaborate sets, hammy acting, battle scenes and cheap-looking CGI. All of this, as well as requisite plot lines involving the duplicity, conniving, emotional manipulation and rampant bitchiness (counterpointed by macho posturing) from the assembled cast. It amounts to a hell of a lot of fun.

There is an element of Orientalist fantasy to it all, which perhaps explains some of its appeal to modern Turkish viewers. Indeed, Orientalist stereotypes – intrinsically negative – creep into many portrayals of Turkey in popular culture. Of these, Lauren Rosewarne notes the swarthy, soccer-obsessed, underhanded baddies in recently released Taken 2, which is set in İstanbul. Of course, the (Western) hero here is honourable and upstanding, in contradistinction to aforementioned baddies. (For some added locational authenticity (!), Taken 2 features a fight scene in a hamam.)

blue-mosque-interiorOrientalist considerations aside, TV viewers are lapping up Muhteşem Yüzyıl. It has attracted a domestic and international audience of some 150 million, much of it, ironically enough, in former Ottoman possessions of the Balkans, but also in central Asia, southern Europe and the Arab world. The size and spread of this audience isn’t lost on Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry who appeared somewhat bemused at Erdoğan’s recent outburst and pointed out the economic benefits of such a wildly popular show.

That said, the series has no shortage of detractors within Turkey. Thousands have registered their displeasure with the Turkish broadcasting watchdog, noting the perceived decadence and licentiousness of the intra-palace goings-on as portrayed. Perhaps it is to this gallery that Erdoğan is playing. Alternatively he may be attempting to distract attention from more pressing, intractable political issues. Or it could be just more evidence of a worrisome authoritarian streak, which seems to becoming more pronounced after a decade in power. (Witness his ramming through planning of a controversial, oversize mosque – for some, large to the point of vulgarity – on İstanbul’s Çamlıca hill.)

Concerns with the themes and impact of Turkey’s historical soap operas are not restricted to elements within Turkish society. The Macedonian parliament has moved to ban Turkish shows on the grounds that due to the popularity of Turkish buy-ins Macedonian-made shows aren’t getting a look in, but also because, in the words of the Information and Society Minister, “to stay under Turkish servitude for 500 years is enough”.

Exactly how watching a foreign-made TV programme amounts to servitude may not be immediately obvious to all, but in this corner of the world memories are long and often nationalism-infused, so even innocuous phenomena like soap operas may be seen as the vanguard – or aftertaste – of cultural subjugation. Like I said, all history is contested, and agenda driven. Now, it seems, so is the mundane act of sitting down to watch the tellie.