The Prime minister of Pakistan would like Pakistanis to watch a phenomenally popular Turkish television series called Dirilis: Ertugrul.
Imran Khan has been seen on tape, not only recommending the popular serial but insisting all five seasons should be dubbed in Urdu so that the general public can watch and understand.
This may have come as a shock to the Pakistani drama and filmmakers, who only a few years back had been lobbying to ban or limit Turkish serials like Ask-I Memnu (Ishq-e-Mamnu or 'forbidden love') and Hurrem Sultan because their popularity threatened to destroy a nascent but still fragile Pakistani industry.
So why does a populist leader like Imran Khan, recommend a foreign television show?
The reason may lie in a much publicised, behind the scenes meeting, where Prime minister Khan met with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad at UNGA.
The idea of an English language channel to counter the rising problems of Islamophobia and the very serious misconceptions about Islam and Muslims at an international level was floated by the three leaders.
An action adventure serial full of sword fights, Dirilis is based on stories of the Muslim Oghuz Turks, fighting invading Mongols, Christian Byzantines and the fanatic Knights Templar Crusaders in Anatolia (now modern-day Turkey) of the 12th century.
To put the timeline into context, Zaheer Uddin Babur, the founder of the great Mughal empire first reached Lahore in 1524. In 1258, Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad, the great Abbasid capital of the Caliph Haroun Rashid, washing its streets with blood and turning the river Tigris black with the ink of countless priceless books.
Often described as a 'Turkish Game of Thrones', Dirilis has a vast and obsessive worldwide fan following in 60 plus countries. Apart from diaspora Muslims in the west, the show has gained sweeping popularity in the Middle East, South Africa and surprisingly in South America.
Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Madura is an avid fan and was seen happily wearing the hat of a Turkish warrior or Alp on a recent visit to the sets.
The writer and creator of Dirilis, Mehmet Bozdag is an acclaimed filmmaker with links to Turkeys conservative ruling AKP party, and it is his ability to combine a deeper message of traditional Islamic beliefs with the swashbuckling story of a hero fighting against all odds that is the heart of its success.
High quality production values, talented actors who take their roles very seriously and a director that knows how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats in each episode, you can see why it’s an addictive combination.
The fights are a special feature and the producers spared no expense, using a famous Hollywood stunt team called NOMAD to train the actors and coordinate each clash with the bad guys
Set at the crossroads of empires, the show focuses on the figure of Ertugrul Ghazi, his family and friends.
Talking about this character, actor Engin Altan Duzyaten has said, "He was the father of Osman Gazi, founder of Ottoman Empire, which ruled the world for 600 years. And, actually, we do not have too much sources about that era. Our sources are just about 7 pages. We know that he was a real hero. For him, the limits were not an obstacle.“
Duzyatan himself is another key to the success of this serial, with only a few pages to go by the actor has created a memorable character, whom audiences root for no matter what background. Surprisingly non-Muslims are also great fans of Ertugrul, setting aside any cultural bias to enjoy the show for pure entertainment.
Muslims are usually portrayed as barbarians or tyrants in historical portrayals. Muslim countries either cannot afford to make such epics or filmmakers are not focused on history, hence the colonial, western perspective is dominant and to a certain extent internalised by viewers through constant repetition.
Take for example the recent spate of historical Indian movies; Alauddin Khilji the historic ruler of the Delhi Sultanate is projected as a crazed, carnivorous barbarian in the Bollywood movie Padmaavat.
While Khilji was a hard man, he was not unusual for his times and definitely not the uncultured barbarian that the lens of modern day Indian nationalism projects him through. For many, watching Ertugrul is like Alice walking through the looking glass; the Muslim characters are the ones making the good decisions, caring for the weak, standing for principles and defying oppression.
As with all fiction, historical accuracy is somewhere in the hazy middle.
Look deeper into the show and you will see that each episode delivers both spiritual and life lessons by allowing principle characters to talk directly about moral dilemmas and their resolution.
Another feature is the use of alims or scholars; in the earlier seasons, a fictionalised version of renowned Islamic scholar and Sufi, Ibne Arabi, is seen advising Ertugrul, while the later series show the local Imam or Khoja gives guidance.
These teachers appear at difficult times in protagonists’ lives and offer explanations of how to deal with the situation with examples from Quran and Hadeeth but most significantly from the life of the Prophet Mohammad (SAW). A lot of emphasis is also placed on Hazrat Ali whom the Turkish warriors consider their patron.
The most notable lessons from this serial are: maintain your orientation towards establishing justice, protect the innocent, trust in God and never give up. Perhaps the most popular quote is “The victory is not ours, it belongs to Allah”, a sentiment that resonates deeply with many Muslims.
At any given point in the story, Ertugrul is faced by three or even more sets of problems: family issues, conflicts within his tribe, all the while dealing with external enemies like the Templars or Mongols who are always plotting his annihilation.
Interestingly, there is usually a fourth political front, the enemy within. These are always Turks like Ertugrul , but because of their greed, pride or jealousy they are willing to commit any traitorous act to succeed.
The array of traitors make a fascinating subset of villains: there is Kurtoglu, who is secretly plotting with the Templars and the scheming adviser to the Seljuk Sultan, Emir Sa’d al-Din Köpek, followed by the almost comically delusional Ural Bey.
One of the most interesting members of this group is Beybolat Bey who played a powerful chief murdering and policing his own people with the enemy. Like many collaborators, he justified himself that he was saving his people by acting as a buffer with the Mongols.
Writer Mehmet Bozdag has avoided caricatures and created recognisable and surprisingly nuanced villains, who are not necessarily otherworldly evil.
For example, the formidable Nuyan and Aricbuka wish for Mongol dominance and revenge, the crusader Titus is a Templar (the extremists of their time) hoping to ignite another crusade. All of these villains are brave, intelligent and surprisingly spiritual, often shown praying or meditating.
While this serves as a sly compliment to Ertugrul who can overcome or at the least survive such fearsome and intelligent antagonists, it’s also a reminder that simply being a strong or brave is not enough; protecting the innocent and standing for justice are what sets a real hero apart.
There are many incidents in the early episodes where Ertugrul straightforward approach lands him in near impossible situations but his determination to never ever give up eventually sees him through.
While this die-hard attitude is reminiscent of many heroic figures historical and fictional, what makes Ertugrul so different is that there are many times when courage, persistence, strategy and cunning are simply not enough.
Then its prayer and the guiding hand of fate that make a way out of hopeless circumstances. Whether he is caught in a poison filled room at Sultan Aziz’s Palace in Aleppo, or literally nailed to stake through his bare hand in a Mongol camp, the power of the prayers of the Sufis and his own direct and sincere supplications to Allah become his salvation.
As in most stories about men, male bonding is a vital element; while ties of blood can disappoint the connection between friends, the brother of choice is what lasts. Ertugrul often states: “Forgiving a traitor is a crime against the innocent,” and this lesson of loyalty is reinforced through five seasons by the unflinching devotion of the Alps, Turgut, Dogan and Bamsi and Abdul Rehman.
The women of the story also provide an intriguing change from the usual orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women hidden in harems.
There is a noticeable change over the season 1, where earlier episodes show the lead female characters like Ertugrul’s wife to be, Halime Sultan with uncovered hair and even short sleeves, towards the latter episodes, the women’s hair is completely under the wrap of rather beautiful Turkish style hijabs.
An interesting historical parallel to this is illustrated by Ira Mukhoty’s book, Daughters of The Sun about the Mughal women and the slow historical slide of Muslim women into the realm of seclusion.
The Mughal women who were also of distant nomadic Chagtai Turkic and Timurid descent, were active, independent and powerful members of the state, their power remained but during Emperor Akbar’s time as Mughals settled into their roles as ruler, they too slid into respectful seclusion.
Powerful and willful, the ladies of Dirilis: Ertugrul are very different to the weeping females we see in Pakistani and Indian dramas but neither do they live up to the Game of Thrones analogy used to describe this show.
The women often act as Beys or chieftains in place of their husbands and brothers as required, they fight with swords or daggers and won't quietly marry any man chosen for them to please anyone even if it’s a sultan.
Despite the supposedly conservative setting and dangerous times, the women travel independently and preserving concepts of honour isn’t at the forefront of their lives.
However, all this freedom is tempered by the way none of the women are allowed to be independent rulers, both Aslihan Hatun and Ilblige Hatun inherit leadership roles but must eventually cede them on marriage.
Obviously the 12th century wasn’t the most enlightened of times but there have been queens throughout history who defied the pressures of the times by ruling independently.
While many hail the show as an example of “Islamic values“, there are a few aspects in the writing which don’t bare up to that declaration on closer inspection.
Islam places great importance on forgiveness but a lot of the action focuses on vengeful justice. The tradition of the Prophet Mohammad (SAW) also encourages men to consult with their wives but the script doesn’t emphasise this despite giving the women strong roles.
In Turkey, the serial has also been at the center of controversy because members of the secular media have tried to ignore and belittle the series.
At an award ceremony, the team of actors were not allowed to speak despite winning, which outraged fans who claimed the elite, secular left was silencing the more conservative general public who loved the show.
Those familiar with Indian and Pakistani dramas will see some familiar elements with the usual jockeying for position and who will marry whom turf wars but they will also find a lot of positivity and friendship.
Pakistanis will feel particularly at home because one of the leads in the season 5, Beybolat Bey (Ali Ersan Duru) bears an uncanny resemblance to our own Humayun Saeed.
The driving force behind Dirilis' popularity with leaders like Imran Khan may be the the sense of hope and revival against all odds that this story provides. Mired in difficult times like these, Dirilis seems to provides an inspirational balm to a collectively damaged Muslim psyche that yearns to take its place as a more powerful and productive member of the world community.
Even without the theology, Ertugrul is thoroughly entertaining and represents universal values of good over evil and surviving tough times through perseverance and that can revive the spirit no matter what your faith is or isn’t.
This article was originally published on 15 October, 2019.