I met my dear Nivi while I was working on the topic “Engin Akyürek Fans Around The World and Cultural Diplomacy”. I learned a lot from her in our long correspondence. I requested her precious book – “Aslan’s Roar: Turkish Television & the Rise of the Muslim Hero” – in hard copy (and of course signed for me). However, in the conditions of the pandemic, it was not quite possible to send the book by cargo. She kindly e-mailed me a digital copy of the book.  But it took me a few months to read the book and do this interview. I can hardly thank her enough for sparing a great part of her precious time and answering my questions in detail and satisfyingly.

Who is Prof. Navid Shahzad?

Navid Shahzad lives in Lahore and has taught English literature at the graduate level for a number of years at Pakistan’s premier University of the Punjab. Paralleling her academic pursuits as Associate Professor; has been a hugely successful career as a TV, theater and film actress, director, writer and poet. Pioneering the country’s first liberal arts university where she is designated Distinguished Professor of Performing Arts; she worked as Dean, School of Liberal Arts for a decade and set up the first Department of Theater, Film and TV. Presently, she works as Academic Advisor to one of Pakistan’s largest school chains where she oversees the Literature in English and Media Studies programmes.

Ms. Shahzad is a recipient of the President of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance Award for Literature and has been awarded gold and silver medals by the Government of Pakistan for her contribution to Pakistan TV. She is also a recipient of the Fatima Jinnah Award for Artistic Excellence bestowed upon her by the Government of Punjab. Along with contributing regular columns to daily newspapers, she holds workshops on Aspects of Drama for young actors under the auspices of her company Theater Walley. “Aslan’s Roar: Turkish Television & the Rise of the Muslim Hero” is her first book.

Can you tell me about the time period that led you to writing this amazing book? 

My first visit to Istanbul was in 1968 during a road trip with my husband. Coming from a landlocked city like Lahore to one which was surrounded by water was fascinating and of all the countries we drove through, Istanbul with its unique mix of two continents continued to haunt me. However, as far as familiarity with Turkish Television drama is concerned, I have to admit that I am a ‘late-comer.’ My first introduction to Turkish television was purely by accident in 2017 as I caught a glimpse of episodes of Kara Para Ask dubbed in Urdu on a Pakistani TV channel. This led to an on-line search of Turkish content with English sub titles which ended fortuitously with the TIMS production of ‘Ölene Kadar,’ which I subsequently used as a case study for my book.

Hooked on cinema, TV and theater since childhood and having experienced all three first hand, my focus has always been on performance, screenplay writing and production. Though I was familiar with the word ‘Aslan’ through C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, wherein the majestic ‘Aslan’ symbolizes the Prophet Jesus (PBUH) in the ritual of sacrifice, redemption and resurrection; it was the description of Dağhan Soysür as ‘Aslan’ in Ölene Kadar that I found intriguing.

And then, as one says, the rest is history. I researched, read about, watched Turkish films and TV drama, immersing myself in Turkish history, culture, language and politics. From Ottoman literature to the poetry of Rumi, Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Veli, the fiction of Sabahattin Ali, Ahmet H. Tanpinar and Orhan Pamuk, the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fatih Akin, Cağan Irmak and folk/ contemporary music and cuisine; I familiarized myself with everything Turkish. The book was a natural outcome of all the material I had collected and stored in my mind over two years.

What “Aslan” means for you?

For me, the word ‘Aslan’ translates into courage, masculinity, dignity and determination.; characteristics which I found common among most Turkish heroes in “dizileri”s. In a more global context, just as the lion challenges the other males asserting his leadership of the pride, so it seemed to me that Turkey was throwing down the gauntlet to the popular trope of the western white male as hero. I chose to write about this because my research  verified  that the Turkish male hero was someone who needed to be watched closely in the coming years.

You reveal in your book that Turkish TV series has caused a worldwide cultural revolution in changing the Turkish and Muslim images in Western minds. How did it happen? Was it intentional according to you? 

In the aftermath of the fall of empires across Europe and Asia such as the Austro-Hungarian, the Mughal and the Ottoman empires; the ‘great game of empire’ played by the Allies resulted in tarring the ‘black man’ and the Turk with the same brush. Hungry for riches, the western world fed off the incredible wealth of Eastern empires including the Ottoman. The only information that filtered through to the west was what the imperialists selected and the media made the most of the disinformation. Films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Express and even episodes of the TV series M.A.S.H. created false images of the Turkish soldier in particular and people in general. For the longest time, the ‘black’ man in the US and the Turk ( post the great game of empire in the Middle East after the 2nd World War) were the West’s favourite boogeymen.

Things started to change with the visionary innovations proposed by state owned TRT. The first institution to start an upgrade of digital equipment, TRT which initially catered to a domestic audience began slowly to reach out to audiences in the Middle East. The first export of TV content was experimental but it was the response to shows like Gümüş that triggered off the whole cultural explosion. The real boost came with the private and public sectors committing themselves to producing content which presented stories unabashedly exploring contradictions of tradition vs. modernity, violence and women, true love etc. with the main protagonist played by a handsome Turkish actor in the same vein as heroes in western Television shows; e.g. the Rambo genre was cleverly tailored to an underground secret operative Polat who, like Rambo fought for justice, country and honour in foreign countries like Iraq. The Valley of the Wolves franchise made diplomatic history when the blood of a foreign agent splashed onto the Israeli flag in one episode!

Ironically, history also aided the effort,as many of the themes taken up seemed familiar even to ‘foreign’ audiences since their countries had until recently been part of the Ottoman Empire prior to the Balkanization process. Fortunately, the Turkish government was quick to see the potential as export earnings began making their way home which resulted in ensuring an active presence at avenues like MIPCOM and incentives such as tax relief. The real revolution however started with the export of Turkish content to Latin America and in a matter of a few years reversed the trend of importing content from countries like Brazil. The fact that Turkish content was clearly socio-culturally Islamic and patriotic in content, never stood in the way of audiences charmed by scenic productions featuring extremely good looking male and female actors presenting stories with universal themes such as love, revenge, forgiveness etc. with memorable music scores ranging from folk, classical to modern.

The real secret lies in Turkey having recognized the value of its home grown product at the right time and incentivizing the process. I do not think content on Turkish TV is created with an eye on foreign audiences except perhaps in historic dramas such as Magnificent Century in its early years and perhaps Ertugrul: The Resurrection more recently. The 21st C has not had a fortuitous start and the world seems hungry for spectacle and opulence at a time when daily life has become such a challenge in a post 9/11 world.

You indicate that this cultural revolution took place not only in historical dramas but also in melodrama and romantic genres. Can you explain this?

The majority of television drama and films, the world over, sell dreams. Turkey has a rich history of incredible thought provoking film making which is only recently being showcased, while its international TV exposure is only a decade and a half old. Though there is popular interest in history which is fascinating and the opulence of the Ottoman world is like a magnet drawing people to itself;  there remains a distancing from the content. Love on the other hand, is a universal emotion that audiences can easily identify with. Female audiences in particular, are drawn the world over to issues of forced marriages, abandoned children, marital violence, class divisions etc. while hoping to be saved by a heroic man who rescues them from their travails. Inside every housewife there is a beautiful girl waiting to be wooed, while men – beer belly notwithstanding, see themselves as dashing heroes in romantic dramas or champions on the field in competitive sport.

Turkey is a football mad country and the only activity that rivals the numbers who watch “dizi”s is the numbers who watch the game. All the more astonishing that football finals viewing was outstripped by final episodes of Turkish drama ( details in my book) in places like Peru! Any platform which sells both dreams and hope is bound to become popular because it addresses core human issues such as tragedy, love, loss, goodness, evil et al. with a certain assurance that happiness is not beyond anyone’s reach. It is a difficult world for men and women and most films/dramas offer an escape from, as well as a catharsis of real problems. The world’s largest film industry i.e. Bollywood is not called the Dream Factory for nothing! We also have a very human tendency to side with the underdog and the poor boy/ rich girl or vice versa plot appeals to us greatly. I would say TV gives us a free ticket to ‘Temples of Desire!’

You have also analyzed the sectoral spread of Turkish TV series in the world in your book. You have dealt with the various reasons why Turkish TV series are popular in the world. I will ask about them, but first I wonder: What kind of audience profile do Turkish TV series address in the world? Who are they?

The largest audience for TV drama has been women because they are the ones who spend time at home far more than men. This is also where the rather pejorative term ‘soaps’ comes from, since the pioneering sponsors of day time TV in the US were the laundry and soap corporate sectors. As the world grew into a global village with advances in communication technology, it also provided more leisure time which urged a ‘sit-in’ culture toward evening when men came back from work and the family sat down to dinner.

With TV increasing its air time from a few hours to round the clock engagement, it began splitting into distinct sectors such as TV for pre-schoolers with its Tele Tubby and animated content, the sing alongs etc. Early afternoon was the niche reserved for women engaged in domestic work such as cooking, cleaning and laundry which is the slot most watched. News and sports coverage began attracting male audiences and late evenings were reserved for adult entertainment.

As far as Turkish Television is concerned, it is first and foremost meant for domestic consumption since the business model of television is largely supported by local advertising. A rigorous rating system keeps all content on alert and screenplays shift focus with alarming regularity as ratings rise or fall. The pace of Turkish TV story telling is also far slower than the sharply edited programming found in the west since it caters more to women; allowing for breaks to attend to household chores.

Having said that, the phenomenal popularity of Turkish “dizi”s can be directly traced to the manner in which:

a) universal issues are tackled e.g. love, revenge, injustice etc. while the emphasis on family value, loyalty and respect for parents strike a popular note

b-i) extremely high production value which builds credibility e.g. more often than not dizis are shot on location rather than at studios- this is doubly effective since it shows the world how beautiful Turkey is thus creating  -a tourist ‘pipe line’ by default.

b-ii) Technical excellence and cost: in post production, colour correction, sound and art direction (costume/sets. ) For instance, a whole village was created for the block buster Ertugrul: The Resurrection.

c) Skilled and good looking actors and actresses- not just the main leads but even the character actors such as Çetin Tekindor (Babam ve Oğlum) Ragıp Savaş (Ölene Kadar) and Nebahat Çehre (Kara Para Ask) who add such a lot of gravitas to their roles

d) Unlike most Western shows, screenplays frequently use references from Turkish Literature, folk music and received wisdom while musical scores are uniquely memorable.

e) A celebration of Turkish cuisine and the emphasis on communal eating and festivities e.g birth of a child, marriage ceremonies show case traditions which are very much alive in modern day Turkey

f) Exploring the contrast between urban and rural life which strikes another familiar note with countries that have similar demographies e.g. Latin America

g) Riveting screenplays. While comedy is far more culture specific, romance and revenge find ready acceptability in screenplays that are occasionally exaggerated but introduce characters that are easily identifiable e.g. the handsome, poor boy/ beautiful heiress/ crafty step mother, greedy brother, neighborhood mafia etc. Some characters are deliberately written larger than life since leading actors are chosen to play these roles- e.g. Ramo (Murat Yıldırım) or Çukur featuring Aras Bulut İynemli- in shows which introduce the local ‘mohalla’ (street) culture to international audiences. Light hearted drama like Kiralık Aşk rub shoulders with more dramatic, edgy shows like Kuzgun so there is something for all tastes.

The conflict between modernity and traditions is a very important point that you emphasize in Turkish TV series. Can we characterize this conflict as universal (albeit with different weight in different geographies)? Because the viewers of Turkish TV series belong to very different geographies, nations, beliefs and cultures.

The 21st C with its promise of a better world has sadly been bludgeoned by a number of crisis such as unending brutal wars (Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen) giving rise to the humanitarian issue of refugees followed by the Covid-19 health pandemic- all of which has shaken the world to its very core. Our belief in a just and merciful God is constantly tested as the Muslim world continues to be confronted with challenges of a political, economic, spiritual nature. With young populations struggling to live a better life in a world which is increasingly insensitive towards  the ‘other’ and viewing Muslim youth only through the lens of the 9/11 tragedy, the majority of young people find themselves struggling between two opposing life styles. Modernity appears to offer more personal freedom in terms of opportunity, while tradition is more inclined towards keeping things as they are. The best way forward is a via media, negotiating a balance between both currents since there is much to be valued traditionally – family, respect for elders, ethical and moral conduct top the list. On the other hand, there is much that is attractive about a modern life style as it emphasizes individuality e.g. the freedom to take one’s own decisions without the baggage of family, clan etc, In choosing one at the expense of the other, we run the risk of an identity crisis.

This is one of the most unique features of Turkish Television since its “dizi”s tackle such issues openly, e.g.  alcohol being imbibed or extra marital relationships being accepted by traditionally inclined parents (Kara  Para Aşk, Ölene Kadar) where mothers accept their sons’ choices with grace. Modernity and the freedom it promises is conspicuously examined in the light of traditional mores and a via media found between the two e.g. Ömer Demir drinks in his brother’s company in Kara Para Aşk but abstains in front of his mother. In other words, the positive aspects of modern life such as entrepreneurship, skill development, business success are welcomed; provided success is balanced by traditional belief in the sanctity of marriage and goodness as practiced according to religion. To put it clearly, the tug of war ends if a balance is created by keeping that which is traditionally practiced and beneficial (such as emphasizing the importance of family) and keeping the challenges of life in the 21st C (ethical business practice) in check; with the emphasis always on continuing to be a good human being. Turkish TV states quite clearly that it is entirely possible to be both modern and traditional at the same time.

You have thoroughly analyzed the characteristics of the Muslim Hero who has existed in the perception of the West in “Aslan’s Roar…”. How do you yourself define the Muslim Hero?

My book focuses on how the hero in Turkish “dizi”s is challenging the Western hero on grounds that the West had always claimed as its own. The world was used to seeing  the ‘savior’ as a white man, super hero as opposed to villainous Middle Eastern, Arab or /and Muslim men who threatened the civilized world and I argue for a rethink about the Turkish hero who is a perfect counterfoil to the established Western hero.

Personally for me the ‘Muslim Hero’ is more a generic title rather than one associated with a particular religion, territory or ethnicity. I define the hero with reference to Islamic values emphasized by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in his own life. Any man, both just and God fearing, answerable to his conscience, knowing right from wrong and having the courage to choose the right whatever the risk; a man who lives and dies by what he believes to be true, is a hero. The term Muslim hero therefore, is meant to define the qualities of a Muslim as much as it has to do with any man’s heroic stand taken against all odds.  Neither princely nor aristocratic, but an ordinary man who stands up to the challenges that life throws at him every single day and tries his best to act in a manner both honorable and moral would in my eyes be worthy of being called a hero.

There is an emphasis in your book that I find very important: You define the rise of feminism in male-dominated societies as a factor that increases the popularity of Turkish TV series. The Muslim Hero is not, after all, a masculine hero? Rising feminism and also rising masculine hero, is not it a contradiction?

The Muslim hero is a role model for all men, women and children. I see no contradiction in the rise of a male hero whose prime characteristic is the dispensation of justice as well as the empowerment of women. The Muslim Hero is male but he cannot be considered a hero if he continues to subjugate women, deprive them of their rights or mistreat them in any way. The Muslim Hero is not a misogynist brutalizing women- his prime quality is respect for the opposite sex which is what distinguishes him from the macho man of yore. For any man to qualify as a Muslim Hero he must acquit himself honorably as far as either sex is concerned. Turkish Television’s efforts to show case men who love and support women in achieving their potential is the kind of hero I am talking about. The prime example of such a man would be Kerim in the series Fatmagul’ün Suçu Ne?

The world has been fed on an enormous amount of nonsense about the Muslim male and his propensity to be violent. Turkish Television is largely responsible for a rethink about Muslim masculinity and heroism. Feminism is a struggle for women’s rights as ordained by religion, natural justice and judicious parity. It is not the struggle of women alone and men are an essential part of it for the effort to succeed. If patriarchy is to loosen its hold on women’s lives; it is the men who must be encouraged to let go. Men and women are not enemies but partners and can help each other in fulfilling their respective potential. The Muslim hero, in my view is the kind of man who marches with women to help achieve their goals as human beings.

Displaying exotic landscapes in Turkish TV series is another attractive factor you mentioned for the international audience, especially Istanbul. Why Istanbul?

Well, how many cities are there in the world that exist simultaneously on two continents? Apart from Istanbul, there are none. It is a city like no other- surrounded by water, steeped in the history of three of the greatest empires the world has ever known, from its Byzantian roots to its splendid rise as a Christian capital city and as the seat of the Ottoman Empire, the modern city of Istanbul offers everything on a platter. From the largest covered bazaar in the world with its 4000 shops to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, Jewish synagogues and churches, its raucous sea gulls, high end Bosphorus facing villas to the older part of the city with its narrower cobbled streets and pavement cafes, the city has something for everyone. Trams and cars, buses and taxis, bridges and boats, tea gardens and pastry shops, museums and night clubs; there is something on offer every minute of day or night. The bluest sky, the friendliest people, the cleverest taxi drivers waiting to fleece the unwary, the music festivals, hotels to suit every pocket, high end fashion to ethnic outfits. Tea at every corner, fresh fish on demand, rose scented Turkish delight, heady perfumes and jars teeming with amber coloured honey- what more does one want? Istanbul is a siren city beckoning all to visit and partake of her hospitality. An invitation hard to resist!

But apart from Istanbul, places like Bodrum, İzmir and even provincial cities like Muğla have become attractive destinations. Kas is one of the most picturesque little towns for scuba diving while Konya with its Rumi festival is already a favoured destination. Capadoccia with its natural chimneys and cave dwellings has featured in many dramas and appears as yet another must see place.

Do you think that Turkey has ever been able to use Turkish TV series adequately as a tool of cultural diplomacy? What else can be done according to you?

Absolutely! Turkish TV has fearlessly opened up the world to Turkey, its history, culture, politics and its people. The country has opened up new avenues for commerce, trade, partnerships and cultural /educational exchanges. The brave new world that Turkey represents is fertile ground for students, sportsmen, cultural ambassadors and researchers. Embassies should be encouraged to give grants to genuine researchers to come to Turkey as scholars-in-residence to enhance understanding between Turkey and other countries.

What else can be done? Possible actions can be:

1- When Attenborough made the award winning film Gandhi, India started a tourist train which travelled through the state of Gujrat retracing Gandhi’ salt march protesting against additional taxes. Air India, the Tourism Industry joined hands to fly plane loads of tourists to trace the Mahatma’s footsteps. Turkey’s historical monuments already attract worldwide interest but judging from the interest in TV drama locations on various platforms; tours could be planned and offered as part of Turkish Television odyssey e.g. I recently viewed videos of the olive tree that Sancar and Nare carve their names on in Sefirin Kızı. Subsidized tickets could be made available after an on-line ballot and costs could be shared between the state and production house.

2- Festivals (both on-line and on the ground) where select number of people are invited in person to meet 1) their favourite stars, 2) taste Turkish food, 3) auctions of artifacts /costumes worn by popular actors and of course 4) rebated tickets by Turkish Airlines, 5) music festivals/competitions (which can be managed on line)

3- Turkish Embassies/ Consulates abroad to offer partnership in co-productions, workshops on screenwriting, hold film and TV festivals at their premises as soon as it is safe to do so. The Yunus Emre Cultural Center in Lahore really needs to become more proactive, improve its interior and offer more than just classes in Turkish language. The phenomenon that is Turkish Television needs to be publicized.

4- Very Important: Trade opportunities must be actively pursued between respective Chambers of Commerce.

Beyond the Turkish TV series, we see the fans of the actors/actresses of these series organizing themselves globally by using social media platforms. What are the contributions of these organizations in terms of increasing sectoral expansion and strengthening cultural communication?

These media platforms make a tremendous contribution particularly in the sectoral spread of news and views about Turkish drama. Fan clubs and pages devoted to a particular series or actor/actress – sometimes a number of them within the same country- engage in sharing personal responses. The weekly essays that I write for example solicit responses from places as far away as S. Africa, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Asia to name just a few. It gives a researcher like me great insight into how different cultures view content according to their own sociocultural environment.

Interaction has also given rise to a number of blogs which have furthered the reach and kind of response as short videos, art, essays are also now available for viewing and commenting in various languages. What makes it so wonderful is to be able to ‘hear’ people from other parts of the world and share their reactions to the content presented.

Just a word of caution: Occasionally some comments turn ugly as ‘rivalry’ and ‘loyalty’ to a particular actor /actress is contested in a manner less than civil. Fortunately most of it gets filtered out but some of it makes it to Twitter or Instagram etc. There are however, two very important factors that need to be emphasized:

  1. What we see and comment on is FICTION
  2. The actor in real life should not be confused with the character he plays on screen

I am horrified by some of the vicious remarks I have had the misfortune to read. At the end of the day, we must agree to disagree and be tolerant of dissent because the digital world is almost a mini replica of the world itself. If we are to live at peace with each other, we must begin with baby steps taken in our own backyard. Language and its usage is therefore critical when we express ourselves. Digital platforms are NOT forums for venting our spleen at anyone who disagrees with us. Balance responses will not only earn us friends but also teach us a great deal about people and places that we are unlikely to meet in person or visit in the flesh. It is also a great way to make friends- just as we wrote letters in my youth to people in faraway places and became ‘pen pals’, so we can use the on line experience to do the same in the 21st C.

As one of the legendary actresses of Pakistan, how do you find Turkish actors/actresses in terms of acting and also the quality of storytelling in Turkish TV series?

Let me begin with the quality of story telling first:

Turkish Television drama has a much slower pace than drama produced in the West. There are several reasons for that among which the role and length of advertising permitted under state rules has a great part to play. If one allows for longer breaks for ads, the episode is most likely to increase its length which is what we have seen happen- one episode may extend itself to over two hours given the twenty minute ad breaks stipulated by RTÜK.

Secondly, the target audience as I have mentioned earlier is largely women. As an actor, I can tell you how difficult it is to hold a particular expression for a certain length of time before the director calls a cut and Turkish drama is replete with moments during which the camera lingers on a close up of the actor. Working in film for example is very different since a story must be told within 180 minutes- it really is the same contrast as you would make between a novel and a short story. The novel gives the author more space(time) to develop his characters and move the action forward.

Screenplays vary from extraordinary to mundane. Meral Okay writes a stunning series Bir Bulut Olsam, Eylem Canpolat and Sema Ergenekon( both women) write an extraordinary detective story while a three member writing team writes a riveting series like Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?. I am astounded by the women writers in particular as they write women centered scripts like Sıla without compromising strong male protagonists. Ezel, Magnificent Century, Ertuğrul, Atiye- the scripts experiment with all the genres, most of them fairly successfully. Occasionally one finds a particular theme overused; such as the topical run of series with ‘love for hire’ as a theme. Starting with the enjoyable Love for Rent (Kiralık Aşk), some of the present series like My Sweet Lie (Benim Tatlı Yalanım), You Came Knocking At My Door (Sen Çal Kapımı) use the same hook to hang their plot on, or series like Mr. Wrong (Bay Yanlış) conveniently use currently popular actors like Can Yaman to sell a brainless, poorly written series.

What I find extraordinary is the literary, historical and cultural references that most screenplays employ which act as cultural ‘trigger points’ for the curious viewer to explore. Hikmet and Veli feature strongly just as the intensely soul stirring music of Aytekin Ateş, Gökhan Kırdar and Toygar Işıklı add a surreal dimension to dramatic situations.

And now to acting:

As a veteran of radio, theater, TV and film actress myself, I can say categorically that Turkish actors (both genders) rank among the very best around the world. The fact that Engin Akyürek is the first Turkish actor to have been nominated for an International Emmy clinches the argument. The single factor holding the majority of actors back from making it in Hollywood is language. While European actors like Xavier Bardem or Antonio Banderas etc. learned English to break into the English speaking cinematic world; few Turkish actors have ventured beyond Turkish cinema or television. Though streaming platforms such as Netflix now offer the best of both worlds with sub titling, dubbing or English language entertainment; Turkish content has managed to hold its own with its own language up to the present. In a world celebrating diversity, I see no need for an actor to speak a stilted version of another language unless required by the script especially since translations are readily available. Though there is much loss of quality and many errors in translation; the very ethos of a dramatic narrative is the language in which it is performed.

This is not to say that that ALL Turkish actors are world class but only to highlight one of the major reasons why Turkish drama has become so popular. From horse riding to fencing, archery to boxing, scuba diving to underwater photography; the Turkish actor works as hard and assiduously as his western counterpart and performs as well in the many genres that TV and cinema present.