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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 133, 15 September 2020

Between Myth and History



Pakistan is smitten by the 'Ertugrul', a Turkish TV Series: Will it bite them in the long run?

Although the Turkish drama has smashed television records, it has exposed the country's recent lack of original content. Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry fears that the Turkish drama will harm the local entertainment industry. According to Samina Ahmad, a veteran television actress, Ertugrul is "a cheap re-run, a temporary filling. If we truly want PTV's revival we will have to bank on local talent".

Lakshmi V Menon

Ever since Pakistan's state broadcaster began airing the dubbed version of the Turkish historical TV drama about the makings of the Ottoman Empire "Dirilis: Ertugrul" (Ertugrul's Resurrection) in April 2020, the show has taken Pakistan by storm, garnering immense popularity. 

According to the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV), between 25 April and 14 May over 133.38 million people watched the Turkish drama series. ("Turkish Ertugrul TV series takes Pakistan by storm," Anadolu Agency, 17 May 2020) 

Such is the unprecedented popularity that Ertugul's stars Celal Al and Eugin Altan greeted Pakistani fans on Independence Day. Celal wished the fans in Urdu on Instagram, captioning it "Dil Dil Pakistan" and Engin Altan Duzyatan aka Ertugrul visited Pakistan's Consulate General in Istanbul to wish his Pakistani fans. ("'Ertugrul' star Celal Al wishes Pakistani fans in Urdu on Independence Day," The News International, 15 August 2020) ("'Ertugrul' star Engin Altan to meet three Make-A-Wish Pakistani children today," The News International, 18 August 2020)

Ertugrul may not be the first Turkish drama to gain popularity in Pakistan, however, amid the pandemic it has been a rage even amongst the highest political echelons. Politicians, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, have joined the analysts and celebrities to comment and debate on Ertugrul. While PM Khan had been promoting the series and encouraging Pakistan's population to watch the Turkish drama, Ertugrul has polarized opinions within Pakistan. Some hailed and applauded the glorification of Muslim heroes and others opined that it promotes violence and considered it a threat to the nation's culture. 

I
Pakistan's fascination towards the Ertugrul

In India, Pakistani shows have always earned a mass fan following. A 2016 Times of India article identified five reasons for its success over Indian TV soap/series: first, the shows have a start and an end unlike Balaji's mega-serials in India; second, social issues are given more importance than the age-old saas-bahu drama; third, they are simple, direct and avoid over-acting (meaning they do not have the neck jerks and over-dramatization that is the essence of some Indian TV serials); fourth, on-screen weddings or festivities would not go on for over a month like in the Indian shows; and last, there is an element of normalcy wherein, for instance, they sleep in nightwear and not with heavy makeup and heavy part-wear clothes like is commonly seen in Indian soaps. Although the sets and costumes in Indian serials are beautiful, they are exaggerated. ("5 reasons why Pakistani TV shows are better than Indian ones," The Times of India, 23 July 2016) for these reasons, Pakistani shows such as Humsafar, Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Dastaan, Shehr-e-zaat, Do Bol, Sadqay Tumhare and Behadd became household names in India. 

Pakistani TV shows have always been strong in the South Asian context. Despite this, how did Ertugrul manage to capture the Pakistani audience to this magnitude? 

The high production values, daring protagonist and cliffhangers gripped the Pakistani audience. Ertugrul, written and created by an acclaimed filmmaker with links to Turkeys conservative ruling AKP party Mehmet Bozdag, is a high-quality production featuring talented actors and a director who seems to have mastered the art of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats; an addictive combination. Additionally, the production has shelled out for the famous Hollywood stunt team NOMAD to train and coordinate the fight sequences in the series. The writer's ability to combine the glitz, glamour and valour with the rumbustious story of the hero Ertugrul fighting against all the odds, intertwining traditional Islamic beliefs is the success mantra. ("What is Dirilis Ertugrul and Why Everyone is Watching it," Kashmir Observer, 11 May 2020)

The drama series has left Pakistanis smitten. According to Pakistani netizens and Twitterati, Ertugrul is "a distinct piece of entertainment over the typical and lifeless storyline of domestic issues in Pakistani serials". The recent absence of high-quality content in Pakistani TV series is also a reason for the foreign drama's massive popularity. ("Ertugrul: The Turkish TV drama enthralling Pakistan," BBC News, 16 June 2020)

Traditionally too, Pakistan tends to look towards West than East. Not the far-West but the immediate-West or merely the Middle East than East-Asia for ideological or other affiliations or inspirations. The Ertugrul mania, thus, is a manifestation of the identity crisis that the nation faces. Pakistan's identity crisis, post the split from India in 1947, is no secret. Filling the void by the promotion of an Islamic identity, sometimes imported from the Muslim world, has been attempted by Pakistan's civilian and military elites. Critics interpret this as Islamabad's way of shunning Pakistan's Indian subcontinent heritage. The change in official language – from the south Asian Ramzan to Ramadan and Khuda Hafiz to Allah hafiz – also reflects this tendency. So, is Pakistan moving away from the larger South-Asian ethos and seeking an identity in the Arabian sands?

At this juncture, it is crucial to analyze Ertugrul's objective. Debates regarding the unknown purpose of the "propagandistic and ideologically motivated" series are rife. The five-season series Diliris Ertugrul tells the story of the father of Osman I Ertugrul, who founded the Ottoman Empire, which had once ruled the expanse from Europe and Western Asia till North Africa for over 600 years. It is an action-adventure serial full of sword fights and based on stories of the Muslim Oghuz Turks fighting Christian Byzantines, invading Mongols and the Knights Templar Crusaders in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in the 12th century. 

If the show sought to offer a counter-narrative to Islamophobia and project Islam as a peaceful religion, the result has been the opposite. Numerous beheadings by the hero, Ertugrul, are glorified throughout the series. The more realistic goal seems to be to ignite Turkish nostalgia for a forgotten empire by depicting the bravery of Muslim Oghuz Turks. Meanwhile, fans argue that the series 'rightly glorifies' Muslim values. However, Ertugrul has received criticism globally for the violent nationalist content and historical inaccuracies.

II
Is there another side to the story?

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a critic, warns of the "dangerous, delusional" influence the Turkish drama is having on Pakistan. ("Dangerous delusions – Ertugrul mania," Dawn, 6 June 2020) Hoodbhoy argues that obsession is dangerous for numerous reasons. 

First, Pakistanis are convinced that the series shows genuine Islamic history. Mehmet Bozdag, producer and writer of the series, agrees there is hardly any information available about the depicted era and that most sources are contradictory. The faked history flames "revivalist dreams, creates false hopes" and suggests bloody fighting is the way forward. He states that ancient foreign invasions must be investigated and absorbed as facts of history without condemnation or glorification. Second, the series which is essentially a power-struggle within a tribal society is packed with blood, murder, conquest, and tribal intrigues, beautifully wrapped in devout religious fervour. Glorifying the sword may inspire Islamist radical terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. Ertugrul also fuels the delusion that the way forward is to go back to the early ages of Islam. An ideology of such fundamentalist organizations. Last, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his government are trying to promote this show as their support to Islam and use this as a means of soft power; problematic as Ertugrul celebrates Turkish imperialism. 

Another critic, a history professor of Punjab University of Pakistan Dr. Faraz Anjum, arguing that Ertugrul was non-Muslim, called the Turkish drama completely fictitious. He quoted authentic historical records to back his claims. According to Farooqi, "We know nothing about the life of Ertugrul, and his existence is independently attested only by a coin of his son Osman". ("Ertugrul was non-Muslim and Turkish drama is fictitious: Pakistan History Professor," The Milli Chronicle, 10 June 2020)

The acceptance of entertainment as history is dangerous. The lack of distinction between myth and reality and eagerness to look at Ertugrul from a historical perspective poses a serious concern.

Promotion by PM Khan
On 24 April, the Prime Minister's Office shared a video clip of Imran Khan's view on why the Turkish drama was important. According to Mr Khan, the serial Diriliş: Ertuğrul "will make our (Pakistan's) youth learn about Islamic history and ethics" as it "shows the culture of Islam". The PM said Ertugrul, which is being called the Muslim Game of Thrones, "has romance, has historical moments, but all while showing Islamic values... I want that our children and youth know what our culture is." "Usually we copy things from Bollywood that have been copied from Hollywood," he said. ("Imran Khan shares why the youth needs to watch Dirilis Ertugrul," Dawn, 27 April 2020) ("Pakistan goes wild for blockbuster Turkish drama," Dawn, 24 May 2020) ("Dubbed as the 'Muslim Game of Thrones', Pakistan is going wild over this blockbuster Turkish drama," The Economic Times, 23 May 2020) It is not a surprise that the title of the Pakistani edition of "Ertuğrul: Resurrection" was changed to "Ertuğrul Ghazi", where "ghazi" stands for 'the warrior for Islam'. The dubbed version began airing on the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The PM even falsely claimed that India was ruled by the Turks for 600 years. Pakistan's and Imran Khan's lauding of invaders, primarily the Turkish and post-eighth century invasions (Islamic) is absurd. Hailing imperial rule over one's own country by the head of state is outlandish. ("Turks ruled India, Pakistanis amused at PM Imran Khan's history," GLIBS, 16 February 2020) 

Since Mr Khan came to power, he has been calling for the creation of "a Pakistan which is in line with the first Muslim society created by Prophet Muhammad in Medina". However, an article in the leading daily Dawn suggests that it may be more than merely personal interest. It says, "the reason may lie in a much-publicized, behind-the-scenes meeting, where Prime Minister Khan met with Turkish President [Recep] Tayyip Erdogan and [then] Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad at the UNGA (UN General Assembly)." The three leaders had floated an idea of launching a TV channel to counter the rising Islamophobia in September 2019. ("Ertugrul: The Turkish TV drama enthralling Pakistan," BBC News, 16 June 2020)

Thus, through Ertugrul's promotion PM Khan was attempting to achieve dual-motives: first, to highlight the common denominator of Islam; and second, political point-scoring in Turkey, a country Islamabad is seeking to strengthen bilateral ties with.

However, the Kingdom disapproves
Erdogan's selling of the Turkish drama which promotes imperialism as a soft power tool has garnered criticism from Sunni bastions such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The two states banned the series decrying it an "insidious attempt to re-impose Turkish tutelage" over formerly Ottoman-ruled Arab nations. Saudi Arabia has openly expressed annoyance with the series. 

According to rumours, Riyadh is presently funding a counter series "Malik-e-Nar". While the success of the series and its subsequent use as a means of soft power by Turkey is purely accidental and not previously designed, Erdogan's government has been utilizing its popularity to further their national interests and to mobilize allegiance from Muslim nations. Amid the recent Saudi-Pakistan bilateral diplomatic spat, sparked by Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi's unusually charged remarks and warning towards the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Countries, Pakistan should not upset the Kingdom. Meanwhile, fearing that Turkey desires to rule the Arab Muslim world by reviving the Ottoman Empire, Egypt issued an Islamic legal ruling against 'Ertugrul'. ("A summary of Ertugrul's impact on Pakistan," Dawn, 26 May 2020)

Ertugrul vs Pakistaniat
Criticisms that the importing of confusions would derail the direction of the national compass are rife. This is linked with the lack of a comprehensive Pakistaniyat – "a mix of national, religious, realistic, rational, and globalized approaches toward evolving nationalism in Pakistan." ("'Ertugrul' sparks questions over Pakistani nationalism," Asia Times, 28 May 2020) Pakistaniyat (a strong, inclusive, pluralistic national identity) must birth from Pakistan; not Turkey. 

Garewal identifies three layers of confusion in Pakistaaniat or Pakistan's nationalism. First, an internal discord as a result of being a diverse multi-ethnic nation. Second, Pakistan's affiliation with different blocs in the Muslim world – the Sunni and Shia. Politically, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Further, the Kuala Lumpur Summit headed by Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar aimed at creating yet another pole in the already tumultuous Muslim world. Domestically, Pakistan is divided among secular liberals and hardcore religious ideologues, with a lack of moderate scion. The last confusion originates from Pakistan's far-Western political inspirations. ("'Ertugrul' sparks questions over Pakistani nationalism," Asia Times, 28 May 2020) 

Ertugrul runs the theme of indoctrinating with the power of the sword and the merciless killing of infidels; not the inspirations a country like Pakistan needs especially in the light of the Minorities Commission and the National Action Plan. In this context, the debate over the best-suited form of Islam for Pakistan also requires settling.

Blow to the local industry
Although the Turkish drama has smashed television records, it has exposed the country's recent lack of original content. Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry fears that the Turkish drama will harm the local entertainment industry. According to Samina Ahmad, a veteran television actress, Ertugrul is "a cheap re-run, a temporary filling. If we truly want PTV's revival we will have to bank on local talent". PM Khan promoting Ertugrul may have shocked the Pakistani drama industry and filmmakers, who had lobbied to ban or at least limit Turkish serials like Ask-I Memnu (Ishq-e-Mamnu or 'forbidden love') and Hurrem Sultan as their popularity was threatening to destroy the Pakistani industry. "It is a good opportunity for PTV management to look at themselves, shake their conscience and wonder how they are unable to produce a prime-time drama," a Pakistani drama producer Aehsun Talish remarked.

Nevertheless, for PM Khan who aspires for a Pakistan that is less influenced by the ideological trimmings of Hollywood and Bollywood, "Ertugrul: Ghazi" offers a safe alternative with an Islamic coating. The drama shows love without nudity (unlike the extremely popular Game of Thrones) and have politics and bloodshed without clouding the idea of Muslim unity. The fact that the protagonist Ertugrul exclaims Ya Allah, instead of God Bless America before vanquishing his enemies, itself is a huge plus. Meanwhile, PM Khan has moved onto promoting another Turkish drama: the "Yunus Emre" (the Dervish). ("Done with Dirilis Ertugrul? Imran Khan has another Turkish drama for you," Dawn, 6 May 2020)

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