To watch or not to watch? For Pakistanis looking to binge on Turkish historical fiction and adventure series Diriliş: Ertuğrul that seems to be the question.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has confessed to being a fan and he certainly wants you to pick it up as well. His reasoning being that the show could sway our ‘youth’ from the allures of ‘Western culture’ and teach them something about ‘Islamic history and ethics’ instead.
However, other prominent voices, particularly in our media industry, are not so convinced. For them, this Turkish media invasion threatens to pull us away from our own values and way of life and represents nothing less than a new cultural invasion – a charge that until recently was reserved for Bollywood.
The myth of ‘true history’
When it comes to history, people commonly have a take it or leave it approach. For one, the uninitiated believe a lot more consensus exists between historians than there actually is. There is also the notion of a ‘true history’ that will almost always conform to one’s own deeply held beliefs.
This is not entirely our fault, though, given how most of us consume history. From popular history books and documentaries, to historical fiction like Rome, Vikings, and Diriliş: Ertuğrul, our general interaction with history is mediated by popular culture which presents a stylised narrative as true events.
Then there is the fact that history often finds itself the target of politics. For nations, in particular, history may as well be synonymous with mythology. That is not to imply a version of history endorsed by a state is outright false. Rather the state’s interest in a historical narrative has less to do with academic inquiry and more to do with justifying its existence.
Meanwhile, academic history is fraught with more questions and debates than answers. The way it works, in a nutshell, is that you collate all manner of historical evidence – written records, oral retelling, and archaeological findings – and use them to make educated guesses.
The explanations history researchers arrive at are subject to a constant review process, as and when new evidence and ideas become available. But even then, historical debates in most cases are far from settled.
Take the titular character Ertuğrul from the series that bears his name. For those who don’t know, Ertuğrul was the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Dynasty – and that is all historians are able to say about him with certainty. Everything else is shrouded in mystery.
Even Osman I, who historians know comparatively more about, has not been spared from debates. For instance, some scholars argue that his name, at least originally, may have been the Turkish Ataman instead of the Arabic Osman and could have been refashioned later as he or his descendants integrated more into the Islamic world.
Shattering the culture monolith
Like history, culture is another concept widely misunderstood, particularly by those who see change as an existential threat.
Human beings are organisational creatures. Yes, even the most disorganised ones. We have a natural urge to file things in tidy little cabinets when it comes to our mind at least. This process is crucial to constructing one’s sense of self and understanding one’s place in the world.
In so far as tangible things are concerned, this tendency works seamlessly. But when it comes to fluid concepts like culture and identity, it can hinder one’s understanding if one is unaware.
As we try to separate various cultures into neat little boxes, a notion of monolithic culture takes hold. And this notion applies to both those we identify with us and those we identify with them. How many times, for instance, have we been lectured on what is and isn’t our culture?
The truth is that culture varies. Not just from individual to individual, but from time to time and circumstance to circumstance. Various factors push and pull it into several different directions and so far, at least, there is not much anyone can do about it. If anything, technology has amplified this process.
While the idea of preserving ‘our culture’ against an onslaught of foreign influences sounds romantic, which culture in the world as we know it has developed in a vacuum?
Where does that leave us?
When it comes to history and culture, Pakistanis, especially the younger ones, are in something of a quandary. Although by no means the only one of its kind in the world, the Pakistani identity is younger than most at only four, maybe five generations deep.
What sets Pakistani millennials apart from their predecessors is that they are the first generation to grow up with no concept of what it was like to be anything other than Pakistani.
Like most other cultures and communities, we too want to trace our lineage further back in time. But the aforementioned factors along with a politically charged history have us looking for our roots all over the place. Ironically, even as we decry ‘Western influences’, we ignore that much of the Islamic world historically and in contemporary times lies west of us.
But even as we stumble about like orphans of history, it is important to note we are anything but. This much, at least, has a simple enough fix. If we adopt a more earnest approach to history, we would discover our own roots are as worth treasuring as anyone else’s.
To watch or not to watch?
So should we be watching Diriliş: Ertuğrul like the prime minister says or should we be honouring our own culture, values, and history instead? The answer is both and neither.
Regarding cultural imperialism concerns, our media industry has a history of being a tad too alarmist and has a vested interest in that. The reason Indian, American, and now Turkish media products have such instant appeal for Pakistanis lies mainly in their production.
And while Hollywood presents a language barrier, by virtue of being dubbed Turkish series have naturally found a mass appeal.
Our industry, instead of crying wolf now and again, should perhaps take up both the challenge and inspiration. Competition would only spur it to improvement.
That said, the only reason you should be watching Diriliş: Ertuğrul – or any other historical fiction for that matter – is that it entertains you.
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