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How the Gulf Fell in Love with Turkish Cinema

In 2022, “Bergen,” a Turkish biopic based on the life story of the namesake singer, was released in Turkey and across the Gulf. Depicting Turkish singer Belgin Sarilmiser’s meteoric rise from a talented cello player to an Arabesque icon before her tragic death, the movie includes themes of female empowerment, social conflict, and misogyny. Upon its release, it immediately broke box-office records across the Gulf countries, becoming the most widely-watched Turkish movie in the Middle East in less than five weeks.

Last month, I watched the movie in Kuwait with a large Gulf audience, most of whom knew almost nothing about Bergen’s life. Bergen had to face an insurmountable set of hurdles in her life as she struggled to continue performing despite enduring a violent relationship with a partner determined to sabotage her life. In 1981, during an eight-month gig at a venue in the southern province of Adana, she met her future husband. However, after she refused to stop performing to conform with his ideas of “family values,” their relationship turned toxic, and he abused her, beat her, and arranged for an assassin to pour nitric acid on her head, disfiguring her face and costing her sight in one eye. After she recovered, Bergen started to wear an eyepatch that was covered by wisps of blonde hair, which became a strong symbol of patriarchal violence. In spite of these difficulties, she continued to perform, becoming a strong figure against patriarchy and femicide in Turkey. However, in the summer of 1989, she was stalked and killed by her then-ex-husband outside of Adana. During her life, Bergen recorded three albums and over 120 songs; she is today known as Turkey’s ‘queen of arabesque’—a type of music focusing on longing, melancholy, and strife.

Bergen has caused a cinematic splash in the Gulf countries. After having debuted across the region in mid-June, the movie has since amassed over 370,000 admissions, and according to Dubai-based exhibitor and distributor Vox Cinemas, it now gleamingly stands as “the most successful Turkish movie in the Middle East in recent memory.” The film has also “made history” as the first Turkish film ever released in Saudi Arabia, where Turkish media have been largely absent following a 2018 deterioration in relations between Ankara and Riyadh. Bergen’s poster was put on the biggest screen in the Vox cinema at Riyadh, indicating that it was the most watched movie; it is currently screening in cinemas in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.

Why the Movie Matters

In two and a half hours, the movie sheds light on a range of contemporary social issues: the gender divide in the traditionally conservative Middle East, violence, femicide, and moral conflicts. Thirty years after Bergen’s murder, femicide continues to be a bleeding wound in Turkey; despite the presence of laws to fight femicides, hundreds of Turkish women die every year at the hands of their husbands and partners. At least 226 women have been murdered in Turkey so far in 2022, and 425 in 2021, according to the “We Will Stop Femicide Platform,” a Turkish NGO. Fatma Abbas, a former civil servant, claimed that the movie “shows how women, in a bid to keep their heads above water, could stand firm against all societal challenges and pursue their dreams. She [Bergen] is an inspiration to the women in Gulf society.”

The fact that 37 percent of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, according to a United Nations report, could be one reason for the surprise success of the movie. Repeated surveys have shown that a significant number of women in the Gulf have been subjected to physical, sexual and psychological violence throughout their lives—violence that Gulf state institutions have historically done little to address. The murder of women at the hand of their male counterparts has been an untreated and growing pattern lately in the Gulf due to the ineffectiveness and poor enforcement of anti-misogyny laws. For instance, according to a 2018 study, gender-based violence is widespread in Kuwait, affecting 53.1 percent of women.

Throughout the movie, the name of the murderer was never mentioned. Even in the credits, the space next to actor Erdal Besikcioglu, who played the murderer’s role, was left blank. His name was shown only once, at the very end of the film: it noted that “The name of the murderer is HALIS SERBEST.” Serbest, who fled to Germany in 1989 before being caught and returned to Turkey, was initially sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but only served seven months before he was set free. Fatma Bint Hussein, a Gulf media expert, claimed that Gulf women were frustrated to learn that the murderer was imprisoned for only a few months and remained unapologetic about killing Bergen after his release. “Gulf audiences stormed Instagram to find the account of this murderer,” she said. “They sent messages [saying,] ‘You are a killer and you don’t deserve to be out!’”

Throughout the movie, the violence inflicted on Bergen was never romanticized; her murderer’s actions were never depicted as crimes of passion, but as deliberate acts of misogynistic violence. When asked what actually influenced her in the movie, one Kuwaiti watcher observed that movies made in the Gulf often ran up against the implicit boundaries of social mores, hampering their ability to truly portray real situations. “Turkish movies reflect reality,” she said.

For Gulf viewers, Turkish drama series enjoy a second advantage over Mexican telenovelas and American hit shows. The proximity between the Gulf and Turkish societies means that the subjects of Turkish shows are much closer to the lived experiences of Gulf audiences than shows written and set halfway around the world. The same viewer praised the “appealing” storylines of Turkish series, noting that they were “based on real family stories [and] don’t look fictional like the American series.”

Life Imitates Art

Today, with Arabic subtitles, Turkish dramas—or dizi, as they are called in Turkish—have become a must-see throughout the Gulf. The big boom came in 2006, when MBC, an Arabic-language channel, bought the rights to the Turkish soap opera “Gümüş” (called “Noor,” or “light,” in Arabic), a Kanal D production that received little attention in Turkey in 2005. However, against all expectations, “Gümüş” became a massive hit throughout the Middle East, with audience figures reaching 85 million—or roughly one-fourth of the entire Arab world—for the series finale. Turkish soap operas not only increased curiosity about Turkish culture and values but was one of the major factors behind a boost in Gulf tourism to Turkey over the last two decades.

Turkish soap operas have also propelled a new interest in the Turkish language. At the theater, I was surprised to see a Turkish movie screening in a Gulf cinema, but what surprised me more was to observe how many Arab viewers were able to understand the Turkish language without following the Arabic subtitles. “I watched Bergen without following the Arabic subtitles. I learned Turkish four years ago by watching Turkish movies and soap operas,” said Mariam Dashti, a student. “I consider Turkish culture close to me. I admire the way how the themes such as family and women rights are discussed in the recent Turkish movies and soap operas.”

In the past, it was unrealistic to think that Turkish movies or series could achieve great success in the Gulf region, especially because of the language barrier. As a Turkish citizen born and raised in Kuwait, I never encountered a Turkish movie screened in a cinema or series watched in Kuwaiti houses. The success of “Bergen” throughout the Arab world seems to perfectly reflect this change. “When you write the biography of a friend,” wrote novelist Gustav Flaubert, “you must do it as if you were taking revenge for her.” “Bergen” has definitely achieved this goal.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Sinem Cengiz is a Research Assistant at Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University and Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. She is a Turkish researcher with a focus on Gulf affairs, and Turkey’s relations with the broader Middle East. She is a regular columnist for Arab News and the author of the book “Turkish-Saudi relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East.” Sinem is born and raised in Kuwait and currently based in Doha. She tweets at @SinemCngz

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