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Prime Minister Finds Soap Opera's Turkish Delights In Bad Taste

Jan 3, 2013
Originally published on January 3, 2013 6:27 am

Suleiman the Magnificent was the longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire, presiding for nearly a half-century at the peak of the empire's power in the 16th century.

During Suleiman's rule from 1520 to 1566, the Ottomans were a political, economic and military powerhouse. Suleiman's forces sacked Belgrade, annexed much of Hungary and advanced across large parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

But viewers following the new Turkish soap opera The Magnificent Century are treated to a different Suleiman, one who lolls in bed with his favored lover and arbitrates disputes in a harem stocked with strikingly beautiful women and girls.

Most Turks seem to enjoy the show for what it is — a bodice-ripping tale of Ottoman court intrigue. (To be perfectly accurate, no bodices were actually ripped in any of the episodes I saw, and anyone who's seen the Showtime series on the Tudors would find The Magnificent Century quite tame.)

But Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist, was so offended by the show that he recently vented his outrage, worrying that viewers at home and abroad might take this to be the real Suleiman.

"We don't recognize these ancestors," he said.

Erdogan's main complaint seems to be that the show does not celebrate Suleiman for his reworking of the Ottoman legal system — he's also known as kanuni, or "lawgiver" — and for his legendary swordsmanship on the field of battle.

The prime minister seems not to appreciate the show-business reality that battle scenes do not make for hugely appealing soap operas compared to scenes of seductive harem girls dancing for their sultan.

A Lucrative Market

And Turkey does know a thing or two about soap operas. Turkish soap operas and TV series are a booming business. They're being exported to some 76 countries, according to United Nations figures, earning tens of millions of dollars.

The shows tackle subjects such as rape, women's rights, child brides -– all in glossy packages filled with soap opera suspense, heady and tragic romances, and explosions of rage.

What dismays some Turks about Erdogan's rant is that after 10 years in power, he's showing signs of turning into a national scold.

Analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says perhaps Erdogan is just trying to distract attention away from the worsening situation in Syria, plummeting ties with Iran and recent signs of shakiness in Turkey's economy. But even so, Baydar says, this is not something a head of state should be spending time on.

"A prime minister – particularly in a country like Turkey of 75 million [people], one of the top 16 economies of the world – should never get involved in the micro-management of culture, lifestyles and rewriting of history," Baydar says.

Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says there's another aspect to consider — a ruling party in Turkey that faces no opposition capable of reining in its conservative impulses.

"Prime Minister Erdogan is increasingly emerging as the kingmaker of the country, with very few checks and balances that can exercise control over his authority," say Cagaptay.

Soon after Erdogan's criticism, Turkish Airlines yanked The Magnificent Century from its in-flight enterteinment, and a lawmaker said he would push to make it a criminal offense to "misrepresent past leaders."

The producers and directors of the show, after initially basking in the unexpected publicity, stopped giving interviews.

But immediately after Turkish Airlines dropped the soap opera, Emirates Airlines picked it up.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, Turkey's prime minister is taking on a soap opera. The soap opera is called "The Magnificent Century." It's a hugely popular account of a ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman Empire, of course, included Turkey. The prime minister is not a fan, as we learn from NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: He was the longest-running sultan of the Ottoman Empire during its peak of the power in the 16th century. Suleiman's forces took Belgrade and the Island of Rhodes, annexed much of Hungary, and launched the first unsuccessful Ottoman attack on Vienna.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENYON: But for nearly the past two years, viewers of the soap opera "Magnificent Century" have seen a different Suleiman, one who lolls in bed with his favored lover and arbitrates disputes in a harem stocked with improbably beautiful women and girls. Most Turks seem to enjoy the show for what it is, a bodice-ripping tale of Ottoman court intrigue.

To be precise, no bodices were actually ripped in any of the episodes I saw, and anyone who's seen the Showtime series on the Tudors would find "Magnificent Century" quite tame. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was so offended by the show that he recently vented his outrage, worrying that viewers at home and abroad might take this to be the real Suleiman.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: We don't recognize these TV ancestors, said Erdogan. His main complaint seems to be that the sultan was celebrated for his reworking of the Ottoman legal system. He's also known as kanuni, or lawgiver, and legendary for his swordsmanship on the field of battle, not in the harem. The simple show-biz fact that battle scenes do not make for addictive soap operas, while scenes of seductive harem girls dancing for their sultan clearly do, seems to have escaped the prime minister.

In fact, while Turkey's foreign policy ambitions are often met with skepticism, Turkish soap operas and TV series are a booming success. They're being exported to some 76 countries, according to U.N. figures, and earning tens of millions of dollars. The shows tackle subjects such as rape, women's rights, child brides, all in glossy packages filled with soap opera suspense, heady and tragic romances, and scene-chewing explosions of rage.

What dismays some Turks about Erdogan's rant is that after 10 years in power, he's showing signs of turning into a national scold. Analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says perhaps Erdogan is just trying to distract attention away from the worsening situation in Syria, plummeting ties with Iran, and recent signs of shakiness in Turkey's economy. But even so, Baydar says, this is not something a head of state should be spending time on.

YAVUZ BAYDAR: A prime minister should, particularly of a country like Turkey with 75 million, one of the first 16 economies in the world, should never get involved in the micro-management of culture, lifestyles and rewriting of history.

KENYON: Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute says there's another aspect to consider, a ruling party in Turkey that faces no opposition capable of reining in its conservative impulses.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Prime Minister Erdogan is increasingly emerging as the kingmaker of the country, with very few checks and balances that can exercise control over his authority.

KENYON: Soon after Erdogan's criticism, Turkish Airlines yanked "Magnificent Century" from its in-flight entertainment, and a lawmaker said he would push to make it a criminal offense to misrepresent past leaders. The producers and directors of the show, after initially basking in the unexpected publicity, stopped giving interviews.

On the other hand, maybe there's something to the old show biz adage about publicity after all. The program is going strong, airing in at least two dozen countries by one count. And after Turkish Airlines dropped the show, Emirates Airlines immediately picked it up. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.