The Nazis planned to rename the city Prinz-Eugenstadt, after the great Austrian general who conquered Belgrade from Turks in 1717. Field Marshall von Mackensen erected a monument to the Serbian defenders of Belgrade in 1915, famously remarking that the German imperial troops “fought against an army that we have heard about only in fairy tales." Hitler had to bomb Belgrade into ashes to defeat its fighting spirit, which he didn’t have to do with any major city in Europe west of Russia. Even the American imperial war machine had to go through Belgrade en route to furthering its imperialist goals. Belgrade bowed to no one.
That was then. Things have changed. Looking down from Jannah, Suleiman, the magnificent destroyer of Belgrade, must be having second thoughts about the pleasures received from the seventy-two virgins whose company he has been deservedly enjoying since 1566. In Serbia of all places, his magnificence is adored today by enough women to swap rosters of seventy-two ever y day. Alright, they won’t all be virgins, he’d have to survive a plump, graying, but eager suburban housewife here and there, but the point is clear: in Belgrade and in Serbia, Suleiman may be looking at a new Jannah. Belgrade’s Prva Srpska television station, owned by a Greek, Minos Kyriakou of Antenna Group, basically invited the imperial legacy of the Ottoman Sultan back into Serbia by buying the rights to broadcast Magnificent Century (Muhteşem yüzyıl), the Turkish historical soap opera based on the more romanticized elements of his life. According to Prva Srpska press release of February 28, the second episode of this show of reportedly questionable artistic quality was seen by over 1.7 million viewers in Serbia of little more than 7 million people. I won’t even touch the business side of this phenomenon, other than noting that the previous Turkish soap opera, “When leaves fall,” reaped such success that the cast of the series was invited to Serbia for a special recognition. Ok, Serbs did the same for certain Latino soap opera stars too, and although I find all such adulation tasteless and even repugnant, my attitude towards the popular infatuation with this particular show and its main character has less to do with my general views of the “bread-and-games” mentality than with my incredulity over the fact that the Serbian cultural consciousness is so depraved that an Ottoman sultan can be seen as some form of popular hero in Serbia. According to internet commentary coming out of Serbia, not only that middle-aged men and women curb the physiological instincts of breathing and blinking when the show is about to come on, but Serbian boys have begun emulating this “hero” as theirs.
This is not just any soap opera, nor is this just any historical character. Suleiman was the greatest ruler of the Ottoman Empire, which kept the Serbian people prisoners for four centuries. Suleiman embodied the Ottoman oppression over the Serb Christians that was unparalleled in the Serbian history, in its duration and in its effects. The case of deportation of the Belgrade Serbs in 1521 was not an exception, it was a norm. Any adoration of Suleiman by the Serbs, even in such a seemingly innocent way as the popularizing of a soap opera anchored by his fictional characterization can be understood as, means a dehumanizing lack of self-respect. Respecting Suleiman as a great historical figure and understanding his role in the Ottoman, European and Serbian history objectively is one thing. But creating a popular fantasy out of his characterization and associating a feeling of joyful reverence with a depiction of Suleiman the man and the sultan is abhorrent, self-demeaning and ultimately dehumanizing.
How else could I characterize the sentiment in which victims celebrate the image of their oppressor? Even if he was the most benevolent emperor, which he apparently was not, he was still an occupier and his empire was still a foreign power, thus under all circumstances manifestly hostile to the interest of the Serbian people who wanted to preserve their culture and identity. What Suleiman’s empire brought to the Serbs were the utter economic and cultural devastation, the national and personal humiliation and the isolation from the European culture the Serbs were integral participants in until the Ottoman conquest. The Ottoman Empire of Suleiman, his ancestors and his descendants brought a religious divide that still tears at the heart of the Serbian nation and is a cause of horrific fratricidal conflicts; it brought devshirme, or “the blood tax,” that saw some of the most promising and capable young Serbs ripped away from their mothers’ clutching arms and ruthlessly groomed for the imperial service, only to come back as tormenters of their own brethren. Even the rare examples of acemi oglan, the blood tax recruits, who remembered and respected their roots, like Mehmed-pasha Sokolović, could not alleviate the justified feeling of the dehumanizing devastation this practice had caused to the Serbian people. The primae noctis privilege, often invoked by the Ottoman lords of Turkish and Serbian ancestry alike, abridged only by a threat or an execution of violence on the part of Serbian humiliated males, left an even deeper wound in the Serbian psyche.
Brother Serb, would you celebrate Suleiman if he came to snatch your teenage daughter from your home and take her to his harem? Would you idolize Suleiman’s TV characterization if you had to cripple your infant son so Suleiman’s children-snatchers would find him unfit? Would you be exhilarated by Suleiman’s greatness if it was you who was sent by a Suleiman’s noble to “walk the shoes” while he ravaged your wife? Well, you are a Serb today because your ancestors fought to preserve their identity, their culture and their honor by clearly distinguishing theirs from the foreign, the victimized from the villains, the oppressed from the tyrannical… Not all the Serbs have. What do we call those now?
I really do not care how Suleiman is depicted in the Turkish popular culture. He was a great Turk and as the Serbs should celebrate Tsar Dušan, so should the Turks celebrate whomever they respect. But for the Serbs to celebrate heroes of their oppressors is beyond comprehension and beyond sanity. How low can the Serbian self-esteem stoop? Seemingly, there is no rock bottom. How could the free people celebrate their conqueror and a tyrant would probably be best answered by sociologists.
Yes, I have a grievance against Prva Srpska. Every self-respecting Serb should feel aggrieved. But judging from the ratings of the show, there are not that many self-respecting Serbs around anymore. The soft power of the renewed Turkish expansionism is slowly, but surely, infiltrating the Serbian society and that fact is way more alarming and dangerous than a Serb nationalist somewhere having an opinion on the Serbian Jannah of Suleiman the Magnificent and the Serbian depravity. Hollywood creations made most of the world sincerely sympathize with the American imperialist manifestations by adapting them to the fates of individuals portrayed as heroes anyone could sympathize with. Yes, you have rooted for John Rambo to kill all the Vietnamese defending their own villages and families. Yes, you wanted Colonel James Braddock to find and save the “missing in action.” Yes, such reduction of the struggle between the good and the evil to the individual and the personal level did brainwash masses into subconsciously cheering on the underdog Rocky Balboa against the dehumanized Ivan Drago. Whatever the way and whoever the characters, the soft power of Hollywood ultimately paved the helipads for the menacing Black Hawks to land. Prva Srpska Television (which translates as the First Serbian Television), for reasons known to its owners and editors, wants the Serbian public to idolize Suleiman, the greatest embodiment of the former Turkish glory. Its translators did not translate the title of the series, Magnificent Century, correctly, or directly. In Serbian, the title would translate as Veličanstveni vek, yet, as adapted to the Serbian audience, it actually carries the sultan's name and the moniker, Sulejman Veličanstveni.
Remember, the Turks did not leave the Serbian lands, they were expelled by the force of Serbian arms. The fact that their expansionist power is soft now and that the bedazzled Serbs innocently sympathize with Suleiman and his Russian convert khatun, Hurem, means only that we can reasonably expect to ultimately hear the roar of tanks waving the star and crescent on the red cloth and to see them rolling down the roads paved by the agents of the soft power, such as Prva Srpska. The difference between the soft and the hard power can be quite unnoticeable and deceiving, quite amorphous, especially to the unconscious Serb whose eyes are glued to the television screen and fixated on the unreal tribulations of fictional people. In 1521, Suleiman surrounded and attacked Belgrade from Zemun, his men charged the walls of the fortress repeatedly, eventually overwhelming the Serb defenders, then they ethnically cleansed the city. The 2012 version of Suleiman is a soft power paratrooper who aims to cleanse the consciousness of proverbially unsuspecting Serbs of any self-respect, dignity or self-awareness, after which the keys to the city will be given to him without struggle. And of course, as Suleiman promised in the show, "the Turks won't harm those that beg for mercy."