Wednesday 16 February 2011

No sex please, we’re Turks

I read – though I can’t swear to the truth of it – that when people in Hungary encounter some extraordinary mishap they are consoled with the words “Never mind; more was lost at Mohács field” (Több is veszett Mohácsnál). The reference here is to the Battle of Mohács, fought in August 1526 between Hungarian forces led by King Louis II and those of the Ottoman Empire, commanded by Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest of all the sultans. It was a disaster for Hungary, so much so that it occupies a place in the national consciousness similar to that of the Battle of Kosovo for the Serbs.

Given his prestige, given this victory, given the way that Turkish forces advanced so far as the walls of Vienna under his leadership, given that his death was followed by a long drawn-out decline, Suleiman continues to occupy a central place in the consciousness of Turks.

Now this iconic figure is the centre of a new battle, one that ranges the country’s Muslim conservatives against the secularists who take their stand behind the memory of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey. It’s the great fault line, becoming ever wider because of; because of what, exactly? Well, it’s because of a television drama series!

The series penetrates right into some of the places that conservative Turks would much rather not go: namely, into the harem. Suleiman is not just shown as the great soldier and leader; he is also shown as a man, a man with ordinary passions, a man lusting after Roxelana, the love of his life. Just as bad, he is shown drinking goblets of wine, particularly unpalatable for the conservatives.

It does not really matter if it’s true or not, it does not really matter that his son and successor was such a notorious drunkard that he has gone down in history as Selim the Sot, to see a national hero, caliph as well as sultan, breaking a fundamental Muslim commandment against the consumption of alcohol is another step too far.

Things are so bad that Halit Ergenc, the actor playing the sultan, has received death threats. Even the government has been moved to intervene. Bulent Arnic, deputy prime minister, has called for the series to be scrapped. “It shows him”, he said, “in his harem, fond of drinking and in certain scenes that I cannot find words to express.” Well, let me express it then: it shows that Suleiman was a man.

RTUK, the state media watchdog, has warned the broadcasters, Show TV, that they are clashing with the “national and moral values of our society.” Meanwhile protesters have gathered outside the studios, ushered there by the Islamist Saadet party. In spite of this the producers are fighting back, saying that “the children of the Sultan were not conceived by pollination…he did have a sex life and a family.” As is the way with these things the controversy has boosted the ratings tremendously.

It all seems so minor, I know, such a silly fuss over what are, I imagine, not having seen the show, some very chaste sex scenes. Still, its significance should not be minimised: its part of a bigger struggle over Turkey’s identity as a nation. Is it to remain a secular and modern republic in the fashion of Atatürk or is it to retreat into more fundamental courses, a place where sultans and caliphs may have all the sex and alcohol they like, just so long as the population remains in a state of benighted ignorance?


  1. Most of the human race is bug nuts. People will struggle more viciously to protect their illusions than to save their own lives. It takes an enormous effort of will to throw off the conditioning that allows us to 'fit in' and to see reality as it is. But there's no going back.


  3. Calvin, it certainly does. I'll check your link. Thanks.

  4. Hello Ana!

    The drama is funny. The producers wanted to create a controversy to get more rating (they confessed) and they did.
    I have seen half of one show, it was funny.
    I haven't really listened or read about the discussions that much but I have heard some historains saying that there are historical faults for the daily life in harem.
    But I do agree with you its a reflection of the "battle" going on with secularists/kemalists (=totalitarians, militarists, fascists) against some others.
    As said before M. Kemal has started well but took the wrong turn. We should face east more than west. We are of none.

    Calvin, I bow before your wisdom.

  5. PS: Where is Adam? Sick or something?

  6. muslims are radical with his doctrine we know, the do not want see human weaknesses in his hero, I think it is a crossroads, modern turkish must respect muslims and muslims must respect the liberty of modern turkish, they need look for a middle point. But really I think television is fantasy but in the same view they cross the line many times, all can not be money. Greetings. Mario.

  7. :) Ana, your post really surprised me a lot when i see it in your blog. Are you watching turkish drama series secretly?
    Just as you said above it caused some controversies and boosted the ratings of ShowTV on Wednesday nights.
    But after official complaints of RTUK, producer company has announced that Suleiman was only drinking "sherbet" in the movie not "wine"! This was funny because by this announcement they won some hearts and i can say that majority of people has a sympathy for drama actors and actresses here in Turkey now. And weeks later, people really get used to seeing Suileman as a man. This is also amazing. This drama series also showed that how bad to be governed by an emperor. All of these were centuries and centuries ago and thanks God that all of imperial system issues are gone now.

    Let me ask you something: if they made a movie about sex life of Prince Charles after his pass away, would they allow to show it on BBC for prime time? Or would MI6 intervene again like they did for Diana in the past?

  8. Calvin, the points in your link were well made.

  9. Levent, my friend, it’s lovely to see you. :-)

    Yes, it’s inevitable that there will be errors in this kind of thing, though it’s as well to remember that it is drama and not history. I can’t think of a single historical drama shown on English TV that has not taken liberties with the facts; the live and loves of Henry VIII are particularly notorious in this regard! But clearly, as you say, there is more here, part of the bigger battle over Turkey’s future. I’m just an outside observer, one who can admire both Suleiman and Mustapha Kemal (I loved Andrew Mango’s biography of the man).

    I really can’t say too much about Adam without breaking past confidences. He’s pursuing other courses; that much I will say.

  10. Mario, yes, I agree. My essential point is that heroes are not gods; they are people, all the greater for being human.

  11. Kunday, it’s super to see you also. Alas, no, I haven’t seen any of the series, but I do like to keep up with the news from across the world, especially the more out of the way stories, the sort of thing that is not widely reported here. This caught my attention because I’m interested in both Turkish history and contemporary Turkish politics.

    Before I answer your question there are a couple of points that you could clarify for me. We have here what’s called a ‘watershed’ set at nine o’clock, after which more adult-themed drama can be shown, on the rather naïve assumption, I suppose, that the kiddies have all been chased off to bed. Is there a similar policy in Turkey? On the sex scenes I’m assuming, knowing how conservative Turkish society can be, that these are fairly mild. Can you conform this?

    Now to your question. There may very well one day be a drama about the sex life of Prince Charles, though it’s likely to be decades, if not a century or more, after his death. Recent royals are not generally a subject for creative drama, though there has been salacious stuff on the life of the late Princess Diana, shown on the Sky network. I think the better example here is Henry VIII, the one I mentioned to Levent, a near contemporary of Suleiman. There has certainly been plenty of drama set around the vicissitudes of his sex life!

  12. Oh, in case anybody's wondering I took my title from an old comedy called No sex please, We're British. :-)

  13. Hi Ana. I had to laugh when I saw the title of your post. I underwent a semester's class in headline writing long ago in a galaxy far, far away. You get an "A+", no questions asked.

  14. It's kind of you to say so, Bob. :-)

  15. "I really can’t say too much about Adam without breaking past confidences. He’s pursuing other courses; that much I will say. "

    Tis a shame, I rather miss him, we agreed on almsot nothing, but...