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Invention of a Pre-Ottoman Tradition: Diriliş

Nagihan Haliloglu is an assistant professor at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. Here, she writes on Diriliş – the Game of Thrones equivalent which is currently enthralling Turkish TV audiences – and meditates on what reflections it casts on contemporary Turkey.

In November 2014 the streets of Istanbul were suddenly awash with posters of bearded men wielding swords. It took me a few days to realize that they were not advertising the same thing: one was the poster for the latest Hobbit film, the other was heralding the arrival of a new Turkish series called Diriliş (Resurrection). This double billing has been justified after five episodes of Diriliş, catering as it does for the horse, steel and fur needs of the TV viewing-public, and making use of many of the tropes found in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, both of which the Turkish audience has very much taken to heart over the years. Possibly more importantly, Diriliş also serves as a series-a-clef for the real life game of governments happening in contemporary Turkey.

Diriliş is about the arrival in Anatolia of the nomadic Turkish Kayı clan that would, upon reaching the western coast of the peninsula, found the Ottoman dynasty in 1299. The first episode starts with the camera sweeping over a computer-generated oba, tent city, the legend underneath giving the year as 1255. The producers of the series are conservative enough not to give an exact location of this Kayı oba, for we know little about the route Kayı clan took on their way from Central Asia. So far in the series, the Kayı are portrayed as inhabiting a geography that is ruled by an uneasy entente between the Seljuks in Konya, the Arabs in Aleppo and the Knights Templar somewhere in the mountains of Amanos, around Hatay. The lands that the Kayı come from, in turn, are ever present in the musical score, both in the opening sequence and in the rather numerous fight scenes. It’s a tune played on a central Asian string instrument called dombra– an eponymous genre that was made popular through Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election campaign in 2014. Wink and nudge.

The series’ central protagonist is Ertuğrul – son of Süleyman Şah, the ailing Bey of the Kayı clan- who will become the father of Osman of the Ottoman Empire fame when they reach Söğüt, just south of the Marmara Sea. The very first words we hear in the series are ‘Haydır Allah! Tektir Allah!’ (Allah is alive! Allah is one and only!) spoken by Ertuğrul as he takes turns beating a hot sword with a hammer with the oba’s blacksmith – a scene that sets the post-secular tone of the whole production. The series is full of religious undertones and overtones: people taking wudu, people reciting the Quran, people performing the salah, and not just evil and/or lower-class characters as has been in the Turkish republican drama tradition, but upright characters from the nobility- scenes that were thought impossible in pre-Erdoğan Turkey. With its religious ethos, Diriliş serves as an antidote to the internationally popular Magnificent Century that depicted the Ottomans, the progeny of Ertuğrul, as a Turkish version of the Tudors, and that drew criticism from several members of the government, including Erdoğan. Social media chatter suggests that with its emphasis on loyalty, respecting your elders, sharing the small piece of bread with the rest of the clan, Diriliş is a winner with the Turkish family-viewing public, who have already complained about the brutality of the rather well choreographed fight scenes of the alps, Turkish warriors. The nation seems to have bought into this effort of imagining of a not well-recorded period of Turkish history, as the Kayı tribe tries to wean itself off Arab patronage and also to escape the Mongol threat (who are, apparently getting their own revival, or resurrection, if you will, in Netflix’s Marco Polo). And they want to have their history lesson without having to change the channel for the good of the littler ones in the family.

While the scenes of overt religiosity can be seen as pure propaganda – or a teaching tool depending where you are sitting on the fence – they also serve to highlight the battle for Turkish souls that was still going on in 13th century. The Turks are known to have accepted and spread Islam through a very sufi understanding that is everywhere in evidence in the series. The various crafts that are associated with the Turkish tribes – and which the viewer gets to see several characters engage in – such as iron-mongering, felting, weaving, all have their patron saints/sheiks, and traditionally being a part of a guild automatically meant being a part of that sufi order. Even the axe-wielding alps are Sufis; popular tradition holds that it was through the alperens (a word that combines warrior and dervish) that the Turks Islamized Anatolia and the Balkans. In the series there’s a shamanic witch who tries to lure the folk back into black-magic, and she has already helped Ertuğrul’s evil sister-in-law to conceive late(ish) into her marriage. What monster will slouch towards the oba only the future episodes can tell.

The force of good that will counter the witch’s evil practice is – SPOILER – Ibn Arabi, considered the greatest sufi sheikh of all by many, who appears unannounced, all Gandalf, as a wise old man with a white turban and beard. He is soothing a deer that has just fled from Ertuğrul who, in a moment of obligatory compassion a-la-Stark, has pulled but not released his arrow on it. The scene also sets the tone of what kind of religiosity the series wants to resurrect in the viewer – if we should be so bold as to claim that the series has a didactic purpose. Later, when some evil Knights Templar let their henchmen loose on Ertuğrul who is fighting off the effects of a weakening potion in the Mamluk palace in Aleppo, Ibn Arabi, who is a few streets away in a dhikr session, goes into warg mode, and helps Ertuğrul fight off his drugged sleep and get rid of his assailants. Grace of God manifested through emotive music and psychedelic camerawork for the spiritual edification and entertainment of the general viewing public.

The series recognizes Ibn Arabi as the patron sheikh of the Turks, providing guidance and succour throughout the series. Ibn Arabi is quick to recognize the crusader infiltrators both in Aleppo where he sets up his dargah and on the road as journeymen. The Knights Templar, played by Turkish actors with permanent grimaces on their faces, are portrayed as forever scheming to get the different Muslim tribes to fight one another: ‘No Islamic capital will have peace anymore thanks to the moles we have placed in them’, is the mantra of the top evil crusader as he keeps releasing carrier pigeons from their cages in the castle- an oblique reference, possibly, to how Europeans have always had the lead in communication technologies. The evil warring tactics of the crusaders include sending leper militia to contaminate the food supply of the Kayı with plague germs. When caught, they dutifully drink poison, saying they are happy they will be meeting their Saviour Lord in heaven- biological warfare and suicide mission rolled into one.

Just as there is a sense of an Islamic world that needs a unifying force in the face of all the European meddling, there are also the contemporary references as to how dissension within Muslim/Turkish ranks are exploited by the Crusaders. One of the governors of the Seljuk sultan in Konya, Karatoygar (Blacklark) is in cahoots with the Knights Templar, holding Seljuk nobility for ransom, and also providing arms to Ertuğrul’s uncle Kurdoğlu who wants the kingship of the oba for himself. During an absence of Süleyman Şah, uncle Kurdoğlu even carries the standard of the tribe to his own tent – a clear reference to the current internecine conflict between Erdoğan and his one-time brothers in arms.

One of the points of contention between Süleyman Şah and Kurdoğlu is with whom they should throw their lot. It’s a tough life, the life of a nomadic tribe, having to ask the permission of the ruler whose lands you may be crossing. And given the changing dynasties and borders of 13th century Middle East – plus ça change – the idea of a permanent home starts to gain ground in the clan as Ertuğrul is sent to the emir of Aleppo to ask for a yurt – a word that can denote a whole spectrum of permanency in residence in modern Turkish – here meaning a homeland. Aleppo is the one city that keeps being mentioned in the series as a cosmopolitan centre, and the computer generated citadel looks not unlike King’s Landing. There are filler scenes of a thriving market, carpets and jewels and birds, an Aleppo that the viewers watch with immediate sad nostalgia. So far in the series the tribe is looking southwards for a permanent homeland, and they keep sending emissaries to the emir. But the viewing public knows that at some point the direction will change, and the alps will be riding towards the west, to fulfil the prophecy of the conquest of Constantinople. It is for the intrigue, the sword fights, the divine interventions that will change Kayı’s course towards their promised land that the public keeps coming back every Wednesday evening.

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