Sometime in the last decade Turkey became the world’s second largest exporter of television shows, particularly soap operas. According to a report Turkish soap opera exports went up from only $10,000 in 2004 to $200 million in 2012. Many people I meet around the world ask if I know this or that character from a Turkish soap that I’ve never heard of. I once tried to watch the Muhteşem Yüzyıl, (The Magnificent Century) about the life of Sultan Süleyman, the greatest ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Its episodes, which often last over two hours, feature many scenes where two lovers stare at each other for minutes on end to melancholic music as palace rules prevent them from expressing their love through touching.
As Turkish soaps become the talk of the world, academics argue the extent to which they increase Turkey’s soft power in the Middle East and the Balkans, where the shows have been particularly popular, though I wonder how much influence can bad actors staring at one another have even if they are popular. Either way, I hadn’t realized that globalization had brought Turkish “telenovelas” all the way to Colombia, making them one of the few things the average person on the street knows about Turks.
I made this discovery in Taganga while doing my laundry after I returned there for the second time. I had just completed the 4-day hike to Ciudad Perdida, during which we had walked for an average of six to eight hours everyday to reach the abandoned city of Teyuna hidden among the trees and Kogi villages of the Sierra Nevada. While everyone in our group decided to go to Santa Marta in order to plan for their next destination, I had no intention of rushing anywhere with my blistered feet and swollen legs. So I headed straight to a hammock in Taganga.
The first time around I had spent the days waking up early to go scuba diving and the evenings literally hanging out from one of Casa de Felipe’s many hammocks scattered around the hostel’s patio. I didn’t even want to leave the hostel for dinner as other seemingly “stuck” hostel residents would congregate by the hostel’s restaurant run by Chef Dominique, who cooked delicious fillet mignon. There was a certain charm to this tiny town that I couldn’t figure out—it had me coming back to Taganga and Casa de Felipe. Hammocks, steak, wine, and good company! Why would anyone leave? My only complaint was the jet-lagged rooster that screamed at odd hours and the stray chickens that roamed into the hostel from the nearby fields.
So when I returned to Taganga with a bag filled with more sweat and soil than clothes, the first order of businesses was some serious washing. I went to drop off my laundry with the family that lived in a shack next to the hostel. The husband had cut open his big toe and was eager to share with me the stitches. As his wife weighed my clothes, she had me sit in front of her husband, who like a baby with a booboo told me about his trip to the clinic to get his wound mended. When I told them of my Turkish origins, they became excited. Apparently their new favorite show was the Turkish soap Binbir Gece, (1001 nights). Unfortunately, I couldn’t partake in their evaluation of the latest episode but they were happy to fill me in anyway. They told me to come back for my clothes the next morning, I wished the husband fast healing, and said “hasta mañana.”
I wondered what made these soaps so popular all around the world. The story lines of these insufferable television shows and movies have one thing in common: forbidden or impossible love affairs that provide the melodrama so ingrained in this culture. Unlike the feel-good romantic dramas of Hollywood, Turkish television has no problem with unhappy endings that leaves lovers inconsolable due to unbelievable ills that come between them. Before Turkish soaps started crossing oceans, it was Mexican telenovelas that were on Turkish TV screens. As a kid, I was obsessed with Las Tres Marias that earned the Mexican soap star Thalía the title of “Queen of the Soap Operas.”
Back then the Turkish equivalent of the Mexican telenovela was Yeşilçam movies. These classic Turkish movies had a similar allure to like the world-trotting soaps of today. I haven’t watched Turkish movies or Mexican telenovelas in almost two decades, but my childhood binges on everything melodrama must have earned me a PhD in classic Turkish cinema at the ripe age of eleven. As a child living in Istanbul, I used to sit on our carpeted floor and watch one film after the other from a 13-inch television.
One particular movie that kept me motionless on that carpet, staring at that frozen last scene, was a movie which ended with the two lovers’ death. To the soundtrack of a heart-rending melody, the separated lovers run towards one another in slow motion, joyous with their eyes locked in the closing distance, when they are shot with two ruthless bullets. The camera then focuses on a bird-eye view of their bodies laying on the ground, hands only half a meter apart. Almost together in death, but not quite. As the camera zooms out, the screen displays “Son” (the End).
I remember my father shake his head with disappointment when he saw me lost in these stories of desolate lovers. “I can’t believe you watch this shit!” he would say to pull me away from my daze. Eventually I grew out of my phase of melodramatic TV and into entered that of a pissed of teenager listening to Nirvana on a Walkman. Alas the memory of feeling crushed in seeing the word Son appear on the screen is still vivid.
According to Sandra Cisneros, one of my favorite writers, “only societies that have undergone the tragedy of a revolution and a newer century of inept political leadership could love with such passion the telenovela, storytelling at its very best since it has the power of a true Scheherazade—it keeps you coming back for more.” She wrote that as a footnote to the title of a chapter in Caramelo called “A Scene in Hospital that Resembles a Telenovela When in Actuality Its the Telenovelas that Resemble This Scene.” The argument has some merit; in order to believe the authenticity of such unbelievable circumstances that prevent lovers from happiness, one must have faced it themselves. And we love what we know: drama.
But not only do we love our drama, we love to love with drama. We love the cliché of impossible relationships. Not too long ago I ended an affair that lasted on and off for five months. Unlike the Mexican telenovela or the Turkish soap with their ridiculous plot twists, our plot was simple—guy who doesn’t want a relationship, girl who falls for the guy, engrossed with the obsession to have that which cannot be had. Nevertheless, the melodrama was in full force in the spirit of true soap opera writing: our relationship was like living a classic Turkish movie, theatrical to the point of utter kitsch. Some scenes included cursing and crying in the streets of Tel Aviv. Others, I am ashamed to admit, included minutes of staring. The relationship had become so ridiculous that about two months into the whole thing, my friends refused to listen to my lamentations, rolling their eyes when I declared “that’s it I deleted his number, I am not seeing him again!”
Months later, as I lay in my hammock in Taganga away from all the theatrics, my clothes soiled with Colombian earth were getting soaked in soap water to the soundtrack of Turkish soap operas. When I went to pick them up the next day, I saw that my shirts were still hanging from the clothesline in the back. The lady was sitting barefoot, her eyes glued to the small television’s grainy screen, engrossed with a telenovela of origins unknown to me. She told me to sit next to her while her husband—seemingly back on his feet—took down and folded my clothes. We chatted for a while, mainly about their roof that needed fixing. Then out of the blue, the wife leaped out of her chair and dunk a piece of cloth in one of the buckets filled with soap water they use to wash the laundry.
“You got chicken shit on your foot,” she said and kneeled down to wipe it. Before I had a chance to digest what was happening, her husband handed me the clean bag of laundry with a big smile. I wobbled back next door with my swollen feet, freshly wiped clean, and found an empty hammock.
P.S. I couldn’t trace down the name of the above mentioned film despite my hour-long youtube foraging but my search did take me down a path of nostalgia to rediscover some gems like “Selvi Boylum Al Yazmalım” (The girl with red scarf) and “Kırık Bir Aşk Hikayesi” – (The story of a broken love affair).
Cisneros just published her new book – A House of my Own, Stories from my Life. Can’t wait to check it out.