If you were living in the Balkans right now, you’d be rushing home tonight to watch a TV show that is like Downton Abbey with turbans, only much more successful.
Those of you who have read ‘HAREM’, or any of my posts on the subject, will know Suleiman ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566, at the very apex of its power and glory.
When ‘Magnificent Century’ first rolled, in January 2011, it attracted massive controversy.
Conservative and Islamic groups didn’t like to see the Sultan drinking alcohol – which is banned in Islam – or see him sleeping with the concubines in the harem. (What did they think he did with them?)
RTUK, the government media regulator, claimed they had received 70,000 complaints after the first show and said the TV station owed the public an apology. Even Prime Minister Recep Erdogan waded in to the debate, called the show’s portrayal of Suleiman ‘disrespectful.’
Protesters gathered outside the TV station and hurled eggs. Halit Ergenc, a veteran Turkish soap opera star who plays the part of Suleiman, received hate mail and even death threats.
But the uproar boosted the show’s ratings and now Wednesday nights are harem night in Turkey and much of the Balkans.
When I attended the Belgrade Book Festival in October everyone was talking about it.
With the glamor, the gowns, the diamonds and double dealing, the show has an irresistible appeal and has made a star of a little-known Berlin-born actress, Meryem Uzerli, who plays Hurrem – the Laughing One – the red-haired slave who wraps the most powerful man in the world around her little finger.
Hurrem combined ruthless intelligence with the Meg Ryan ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ knowledge of the dark arts to rise from concubine to the sultan’s legal wife – the only woman in Ottoman history to do so.
In an interview with Tempo magazine she said that modern women could learn a lot from Hurrem: “the most important being strategy. If you have those kinds of skills, you can get whatever you want.”
Hurrem had many female rivals, and her sons had to compete with others to become heirs to the throne, so the scriptwriters have endless possibilities for intrigue every week. As Miryam suggest Hurrem does have huge appeal for the modern woman, especially in the Middle East; slave by name but certainly not by nature. Arab women apparently love her.
Have the writers misrepresented history?
The head writer for the series is a Ms Okay; she believes, as I do, that it is Okay to bring historical figures to life and attempt to make them human. In her view the real story of Suleiman took place not on the battlefield, but in the harem. This, she says, is where the turning points in his reign played out. I agree with her.
And this is where those who argue for historical accuracy lose their ground; because it is impossible to know exactly what happened in there.
Leslie Peirce, professor of Ottoman studies at NYU agrees that very little was written about women in those days – it was considered, ironically, disrespectful.
So much of we know about the harem and Hurrem’s rise comes from the Venetians (who had a colony in Stamboul at the time.) The rest is just speculation.
The series has made the Turks vitally interested in their own history again, and ticket sales for the Topkapi Palace, Suleiman’s palace and harem, have soared. ‘Magnificent Century’ has now held Turkey in thrall for 80 episodes and two years. From Croatia to Macedonia, it is a ratings monster.
But Prime Minister Erdogan won’t let this slide; he still wants to turn the public prosecutors loose.
He says there are too few battle scenes showing Suleiman’s glory; too many in the Harem. He wants much more violence; a lot less lovin’.
Public reaction against him has so far been so intense that no proceedings have been taken,but nevertheless ‘Magnificent Century’ will now end sooner than planned and RTUK have had some of the sexier scenes cut. Meryem must now wear her headscarf more regularly.
The TV producers are right to be worried. Ten years ago, when I went to Istanbul for a book tour, my publisher had just been released from prison. Over lunch he described how he had been tortured by the police. I won’t go into details but let’s say the fried meatballs he ordered as an appetizer lost some of their allure.
And this was one of Istanbul’s leading businessmen.
Another reason why Turkey won’t find itself in the EEC anytime soon.
The controversy over Magnificent Century has spread around the Middle East.
My HAREM was first published here in the West twenty years ago and remains in print or is due for re-release in all of the 14 countries where it was sold. (the great thing about writing history – it doesn’t date!) It was number one in Serbia last year. Though my stance is pretty much the same as the writers of this series I have received no death threats, no hate mail.
It’s why I love free speech and living in a democracy – for all its faults. For as Meryem Uzerli says, Hurrem is a woman for our times.
I believe that as the cultures of Islam and the West inevitably clash over the coming decades, it is in our attitudes to women that the focus will be most intense.
And I’m sure Hurrem’s ghost will be watching us, and laughing.
FOR THE NEXT TWO DAYS – AND FOR THE LAST TIME EVER – HAREM IS FREE ON AMAZON. GET YOURS HERE.
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