Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
I A Rehman
Navid Shahzad: Aslan’s Roar: Turkish Television and the rise of the Muslim Hero (Sang-e-Meel, Lahore, 2019)
Aslan’s Roar, Navid Shahzad’s 419-page study of Turkish TV content, mainly serialised drama, probably had its origin in the discovery that Turkish TV content export had within a decade surpassed all countries except the US, earning for the country $ 350 million in 2017. This realisation raised a series of questions: what had made Turkish TV drama popular in different parts of the world? What images of Turkey, its society and the Turkish man were these dramas projecting?
Navid Shahzad has produced an extremely well structured work. The first question she answers is: why should the TV products of Turkey be discussed? The answer is that firstly, “television in particular, due to its intrusive nature, has proven to be a catalyst for bringing about rapid changes in societies by shaping the aspirations of ordinary people.” And, secondly, “Turkey’s dizeleris have changed perceptions about the country itself and Muslims in general, while simultaneously recasting the image of the ‘hero’ in TV narratives.”
In the chapter titled “Apologia”, the author describes her discovery of notable Turkish poets, especially Nazim Hikmat, and similarities between him and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, her study of Turkish concepts of masculinity and feminism and several writers’ discussions on political and socioeconomic realities. This chapter also refers to her own experiences as a teacher and her pursuit of knowledge in various disciplines, as if to establish her qualification to produce this remarkable study. Normally such biographical notes are not considered necessary as the writers’ qualifications can be found in their work and the present writer’s qualifications can indeed be gauged from this book. Perhaps a brief portrait of the writer was considered necessary in the present case because the author was writing about a people she didn’t belong to.
In the chapter titled “History and Imagined Past”, the author conducts a most stimulating discussion on the battle of ideas that began in Turkey more than 200 years ago with the search for the causes of the Ottoman Empire’s decline. These debates were started by religious reformers, secular politicians and young military strategists, and finally by Ataturk. In these debates the Turkish scholars have refined their ideas on masculinity and feminism and their decision to prefer secularism to religiosity. That the tendency to strengthen Turkish nationalism by glorifying the rise of the Ottoman Empire has not disappeared can be verified from the phenomenal success of the serial Deliris Ertugral, revolving around the campaigns by Osman’s father. He fights the Crusaders, the Mongols and Byzantine forces in Anatolia in a manner that appeals to revanchist politicians from Erdogan to Imran Khan. However, a clearer statement is made by modernist producers who “reverse the popular image of Arabs and Muslims (and one is tempted to add Pakistanis) as villains while emphasising that it is entirely possible to be a self-confident, powerful and modern Muslim.”
After viewing one hundred serials, Navid Shahzad selects Olene Kadar, a 13-part serial telecast in 2017, for a comprehensive review/analysis, and devotes to it nine essays spread over little more than half of the book. Using her vast knowledge of philosophy, literature, culture and visual arts, she discusses the screenplay, theme, direction, characterisation, actors’ performances and the whole serial in these essays.
The author takes up the important situations in Olene Kadar and analyses their treatment in different national contexts. For instance, Olene Kadar opens with Daghan’s return to his home after spending 11 years in prison. What homecoming means and how it has been treated in literature and arts in different parts of the world is discussed at length. Similar is the treatment of another situation – discovery of a lost child. While dealing with such sub-themes, Navid Shahzad draws upon her knowledge of literature and cultural practices in different parts of the world, especially Pakistan.
There is a remarkable discussion on the tragic hero as presented in Greek classical drama, the Elizabethan period, and down to the present. And then the author observes:
“Consequently, it is in the tragic hero that we see the flaws that we ourselves have; his vulnerability becomes our own, just as his hopes and desires are adopted by us.” She could have also taken the example of the tragic hero in Indian films made in the years immediately after independence. Millions of people identified themselves with the tragic hero because they had been cheated out of the fruits of freedom and their lives had become extended tragedies.
Extremely interesting and absorbing is the discussion on the impact on Turkey’s TV dramas of the various national narratives – the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, the reformists’ agenda, some of which was endorsed by Allama Iqbal, and the Kemalist ideals of civilisation that included secularism and gender justice. Despite all the changes brought about in the Turkish people’s culture and social behaviour, the question of choosing between being a Muslim or a modern person is still alive. Many in the Turkish TV industry are opting for a third way, i.e. they are Muslim and modern. After reminding the readers that everything in Turkey is touched by the lion (aslan) symbol , Navid Shahzad sums up her study in these words:
“While the Turkish aslan continues to travel far and wide across cultures, languages and religious beliefs, the metaphor is constantly forcing global TV platforms to sit up and take note of the Turk in whom ‘life has begun to move, change and amplify, giving birth to new desires, bringing new difficulties and suggesting new interpretations’. In the construction of a new image of the modern Muslim hero racing to overtake time tested market leaders, Turkish TV drama series appear to have reversed the rules of the hunt. It is now the hunter’s turn to be hunted.”