Turkish and Arab TV series are vying frantically with one another to tell in their own way the history of the peoples and political forces in the Middle East. Voicing an extravagant patriotism, they put forth glowing tales of their nation’s history while disparaging that of others. The new Emirati super-production, Mamalik al-nar (Kingdoms of Fire) shown on the Saudi-panArab channels MBC, illustrates the logic of this media-conveyed political competition involving the Arab-Muslim Machrek. Through this costume serial, we can read the very serious crisis which has arisen between the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Arab countries.
An important marker of political identity
Historical subjects serve as narrative bases for TV super-productions in both Turkey and the Arab countries, financed by big media corporations with state-backing. Their political messages make these series part of the propaganda campaigns of regimes competing with regional rivals. They are ancillary instruments in the service of governments which are grateful for this popularisation of a version of history which is compatible with the supreme interests of the State.
Famously benefiting from the praise of the Turkish president, the series Diriliş: Ertuğrul (The Resurrection of Ertuğrul) won the best director prize among the Golden Butterfly awards in 2018. Its 150 episodes, written by Mehmet Bozdag and directed by Metin Gülnay tell of the rise of the Ottoman Empire against a background of tribal conflicts and domestic and foreign conspiracies. This Turkish super-production especially glorifies the legacy of the country’s founding dynasty. The series ran for five seasons, between 10 December 2014 and 29 May 2019 and was spectacularly successful in Turkey but also with Arabic-speaking audiences.
The series was widely commented upon over the social networks. Many young people posted the portrait of Ertugil on their Facebook profiles and the tragic death of the character of “Bamsi Alp” caused much sadness among Arabic-speaking viewers, such as that Kuwaiti in Jahra who wrote on a huge billboard:
Condolences from the Kaya clan, may Bamsi’s soul rest in peace... Oh Ertugul, no reconciliation... And I swear to you, Bamsi, you are his dear departed ( Al-Azab, 15 March 2017).
Muslim unity acclaimed
Besides the popularity of Engin Düzytan, the actor who played the part of Ertugul, the promotion of Arabic identity in the series and its multiple broadcast outlets explain such an enthusiastic reception. The dubbing in literary Arabic was brilliantly accomplished by such great actors as the Syrian Rashid Assaf and Mona Wassif. The Internet also played an important role in the popularisation of the series. The Al-Noor website subtitled the series for YouTube after which other platforms and accounts picked it up. According to the official website of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) the episodes were viewed on-line in 2017 by some 200,000,000 web users, with Saudi Arabia in the lead with a total of 600,000.
If The Resurrection of Ertuğrul captivated such a huge audience in the Middle East, it was through its combination of enthusiasm, history, chivalrous heroism and an educational dimension under the sign of Islamo-Ottoman culture and politics. And above all it celebrated Muslim unity around a charismatic leader, above and beyond ethnic and linguistic differences.
Nor does the telling of the saga of Ertuğrul Bin Suliman Shah, father of Osman Gazi, end there: it has been followed since 20 November 2019 by Kuruluş Osman (Osman the Founder). Aired on channel aTV, this series tells of the political ascension of the man who was to be proclaimed first Ottoman Sultan in 1281 under the name of Osman 1st.
Arab political authorities have been slow in expressing concern over the impact of Turkish series dubbed into Arabic which, by reason of their thematic variety, appeal to a wide range of tastes. Ever since they began flooding the airwaves in 2007, the Arab craze for romantic fictions has become a social phenomenon. For example, Kivanç Tatlitug, dubbed the “Brad Pitt of the East” in the Turkish press, plays role of “Muhannad” in Noor, pantic series which wa shhugely successful wtihArab viewers. This dramatic genre has popularised models of “modernity” throughout Turkey in terms of lifestyles and gender relations, whence its tremendous appeal in conservative Arab societies, especially the Gulf monarchies.
“Kingdoms of Fire”, the Arab response to “Ertuğrul”
The Arab governments’ counterattack was carried out via Pan Arab broadcasting, an area in which Saudi capital investments have been particularly important since the nineties. It began as a classical form of censorship. In September 2014, Egypt decided to ban all Turkish series in response to Erdoğan’s support for the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, overthrown by the army in July 2013 and his virulent attacks on its chief, Marshall Abd al-Fattah al-Sissi. Saudi Arabia followed suit in March 2018: the channels of the Middle East Broadcating Center (MBC) stopped showing Turkish series. This group is the linchpin of the Saudi media empire, whose principal stockholder is businessman Walid Bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, son-in-law of former sovereign Fahd Bin Abd al-Aziz, and headed since December 2017 by Prince Badr Bin Farhan al-Saoud, current Minister of Culture.
At the same time, the Arab governments have been promoting the production of historical TV series to beef up their anti-Turkish agenda. In this media competition within the Arab and Muslim world, the Emirati super-production Mamalik al-nar was launched with a budget of forty million dollars. The Kingdoms of Fire was co-scripted by two Egyptians, Mohamed Abd al-Malik and Ahmad Nada and directed by an Anglo-Peruvian tandem, Peter Webber and Alejandro Toledo, with the collaboration of a crew of international technicians.
Shot in Tunisia with a cast of outstanding Arab actors, it was aired from 17 November to 9 December on MBC channels Misr, MBC1 and MBC MASR 2. It tells the story of the last Sultan of Mamluk Egypt, Al-Ashraf Tuman Bay and his heroic stand against Ottoman Sultan Selim 1st.
The intense advertising campaign which accompanied the series speaks volumes about the intentions of its artistic team and political promoters.
The credit titles from the Genomedia Studios contain the following statement: “A bloodthirsty law which governed an empire, became a curse accompanying [the Ottomans]”. The trailer ended with the enthusiastic voice of the Egyptian star Khalid al-Nabawi in the role of Tuman Bay — defeated in the battle of Rdaniya, captured and put to death by hanging in 1517 by the Ottomans —: “Oh People of Egypt, your resistance is a victory!”
Resisting Occupation by a Brutal Foreign Army
While the fourteen episodes deal with the circumstances of the fall of the Mamluks’ reign, the emphasis is placed, though the choice of scenes, and the dialogues on the theme of Egypt’s occupation by a brutal foreign army. In other words, the triumphal entry into Egypt of the Ottoman troops is in no wise celebrated as an Islamic fath1 by the televisual narration of these decisive historical events.
While one of the series’ screenwriters has referred to an “Ottoman history full of historical crimes” and criticised the “Turkish series which stress the blessings of the Ottoman reign,” the Emirati producer has openly expressed the hostility of the Arab ruling elites towards Turkey. In his commentary, Yasser Hareb made clear the motives behind such a large-scale TV production.
It is in response to Turkish TV productions [..]. The series documents the barbarity of the Ottomans in their battles to put down the population of Cairo neighbourhoods [...] It will shed light on that period of Arab history which has been distorted, the Ottomans’ crimes have been deliberately obfuscated. The coming seasons will reveal their obscurantism and show the truth about personalities presented as angels in previous productions.
Ankara’s reaction to the airing of this series was not long in coming.
In an op-ed published on 28 November 2019 in Yeni Şafak, a daily newspaper, the Turkish presidential advisor, Yasin Aktav, trotted out Turkey’s rhetoric of remembrance, singing the praises of the Ottoman sultanate as protector of the Arab peoples:
[Kingdoms of Fire] is part of the hostile campaign aimed at diminishing the influence of our Turkish series which have had such sensational success in the Arab world [...] Indeed [the series]is a direct attack on the Ottoman State, but also on contemporary Turkey which represents it today.
This important Turkish official’s argument mainly reveals the nationalist implications of TV productions showing national historical events. Because the legacy of the Ottoman Sultanate since medieval times is today more than ever a subject of political and intellectual debate in the Middle East.
Erdoğan’s “Ottomanism” versus Arab national interests
Turkey’s foreign policy constitutes a considerable strategic and security challenge for the Arab governments which, according to certain local media, accuse Turkey of expansionist or even “colonialist” ambitions. In a tweet posted on 10 March 2018, the Emirati Foreign Secretary Anwar Qarqash dealt with the dangers of President Erdoğan’s regional interventionism which has upset the balance of power in the Middle East:
Turkey is interfering with the major Arab States and is backing Islamist movements whose aim is the violent subversion of existing governments. It must learn to respect their sovereignty.
Turkey’s interference in Arab affairs is a source of growing tensions, especially with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, over many regional issues: the war in Syria , the blockade of Qatar, where Turkish troops have been based since the 2014 Turkish-Qatari cooperation agreement, not to mention Erdoğan’s unwavering support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Recent developments in the chaotic Libyan situation have also exacerbated the climate of hostility in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin where rivalry over the exploitation of natural gaz deposits goes hand in hand with the competition for regional leadership.
The memoranda of understanding signed on 17 November 2019 between President Erdoğan and Fayiz al-Sarraj, head of the Libyan Government of National Accord, deal with military and security cooperation between Ankara and Tripoli as well as the delimitation of zones of maritime jurisdiction. Challenged by their Egyptian neighbour and its khalîjî ally, these two memoranda enhance Turkey’s position of power in the Middle East to the detriment of Arab national interests. The deployment of Turkish troops on Libyan soil, approved on 2 January by the parliament in Ankara, is going to have a game-changing effect in that part of the Arab and Muslim world which may well lead to an open regional confrontation. It involves an application of the Turkish President’s “Ottomanism” which attests to his Islamo-nationalist ambitions.
To send Turkish troops to North Africa is to announce a broadening of the scope of Turkish economic and military action. On 26 December 2019, the Libyan Minister of Interior Affairs officially requested the intervention of the Turkish army to cope with the troops of retired Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Backed up by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the latter had launched on 4 April military operation called “Deluge of Dignity” to gain control of Tripoli and run the al-Sarraj government out of the capital. The Turkish military deployment is aimed at putting a halt to the current general offensive launched on 12 December by the strong man of Benghazi and the Eastern border zones of Libya. Carlotta Gall, “Turkey, Flexing its muscles, Will Send Troops to Libya” The New York Times, 2 January 2020
Celebrating the memory of Barbarossa
The Turkish president has constantly justified his foreign policy in the conflict areas of the Arab and Muslim world by claiming to restore the grandeur of the Islamic Caliphate in its former wilayat. In his inaugural address to the TRT World Forum on 19 October 2019, he emphasised “the legacy of his ancestors in their former geography” which in his view legitimises his massive interventions in Libya, Syria and the Arab Peninsula. In a phone call on 2 January to his troops stationed in the Turkish province of Hakkari, Erdoğan declared he was determined to strengthen the presence of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Taking hi cue from the maritime conquests of the Ottoman Empire, Erdoğan paid tribute to Kheireddin Pasha, a famous admiral and regent of Algeria in the 16th century during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. He promised to “ leave a legend like those left in the past by Barbarossa in the Mediterranean.”
Fuelled by the emotional symbolism of the sagas of great national heros, the various types of TV representation promote two opposing theses. Thus, the glorification of the memory of the Ottoman Empire comes up against a denunciation of its injustices and a celebration of the struggle for independence of oppressed Arab nations. The enormous sums invested in the production of these serialised costume dramas illustrate the importance of televised “soft power”. But what “history” are we talking about?
Mamalik al-nar and Ertuğrul exemplify the confrontation between two “histories” of the Middle East. In addition to the media, the educational systems promote Arab policies which are increasingly critical of Turkish interference both in the Machrek and the Magreb and take sides in the conflicts between States. A sign of this is the Saudi government’s 22 August 2019 decision to revise history textbooks. The Ottoman Empire is no longer seen as the Muslim Cali phat. It is now depicted for pupils as an “ihtilal” (occupying) State, in the Arab peninsula in general and on the land which was to become the Kingdom of the al-Saud dynasty in particular. After the success of these TV series, this is an additional sign of the regional complexities of the Saudi-Turkish crisis.
1Originally a Koranic term, mentioned in the homonymic sura 48, the “fath” is often associated with the qualifier “Islamic”and is a marker of Islamic rhetoric and classical historiography. It refers to the spectacular victory of Islamic troops in foreign lands. It was revive din the medieval context of Arab-Turkish relations to celebrate the triumphal advent of the Ottomans as “legitimate” Islamic authority in Egypt and in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.