A deadly virus has struck Istanbul. Panicked people flood the streets hoping to snatch up whatever necessities they can find. They attack each other while lining up for bottles of water. A girl keels over and vomits blood. Rather than helping, people run away. Scared of the contagion, everyone looks at each other suspiciously. The governor of Istanbul places certain districts of the city under strict quarantine and issues a nighttime curfew to be enforced by the police. Fires rage across Istanbul’s historic skyline, helicopters circle overhead. Chaos reigns.
No, this is not a nightmare scenario of Istanbul one or two months into the coronavirus crisis. It’s the third season of popular Netflix show The Protector (Hakan: Muhafız) released on March 6th.
The show’s creators have proven themselves to be remarkably prescient. Though this season was written and filmed months before most people had heard of COVID-19, these scenes showing the city brought to a standstill over a contagious virus resonate perfectly with everyone’s current fears.
In The Protector, the virus does not occur naturally but is the product of a nefarious cabal known as the Immortals. These unkillables have one goal: to destroy Istanbul. They are responsible for the earthquakes, plagues, and fires that have plagued Constantinople throughout its history. Fortunately, there is a counterbalancing force known as the Protector. With the help of his band of Loyal Ones (not to mention the use of a magical dagger, holy ring, and a talismanic Ottoman tunic), generations of Protectors have played an endless cat-and-mouse game with the evil Immortals.
The latest in this long lineage of Protectors is Hakan, played by the hunky Çağatay Ulusoy, a scrappy working-class guy who worked selling antiques in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar until he realized he had destiny in his blood. Over three seasons, Hakan and side-kick/love-interest Zeynep (acted by Hazar Ergüçlü) and a motley crew of Loyal Ones square off against billionaire Immortal villain Faysal Erdem (Okan Yalabık) and the rest of the Immortals.
With avid viewers around the world and recent news of a fourth season on the way, The Protector has been a success story for Netflix. The digital streaming platform released the first season of the show in 2018. Turkish television is big business. Last year alone, TV series exports brought in $500 million. After local streaming websites BluTV and puhutv released prestige-centered digital series like Innocent (Masum) and Persona (Şahsiyet), Netflix also wanted in on the action.
After the success of The Protector, the streaming giant continued to invest in Turkish original productions with 2019’s The Gift (Atiye) as well as teen comedy series Love 101 (Aşk 101) to be released later this year. The Ottoman-focused season of Netflix’s Rise of Empires also sought to bring in new subscribers from Turkey.
While Turkish network TV soap operas are often highly politicized, Netflix’s original productions seek to please everyone while offending as few as possible. These series are slightly edgier than what is deemed people’s family TV sets, with realistic swearing and more sex scenes, but they are not overly bold.
The Protector aims for a wide audience by building on the Marvel superhero trend whilst also offering a healthy dose of romance and love stories. It offers viewers the hip youth of current-day Turkey while also capitalizing on widespread Ottomania with a side-plot set in the 1460s. With its fairly realistic representation of contemporary Istanbul, The Protector does manage to avoid the most egregious forms of orientalism engaged in by Hollywood films from Midnight Express to 2020’s James Bond sequal Skyfall. Yet with pivotal scenes shot in the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, the Maiden’s Tower, and other historical sites on every foreign visitor’s itinerary, The Protector does have Istanbul’s tourism potential in mind.
One unfortunate by-product of attempting to please every kind of viewer is that The Protector ends up saying nothing at all. With a little bit of this and a little bit of that, the show is like the heaping tray of food one makes at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You should be satisfied after eating so much, but somehow the absurd combination of dishes and cuisines leaves you both stuffed and somehow still hungry.
A television series does not have to have a message, but from the first season of The Protector it has felt like the show is constantly on the verge of providing some sort of political allegory before losing its nerve and backing off. Let us recall that Hakan’s main antagonist is Faysal Erdem: an undying businessman with hands in real estate, construction, and finance; an all-powerful figure with links to the police, press, and government; someone who is set on destroying Istanbul but also feels periodic regret for “betraying” the city. There is also the issue of who will “win” the city, a plot-line at times reminiscent of election speeches, as well as the issue of preserving the city’s ecological balance against harmful plots and schemes.
While the show does sometimes seem to refer to political figures, municipal elections, and mega-projects, any allegorical reading of the show is eventually undermined but subsequent plot twists.
Now that The Protector’s third season carries undeniable resonances with the most hot-button issue of the day, contagious viruses, it seems the most we can expect from the show is this kind of accidental relevance. As Turkey gears up to deal with its first cases of coronavirus and panicked citizens begin hoarding basic supplies, let’s hope that commonsense prevails and that The Protector’s well-designed sets showing chaos in the streets remain more fiction than fact.
In interviews, rapper Lil Zey admits that in Turkey there is still bias that “women can’t rap,” but that the important thing is to focus on craft: “Whether a woman or man, if you’re a rapper in Turkey whose music is mediocre you’ll experience hardship. But if you do your job well, you can break through the prejudices about women rappers.”
Though the topic of Turkish avant-garde composer living in New York may seem obscure, a documentary recently awarded at Antalya Film Festival, powerfully explores themes of love, politics, friendship, and immigration.
If you have watched Turkish TV anytime within the past two months, you have definitely seen ads for the series Kırmızı Oda. The series focuses on a therapist and her patients. Since the pandemic began, levels of anxiety and depression are steadily increasing in Turkey. At a time like this, it is admirable to want to show the public that therapy is always a possibility.
Rap has become a lucrative business in Turkey. Over the past five years, the genre has gone from one subculture among many to an essential part of the mainstream music industry.
When you look at the history of Greece and Turkey in the 20th century, what you find is this shared history of war, dictatorship, and repression. While politicians and civil society leaders focus on friendship or diplomacy, it is the artists who have most successfully given us a vision of what something more like solidarity would look like.
At a time when the dark clouds of economic recession lurk on the horizon, signs of catastrophic climate change appear from the sandstorms of Ankara to the wild fires of California, and the pandemic continues to ravage the world, it makes sense that viewers are captivated by imagining what it would be like to escape to a different reality to undo present mistakes.
Turkish Interior Ministry’s decision to ban both live and recorded music after midnight has led to much head-scratching. Some wonder whether the government is under the mistaken impression that COVID-19 spreads through sound decibels.
One good way to gauge how the feminist movement has transformed commonsense perceptions of gender in Turkey is to look at the entertainment industry. Recent statements by Turkish celebrities show an increasing willingness to speak out on issues long raised by feminist activists.
These days, whoever I speak to has been watching MasterChef Turkey. At a time when COVID-19 is raging in the streets and the price of basic foodstuffs continues to surge, the cooking reality show provides a much-needed distraction.
The massive outpouring of support for U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris by American celebrities brings to mind the difficult position of Turkish artists who dare wade into politics. One cannot forget the harsh reaction from the ruling AKP to Turkish celebrities who expressed support to Istanbul Mayor İmamoğlu last year.
Amid rising homophobia and social inequality in Turkey, the latest film from director Ümit Ünal is a timely reflection on how love unites people and society rips them apart.
Zoomers in Turkey do not listen to a single genre of music. Indeed, the divisions between rap fans and rock fans, for example, may not be as stark as it was in the early 2000s, but there are K-pop aficionados, metal heads, devotees of trap, followers of arabesk rap, and other subcultures.
You can gauge one’s awareness of the pandemic by how they wear their mask. There are those who wrap their masks around arms or wrists. They avoid seeming completely oblivious to the global pandemic while also maximizing their intake of the Aegean coast’s fabled freshness, corona and all.
On July 21, Turkey was shook by the brutal murder of 27-year-old university student Pınar Gültekin by a man named Cemal Metin Avcı. many of Turkey’s influential cultural figures, from musicians to models, weighed in on Gültekin’s murder and the larger epidemic of femicides.
Earlier this week, writer Adalet Ağaoğlu died at the age of 91. Ağaoğlu’s generation grew up in a different set of “narrow times” than we live in today. Yet her work remains powerful in showing what does remain the same, particularly the political obsession with a single “great man” to rule the nation.
Earlier this week, the Turkish management of the clothing chain LC Waikiki banned LGBTQI+ symbols on their products and displays—or even anything that might be confused as an LGBTQI+ symbol. LC Waikiki’s memo comes as hate speech against LGBTQI+ people surges across Turkey. As LGBTQI+ issues grow more visible, the reaction is ever more vehement.
If anything, perhaps this continual updating of folk music in Turkey does prove its timelessness. This does not mean that these songs are without history, but that however much the world changes, we will always have need for songs that express the meaning of love, infatuation, mortality, and loneliness in the simplest terms possible.
Given the LGBTI+ community’s history of seeking spaces of freedom amidst the ever-tightening grip of individual and organized hate, this year’s Pride Istanbul theme is “Where am I?” The online talks, workshops, and discussions center on issues like migration, isolation, and safety.
Just because 'Naked' moves beyond certain stereotypes does not necessarily make it “Turkey’s boldest woman’s story”. If including nudity or sex scenes was a barometer of political progressiveness, then the Turkish porno craze of the 1970s or the dirty programs watched through satellite TV in the 1990s would be perfect models of feminism.
After months of staying at home and practicing distancing, it is inevitable that people will occasionally swing too far in the other direction—once given the opportunity. This is a wider social problem, one which no amount of “pandemic-shaming” (polarized along political lines like most things in Turkey nowadays) is going to solve.
Though some of the correspondences are superficial, the coincidence of the protests in the U.S. erupting just as people here are commemorating Gezi has lead to some soul searching about the similarities and differences in state violence and racism in both countries.
In Turkey today, 2.7 million people use online dating apps like Tinder, OKcupid, and Bumble. Both of the promises and the pitfalls of online dating have become more extreme as the coronavirus affects how people approach physical and emotional intimacy. A number of recent documentaries shed light on people’s experiences searching for sex, love, and/or entertainment on these platforms.
It’s a spring day in Athens. Over 120 Greek musicians and performers gather on the steps of the southern slope of the Acropolis to sing in Turkish. They gathered to express their solidarity with the Turkish protest band Grup Yorum.
Music festivals are among the many things that COVID-19 has taken away from us. There is simply no way to cram into a sweaty mass of dancing people and preserve one’s social distance. Yet event organizers are trying their best to find creative ways to keep the festival spirit alive.
Nilipek is an Istanbul-based singer and songwriter whose latest album Mektuplar (Letters) perfectly captures the emotional atmosphere of the quarantine days. Trapped between four walls, one is left alone with one’s own thoughts and memories.
The teen drama Aşk 101 (Love 101), Netflix’s latest Turkish-language offering, is full of clichés but is not without a certain charm. Yet the intense controversy that preceded the show’s release on April 24 had little to do with the story.
One positive outcome, if we can call it that, of the pandemic is that many of us have begun learning new skills. Bread has become the classic example. Yet certain habits are more difficult to satisfy at home. For many friends I know, drinking rakı at a meyhane is one of those experiences that they have missed the most.
At a time when many of us turn to fictional narratives to make sense of the mess that is our world, the detective show Alef and the podcast series Karanlık Bölge (The Dark Zone) provide just what the doctor ordered.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Recognizing that artists would also be hit hard financially by the coronavirus, countries like Germany and the UK have created emergency funds for creative workers. In Turkey, securing support for creative workers such as musicians has been an uphill battle.
The Turkish government has encouraged citizens to avoid going outside, even asking them to declare their own state of emergency. Yet many do not have this luxury. A number of recent mini-series and documentaries released online paint a picture of everyday life in the parts of Istanbul where necessity continues to drive people—especially young people—onto the streets.
Music writer Barış Akpolat spent “200 Hours with Ezhel” conducting interviews that shed light on Ezhel’s musical journey from street concerts in Ankara to sold-out stadiums, from a jail cell in Istanbul to the New York Times list of the most important emerging artists in Europe. Akpolat’s book also provides insight into Ezhel’s political beliefs.
Turkey’s usually thriving artistic and cultural scene has been brought down to a whisper amid coronavirus outbreak. For those with the luxury or necessity of self-quarantine, artists and event organizers are trying their best to bring the arts directly into people’s homes. Or more accurately, to their computer screens.
Since 2015, young, female musicians who upload covers or DIY music videos on YouTube have spearheaded a new strand of Turkish pop. Amongst them is the rising star Ekin Beril who released a debut LP last week.
With such names as ELZ AND THE CULT, She Past Away and Brek, Turkey's darkwave scene is thriving. In a predominantly conservative country, the scene offers spaces of hope.
Turkey's rising rap star Murda shows that the local scene is growing. And with it comes the North American blend of rap, pop and mawkish R&B.
Can Evrenol’s latest film, Girl With No Mouth (Peri: Ağzı Olmayan Kız), cements the director’s place as one of the leading figures of genre film in Turkey. While Turkish independent cinema is experiencing something of a renaissance, the material conditions for making and selling quality films are increasingly difficult.
Despite efforts to silence him, Demirtaş has remained an active figure in Turkey’s political scene, and now its literary scene. In late 2019, Demirtaş released Leylan, his third book written from his prison cell. Amid all denunciations and counter-denunciations, the literary significance of the work itself gets lost. Its voice and structure demonstrate newfound confidence.
For the past five or six years, venues owned or run by holding companies, corporations, and other massive commercial interests are increasingly the only places where music fans can see their favorite bands. One might say music fans are damned with them and damned without them.
2019 was a good year for Turkish music and 2020 is looking even better. A number of Turkish indie bands are releasing uncompromising music that has gained them an ever-growing following across the world. While the Turkish psych trend is in full swing, other bands are building a global fan-base without having to play up their Turkishness.