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

Posted: January 3, 2013

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The Magnificent Century, which explores the Ottoman Empire in all its 16th-century glory, is a big hit in Turkey. But the country's prime minister, an Islamist, is angry that the program focuses on palace intrigue involving the sultan and his harem.

Eggs streak down a billboard advertising the popular Turkish soap opera The Magnificent Century. The show focuses on palace intrigue during the 16th-century rule of Suleiman the Magnificent. Some Islamists have protested the show's depiction of the sultan's harem.

Eggs streak down a billboard advertising the popular Turkish soap opera The Magnificent Century. The show focuses on palace intrigue during the 16th-century rule of Suleiman the Magnificent. Some Islamists have protested the show's depiction of the sultan's harem. Murad Sezer

Demonstrators attack a billboard advertising the TV series The Magnificent Century during a protest in Istanbul on Jan. 9, 2011.

Demonstrators attack a billboard advertising the TV series The Magnificent Century during a protest in Istanbul on Jan. 9, 2011. Murad Sezer

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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