By ELEANOR OXFORD
By ELEANOR OXFORD
July 24, 2011
Turkey’s regional prowess has been on the increase for some years now. This is partly boosted by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, focused on building essential economic, political and cultural ties with the neighboring Arab region.
Re-establishment of neighborly relations has become a necessary political reality, which facilitates Turkey’s own strength as a dominant regional player or — in terms of cultural influence — a regional point of inspiration. This is especially true when we think back to the breakdown in regional relations between Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors that occurred in the early days of the Turkish Republic due to the pro-Western orientation of Kemalist policies.
Yet it is the cultural realm of influence that we see Turkey evolving into a regional point of inspiration. Turkey is building bridges but not just across the Bosporus. Turkish cultural products are going global. In the Arab world Turkish fever seems to be sizzling. From Damascus to Dubai, Turkey has become a hot topic. The success of Turkish soaps and television serials such as “Gümü?” and “Sarkhet Hajaar,” amongst others, are putting Turkey at the center of the hearth and home in the Arabic-speaking world. Turkey is producing the ingredients and the Arab world is hooked and falling in love. The phenomenon goes so far that the soap “Gümü?,” dubbed “Noor” for the Arabic-speaking audience, has become sacred TV time for its avid viewers.
The Turkish-Arab love affair
What better way to build bridges across borders than with some light entertainment and gripping love affairs? The soaps and serials that are being scheduled into primetime viewing slots region-wide are creating a desire for cultural exchange, a sort of knowing me, knowing you effect. The frenzy caused by the popularity of Turkish soaps is capturing the imaginations of its viewers.
Political agendas aside, is it not an essentially human trait to become engaged in the unfolding of love affairs and ensuing family dynamics? Human nature, perhaps? Especially when the drama unfolds against the backdrop of the shared experience of Islamic life. This is where the soaps’ impact creates social capital. To build bridges between hearts and cultures, it makes sense to capitalize on the common ground. What has been the happy coincidence of these soaps is that an intercultural rapprochement is occurring as a result.
Shaping identity: The knowing me, knowing you effect
Rana, a 24-year-old office manager from the West Bank, is one of the many fans who are gripped by Turkish soap fever. When asked about the reasons as to why a show such as “Gümü?” or “Noor,” as it has been dubbed for the Arabic audience, is such a success, her response was that “the show deals with issues that we are dealing with.” Rana’s contemporaries share a similar notion. The soap’s appeal to Arab audiences is due to the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country. The issues portrayed in the folds of the glamorous drama have a familiar context that Arab viewers are able to interpret into their own social dynamics. Young people sitting in cafés in Ramallah attribute the soap’s success to the fact that Turkey’s culture and traditions are so similar to their own.
Yet don’t be mistaken in thinking that the issues being dealt with in “Noor” are toned down for a more conservative audience. Viewers suggest that the attraction behind the success of these soaps is the appeal on an aesthetic level of the sleek and professional production delivered by a glamorous and attractive cast which provides a sense of escape in addition to offering a source of social aspiration. The show manages to successfully navigate its way around contemporary taboos which Turkey has had the advantage of experiencing due to its own course of history; the struggle between and the successful symbiosis of modernity and tradition. This is welcomed by the audiences, who appear to be looking for inspirational ways to deal with taboo issues and evolving social dynamics becoming more prevalent in their societies such as gender roles, divorce, premarital sex and abortion. All of these issues have been addressed in episodes of “Noor.” This is creating the effect of placing Turkey as a destination of aspiration in terms of guidance along the map of societal development. This can be attributed to the reality that Turkey presents a successful Muslim country on a committed and increasingly developing democratic trajectory. Hence the image of Turkey is also evolving and becoming more pertinent in the eyes of its Arab neighbors.
The bridges are now facilitating tourist traffic
All this hype is definitely having a visible impact on drawing the region closer together. Tourism from Middle Eastern countries has increased since the soaps topped the viewing charts. In 2009, one year after the release of “Noor” on Arabic TV stations, tourism from countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria and even as far as Morocco hit a high of 70 percent due to the allure of the soaps, coupled with increasing curiosity for contemporary Turkey.
A revisionist approach to understanding Turkey is certainly under way. The fans of “Noor” are reviving their perception of Turkey and taking it beyond the realms of the schoolroom or history textbook. They simply want to get to know their neighbors who have created this pop culture sensation. Tour agencies are jumping on the bandwagon, too, and taking advantage of the hype by organizing special packages for fans, including tours of the sites in ?stanbul where scenes of “Noor” were shot — one of them being a beautiful Ottoman era palace along the Bosporus. Turkish tour guides have geared up for the bespoke tourist market and are reeling from enjoying the buzz and renewed interest in their beautiful, albeit familiar, landmarks. The response has been so positive that there are even plans to make “Gümü?,” the movie.
Pragmatism behind the soft politics
Now that Turkey has broken down the bureaucratic barriers at its borders by easing and in some cases eliminating visa restrictions between the neighboring Arab countries, the bridges for trade and tourism lie open to all those who wish to take advantage of it. With the popularity of Turkish soaps and an increasing desire for Arab cousins to come and sample the delights Turkey has to offer, a perfect opportunity lends itself to cross-cultural exchange and for Turkey to extend the welcoming Turkish hospitality to its wider regional companions. The impact of “Gümü?” can definitely be felt and can be termed as a successful aspect of Turkey’s new “zero problems with neighbors” policy where building economic, political and cultural links is part of this concept. “Gümü?” with its airing to circa 80 million viewers from Palestine to Morocco has definitely stimulated the tourist trade, and Arab visitors to Turkey increased to 70 percent in 2009 as a result.
The joy of the fans rediscovering Turkey through new eyes is certainly a boon to the “zero problem” policy. Even from the soaps Turkey seems to be a point of inspiration, but it is also having a significant impact in shaping thoughts and attitudes whilst uniting its viewers with the common denominator of religion. Bridges are being built and perhaps the success of this soft power approach will reap more benefits in the years to come.
Olympiads that cross cultures
But the wave of Turkish influence does not end with its neighborhood policy, nor is it limited to the realm of popular TV and stargazing. Turkey is building bridges further afield, too, and is making waves in a much more global context, the Turkish Language Olympiads being a case in point. The concept behind the Olympiads is that it facilitates a platform for the expression of Turkish culture. Turkish-related languages are spoken in many cities and countries around the world today, from Dallas to South Korea, there are Turkish diasporas in many unexpected global locations beyond the ones we know of in Europe. Turkish is also taught in 115 countries. The Olympiads gives young people from all over the Turkish-speaking world an opportunity to perform in front of the public and display their cultural and linguistic talents in various forms of the arts. The lively expose of these performances is definitely something to be marveled at, especially when groups of young school-age children from as far afield as Dallas, Texas, have mastered a traditional folk dance originating from the Karadeniz, Turkey’s Black Sea region. The color and flair on display are completely enticing and beguiling.
The Olympiads are hosted by a youth civil society organization with a global reach, the International Turkish Education Association (TÜRKÇEDER). The competition has itself been developing since 2003, when only 62 participants from 17 countries took part, whereas the recent ones were attended by 1,000 students from over 130 countries. The finals took place in 15 locations across Turkey in June of this year. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an came to close the final ceremony where he extended his thanks to the global participants and emphasized the importance of the Turkish language and culture as a means for transmitting peace, common ground and understanding.
If soft power is a side effect of the cultural influence that Turkey is developing regionally and globally, it is fair to say that the evidence suggests that cross-cultural fertilization is taking place. More people are gaining an understanding of what contemporary Turkey is about, sparked by its transmission of interesting and gripping cultural products.
Source: SUNDAYS ZAMAN
Picture credit: AP