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Leisure, Love, and Fashion Turkish Soap Operas in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 08.03.2012:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

TWIP, March 2012

Throughout Palestine Turkish drama is the new fad. It is the current “moda.”

Soon after sunset the village streets become desolate. The clusters of youths that huddle around in various corners disband. The streets empty of strollers. The sound of the village hushes. Mobiles are put on silent mode and rarely answered. The young, the middle-aged, and the old, both males and females, withdraw into the family living rooms to join the daily ritual.Instead of huddling over the charcoal brazier, the families gather around the daily serials of Turkish dramas.

Saturday to Wednesday, the Muslim work days, are scheduled for the televising of the new episodes. Friday is the appointed day for the repeats, allowing those who missed an evening to catch up with the details of the unfolding plot.

Palestinians are in rapture with Turkish soap operas. They do not merely provide nightly entertainment but their influence shapes the image and style of the young viewers. Shirts, dresses, tights, styles of clothes, handbags, belts, and jewellery worn in the Turkish soap opera are highly coveted among Palestinian young women. The image: what and how to combine items of clothing, how to comport oneself, how to walk and what to talk is a style gleaned from Turkish televised dramas. Young men design their haircuts in emulation of their heroes; they put on stylish jackets, shirts, and pants whose styles fluctuate with the seasonal changes of Turkish fashions. The diversity, range of characters portrayed, and endless twists and turns of the plot attract a great cross-section of Palestinian devotees. Palestinians of all ages – grandparents, husbands, wives, young men and women, adolescents, children, and even toddlers – congregate nightly to see a mirror image of their “life” reflected on the screen and idealised into a polished legend; a surrogate reality.

Men have their favourite shows and women have theirs, and the successful directors produce the hit dramas that lure all members of the extended family in nightly episodes that rival the tales of One Thousand and One Nights.

Though the satellite dish is a feature of Palestinian village roofs and provides access to over 400 stations, most Palestinians select MBC, Abu Dhabi, and a few other Arab channels as they follow the one-hour televised series before shifting to the next station to continue with another equally compelling drama. The diversity of the characters gives shape to each one’s dream. The nightly entertainment culminates with the talent show, Arab Idol. Candidates from all over the Arab world are invited to display their vocal talents with the dream of winning the final contest. The preliminary selection allows candidates the opportunity to continue for the finals in Beirut where they will hopefully sign the contract that will raise them to stardom. The panel of three judges is currently dominated by the popular Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama.

When I taunt my daughter Aida while watching the trivia of Arab Idol she protests.

“Baba, I must watch it. Everyone in school will be talking about it tomorrow.”

Now that Oprah has retired, many follow the show of Dr. Mehmet Oz. In one episode he invited his mother onto the show.

“He is an Arab like us.” Aida is proud of Dr. Oz

“Aida they are Turks … they are not Arabs.”

“His name is Mehmet, that is Mohammad. And they are proud of their ethnicity. His mom came and cooked our food on TV. She even looks like your mom!”

“The fact that they are Muslims like us does not make them Arab!”

“But they resemble us and they behave and respond to situations like us!” she persisted.

Invariably Palestinian knowledge of Turkish culture and people is mediated by the Syrian Arabic dialect. It is second hand and cinematically fictitious. The dubbing of the Turkish shows in Syrian dialect “Arabises” the actors but by the same token it distances the Turkish dramas from our immediate Palestinian ethno-cultural context. The characters speak a remote dialect with which the audience has already become familiar from previous Syrian-produced dramas. Bab El Harah (the Gate of the Neighbourhood) stands out as one of the most successful historical serials. The five-year-long saga describes life in ethnic neighbourhoods replete with colourful characters. Bab el Harah mythologises and promotes a way of life pertaining to greater Syria with which Palestinians strongly identify. The passion this Syrian drama stirred, among many other dramas set in contemporary urban and peasant contexts, has helped popularise the Syrian dialect and endear it to the Palestinians.

Significantly Syrian cinematography has distinguished itself from the once dominant Egyptian dramas by its highlighting of the ethnographic cultural milieu. The camera angle not only pans the folkloric details but often the introductory wide shot begins with the “folkloric items” in focus and slowly moves mid-shot towards the protagonists in action. The interior decor, “mise en scène,” is almost an ethnographic documentary and recreates a virtual museum in which the narrative takes place. Painstaking effort is extended to provide the narrative description of the street life, the layout of the houses with the conventional open courtyards, the traditional carved, studded-with-mother-of-pearl furnishings, copper pots and pans, men costumed in loose pantaloons, shirts, and vests, and sauntering around in wooden clogs as they pride themselves on their dashing waxed, stylised moustaches and constant allusions to traditional homemade food.

Within the Syrian and Egyptian cinematic context a general awareness of Arabic cultural diversity in which the similarities far exceed the differences promotes the sense of identification and sets the ground for the special love affair with Turkish soap operas. The greater Syria audience in general and Palestinians in particular have been primed through Syrian productions to savour these ethnographical details that mythologise the customs and manners of our “grandparents” with whom they seek to establish social historical continuity. Moreover, many Turkish dramas take place in southern Anatolia, which is geographically contiguous to northern Syria and with whose geography, people, religion, and culture we share similar features. Consequently the Turkish Muslim milieu is perceived as a variant cultural dialect. The Palestinian audience is lured into the simplistic conclusion that all Turks are Anatolians.

The cross-cultural identification with “Turkish culture” is further augmented by the fact that the protagonists of the dramas have features, facial expressions, body posture, and general comportment that bear great physical resemblance to ours. That homology in form does not necessarily reflect similar referential value is obviated in the excellent dubbing. The Turkish element is lost in the translation. Within the overall political context in which Turkey champions the Palestinian cause, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that they are us: that Turks are Arabs.

Although some Turkish dramas are historical and reveal the diversity of the Turkic peoples and their struggles under the Ottoman Sultanate, the viewers overlook the history lessons. The greater Syrian Arab viewers are selective in their perception and overlook the historical details in preference for the narrative. The metaphoric power of the artwork disengages the viewer from the familiar self and provides the space wherein to rethink the self-confirmed in the illusion that the fiction on the screen is the mirror image of one’s ideal self. The history lesson is overlooked.

Murad ‘Alam Daar, the name of the hero, and El Ard el Tayyibeh (The Good Earth) are the rage among youth – from elementary to college students. All are excited as they anticipate the sequel of Murad ‘Alam Daar, which they believe to have been filmed locally in northern Palestine, in Jenin, and which shows the struggles and battles against early Zionist settlers.

Although the historical sagas trace the Turkish insurgence and struggles against the corruption in the Ottoman system, attributed to the great power exercised by the Turkish Jews and foreign allies over the last sultans, the complex historical process leading to the Turkish Revolution is subject to systemic “méconaissance.” It is the bravado, the coat of Murad, the haircut, and the clothes that capture the imagination.

Irrespective of whether the drama is an historically accurate portrayal of the reign of Solomon the Magnificent, or whether it is set in a modern historical context tracing the last decades of the Ottoman Sultanate or a contemporary social drama, Turks are stereotypically reduced to one homogenous group. The Turkish cultural, regional, ethnic diversity – each with its distinctive customs, music, dance, and cuisine – is overlooked. The fact that an exclusively small circle could access the sultan and obtain privileges from which most Turks were excluded is overlooked. Our history books, as dictated by the founders of modern Arab national states, continue to satanise the Ottoman era. Nevertheless, Arabic historiography is shoved aside in the ongoing love affair with modern Turks. A tacit understanding among the viewers holds to the belief that modern Turks are not to be held responsible for the actions of the oppressive Ottomans. Whether this reconciliation will lead – in the wake of the Arab Spring – to a critique of Arabic nationalist historiography is beyond the scope of this article.

Those I interviewed were drawn to Turkish drama because of the dramaturgical skill in combining (within the context of the Muslim ethos) the rational and irrational through the evocative portrayal of human passions: love, lust, jealousy, hatred, envy, courage, integrity, pride, revenge, loyalty, treachery. In the currently popular serial aired simultaneously in Turkey and instantly dubbed in Arabic Hareem el Sultan, i.e., The Sultan’s Harem, the historical figure of Solomon the Magnificent fades in importance next to his wife and his concubine Roxelan (named Hiam in the Arabic version) and the women of the harem. Both heroines have male children and both vie for the favour of the sultan and plot against each other to ensure succession of the sultanate for their male son. The drama’s opening chapter begins with a gold ring given as a gift by the sultan to Hiam. The sultan’s wife’s feelings of jealousy are aroused. Female rivalry and intrigue animate the narrative that will keep Turks and Arabs glued to the television for the upcoming months.

“To love, to lose the beloved one, and to win back one’s lover,” Ahmad explained, “this is the core of Turkish drama.”

“The heroes are dressed to kill. Turkish dramas are about dressed up people eating, going to cafés, and sitting in restaurants … and interspersed with violence to lure all the members of the Palestinian family.”

Nadia stressed the importance of the fashionable clothes, accessories, and jewellery worn by the actors. “I wanted to wear a distinctive dress for my brother’s wedding and remembered Samar’s beautiful dress.” I looked inquisitively. “Samar is the heroine of Al Ishq Al Mamnu’ (Forbidden Love)” she explained. “I searched the Internet for the old episodes of Al Ishk al Mamnu’ until I found the episode with the dress. I photographed it with my digital camera and showed it to my seamstress to have an exact copy tailored for the occasion.”

Al Ishq el Mamnu’ is a contemporary social drama of love and incest. It is the story of one big extended family all sharing the same rambling house, buzzing with incestuous desires. Samar, the heroin, falls in love with the much younger handsome nephew of her husband, hence the title “Forbidden Love.” The newest show, a Turkish variation of the American Desperate Housewives is dubbed in Arabic as Nisa’ Ha‘erat (Confused Women).

“For many women neither effort nor expense is spared to purchase the clothes and accessories that the actresses wear. Deep inside they harbour dreams of being heroines next to the man of their dreams who will lavish them with expensive gifts.”

Turkish drama provides the “runway” for Palestinian viewers. What to wear, what accessories to match, and how to speak! Watching the drama is a dress rehearsal during which they long for the hero who will fall madly in love and say these words…

“Words … words … words…” Nuzha, a technician in a dental laboratory, said impatiently.

I was surprised to meet someone who does not watch television serials.

“I have two children, a husband, and a home to look after; I work full time and I must prepare for your lectures; I don’t have time!” she summed up her full life.

“And the others?” I exclaimed.

“They have a lot of free time.”

Special thanks go to my students at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis who helped conduct the research and provided the synopses of the dramas.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at

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