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Turkish influence under the Ottoman Sultans had never been fully unleashed on the populace of the subcontinent during the reign of different Arab and Central Asian Muslim warriors, but now things have changed and Turkish influence, especially the cultural one in our society, can’t be denied and will remain unabated even if political influence may waver in future owing to certain differences over foreign policy endeavours of both nations (Pakistanis may get irked from their Turkish brothers if in near future Turks may shift their focus towards strengthening ties with the emerging Asian economic and political power India as a necessity of time).
Undoubtedly, there will hardly be a soul who didn’t fall in adoration of Behlul-Bihter’s amorous duo paired with a twist of lechery, greed, envy, hankerings and agony. Ishq Mamnu – Ask i memnu, was a wildly popular modernized tale of surreptitious lust adapted from an Ottoman-set novel of the same name. It centered on the claustrophobic situation of a young wife (Bihter) conducting an affair with the dishy nephew (Behlul) of her old, rich husband under the noses of everyone in the house.
The heroine (Bihter) duly killed herself and the debonair nephew got engaged to Bihter’s stepdaughter. Stolen embraces, laden silences and remorseful glances filled every episode. My whole family was also crazy about this particular Turkish soap though it seemed to me sometimes that tension had been pulled absurdly, unsustainably high in Ishq Mamnu. But it was somehow very watchable and housewives especially across the Middle East and also to a certain extent in Pakistan weren’t able to get enough of it.
The atmosphere of stifled lust and the pressure of social restrictions prevalent in different parts of the Muslim world (including Pakistan) are dramatically reproduced on screen with improbably daring characters playing out the housewife’s wildest dreams. According to Pakistani rating network, “Media logic”, Ask I memnu was watched by more than 55 million people on its last episode and it averaged 45 million viewership from the rural and urban market. This was the first time a foreign drama had such a high viewership in Pakistan.
Several Turkish soaps have hit Pakistani screens since then, quite astoundingly overshadowing even some of the great Pakistani serials with their splendor and with narratives revolving around family issues, seductive romance, historical dramas etc. When it comes to love and family, and deception and intrigue, there seem to be no geographical boundaries. The second most popular series in Pakistan after Ask I Memnu was Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? (Fatmagul-After all what is my fault) that aired on the same channel and the third best television series was Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century).
These top three TV Series are said to be the most famous ones ranking highest ratings in terms of TRPS(Television Rating Points).These soaps were also aired again owing to their immense popularity. The actors involved in these soaps were huge heart-throbs, in a way that is almost obsolescent now in the West due to the mushrooming of transient talent-show stars and the myriad avenues of celebrity.
Many of these soaps are typically gilded by a luxurious setting, social competition and purgative falls from grace. These soap operas like Ask i Memnu are set in wealthy houses on the banks of the Bosphorus; with female characters wearing designer miniskirts and flaunting their cleavage which is a far cry from the billowing shalwar kameez garments worn by most Pakistani women that hardly reveal skin.
Turkey is also a majority Muslim country but is generally more liberal than Pakistan. Sometimes Pakistani TV channels blur miniskirts and low-cut tops worn by women in the Turkish shows in the name of propriety. Pakistan is far from the only country to experience the growing influence of Turkish TV shows According to Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM) head Mehmet Buyukeksi, Turkey is the second-highest exporter of TV series after the United States, selling to over 75 different countries, with a business volume estimated to exceed $350 million.
The Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans and Russia rank among major importers, redefining a sort of Ottoman Empire territorial expansion through the airwaves. While the traditionally reliable Middle East market has seen demand fall due to political turbulence and conflict(especially in Egypt after strained Turkish-Egyptian relations under Sisi), new markets for Turkey’s popular drama output opened up in regions such as South America which has its own domestic soap opera and Telenovela cultural market and South Asia (starting with Pakistan and now also culturally invading India and Bangladesh).
Turkish TV series have replaced Pakistani ones on Indian channel of Zee Zindagi after the Uri Attack in 2016 which strained Indo-Pak relations and forced the channel to stop airing Pakistani content.The popularity of these Turkish soaps was met by some difficulties in Pakistan as Pakistan’s entertainment industry complained that the airing of Turkish and other foreign TV series diverts funding from local productions. Furthermore, A Senate committee that oversees information and broadcasting initially condemned such shows for their allegedly “vulgar content” and termed their content as contrary to the Pakistan’s Muslim traditions.
Also Turkish soaps didn’t receive higher viewership as they used to receive after 2013 but hopes were tied with Kosem Sultan after it was broadcasted on Urdu 1 in 2016 starring Beren Saat in leading role who was the same actress who played the role of Bihter in the glamorous blockbuster Ask i Memnu and it opened with higher viewership. It was with Kosem Sultan that Turkish content began its demand in Pakistan after three cold years without any significant gain in popularity.
I watched these soap operas with English subtitles before they were being shown on Pakistani channels. I began watching the soaps to improve my Turkish. Schmaltzy classics such as Ask i Memnu(popular in Pakistan as Ishq e Mamnu), Muhteşem Yüzyıl (popular in Pakistan as Mera Sultan) and Adini Feriha Koydum(popular in Pakistan as Feriha) became my linguistic bibles.
I can highly recommend these soaps in Turkish with English subtitles to anyone wishing to improve their Turkish or is in the process of excelling in learning Turkish as they are invariably filled with pregnant pauses (allowing the looking up of new vocabulary) and the kind of acting which renders dialogue largely superfluous- like a nuanced mime artist.The heartrending strings and sinister percussion of traditional Turkish music assisted me in improving my Turkish by expelling any confusion over what is going on and which character has sensed betrayal or has done a switch of allegiance.
This is reminiscent for me of a maid in our house named Fazilah from my childhood who spoke not a word of English, but would never miss an episode of Friends, providing her own specialized interpretation of the plot and scolding the characters in animated Urdu and Punjabi as she watched. Compared to English-language TV dramas, Turkish ones are much slower and scenes are considerably stretched out.
Just as Bollywood incorporates a pristine escape for a large part of the Indian population who can only dream of such opulent and libertarian lives, so too do the Turkish TV series foster the dreams of large pockets of conservative societies from Morocco to Pakistan. Turkish celebrities are being catapulted to cross-continental fame. Their characters have inspired a generation of baby names and their onscreen wardrobes are being copied and sold in the most far-flung souks.
It would seem that the semi-liberal yet not too alien lifestyles idealized in Turkish soaps are perfectly pitched for audiences of Arab world and Pakistan who are yearning for the world to which they can both relate and aspire, an audience which cannot necessarily identify with Western TV featuring series like Game of Thrones with way too much racy and risqué content which may cause an ordinary viewer from this particular part of world to raise his/her eyebrows repeatedly.
Although most soap viewers and fans are female but Middle Eastern men are equally dedicated star worshippers. Beren Saat who played the role of adulterous lover in Ask i Memnu, a rape victim in Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? and as the ruling princess in Kosem Sultan has internet forums devoted to her in which Arab men post odes to her eyes and beauty.
Saat’s co-star from Ask I Memnu Kivanc Tatlitug who is popular in Pakistan as Behlul has a cult-like status across the Arab world, where he far outranks Hollywood types like Brad Pitt and Zac Efron.
The confluence of Muslim culture with the European culture in a single package remains the primary source of attraction for many across Pakistan and the Middle East.