Published March 30, 2012
For 14-year-old Kerim, life is hard. Estranged from his father, whom he blames for his mother’s suicide, Kerim spends his time roaming the streets of Diyarbakır, one of the largest cities in southeastern Turkey. His aunt Sultan, who is raising him, has just opened a restaurant in the same complex as her family’s restaurants. Competition is brutal. Last week, Sultan’s father smashed her restaurant’s windows, furious that Sultan was allowing her friendship with an Istanbulite and her crush on an America-born professor to overshadow family loyalty. Then, there is Kerim’s uncle Şeymus, Sultan’s husband, who has just returned from France with a young son in tow, and a dark secret.
Kerim is lucky: his life is a fiction, literally—it is one of the storylines in Ayrılık Olmasaydı/ ben-u sen (‘I Wish We Were Never Apart, Me and You’), a soap opera from Kanal D television was scheduled to begin airing in Turkey in late March this year. Hüseyin, the boy playing Kerim, is also lucky: Kanal D pays him. Last year, Hüseyin’s life was not unlike that of his character—fraught, impoverished and quarantined by geography. Diyarbakır is a deeply political city, the heart of the hostility between the Turkish state and the country’s Kurdish minority; it is also the symbolic capital of Kurdistan, a region which encompasses areas in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Kurds comprise 20 percent of Turkey’s population, and have been fighting for constitutional rights—language, identity, and political representation—since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923. The armed resistance of the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) was born in Diyarbakır in 1978. A war between cultures became an all-out war between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces. Efforts by the two cultures to engage with each other politically have mostly failed; the locally-supported and legal pro-Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) has little authority in Parliament. Frequent protests devolve quickly into clashes between stone-throwing demonstrators and teargas-lobbing police.
Diyarbakır’s 1.5 million residents are isolated from western Turkey; they are dismissed, vilified, feared. Now they are on TV.
Soap operas are wildly popular in Turkey and are among the country’s most vital exports, both in terms of profit and public relations. Before the Mavi Marmara tried to deliver aid to Gaza in May 2010, Turkish soap operas had been illustrating the country’s solidarity with Palestinians, often by maligning Israelis. Gümüş (‘Silver’), which aired on Kanal D, became a popular soap in the Arab world, and flaunted Turkey’s idealised self-image as a nation balancing its Islamic identity with Western behaviour like drinking wine and kissing. Soaps have addressed serious issues—the lives of political prisoners, the decline of rural life, the role of women—with typical innuendo and melodrama.
Within this tradition, Kurds have generally played negative roles—at best, redneck foils for urbane characters; at worst, terrorists. In 2010, Selahattin Demirtaş, chairman of the BDP, filed a complaint against four Turkish soaps, calling them anti-Kurdish. “I guess the people who watch those series desire to go out to the street after the end of the episode and strangle the first Kurdish citizen to cross their path,” Demirtaş was reported saying in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News. Ayrılık Olmasaydı claims to be the first Turkish soap opera about Kurds that avoids racist caricatures. Diyarbakır has been renovated onscreen, its dissident identity molded into a happy, familiar home.
“Let’s shift away from the political image of Diyarbakır. Let’s show people that there is love here, that we are real people,” says Handan Çapanoğlu, sitting in her classroom at the Diyarbakır Sümerpark community centre. Çapanoğlu teaches a class for at-risk kids at the centre, and it was she who encouraged Hüseyin, then one of her students, to audition for the role of Kerim. An activist, Çapanoğlu incorporates the Kurdish language—once banned, still marginalised—into her plays, prompting students to keep alive a culture which some consider an affront to the modernist Turkish state. Recently, the arrests of mostly Kurdish opposition figures—roughly 7,000 since 2009—have begun to threaten the community centre. “You ask yourself every day, will you be taken?” says Çapanoğlu.
While Çapanoğlu is proud of her politics, even she envisions a Kanal D-style Diyarbakır in which politics does not exist. Feride Çiçekoğlu, director of the graduate programme in film and television at Istanbul Bilgi University, agrees. “People need to know that daily life goes on in spite of the political issues,” she says. “Sometimes it helps to see similarities rather than differences.” But political Diyarbakır may be impossible to ignore.
Ayrılık Olmasaydı began filming in August 2011, and a few particularly violent months followed. In October, PKK militants killed 24 Turkish soldiers, and at the end of December, the Turkish Army killed 34 young Kurdish smugglers.
Violence typically escalates in the warmer months, and the production crew of Ayrılık Olmasaydı worked frantically throughout an unusually cold winter to pre-empt it. So did BDP politicians, whose past attempts to negotiate with the state have only exposed the depth of suspicion and fear in the country. The most notorious example dates to 2009, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered amnesty to PKK militants. The sight of these militants walking freely across the border with Iraq threw the Turkish public—which had for decades been told to fear PKK violence—into a panic. Erdoğan retreated. Today, peace with the Kurdish population is Turkey’s most pressing challenge. While violence and human rights violations are seen as a taint on the country’s authorities, the failed effort showed that while the government might be ready to move forward with the Kurds, millions of Turks are not. And these Turks watch Kanal D.
“Until now, every movie and TV show looks down on us and makes fun of us,” says Abdullah Demirbaş, mayor of Diyarbakır city’s Sur municipality. “But they are here to show the real Diyarbakır.” Demirbaş hopes that Ayrılık Olmasaydı will rehabilitate the image of the city, and more: “Perhaps the show will be beneficial for peace between Turks and Kurds.”
Then there is argument of tourism. In spite of its historical allure, Diyarbakır’s reputation for violence keeps visitors away—and Turkey’s soap operas have a good record of attracting tourists. Demirbaş also sees this soap as a morale booster for a populace accustomed more to being billed as terrorists than television stars. “It will allow our people to see themselves in the mirror,” Demirbaş says. “They will see their own reality.”
They will, of course, see a version of it. In all of its regular life, romance and family, restaurant outings and new friendships, Diyarbakır remains a political city. The daily life of a Kurd there is political; ongoing oppression has guaranteed that. Unsurprisingly, then, locals failed to roll out the red carpet for a television channel that has been ridiculing them. They threw stones and bottles at Kanal D trucks, prompting the studio to relocate the filming to Mardin, a quieter city southeast of Diyarbakır. Diyarbakır’s BDP mayors stepped in, explaining to nervous locals that the show could benefit the city, provide income and change the reputation of the Kurds living there. “They thought that they would show Diyarbakır just like any other movie or soap opera,” said Demirbaş. Ten days later, Kanal D returned peacefully to Diyarbakır.
High expectations led to intense secrecy surrounding the plot and characters. Scheduling delays, blamed on weather, were widely rumoured to have been caused by script changes, the result of growing concerns about audience reception. Özlem Özsümbül, head of sales and acquisitions at Kanal D, revels in her channel’s success—“We are the only channel to successfully adapt Desperate Housewives”—and their message: “We are a Muslim country, but we are modern. We have love and passion and revenge. We use real locations and good-looking men, and beautiful ladies with no scarves.”
In Kanal D’s Diyarbakır, politics is a bad word. The gentler portrait is a vast improvement over old stereotypes, but by depoliticising Diyarbakır, Kanal D could confirm a harmful misconception—that Kurds have nothing to complain about—while ignoring some important complaints. Take the Kurdish language, which Kurds have been fighting for the right to speak and teach for generations. In the soap’s script, it does not exist. “Of course, it would be better if there had been some Kurdish in it,” says Demirbaş. “But we are happy as long as it doesn’t look down on us.”
The word “Kurd” is also avoided. When describing their characters, actors are contractually obligated to resort to euphemism. “Let’s just say she is from Diyarbakır,” says a female lead. Or, as Özsümbül puts it, “It’s not our business.”
It makes her “uneasy”, but Özsümbül goes on: “It’s not a Kurdish thing. It’s our Turkish cosmopolitan story. There are seventy-five million people in this country. Of course there will be drama.”
In late February, as Sultan’s father stormed again and again into her restaurant, dozens of crew members milled wearily around a courtyard that had been renovated for filming. They drank black tea at staged teashops, perched on the set’s low stools. A sharp wind inflated dresses hanging outside empty stores. The brightly colored apartment buildings of Diyarbakır’s poor rose above the stone walls, and from the windows, residents watched their city being adapted for television. “There was nothing here before,” a Kurdish actor says, gesturing to the set. “It was all too damaged.”