A Greek Yen For Turkish Soaps

The fraught relationship between Greeks and Turks can be traced back through the struggle over Cyprus, the mutual mass deportations of the early twentieth century, all the way to the 19th century Greek independence war against the Ottomans. But a recent vogue for Turkish shows on Greek television reflects the two peoples’ cultural similarities and shared history, a Greek critic writes.

Tonight, Greek television will feature something new, when a series about the life of Suleyman the Magnificent, Muhtesem Yuzyul-The Magnificent Century goes on the air. Five years ago, if someone had suggested that a TV series depicting the life of an Ottoman sultan would not only be broadcast, but would be an event in Greece, even the most fervent advocate of Turkish-Greek friendship would have been skeptical.

While official Turkish-Greek relations have been friendly for 12 years now, surveys taken in both countries show that there has been little improvement in mutual prejudices between the two populations. So it is rather unexpected that Greek viewers have been captivated by Turkish serial shows already popular in many Balkan and Middle Eastern countries. The [2005] series titled Yabanci Damat (The Foreign Son-in-Law), which related a love story between a Greek and a Turk, was an exception that owed its success to the show’s unusual premise.

When the economic crisis limited the budgets needed for locally filmed series, Latin American soap operas at first soared in popularity in Greece. But then a small local channel based in Thessaloniki decided to run a Turkish TV show. The success of the series, A Thousand Nights, was so great that Channel Antenna, which broadcasts to all of Greece from Athens, bought the rights to the show and rebroadcast it. It was from that moment on that Turkish TV series exploded. All the major private channels added Turkish TV shows to their lineups. TV series such as Asi (The Rebel), Unutulmaz (It Won’t be Forgotten), Ask-i Memnu (Forbidden Love) and Gumus (Silver) all gained followings among Greeks. So much so that broadcasting a controversial TV film based on Ottoman history wasn’t even considered a taboo anymore. Despite the reactions of nationalist groups that are against what they call the “Turkish propaganda and new Ottoman intrigues,” Turkish TV shows have become the fashion. They have even been an inspiration for humorists who say that Greek families watch so many Turkish shows that they are beginning to speak a hybrid of Turkish and Greek.

How can this success be explained, and what does it mean for Turkish-Greek relations? Are the taboos in Greece about Turkey beginning to evaporate? This development is an important indicator that the Turkish-Greek political reconciliation process is starting to have an impact on the Greek public, that the normalization of Turkish-Greek relations has begun to trickle down to the masses.

There is now an awareness of the similarities between the two peoples, something that neither side has wanted to openly admit. Though language and religion differ, social values, family and social structure are very alike in the two cultures, which is why the Greek viewer has been able to easily empathize with the characters in the Turkish TV series. Although Greece urbanized and modernized earlier than Turkey, the problems related to economic development are not foreign to the Greeks.

Likewise, television shows have in a way provided a window into Turkish society, presenting Greeks with a view of Turkey that had not been visible before. Although hundreds of thousands of Greek tourists flood into Turkey each year and many claim to know a lot about Turkey, the truth is that most do not. An overwhelming majority of them visit Istanbul. But they don’t even see all of Istanbul; the extent of their visit goes perhaps no further than getting a glimpse of the city’s tourism display-window. The average Greek tourist will spend a 48-hour stay with a quick trip to Fener, where the Patriarchate is located, then on to Taksim and Istiklal Avenue, to Sultanahmet Square and the Covered Bazaar. This only serves to reinforce a stereotypical, Orientalist approach to Turkey. The tourist sees very little of real life in the city. The heart of Istanbul is no longer Sultanahmet or Fatih-now it beats in places like Levent, Kadikoy, Besiktas and Umraniye, places that are not included in the typical tour. And Turkey outside of Istanbul remains terra incognita.

So the television shows open doors for Greek viewers, however partially, onto the unknown side of Turkey, making viewers more aware of the differences and paradoxes in Turkish society. Turkey and the Turkish people are no longer simply categorized as ” the enemy”; they begin to resemble any other “normal” country or people. The objective of these TV shows isn’t to educate people or to improve Turkish-Greek relations, but in a sense this is the function they serve. In the absence of reforms to replace antagonistic nationalism in the educational programs of both countries, television shows fill the gap.

Ioannis Grigoriadis