Turkish Drama and Censorship of Visual Elements Deemed Offensive for Arab viewers

Morocco World News

New York, May 10, 2012

Turkish series initially invaded Arab television on the pretext that unlike other types of imported TV shows, particularly American soap operas and Spanish-language telenovelas, they are culturally proximate to the Arab culture in terms of shared Islamic practices and historical experiences. These series are believed to be offering Arab viewers “a familiar context of arranged marriages, respect for elders and big families living together” (Michael Kimmelman). It is also stated that even when Turkish series tackle culturally sensitive topics such as adultery and children born out of wedlock, the way these topics are treated is within the boundaries allowed by an Islamic society, regardless of its level of liberalism. It is argued that “the idea [for Arab viewers] of watching Muslim men and woman who share the same values and cultural background with their brethren in the Middle East is a very appealing one because it raises taboo subjects and challenges conservative values by someone from within, as opposed to an outsider” (Nadia Bassy-Charters ).

Ask-i Memnu [The Forbidden Love] (2008) is one of the Turkish series that while dealing with taboo topics, offers conventional conclusions. A?k-i Memnu’s amorous scenes which take place between the female protagonist and her husband’s nephew have evoked controversy even in its homeland, particularly among the Turkish traditionalists. However, A?k-i Memnu’s end is believed to be conforming to the viewers’ expectations in terms of social conventions. Nicholas Birch argues that A?k-i Memnu’s end in which the adulterous Samar commits suicide out of remorse and despair points to the existence of “subtle instances of conservatism” (Nicholas Birch).

For this assumed proximity of Turkish social and religious customs to the Arab context, state media gatekeepers in the Arab world gladly received the Turkish soap operas in hope of alleviating the constant pressure of the Islamist political groups who have invariably been against the airing of foreign series for fear of them transmitting “anti-Islamic” attitudes. It needs to be pointed out that the strong pressure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Wahhabiya in Saudi Arabia as well as the recently increasing number of Islamist groups in other Arab countries are believed to be the main reasons behind the more conservative content of films and TV shows produced lately.  Arab media productions had to abide by the socio-religious redlines set by those pressure groups and this applies to both locally produced and imported media.

The main cultural taboos that are very intolerant on Arab screen are basically themes about sex and religion. First, any criticism or negative portrayal of Islam, the official religion of the majority of Arab countries, is highly unsolicited. Interestingly, despite the presence of an important Arab Christian population, particularly in the Levant area, media productions typically only emphasize the social and religious conditions of Arab Muslims. On the other hand, positive representations of atheism, heresy and magic are generally not allowed. Moreover, scenes depicting explicit sex, naked human bodies, extremely revealing clothing for female characters as well as the use of obscene conversations are generally censored, because they challenge Islamic decrees that enhance traditional moral values and endorse modesty in clothing, speech and behaviors (Viola Shafik, 34-35). In more conservative Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, depiction of gender mixing and the featuring of unveiled women are also subject to censorship.

Noteworthy that despite the promoted rhetoric of Turkish soap operas containing visuals that are culturally proximate to the Arab milieu, many of the Turkish series aired on Arab television are in fact devoid of such elements. For instance, in Ihlamurlar Altind[Under the Linden Trees] (2005) and Gumus [Silver] (2005), which are the first Turkish telenovelas to gain success in the Arab world, none of the characters has been seen engaging in Islamic rituals. The characters in these particular Turkish series are never seen praying or reading Quran. Besides, drinking alcohol, a clearly forbidden practice in Islam, has been abundantly depicted. Red wine has been frequently seen on dinner tables. In addition, the characters, including the main ones, commit acts that are not just religiously banned but are also strongly frowned-upon in the Arab society. In Ihlamurlar Altinda, the female protagonist with the translated Arab name of Lamis engages in a premarital sex with Yahya, the hero, and becomes pregnant before she and Yahya split apart.

The subsequent Turkish series that have recently aired on Arab television, such as A?k-i Memnu [The Forbidden Love] (2008) and Ask ve Ceza [Love and Punishment] (2010) embrace even more culturally subversive elementsThe whole story of A?k-i Memnu revolves around a hopeless love relationship between the married Samar (Bihter) and the playboy Mohanad (Behlul).  This relationship is made doomed because Samar’s husband is Mohanad’s uncle, and thus Mohanad could never flee with Samar or confront his uncle though both of them ultimately engage in an obsessive sexual relationship.

The storyline itself is considered to be very daring in an Arab-Muslim context where both marital and family relations are strongly revered. The topic of infidelity has obviously been discussed in several Arab dramatic works, however, A?k-i Memnu’s triangular relation is very unlikely to be dealt with in Arab drama, or at least the outcome would be easily reckoned:  the young man would give up his love out of deference to his uncle. However, in A?k-i Memnu, the opposite takes place in which Mohanad relentlessly pursues Samar till she gives in to his advances.

Also, in spite of the Arab media officials’ propagation of the rhetoric of cultural proximity, Turkish series have been extensively submitted to censorship, as the case with other global TV drama shows. Accordingly, the passionate scenes in A?k-i Memnu have been all censored on MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center), particularly Mohanad and Samar’s secretive intimate encounters. It should be noted here that male family members might just switch off the channel if they spot any inappropriate materials, given that the consumption process of television in the Arab world usually takes place in the domestic sphere where family members gather to collectively watch their favorite TV shows. In addition, in Gumus, MBC censored all the love scenes that are seen as culturally offensive for Arab viewers, particularly for the male figures. Similarly, in Fatmagul’un Sucu Ne? the rape scene has been edited in which Erdogan (Othman) opening his pans has been cut off as well as the tearing up of Famatgul’s dress. All what basically remains is Fatmagul’s scared facial looks, loud screams and the crazy laughter of the four rapists.

The censorship includes dialogues that are seen as culturally disrespectful.  For instance, in Ask ve Ceza’s second episode, the female protagonist, Yasmin, sleeps with the hero, Savas, (whom she knows nothing about) out of resentment, after finding out that her fiancé cheats on her with her friend just two days before their wedding. Afterwards, in the Turkish original version, Savas curious asks her “you wanted to get rid of your virginity, I see, but why me?” however, because the Arab television has not reached the level of liberalism of its Turkish counterpart, that sentence was totally altered, and instead Savas asks in the Syrian dialect “you wanted to try something new, I see, but why me?”

A similar technique has been adopted in episode number two of the Turkish version of Fatmagul’un Sucu Ne? In this episode, the three rapists (Erdogan, Vural and Kerim) gather to discuss a strategy that would save them from jail, Erdogan angrily comments on the absence of the fourth rapist (his cousin Selim) by saying “he opens his pans, closes it and then he thinks it is over, he can disappear.” This dialogue has been altered in the Arabic version, episode number four, in which Erdogan simply says “he disappeared like nothing has happened, like there is no problem.” Apart from the issue of the edited dialogues not matching up with the most intense dramatic moments in the series, this speech censorship is an evidence of far liberal agenda taken on by Turkish television compared to its Arabic counterpart, which is the offshoot of the discrepancy between the dominant religious ideologies in Turkey and most of the Arab countries.

As these different examples illustrate, the majority of the Turkish series aired on different Arab TV channels are in fact devoid of elements that can point to the alleged religious and cultural proximity to the Arab culture. The way the Turkish public context deals with Islamic laws strongly differs from the Arab one, despite both sharing the same religious doctrine and a number of cultural traditions. Thus, I contend that Arab viewers were rather attracted to characters whom they see are engaging in unfamiliar attitudes though they know that they are similar to them in terms of religion.  The evidence that the Turkish series’ visual content does not bear strong religious and cultural resemblance with the Arab culture is the extensive amount of censorship they undergo before being put on air.

If Turkish series have been culturally proximate as claimed, Arab TV channels would not have taken the trouble to extensively censor the scenes that are seen as culturally offensive for Arab viewers and that might provoke the ire of the conservative political constituencies. For example, this is not usually the case with Arab TV series from Egypt, Syria or the Gulf area, which go on air on different Arab TV channels typically with no need for any censorship of scenes or dialogues.

Second, notwithstanding the heavy censorship of erotic scenes, which include the depiction of any type of physical intimacy between male and female characters, Arab newspapers, such as the Saudi Al Jazeera, have declared that the airing of Turkish drama on Arab television is an “assault on public decency” (Buccianti, 7). Also, due to the remaining visual materials that are seen as irreverent to the Arab cultural values, these Turkish series have sparked harsh criticism from high-authority religious clerics. Saudi Arabia’s grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh issued a Fatwa that described these shows as “‘subversive’, ‘anti-Islamic’ and decreed that any channel which broadcasts the series is ‘an enemy of God and his Prophet” (Rana Moussaoui). This again rarely happens in regard to dramatic Arab TV shows.

However, despite the intense editing and the clerics’ harsh fatwas in regard to Turkish drama, Arab viewers’ fascination with the Turkish series has continued, prompting Arab TV channels to purchase even more. This strong fascination with Turkish drama is not due to their cultural proximity given all the examples of culturally transgressive elements noted earlier, I rather suggest that the Arab audience tuned to Turkish series because these TV shows have offered them unfamiliar and different visual content, compared to those offered by Arab TV series. In her textual study of different types of Latin American telenovelas, Christina Slade attempts to explain the success of novellas in cultural contexts where the characters’ lives and personalities are not identical to those of viewers.

Slade points out that, viewers, particularly the ones across national borders, are believed to be deriving pleasure from identifying with both the culturally similar and different elements depicted in telenovelas. Slade argues that “viewers become involved not so much by identifying with the characters of soap operas and telenovelas as by seeing their own lives through the lenses of similarities and differences in the lives portrayed” (Ilan Stavans, 59). Thus, it would be pertinent to argue that Turkish telenovelas have resonated with Arab viewers because they provide them with visual elements that are difficult to find in national TV productions, which incorporate the series’ young and charismatic characters, clothing fashion, setting, storylines, topics, and music, in addition to their ability to identify with familiar content about family values and moral traditions.

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