Thursday, March 8, 2012

Suleiman the Magnificent: The New Hero of the Depraved Serbia

The last time Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Belgrade, he executed the Hungarian defenders and deported the Serb warriors and their families to Istanbul. Practically abandoned by the Hungarian King, whom the city belonged to, and ultimately betrayed by a local Hungarian magistrate, the Serbs of the White City still offered enough resistance for Suleiman to reach a conclusion that they couldn’t be trusted as vassals at such a strategically important junction of his empire. During the siege in August of 1521, Ahmed-pasha, charging from the banks of the Sava River, boosted his troops’ morale by lying that it was the time of Vidovdan, the great Serbian “defeat” in the battle of Kosovo. Later, the Ottomans renamed the city Dar-al-Jihad, or “House of War” in Arabic.
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."


Gray Falcon said...

Simply ghastly. Yet at the tail end of 20+ years of demonization and brainwashing, it's a miracle there are still people who sneer at this cultural imperialism. So I wouldn't declare the Serbs quite dead - yet.

Nikolaj said...

It just keeps getting worse doesn't it. I was appalled in 2010 to see people watching Turkish drama soap operas, and now this. Is it possible to be astonished, but not surprised?

There are two ways we can look at this. We can either:
A/ say that this sort of thing is the result of soft power, or
B/ that soft power is the result of some flaw in Serbdom

Because the very nature of soft power is that it is 'soft'. There is no force involved. This means Serbs have to accept it, and embrace it, whether consciously aware or not, in order for soft power to work. The point is that soft power only works when it is not rejected. And the Serbs did not reject this form of soft power. Can you imagine a TV show celebrating a Christian crusader airing in Saudi Arabia or Iran, or even Turkey? I cant. Those people would reject it almost instinctively.
So what is it about Serbs today, that makes them act like this? I wouldn't say it is because of 20+ years of soft power. I'd say soft power only worked in the first place because of an underlying reason which allowed soft power to take root at all.

It is historically true that Serbs always rebelled against 'hard power', whether it be armies of men of horseback, or foreign tanks or fighter jets, but I somehow can't see such a thing happening today. I can't imagine young Serbian men dropping their shitty airmaxies and nike prada, and going out to actively defend Serbia. Unless of coarse it football was involved. A parody of national pride.

I don't want to sound like a pessimist, and I always hope for the best for Serbs and will do my part to help Serbdom (even if it is infinitesimally small), but something in the Serbian soul is beginning to stink, as if something had died. Like a shell with a dead crab inside, and now other creatures are coming to claim the shell because its practically there for the taking.

It is a very sad situation, but I think we're deluding ourselves if we are going to be blaming soap operas for the decline of Serbdom. Something much more fundamental is going on.
It is true that some Serbs such as ourselves notice this, and we rebel against it like we rightfully should, but we are in the minority, and that is what I find most disturbing of all.
Serbs such as ourselves are swimming against the tide.

Its the chicken vs the egg issue. Which came first? Its like that moron in Belgrade called Tadic. We can blame him all we want (and I think we should), but at the same time we need to remember it was Serbs who supported his bullshit, it was Serbs who voted him into office (twice), and he is a Serb himself. Tadic is a symptom of a much deeper problem, just like this awful new TV show is a symptom. Neither are the cause.

Vultures, maggots and cockroaches only appear after in the later phases of a tragedy, if you see what I'm getting at.

Great article though.

Djordje said...

It seems many of us are submitting to Stockholm syndrome...

Srbo said...

See, I don't think it's conscious like that. I think it's the lack of consciousness. People are uneducated about their own, they do not care about anything but the superficial and the immediately useful. Is it sickness? Perhaps, but not of the Stockholm syndrome variety.
People who are bedazzled by Suleiman the character do not see a Turkish Sultan. They see a medieval superstar, and their thirst for fantasy combined with a lack of real education and a general unwillingness to think critically produced the state in which no one asks "hold on a sec, why are we so euphoric about a tyrant, an enemy of our ancestors?"
The Serbs do not try to empathize with Suleiman as their "captor." They do not see him as their former oppressor because they do not know anything about him and they do not care to find out. They are just oblivious. They are just watching the fantasy.
The problem is, they will start forming the image of Suleiman through this show. That's what the soft power consists of in this respect. The rock bottom of humiliation is not to take in such a character, but to endear an image of a Turkish Sultan to a Serb.

Srbo said...

Of course, no one is blaming soap operas. What we watch and glorify shows what we've become. The reasons we've come to act this way are deeper, more complex and need to be examined and eradicated, with or without the help of Belgrade elites.
Yes, I'd have a law banning such TV series that portray a former oppressor in a positive light. But the reasons for people importing such creations should be looked at in a more serious way. I believe it is a national security question, considering Turkey's active engagement in the Serbian affairs on the side of Serbian enemies and its foreign policy designs in Southeast Europe.

Srbo said...

Piece by piece, we have been chipped away at. Dead we are not, but the end of the 20th century has been our metastasis.
We can discuss whether Kosovo can be preserved, whether it should be preserved, whether the Serb Republic could be independent or not, how we can save Montenegro, whether it is more feasible to turn west or east, but with seemingly small things like this show being even allowed in Serbia, we see the depth of the treason the Serbian political and social elites have mired themselves in. It is as ghastly as it is ominous.

Anonymous said...

The more we watch it the more we become aware of the fact that the Turks are more Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians ... than the Turks themselves. They, the Serbs, do know and remember who their oppressors were, but they also know that numerous were taken as slaves to Turkey and many were ancestors of today's Turks. They do not celebrate Suleiman, but only want to see how that part of history is shown. And of course, it is part of the history of Europe. That's all. But the cast and the screenplay are very good.

Srbo said...

I would like to see the Serbian production houses, including TV stations like Prva TV that pay 300k euro for an interview with Dino Merlin, to produce series or films about the glories of Serbian history, not the history of oppressors. People will undoubtedly watch a love story, especially about a great man, but showing that particular great man in a positive light to Serbs demeans them. Imagine showing a movie about Hitler's conquests and romantic escapades in Israel. I would like to know if the Magnificent Century is being shown in Armenia. If it is, I'll shut my mouth.

Anonymous said...

People i think you are taking all this to silly lenghts,It's just a show-by your calculations no one in the world would watch anything else or on any language other than their own..
We are talking about economics as well,then why bother working with country that we had issues in the past,or worse-live in them and yet we have Serbian brightest wrking and being recognized all over the world..
More over-we are writing right now in foreign language,speaking of double standards,what kind of recovery we expect in Balkans then???
or how about traveling on vacation to Turkey,coast and all...

Anonymous said...

Hello All :)

I am a Türk from Turkey and I understand your worries but I don't think this tv show has any agenda as you think. It is not glorifying the past cause you cannot glorify it by showing killings and taking slaves.

Srbo said...

In a country where kids glorify a former conqueror because they see him as a romantic hero, but stories of their own national heroes do not get any cultural exposure, this is a problem.
Suleiman with agenda, shown in Turkey, is ok. Suleiman in Serbia, where there's never been a movie about Saint Sava, is alarming.

Anonymous said...

Do you think you may be reading too much into this?

It is a soap opera that will loose it's appeal after a while just like other turkish/latin soap operas.

History seems to be such an integral part of Serbs. You should focus on future and realize all Balkan people are very similar to outsiders. Serbs are constantly reminding themselves about the calamities they've suffered in history that it is undermining their ability to look at the future in a healthy constructive way.

Omar said...

Is this another case of some Serbian Xenophobia, it's a SOAP OPERA for christ sake, I am amazed how some Serbs are tolerant while some of you here spew hate against the Turks. The things in the past are done this is just for entertainment purposes.

Anonymous said...

The part on Conquest of Belgrade is only a fraction of the soap opera.Its has progressed further to other events long ago. Its part of the history of Serbia and the show does not denigrate the Serbs. The fact is that as part of Yeni Cherri so many military men from tje region gained prominence and power in tje then Turkish Empire so much so that they even held the reins of the govt. In their hands.Judging events of the 16th century on scales of nationalism and morality of today may not be fair. Its a historical soap opera to be taken as just that. Its interesting ,riveting and quite well made.

Doot said...


Serbs living in western democracies sure have a funny view of Serbia (and, ultimately hate actual Serbs who live in Serbia more than anything else)

It's a crappy soap opera from Turkey. Before that, they were watching crappy soap operas from Spain.

There are also crappy shows produced in Serbia, so don't worry :)