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Ottoman obsessions and Bedouin fascinations

Media phenomenon that is Diriliş: Ertuğrul has kicked up a fascination with Ottomans, ancient tribal life in Pakistan

By Rafay Mahmood
PUBLISHED March 21, 2021
KARACHI:

What makes something a media phenomenon? Pop cultural manias come and go, and for now, a certain Turkish serial has a significant number of Pakistanis enthralled. So much so that it has some of our own media producers up in arms about ‘neo-Ottoman cultural imperialism’. What explains the fascination 'Diriliş: Ertuğrul’ has garnered among Pakistani television viewers? Can it be replicated?

To be honest with you, I myself started watching the show in hopes to find material to pick on friends and relatives who all of a sudden seem to have found ‘Turkish roots’. As I followed the show, and witnessed the missionary in my kin grow like creepers on an empty wall, the link between Qarol Bagh in old Delhi and pre-Ottoman Turkish tribes became less of a mystery than what makes perfectly rational people draw that implausible connection.

 

More than meets the eye

 

Every other drama on the Pakistani telly uses and often abuses similar narrative tropes to mine the ‘house wife’ who watches the chronic 8 pm serial for TRPs. Subtract the swords and the horses, and you get an idea of how the Turkish show’s acceptance across Pakistan’s intersection has very little to do with Prime Minister Imran’s endorsement and a lot more with the sheer brilliance of the cathartic experience it guarantees, season after season. I myself am convinced it is actually a good watch.

A question of feminine agency

 

But there is a difference between what is popular on television and what is ‘great television’, and some of those differences could be where we can trace the appeal for Ertuğrul.

Our soap operas and movies, save for a scant few exceptions, can be divided into two categories: there are those prey on and reinforce widely held stereotypes, and there are those that subvert for the sake of subversion to appear ‘creative’. An example of the latter would be a show where the woman, not the man, is accused of cheating. Another would be a show that attempts to show the ‘other side’ of the picture because the #MeToo movement has started to gain some traction.

 

In some ways, the women of Ertuğrul are no different than their onscreen counterparts in Pakistan. They too are assigned similar feminine tropes of tenderness and gossip but they display those characteristics while sporting a dagger by their side or overseeing a handicraft business in addition to the cooking responsibilities. As veteran actor Sania Saeed puts it, “The women in Ertuğrul are industrious, working women. They move freely in their tribes, lead them and run the economy. They are physically strong, which means their bodies were not limited and are free. They feel safe in their environment.”

Take for example the hot-favourtite and often policed Esra Belgic’s character of Halime Hatun who chooses the beloved over her throne only to become an integral part of the Kayi decision-making process while staying true to her ‘soft’ and delicate, feminine composure. While the naysayers might take this to be a smart way of covering deep-rooted regression with superficial agency, you then see the roles switch drastically when Aslihan Hatun agrees to marry on the condition of that will not abandon the leadership of her tribe.

From tribal life to TV sets

We can go and on about the women who play an important role in our Turkish ideal but it will be a disservice to the masterpiece and TV studies at large to reduce the brilliance of the show to just the portrayal of women. The show, quite incredibly merges religious history and mythology with formulaic storytelling to create a thoroughly engaging soap opera; something that the local audiences and to an extent producers welcomed like a breakthrough in televisual storytelling, but the Arab TV world always knew as ‘musalsal badawi’ or Bedouin soap opera.

In the simplest of words, Bedouin soap opera can be explained as native tribal wisdom meets ‘kahani ghar ghar ki’. This does not just refer specifically to the long-running Indian soap, but to the literal sense of the term – the story of every household.

The genre is often traced back to early Egyptian cinema, which was developed by a cohort of locals who returned to the country after receiving an education abroad. This group of expatriate Egyptians would make movies that were inspired by Western conventions but still revolved around local culture. By the 1970s, the genre would be picked up by television producers in Jordan and undergo a metamorphosis of sorts.

Early Egyptian cinema favoured presenting a romanticised and fictionalised version of Bedouin life and culture as a backdrop for tales of love and adventure. Interestingly, they aided the proliferation of certain stereotypes about Arabs and the Middle East, such as belly dancers.

In Jordan, as anthropologist Laila Prager writes, “The musalsalãt (Bedouin soap operas) in the long run were more concerned with the articulation of differential tribal identities, genealogies, and histories, though the initial Jordanian variants were not yet accentuating tribal segmentations but promoting the image that the Bedouins constituted the true autochthones of the Jordanian nation-state.” Prager’s framework looks at important issues such as authenticity, memory, tribal memory and an overall romance with one’s glorious past in the context of the Arab media ecology.

Her brilliant work gives us enough foundation to base Ertuğrul Ghazi as a contemporary example of the genre and how effectively the show has not only been able to penetrate global media industries but also managed a transnational flow of ideas such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Jihad and other neo-Ottoman ideals, to Muslim countries such as Pakistan. The deconstruction of Ertuğrul as a Bedouin soap also helps us understand the Pakistani household not just as a case study for the Pakistani society but a part of a larger subset of audiences that share a common affinity for not just Islamic ideals, but also a shared yearning for the ‘glorious golden age’ of Islam.

Liberal ethos in tribal life

A question that may pop in our minds is that would a Bedouin show perhaps have picked up in Pakistan had it not been for the religious overtones and the valour Ertuğrul displays for the cause of the Islamic Kingdom? Is the audience really just composed of ‘empty vessels’ who choose to consume pre-digested accounts of ‘history’ or do they choose to ignore the accuracy of the content if it is in line with the dominant ideology? Is there room for a successful Pakistani Bedouin soap opera now that Ertuğrul has set the tone?

Playwright Zafar Mairaj who hails from Balochistan and has written extensively about the Bedouin tribes of the region feels mainstreaming the essence of our Bedouin culture would be too hard to digest for mainstream media. “The Bedouin culture is way too liberal for your producers and audience to digest,” Mairaj tells The Express Tribune. “Apart from being very liberal and egalitarian, the essence of Bedouin culture lies in religion being an individual matter. You are individually answerable to the God under whose sky you survive each day and help each other.”

Mairaj feels Ertugrul has been so successful in Pakistan because it portrays a very clearly cut-out sense of religiosity and eventually relies on the sword to achieve those means. “Religion is hardly a concern among the Bedouin, so much so that the notion of pardah in our Bedouin tribes is about the man not looking at the breastfeeding mother instead of her covering her body,” says Mairaj. “It’s very equal, it’s very inclusive and I doubt any Pakistani channel head is even aware of this mannerism, let aside the intricacies of it.”

Back in the PTV days, Mairaj recalls the structure was such that there was at least a cross-regional conversation going among the content producers working within the so many stations that would usually produce region-specific programming. “I wouldn’t say that diversity has been killed due to a consorted effort by the state. I think it has been eliminated by illiterate and unaware people deciding what people want to see and what they don’t want to see,” he reiterates.

However, Bedouin tribes of Pakistan, some of which have graduated to the rural and semi-urban settlements over the decades, is a rich source of stories and learning that must continue to be tapped, says Mairaj. “You know the issue is that the producer of today is so basic and unrefined that most of them aren’t even aware that such tribes still exist in Pakistan. And if they do, they end up confusing feudalism with tribalism, and somewhere in there the story of a Bedouin tribe is getting rotten.”

The blindspot of history

Having said that one cannot disregard historical accounts while producing or studying historical fiction of any kind. While Diriliş: Ertuğrul’s craft as a piece of storytelling that picks up phenomenally after a rather redundant second season deserves all the applause, historians however are not able to narrow down Ertuğrul as a religious leader. All they are aware of is an individual by this name fought many wars and may or may not have been central to the pre-Ottoman Muslim conquest.

“Ertuğrul sidestepped such pitfalls by selecting a hero and an era with very little documentation. In fact, no historical records from Ertuğrul’s lifetime note his existence, and his most important feat, fathering Osman [of the Ottoman Empire], is attested only by a single coin from the latter’s reign. It is not until the generation of Osman’s successor, Orhan that reliable documents begin to emerge, and these are sparse,” writes Josh Carney in the 2019 edition of The Middle Eastern Critique.

Debates continue to surround the life and times of Osman I himself, even though historians know comparatively more about him. His name itself is the subject of some of these debates, with certain historians arguing that his name was either based on the Turkish title Ataman, used to denote a leader of a roving band. Indeed, there is the possibility that his name was originally something else entirely, and that either he or his descendants refashioned his title into the Arabic Osman as they integrated further into the Islamic world.

While the Bedouin Soap opera is the aptest way of understanding the narrative aesthetic behind the execution of Ertuğrul, Carney points out that the Turkish soap under discussion is also the first of its kind to endorse the historical inaccuracy as a historical account of sorts. He mentions in his paper that the Ertuğrul is an extension of the genre that picked up in Turkey in 2003, with shows such as Valley of the Wolves and Century that gave a disclaimer for similar inaccuracies as Ertuğrul. “The people and institutions in our programme’s account of events from this dark, clouded Turkish valley are entirely a work of fiction,” was the text that included before the beginning of every episode. On the contrary, “In the case of Ertugrul, however, the message is what might more properly be called a claimer. “Between the title credits and the first scene of each episode, the following text appears on the screen: ‘The source of inspiration for the story and characters in this series is our history,’” Carney writes. “Here, history simply ‘is’ the source and, notably, this is not some impersonal history but, rather, ‘ours’.”

Tapping the zeitgeist

In his paper, Carney suggests that the growing Ertuğrul obsession in Turkey and abroad could have a direct connection with contemporary political developments. He suggests a relation with the “broader rise of authoritarian, nationalist, and reactionary politics across the globe: The resurrection of a style of leadership that many had hoped to leave safely buried in the past.”

According to Carney, where Century’s presented Islam as an important social current of the time it portrays, in Ertuğrul, Islam is the “underlying logic that foreordains the success of the Ottoman line.”

This underlying logic is not merely prospective, anticipating a future in which the Ottomans will lead one of the most formidable empires in history; it is also retrospective, hailing a mythical past that suggests noble lineage,” he adds.

This, Carney suggests, is fundamental to the show’s success in history. “TRT’s rendition of Ertuğrul’s story is unimpeachably glorious precisely because there is no historical basis for critique,” he says. “When compared to Century, weaker history makes for far stronger claims.”

The researcher further suggests that re-creation, at least in Ertuğrul’s case, could be seen as a ‘performative attempt’ to reproduce aspects of an idealised past’. “This approach foregrounds ‘Truth,’ ownership of the past, and the kinds of identity claims based upon such ideals.”

‘True history’ and cultural monoliths

While what Carney suggests can also help demystify Pakistan’s Ertuğrul mania – or the wider fascination with media representations of Islamic history – there is another factor that The Express Tribune discussed in an earlier piece as well.

For the vast majority of people with little more than a passing interest in how historical research is conducted, there is a yearning for ‘facts’ and ‘true history’. That approach is reinforced in how pop culture presents history through bestselling books and documentaries, as well as fiction. In most cases, a certain version is presented as ‘definitive’.

The same definitiveness is something many of us seek in terms of culture. In trying to identify ‘us’ and ‘them’, we unconsciously fixate on sameness and consistency. Hence the arguments many of us no doubt hear and engage in about ‘our culture’.

This process is amplified by the very nature of nation building. States need stories and creation myths, and while these may or may not have a strong foundation in real events, the narrative is less concerned with accuracy and more with justifying its own existence.

As a political identity, Pakistani is a relatively young one. While the history of our land is ancient, there have been at most five generations of people who could identify themselves as ‘Pakistani’. What is more is that only starting with the millennial generation are Pakistanis growing up with no concept of being anything other than Pakistani.

All cultures and communities have a need for tracing their lineage. For most young Pakistanis, a lack of emphasis on our actual history creates an impetus to latch onto alternate regional narratives.