Once, during a conversation with friends, I referred to the
region around the Persian Gulf as mid-west. Someone corrected me: “The middle
east, you mean.” I didn’t argue that the Gulf is west or that, from our
perspective, the middle east would be Indonesia or the Philippines. My friends
may acknowledge that this is true, but it is also true that we are no longer
guided by our own compass. When they say “east coast” or “west coast”, I know
they’re talking about the USA although we’ve got plenty of coast in India. It
is America that defines for us where the sun rises and sets.
I am no fan of
beheadings. I’m the viewer who shuts her eyes in movie theatres when the hero
starts to smash the villain’s face. I like watching beautiful men on horseback.
Even so, I’d never have settled into a hundred-episode binge featuring such men
had the carrot of history not been dangled before my nose. Instead of the usual
disclaimer—“based on historical events, all characters are imaginary” etcetera—Resurrection:
Ertugrul begins with a firm assertion: “This is our history”.
The events described in this Turkish series on Netflix are impossible to verify but they do emerge from a kernel of history. The show follows the adventures of the Kayi tribe and one of its leaders, Ertugrul, who was the father of the first Ottoman ruler, Osman.
The nomadic Kayi raised sheep, hunted, traded in woollen rugs and cloth woven and dyed by women. In the 13th century, they swore allegiance to the Seljuk Sultan, Alaeddin, who called upon their alps (soldiers or braves) whenever necessary. At the start of the first season, the Kayi have already fought the Mongols who are at the height of their power and pose a serious threat to the Seljuks. Making matters worse is a drought. Winter looms and the tribe must migrate, but where to?
Ertugrul and a band of three alps especially devoted to him are out hunting when they come upon a party of Templar knights escorting a captive Seljuk prince and his children. The daughter, Halime, is to be raped as punishment for trying to escape when the alps show up. From the moment the arrow leaves Ertugrul’s bow, it is apparent to us that he and the princess will fall in love and his protection of the royal family will lead the tribe into tumult.
The Kayi navigate a political minefield dotted with Seljuks, Ayyubids, Abbasids, Fatimids, Roman Catholics, Greeks, other Oguz tribes. Meanwhile, the Templar Grandmaster plots another round of Crusades. To this end, he uses mind-altering potions, tortures prisoners in dungeons and disseminates plagues. The Mongols too are shown as ruthless, sparing neither women nor babies. A Seljuk commander is depicted as an unworthy brute and Oguz Turks are not a superior specimen of humanity. They backstab and poison, and are constantly selling each other out. The tribe’s survival depends on the strength, wisdom and morality of the bey (chief).
Each episode features at least one sword fight if not three, an ambush or an assassination, and there are only so many minutes of men riding horses across grassy slopes that one can watch. What kept me hooked was the embedded social history: the manners of a nomad tent, negotiations for pasture lands, moral codes governing bloodshed, the headgear, armour, socks, rugs, fabrics, spoons, poetry, dancing and legends. This may not be history in the sense of it being an accurate portrayal of Turkish life in the 13th century, but it is a glimpse into the contemporary Turkish imagination.
The world these characters inhabit is an intensely cosmopolitan one. The bazaars, inns, port towns are melting pots of race and civilisation. Watching, I felt something shifting. It was the stone of cultural imperialism and it weighed a few centuries.
The women in the show are shown to be confident. They ride, use swords, shoot arrows, and can negotiate with male traders. The only woman shown to wear a face veil is a Templar spy. Men, on the other hand, are often in hoods, hiding their faces. Clothes are linked not just to group identity but also to personhood. Graves, for instance, are marked by a deceased man’s hat.
I was also surprised to see the rudiments of democracy in the show. Women are excluded but on all critical matters, a council votes. The beys raise hands to support a particular candidate or to settle an important matter like migration routes. It is significant because democracy did not exist in England and European kingdoms in the 13th century. Whether or not medieval Turks practised a form of micro-democracy, it is significant that contemporary Turkish writers and producers prefer them to have the vote.
he bones of Turks have fertilised Indian soil for over a thousand years. While Ertugrul was looking for land to graze sheep, Delhi was ruled by sultans of Turkish origin. Among them was Razia, a rare female monarch, though she wasn’t allowed to keep the throne very long. There was resistance from other nobles, partly on account of her being a woman and partly, legend has it, because she favoured an Abyssinian soldier.
As a child, I had thrilled to the story of a powerful, warrior woman on the throne of Delhi but had never wondered about who her ancestors were. I had not thought of medieval Turks as nomads, casting about in whirlpools of contested nationalities. In the modern Indian imagination—especially the Hindutva narrative—Turks are seen as usurpers of power, lumped with Persians, Chagtais and Mongols like Changez Khan who was the Oguz Turks’ biggest foe. Through watching Resurrection: Ertugrul, I began to see them as landless tribes whose only chance at life was a strong sword arm.
The world these characters inhabit is an intensely cosmopolitan one. The bazaars, inns, port towns are melting pots of race and civilisation. The actors come in all shades of brown, reflective of the mixed Greek, Roman, Armenian, Arab, Assyrian and Moroccan ancestry in the region. Watching them I felt something shifting but it took me about a hundred episodes to understand what it was. It was the stone of cultural imperialism and it weighed a few centuries.
The actors’ gestures, bodies, even the language does not feel very foreign. I read the English subtitles but my ear receives the dialogue as if it were Hindi, which includes a fair sprinkling of Turkish and Persian. Fitna (trouble), for instance, is familiar to me through Urdu poetry, as is Ashk (love) which has turned into “Ishq” in its journey east. So is “adalat” which means justice but in Hindi, refers to a court of law. ‘Leykin’ (but) is another common word that has been used to great dramatic effect in the show: You can take the man I love, but! ... You can take this matter to headquarters, but!
The idea of brown heroes pitted against white tyrants was not unfamiliar to Indian viewers. Hindi movies set in the 19th and 20th centuries showed the villainy of white imperialists. However, growing up in the 1980s, my cultural diet had been a saccharine-grease mix of Bollywood, government-funded television soaps, American films like Sound of Music, with a ration of foreign shows like Santa Barbara, Bold and the Beautiful, Small Wonder, Spiderman on the side.
A newly independent India aligned with developing nations rather than colonising ones. The leaders kept a cautious distance from the USA while being cordial towards Britain. Cultural and trade links with the Soviet Union were more robust and we grew up reading translations of Russian literature. Russian heroes, though, were also white, and didn’t do anything to explain race or the colonial enterprise.
Our awareness of the greater world was minimal—everything between Bombay and Britain was an indistinct blob in our minds. Millions of South Asians worked in the Gulf but we didn’t know its history.
In the 1990s, government controls over the economy loosened, and foreign (American and British) goods began to flood Indian markets. All families that could afford it were already sending their children to English medium schools where they were exposed to British and American literature. We also started watching foreign (American and English) content on TV, where brown faces remained in the background. These characters often struggled to fit into the larger ‘white’ culture.
Over the years, our cultural politics changed. There were denunciations of “western culture” from the conservative corner. There were protests against Miss India contests but the contests were held anyway. Indian high schools don’t have prom night but we all knew what prom was. We watched the Oscars’ show and we understood all the jokes. We heard Boyzone and Spice Girls. Through MTV, X-Men, Friends, Archie, Marvel superhero comics, Coke, McDonalds and KFC, America had stepped into our living rooms.
We also watched Indian content which included religious epics and stories about love or drugs on campus. However, our awareness of the greater world was minimal—everything between Bombay and Britain was an indistinct blob in our minds. Millions of South Asians worked in the Gulf but we didn’t know its history. We read about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the newspapers mentioned the decade long Iran-Iraq war before that. But we didn’t know how Iraq and Kuwait came to be on the map.
All I knew about Turkey was a couple of lines in my history textbook: The Indian struggle for independence was entwined with the Khilafat movement, which opposed British attempts to strip the Caliph of all power. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defeated colonisers and made it a secular nation.
In fiction, I read about King Arthur, Joan of Arc, Papal politics. I read about the Crusades and knew that these were wars fought between Christian knights and Muslim hordes. The knights, I thought of as vaguely noble: knight in shining armour; knight to the rescue of damsel in distress; knight on a white horse; people “knighted” after great achievements. The Muslim hordes, I thought of as... The truth is, I did not think about the Muslims at all.
am an Indian Muslim. Rightist political outfits never fail to remind citizens that our forebears either came from elsewhere—Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan—or were converted to Islam. The implication is that we do not belong to the land and if we stay, we must resign ourselves to whatever form of citizenship is doled out to us. It isn’t an implication really. Elected representatives have said it aloud: that Muslims who don’t feel safe here, or non-Muslim critics of the government, can go to Pakistan. Those who speak of women’s rights in India are told to be grateful that they aren’t in Saudi Arabia instead.
The Christians and Mongols warriors in the show are also religious. The word ‘jehadi’ may not be used for Christians but that’s exactly what the Templars were: men trained to kill in the name of faith. War, the show seems to suggest, is inseparable from the faith of the warriors.
In such times, few of us are likely to take a sympathetic
view of Turks and Mongols trying to survive the 13th century. But a few months
ago, a journalist tweeted a recommendation for Resurrection: Ertugrul on
Netflix, saying it might interest his Muslim friends. My back went up at once.
A show was either good or it wasn’t, why qualify the recco? Before I put out a
scathing tweet in response, however, I decided to check out the show.
I now understand why the journalist felt that, despite good production values and a decent script, the show’s appeal would be limited to Muslims. There is some undeniable cringe in it. I squirmed when Mongol soldiers were shown drinking blood as part of shamanic rites (I made the mistake of going online to check for the veracity of such practices and found a mischievous, anonymous article in Hindi which claims that Mongols didn’t just drink animal blood but also ate humans). And if you went looking for gentle, noble knights, you’d be looking a long time. The Templars are pictured as a disciplined army who can barely wait for the Pope’s blessings to destroy innocent lives, and the Catholic clergy is shown as corrupt.
The resistance of the Kayi is shown as being tinted with religious faith. Ertrugrul and his friends battle “infidels”, sometimes translated in the subtitles as “non-Muslim”. Each time I saw that I winced, not least because these characters are not bigots in the sense of wanting to kill adherents of a different religion. They battle other Muslims as frequently. They are shown to say their prayers, usually in moments of crisis, but the Kayi are not fanatics. Ibn Arabi, one of the legends of the time, has been written into the script as a Sufi wandering through Anatolia. He too helps Ertugrul to survive, guiding him through dreams because he sees a man with the potential to restore Islamic political power at a time when it was already starting to crumble. This is obviously not a worthy motivation to modern, secular eyes.
On the other hand, the Christians and Mongols warriors in the show are also religious. The word ‘jehadi’ may not be used for Christians but that’s exactly what the Templars were: men trained to kill in the name of faith. War, the show seems to suggest, is inseparable from the faith of the warriors.
I wonder how the show would have turned out if it had been made in English and intended for an international audience. Would Americans and Europeans be able to see Ertugrul as a hero?
No reason why they shouldn’t. Ertugrul is a template hero: a good soldier, incorruptible, and inclined to follow the law. Enemies are given a trial. Until their punishment is decided, they are imprisoned. Unless treachery is proven, a Kayi may not shed the blood of his tribesman. Ertugrul follows these rules. He is loyal to his wife and doesn’t hurt women. He respects scholars. Above all, he never gives up. He is, in short, the fantasy of all nations: a fearless, virile leader who is mindful of tradition but has one eye on the future.
esurrection: Ertugrul is refreshing for another reason. The Western colonial gaze is absolutely inverted. The Kayi speak Turkish in the show, of course, but so do their enemies. The Templars and Mongols speak Turkish, just as Arab, Indian and Chinese characters speak English in American movies, and like Irish or Scottish characters speak thickly accented English in historical dramas instead of Gaelic or Scots.
Developing nations now produce a good number of films and television dramas, but we can rarely access each others’ stories without the intervention of western corporations. International content on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime remains predominantly American. A search for “Iran” on Netflix and the suggestions thrown up include House of Cards, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. There is some Turkish content available but it is not promoted the way a Narcos or The Crown would be.
Our government also perpetuates the cultural hegemony of the “West”. It does little to encourage the purchase of Nigerian, Chinese or Iranian content on state networks. Private networks can’t be bothered with sub-titling or the expense of dubbing shows. A handful of dubbed Turkish dramas have been broadcast on Indian television networks. Watching them, it is easy to forget the Muslim-ness of Turkey. These are not historical shows. They don’t place faith in a geopolitical context. Our broadcasters pick shows about family intrigue and the love lives of the well heeled, which are more or less like the lives of their counterparts in London or New York.
Erdogan wins elections. Some of us think the elections might be rigged. Compared to India, the food, education, healthcare policies make life in Turkey better for the poor and even the lower-middle class. So, why are we nervous about Erdogan?
Indians have watched hundreds of movies and shows about the Jewish holocaust and both the World Wars, but there was little in our popular consciousness about Gallipoli, Nanking, Armenia and Cambodia. We don’t feel the terror, the endless ache of those events. The tragedies of the Turks and the Cambodians are not part of our inner lives because they didn’t play out in our living rooms. We saw the bombing of Pearl Harbour from the American point of view. We don’t see Saigon from the Vietnamese point of view. We definitely don’t see the Crusades from the Muslim point of view.
Millennials have grown up watching more American content than generations past. With the coming of Netflix, young Indians could consume almost exclusively Western culture if they chose to, and indeed, many are choosing to. In the course of conducting creative writing workshops for undergraduates, I have found students to be linguistically diverse. Yet, the stories they write are not. The characters are often called ‘Mary’ or ‘John’, with a smattering of ‘Marco’ and even ‘Pepe’. The settings for their stories are London, Paris, or a fantasy land reminiscent of Romania.
In an attempt to get them to think of brown lives, I began to set down rules: their stories had to be set in their home towns. The students groaned, but came around. Now their stories were local but the power of cultural exposure was greater than either of us could have imagined. One bright young man wrote a story that involved a child confronting a crisis at home. While calling the police, the boy in the story dialled 911. The police emergency number in India is 100.
In another class, I attempted a word association exercise. I wrote down ‘Wanted’ on the board. Some of the students said ‘Crime’ and ‘criminal’ as associated words. One girl blurted out ‘Muslim’. I turned around to find the girl covering her mouth with her hands, embarrassed at the prejudice inadvertently betrayed.
hen we meet, my friends talk of Game of Thrones, Narcos, Breaking Bad. I sometimes wish we could discuss Resurrection: Ertugrul instead. I want to talk to someone about how closely 13th century politics resembles the news of the day.
Some of my friends have vacationed in Turkey. I asked them what it’s like. Wonderful, they said, so far. But with Edrogan in charge, they don’t know if it will last. Journalists and critics of the regime are in prison. That’s always a bad sign. Besides, we keep reading about Erdogan’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen as a terrorist outfit.
Erdogan wins elections though. Some of us think the elections might be rigged. Others are not so sure. Compared to India, the food, education, healthcare policies make life in Turkey better for the poor and even the lower-middle class. So, why are we nervous about Erdogan?
The USA doesn’t like Erdogan. But then, the USA did go on and on about chemical weapons in Iraq and what a big fat lie that turned out to be. So, then, how should we, sitting in India, be talking about Turkey?
Q. Now that the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan
has wiped out anywhere between 500,000 and 600,000 people, most of them Muslim,
can we begin to call it a religious war?
A. No, we can’t. We still call it a war on terror.
Q. Where are the other wars on terror?
A. Look for brown or black skin, a beard, a cap that suggests Muslim, a mother tongue other than English.
don’t like religion mixing with politics. Still, one thing Ertugrul taught me is to reverse the gaze, to ask the other question. Forget Turkey’s secular credentials for a moment and ask who is truly secular?
American presidents must go to church if they want to win elections. Putin has tried to gain the support of the Russian Orthodox church. Theresa May’s father was a clergyman and she goes to church. Emmanuel Macron doesn’t mind flirting with the Catholic church. Yet, we don’t have a word for Christian politicians who present themselves as believers while seeking the support of other believers. We don’t have a word that captures the fears of Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus nervous in places where they are a minority. A word that resembles “Islamist”.
We don’t have a pop vocabulary to discuss this. Perhaps it is impossible to develop such a vocabulary in English. There is too much fudging of intent, too much innuendo.
After World War I, Britain, France and other allies swooped in to seize and split up Ottoman territory. Pay attention to the word: Allies. It stands for the good guys in both World Wars. Germany had allies but having lost the war, it also lost control over that word. Nobody else gets to claim “allies”, except the Allies.
While carving up Turkey, the Allies claimed they were motivated by the need to protect Christian minorities. This decision, however, is not described as a religious mandate. The British and French leaders’ concern for their co-religionists was cast as a human concern.
These Allies then gave themselves “mandates”. Another interesting word: a “mandate” is understood to be an order issued by a state authority, or an indication of the will of the people, as in “popular mandate”. But these mandates were not issued by the citizens who lived across Ottoman territory. One could ask: who authorised Britain and France to point to the map and declare that such-and-such area was their “mandate” and would henceforth be under their “influence”?
Certainly, the Turks who were fighting for independence were not asked to supply a mandate. There was no talk of democratic reform on the part of the Allies who were having to back off from the region. But they would not go before they converted their areas of “influence”—see how words work?—into a bunch of new nations: Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon. The region has not yet worked off any of the old “influences” but now the heavier “influence” of America is manifest.
While carving up Turkey, the Allies claimed they were motivated by the need to protect Christian minorities. There were millions of Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Christians as well as Jewish people living in the region. This decision, however, is not described as a religious mandate. The British and French leaders’ concern for their co-religionists was cast as a human concern. Much like the settling of European Jews in Palestine was cast as a humane act, as an act of justice. Meanwhile, despite the holocaust, European Nazis were never (as neo-Nazis are not) presented in popular discourse as marauding Christian hordes who were incapable of doing democracy right.
t is somewhat shaming to think of how long I’ve looked at the rest of the world through the lens of the “West”. All I know about Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for instance, is that he’s seen as an authoritarian leader with too much of a religious streak, but “too much” as per -?
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has denounced Erdogan as a butcher, a pawn of the USA, and accused him of being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan, in turn, has called Assad a terrorist. Now that Syria is such a mess, what do we call Assad?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has decided to treat Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. It had no problems with the group a few years ago. It was happy to have Brotherhood members come over and stay, until a few years ago when Turkey started cosying up to the group. The USA has always cosied up to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So, where are we?
We are now at Jamal Khashoggi. That name has become a thread that links KSA, Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, America. But what can an Indian say with any certainty about Khashoggi? All the news and analysis I read is sourced from American and British owned media. Al-Jazeera is the exception. It is based in Qatar. But Saudi Arabia doesn’t like Al-Jazeera and would have blockaded the little nation of Qatar successfully, were it not for Turkey.
There, that’s another trick word: blockade. Siege sounds too aggressive. Blockade sounds civilised. Just like “sanctions”. The starving of children on account of sanctions sounds a lot less aggressive than the starving of children through a siege. Slowly, I am coming to see what words do to frame our ideas about who is civilised, and who is a brute who deserves to be crushed.
once worked at a youth magazine aimed at teenagers and undergraduates. It often featured Hollywood actors and models on the cover. When Indian models were used, the clothes were never traditional Indian. British, American, Israeli musicians were featured. Deals were struck to enable the magazine to give away free movie tickets to Hollywood movies. All of this was meant to make it a “cool” magazine.
No Arabic or Turkish music was celebrated as cool. No Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan fashion models were featured. No Chinese or Turkish films were shown. Hindi films were not cool. There wasn’t even an appropriate word for “cool” in Hindi.
The women who worked for the magazine dressed in jeans, or skirts. The few days I wore sarees to work, someone was sure to ask: Is it a festival? Is it your birthday? Are you going to a wedding?
In those days, I’d have struggled to point out Syria or Yemen or Qatar on a map. I first took note of Syria only in 2008, when Bashar al-Assad was visiting New Delhi. His wife Asma had accompanied him, looking very much like a princess. Or rather, like the stereotype of a modern princess from the West. Asma came to a meeting at the Indian Women’s Press Club and she did not fit our stereotype of what a Muslim leader’s wife looks like. Her head was uncovered and her hair cut short. She was in a knee length, pleated dress that showed off her slender waist.
The roomful of journalists didn’t ask her any tough questions on gender equality or relations between various Gulf states. There was one question about headscarves. She smiled demurely, as if she’d been waiting for it, then pointed out that women across religious lines have traditionally worn scarves on their heads in her country. We were satisfied. I remember looking at her and thinking that Syria under Assad was probably headed in the right direction.
So utterly brainwashed was I into thinking of women in Western dresses as free, and no-knees-showing women as un-free that I did not think to question Asma about employment, healthcare, education budgets, or even the number of female ministers and women heading public institutions. This despite the fact that I constantly railed at dresses that entail an expensive, painful waxing regimen. Asma looked like a “first lady” and, being influenced by American movies and television, I didn’t expect her to rise above her appearance and clothes.
ust before Christmas, a bit of trivia starts doing the rounds on Whatsapp: Did you know that in Turkey, the turkey bird is called a “Hindi”? No, I didn’t know. Once I started reading up on West Asia, I discovered another factoid. Northern Africa—including Egypt and Morocco—was once called “Maghreb” or the distant west. For people who lived in the Persian Gulf region, that was as far west as they could think to go. From Ertugrul’s perspective, “middle west” would have been Italy, while India would have been the “middle east”.
Our view of Turkey has actually been “middle west” so far. It is half-way to the West and we have learnt to look at it with a mixture of suspicion and familiarity: an exotic place with hints of Arab and tints of Saxon. Is it still secular? Can its leadership be trusted?
I wonder if the Turkish view of India is a mirror image. Do Turks think of India as an exotic bird, perched cautiously between new and old, with big powers to the north and an ocean to the south that has blown in four millennia worth of “West”? Do they look at Indian actors and remark on the great diversity of skin palette?
Do Turkish kids read in their textbooks that India is a friendly nation, that a road in Delhi is named for Ataturk as a seal of our friendship? That India won independence from the British but was cruelly partitioned? Do the Turks send each other Whatsapp messages, asking: Do you know that the Hindi bird is actually from Hindustan?