Pandora’s screen? Turkish programming in the Arab world


In 2007, Fadi Ismail traveled from the UAE to Antalya, Turkey for a film festival. Clicking through the channels in his hotel room one evening, he was struck by the visuals of the dramas: stylish costumes, sumptuous food, and lavish sets along Istanbul’s scenic Bosphorus straits. Ismail didn’t speak Turkish, so he turned down the volume, but he found that he could still follow the stories of first one, and then another of the programs. What’s more, they were captivating. As a branch manager at the Arab world’s leading satellite broadcaster, MBC, Ismail had gone to Antalya in search of films. Instead, he came back with Turkish TV shows, starting a revolution in the entertainment industry, and perhaps kindling some of the cultural tinder that would lead to the Arab Spring in the process.

Those who have been anywhere in the Arab world since 2008 are likely to have heard about Turkish drama. The musalsalat, as soap operas are called in the region, have taken the entire Arabic-speaking world by storm, with around 50 series being imported from Turkey in the last five years. The programs are credited with social trends that include instigating a nascent women’s liberation movement; a rise in divorce rates; the emergence of a market in cosmetic surgery for men who would like to look more like Turkish stars; a generation of babies named Muhannad, Noor, and the like, after characters from one of the biggest shows; and a sharp increase in fatwas against television from Islamic clerics.  

The revolution started inconspicuously enough. In 2007, at Ismail’s suggestion, MBC began broadcasts of Crown of Flowers,[1] a period drama detailing the lead-up to Turkey’s 1980 military coup. Audiences were sparse, a trend that, in hindsight, Ismail ascribes to the Turkey-specific nature of the show. When the next drama,The Lost Years, began to air in February of 2008, though, viewers took notice, remarking on the good acting, high production values, and easily accessible plot line. It was Noor, however, a love story about a modest girl who marries into a wealthy family, that marked the watershed moment in Turkish content. The show began in the afternoons on MBC-4, a channel geared towards entertainment for Arab women, but it garnered such interest that it was quickly moved to a primetime slot.  

From there the trend only grew, with Noor reaching a record-breaking audience of 85 million viewers at its conclusion, and Turkish programs becoming the must-have for any broadcaster who wanted to maintain viewers. Recent figures indicate that Turkish drama is second only to Egyptian in terms of recognition in the region, having far surpassed Syria, the other regional powerhouse. (65% of people in the region have seen a Turkish drama, while 67% have seen Egyptian drama, and 60% have seen Syrian drama.) The programs are credited with starting a massive trend in tourism to Turkey, where travelers visit the fabulous Bosphorus mansions and historical Ottoman palaces that distinguish many Turkish programs from their Arab-world competitors, which tend to be shot in studios. The celebrities from Turkish soaps have become so big that they often surpass local stars in terms of recognition. Kivanç Tatlıtuğ has been called the ideal man in the Arab world based both on his good looks (he’s known as the Turkish Brad Pitt) and his role as a caring male in Noor and Mirna and Khalil. Some of the celebrities are now working in both the Turkish and the Arabic sectors. Tatlıtuğ’s Noor co-star, Songül Öden, for instance, is slated to appear in a Ramadan musalsal (singular) called Underground that will begin filming in April. And Çiğdem Batur, who plays a prosecutor in the mafia crime drama Valley of the Wolves, has just signed a million-dollar (US) deal with Middle East jewelry Damass to appear in TV ads.  

The wild success of the shows has many scrambling to find out just what the Turks are doing right, and how to cash in on it. Drawing on audience research, both industry analysts and academics have pointed to cultural factors. Speaking in Istanbul last year at DISCOP, a trade fare for entertainment content, Lebanese TV executive Nabil Kazan noted that Turkish drama is hot because it is both familiar and distinct. It shares with Arabic drama the ideals of romance, deep family ties, including a powerful patriarch, and an Islamic backdrop. Both genres also include convoluted intrigues featuring tropes such as the return of dead characters, revelation of family ties, and missing children. But Turkish content broaches taboos that Arab producers are loathe to touch, including gender equality, marital betrayal, illegitimate children, and pre-marital sex. According to Badih Fattouh, from Egypt’s CBC TV, these elements lend Turkish drama a kind of reality that is both novel and appealing to Arab audiences.  

For Ismail, the key to the success of the Turkish musalsalat is that they have become “local.” The food, the people, and the settings in an Islamic cultural milieu are all familiar across the Middle East and North Africa. Perhaps just as important, the shows are dubbed into a colloquial Syrian dialect, which is well understood throughout the region and which tends to be easier on the ears for most viewers than the traditional literary Arabic that was the industry standard for Mexican and Brazilian telenovelas. This is a new approach for imported content, and audiences have responded well, with some viewers likening the shift in register to the difference between a lesson and a conversation. Part of the familiarity may come from the fact that famous actors are often employed for dubbing, giving the shows and their stars a hybrid personality that is not only local, but well-known. Indeed, the dubbing is so central to the identity the programs have attained that academics such as Bahadir Ileri and Ahmet Uysal have credited it as a kind of co-production of the musalsalat, the result of which is an entirely new product.  

Beyond the dubbing, Turkish programs also offer a format difference that many find appealing. Much of the content on Arab screens is reality TV in one form or another: talk shows, game shows, talent competitions and the like. For many years the exceptions to this rule have been foreign shows on the one hand, and the locally produced Ramadan dramas on the other. The latter are 30-episode-long series that air during the Islamic holy month and feature some of the biggest stars and production budgets. Though massively popular, these programs are time-limited by nature. The semi-local Turkish programs, in contrast, can run for 100 or more episodes of 90-minutes each. In Turkey, where the shows are broadcast once a week, this can mean a run of one to three years, and occasionally longer. In the Arab world, the shows are often split into two, 45-minute segments, but they are broadcast five days a week. This format means that audiences have both daily and long-term exposure to their favorite programs, a trend that may allow for stronger identification with characters and greater investment in the series overall.  

This investment is no doubt enhanced by the fact that Turkish series also tend to be high-quality productions, in aspects ranging from acting to story, sets to cinematography. According to Turkish TV executive Zühtü Sezer, this is simply the result of a cutthroat domestic market. He put it this way when speaking with executives from Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE at DISCOP: “When you sign a contract with a producer they project their ratings target. If they get 10% or 20% above the target, they get a certain amount more money, but the same contract states that if their first episode is below such and such a level, that’s it. The fifth or sixth episode may have been shot by the time the first one airs, but then it’s over. The Turkish market is a huge graveyard of dead series that have aired only four to six episodes. So if the series you buy have survived this. . . I mean, nothing is a guarantee, but you can almost rest assured that you’ll have good ratings.” Sezer also noted that the ratings system is an integral part of production in Turkey. Since the country has had minute-by-minute ratings for over twenty years, script writers, editors, and directors have started working with ratings engineers. They tweak the coming week’s show based on every aspect of the previous week’s performance, often finalizing the broadcast material just hours before airing.  

With the exception of the UAE, which started minute-by-minute ratings in 2012, most of the Arab world uses a poll-based rating system that provides results about five weeks after a program airs. In the case of the Ramadan programs, this is usually well after the final episode has been shot, and often even after it has been broadcast. It may come as little surprise, then, that the Turkish system has found ways to please audiences that are more precise than those in the Arab world. Some Arab productions have begun to take note, as MBC released two programs last year that borrow a page from the long-run Turkish format: Ruby and The AvengerRuby’s plot includes love triangles and betrayal by a powerful female character, topics that press the boundaries of social acceptability. Even so, there are limits to what the Arab production crews can release. According to some industry executives, it’s precisely this niche that Turkish programming can fill: content that’s too hot for local producers to get away with, but that is allowed into the region because it comes from a Muslim country.  

Being allowed in and being fully accepted are two different matters, however, and Turkish content has clearly tested the boundaries of what some in the Arab world are willing to condone. While the popularity of the shows is without question, the social and moral challenges they present to traditional values have led to a number of strong reactions, most notably from conservative columnists and clerics. Noor was an early target of condemnation. Over the summer of 2008, as the series reached its climactic conclusion, Saudi and Syrian sheikhs began to publicly condemn the show and those broadcasting it. The most notable critique was a fatwa issued by Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, head of the Saudi sharia court, which stated that the owners of the channels broadcasting indecent and vulgar programs could be put to death. This edict, issued on 14 September, two weeks after Noor’s final episode, was notable in part because it implicitly targeted the Saudi royal family, who are presumed to own a significant portion of the shares in MBC. Some of these sentiments appear to be echoed by viewers of the shows. Investigators at KA Research found that 64% of respondents (Saudi women) agreed with a fatwa condemning the immorality of Noor by Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, even though 80% of them also claimed to be watching the show.  

Morality is not the only source of controversy regarding the musalsalat. The relatively egalitarian attitude towards gender relations depicted in the shows has been blamed for a wave of divorces in the region, as wives leave husbands who don’t measure up to the idealized “Turkish” model, and husbands leave wives whose romantic expectations have become unmanageable. Distraction has been another complaint, as obsession with the shows has apparently led some housewives to forget about cooking dinners for their families while watching the programs and, on a more serious note, at least one case of nurses in a hospital providing shoddy care during a birth because they were trying to keep up with events on TV.  

Such concerns are not unique to the Arab world. Similar debates have raged in Turkey, and the state censorship board, RTÜK (Radio and Television Supreme Council), frequently delivers fines for immoral behavior and excessive violence. Politicians often speak out on these matters as well, the most prominent example being Prime Minister Erdoğan’s recent attack on the Ottoman costume drama Magnificent Century. Reaction to the PM’s volley was mixed both in Turkey and in the Arab world. Among supporters was Saleh El-Sihi, a columnist from Qatar, who praised Erdoğan for his stance and suggested he should act against other programs as well. El-Sihi targeted the show Forbidden Love in particular, saying that it gave a dangerous message about prohibited relationships.  

The backlash to Turkish programming has indeed tended to focus on romantic dramas targeting females, but this is not the only content that’s being imported. Some of the biggest shows are actually aimed at male or mixed audiences. Revenge is a common theme here with Ezel, based loosely on The Count of Monte Cristo, and Crimes of Silence, based on the novel Sleepers both thrilling audiences in the past year. A blend of crime and politics has also proven popular. The long-running mafia drama Valley of the Wolves, for example, had a following in parts of the Arab world even before the 2008 craze hit, and its 2006 and 2011 movie spin-offs, respectively about the US invasion of Iraq and the 2010 Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, were major successes. The drama Cry of a Stone blends the political and the romantic, with a love story involving characters under Israeli occupation.  

Some commentators have linked the latter programs to Turkish political agendas, noting that Valley and Cry were at the heart of a diplomatic crisis with Israel in 2010, and that this crisis may have made Turkey’s ruling party more popular both in Turkey and the Arab world. Though there is no evidence to suggest direct ties between the shows and the Turkish government, the spread of programming has become the source of much talk in recent years, particularly with reference to Turkish “soft power.” Political and academic analysts tend to agree that the musalsat are making Turkey more well-known and well-liked in the region. They point to the increasing number of Arabs learning Turkish and the massive influx of Arab tourists to Turkey as evidence of such an effect. They also note that the programs appear to parallel Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s strategy of “strategic depth,” which includes good relations and increased cultural exchange with neighboring countries.  

But this influence may be a double-edged sword, as it also attracts cries of “cultural imperialism” and often includes an image of the country that more conservative Turks, including the country’s PM, are uneasy with. Perhaps in part to counter this image, the Turkish government opened its own Arabic-language channel, TRT Al-Turkiye, in the 2010. The channel broadcasts a blend of news, arts, economics, and drama. Thus far, its success has been modest in comparison to similar efforts by the likes of France, Russia, and the BBC, and its viewership pales in comparison to that of dramas from the Turkish commercial sector.  

While disputes about the place of Turkish content in the Arab world are likely to continue, one of the most fascinating claims about its role there comes from the man who is responsible for importing it in the first place. Speaking at DISCOP, Fadi Ismail said that television drama, including Turkish drama, may have had a role in the Arab Spring. Pressed on the matter, he noted that the role would have been small, but perhaps crucial, as it contributed to a trend of, “Opening up to the world, opening up to aspirations, opening up to a better future, seeing what the outside world has. Trying to promise people that there is a different way of doing things.”  

Two years after the dawn of the Arab Spring, Turkish musalsalat are still filling the airwaves in the region, whether it be in Syria, where Syrian Army soldiers recently taunted a Turkish reporter they captured by asking when the hero from Valley was coming to save him, or Egypt, where broadcasters are trying to walk a fine line between paying the increasingly exorbitant costs for Turkish content on the one hand, and producing new shows for an audience now used to Turkish programs on the other. The extent of the changes wrought by the shows may be hard to gauge, but their presence cannot be ignored. 

[1] Most titles are translated from the Arabic names of the programs, unless the English versions have circulated more broadly. The Turkish, English, transliterated Arabic, and Arabic-to-English names of the programs mentioned in this article are as follows:

Çemberimde Gül Oya – Rose Embroidered Headscarf – Iklil al-Ward – Crown of Flowers

Ihlamurlar Altında – Under the Linden Trees – Sanawat al-Dhaya’ – The Lost Years

Gümüş – Silver – Noor – Noor (which means “light”)

Menekşe ile Halil – Menekşe and Halil – Mirna ve Khalil – Mirna and Khalil

Tahta al-Ard (Arabic) – Underground

Kurtlar Vadisi – Valley of the Wolves – Wadi al-Di’ab – Valley of the Wolves

Rubi (Arabic) – Ruby

al-Muntaqim (Arabic)- The Avenger

Muhteşem Yüzyıl – Magnificent Century – Harim al-Sultan – The Sultan’s Harem

Aşk-ı Memnu – Forbidden Love – ‘Ishq al-Mamnu’ – Forbidden Love

Ezel – Eternity – Ezel – Eternity

Suskunlar – Crimes of Silence – al-Samitun – The Silent Ones

Ayrılık – Separation – Sarkha al-Hajar – Cry of a Stone