A violent blood feud has erupted over who should be the man to marry a poor village girl and take her to the bright lights of Istanbul; a harem of beautiful women surround and attend to the every whim of rich businessman in the palatial surroundings of his house on the banks of the Bosphorus.

 

These scenarios are not real, nor do they necessarily reflect the reality of contemporary life in Istanbul or Ankara, but these are the racy plot lines that are drawing in tens of millions of viewers from Athens to Riyadh. The rise in popularity across the Arab world and Balkan countries has made Turkish soap operas a huge commercial success. It is a way for Turkey to export its culture of secularism and wealth to an audience dying to know more about its close neighbour. Arab viewers are fascinated with the shows because they purport to reveal how Turks, particularly Turkish women, handle modernity.

Some analysts believe the secret of the shows’ appeal lies behind the depiction of the kind of family life that the average Arab housewife longs for. The final episode of one particularly popular series, “Noor” – a soap portraying a modern married life of equal partnership – pulled in audience figures of 85 million, with over 50 million of those viewers reported to be female. The programme was nothing short of a phenomenon across the Arab world.

The shows are becoming so popular that they have largely contributed to Istanbul’s dramatic rise in Arab tourists – 250,000 Arab nationals are expected to holiday in Istanbul in 2013. Menus are being translated into Arabic and there is now visa free travel for nationals of Iraq, Syria and Jordan. There are tour operators that offer Turkish soap opera excursions along the Bosporus to see where the dramas are filmed, finishing up in a new shopping mall where they can purchase the merchandise.

The soaring popularity of these soap operas has also coincided with the dramatic rise of Turkish soft power in the region, which in turn is having an impact on how the next generation views their global alignment. According to a recent survey by the Pew Foundation,17 percent of Turks believe their country should look to Europe for inspiration, while 25 percent now think that Turkey’s future lies in the Middle East.

This photographic project takes a look at this unique and timely Turkish Cultural phenomenon. As summer approached and Arab tourists began flooding into the city the Gezi Park protests unfolded. As the TV soaps were in their final weeks of filming for the summer season, Istanbul was witnessing its’ own, very real, dramatic events. Thousands of young, secular Turks took to the streets to initially demonstrate against overzealous construction projects, but these rallies quickly grew to wide scale protests against a series of government-backed policies that were seen to curb civil liberties and promote Islamic conservatism. The worlds media descended onto Istanbul and streamed the breaking news 24 hours a day for most of the month of June. Meanwhile, the much maligned and pro government media decided not to report on it, broadcast wildlife documentaries or fail to grasp the enormity of the situation. It would seem that this revolution would not be televised. And yet it was, young, handsome, secular young Turks became the faces and news celebrities of the summer, playing out a huge, real life soap opera, in the centre of this ancient city. Tweeting, instagramming, vining, facebooking and live streaming their heroic battle for the airwaves, web clicks and opinion pages of the worlds media.

What’s clear is that, like it or not, television changes societies by shaping the aspirations of ordinary people. Over the last 80 years, Turkey’s state-enforced secularism and a heavy exposure to U.S. popular culture made Turkey infinitely more Western than its neighbours in everything from dress to politics to sexual mores. Now, as the Arab world finds itself in a similar period of flux, many television viewers are, consciously or not, looking to Turkey—not this time as resented Ottoman masters, but for a lifestyle that is both Muslim and modern.