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Deconstruction: Ertugrul

I’ve been watching a Turkish TV show picked up by Netflix, titled (in English) Resurrection: Ertugrul.  It is set in the year 1225, in the Near East.  The protagonist (putatively) is the father of the first recorded Ottoman sultan, and thus the founder of that dynasty, depicted (in the first two seasons) before he has sired that future emperor. The show presents a historical romance. with sword fights, castles, warriors charging on horses, nomad tents, pretty woman in period costumes, beautiful wilderness scenery, ancient walled cities, yada yada. It’s loosely based on a key moment in Ottoman history. First Crusaders, and then Mongols, provide the villains.

Initially I was convinced that the English title was a mistranslation; I mean, resurrection is a quintessentially Christian idea, is it not? And Dirilis: Ertugrul is not at all a Christian show.  But I tried translating through a third language, and no matter by what route, Turkish Dirilis always came back as resurrection—not  resurgence, recompense, recovery, renewal or any such cognate. Perhaps titling this very Islamic film series as Dirilis, with all its klang Christian associations, was a deliberate choice?  So begins my deconstruction.

Let me explain my fascination with this show (I’ve finished the ~180 episodes of Seasons 1 & 2 as this is written). First, when sitting down in the late evening to watch TV, I’m a sucker for swords, castles, manly men on galloping horses, beautiful maidens in historical dress, etc. I’d start viewing any such show that appeared on my Netflix feed.

Second, I’m not a binge watcher; rather, I titrate my viewing.  Happiness is the discovery of a new show, with dozens of episodes, that I can watch, one per day, day after day, week after week, for a month or two or three. Sadness is the last episode, when I have to go in search of a new fix. Agony is the last episode of a show with Season 1 only, knowing there will be more on Netflix, but not for a while (Dark Matter, and Lost Kingdom, as cases in point).

Imagine my pleasure when I saw that Season 1 of Resurrection: Ertugrul was said to have 70+ episodes!

Third, subtitles are not in any way a turn off.  Net of understanding, I can probably read faster than I can listen (yah, age-related hearing decay to boot). And hey, I was a professor for thirty years.

But none of that explains how I got hooked on Ertugrul.  That hook was set in the first episode.  After a perhaps too long prologue, Knights wearing chain mail with red Crusader crosses get into a fight, with sword, knife, bow and arrow, against a bunch of swarthy bearded guys, wielding curved swords.

Now under Hollywood rules, the expected outcome of any fight between Christian knights and swarthy bearded fellows is pre-ordained: the Christian knights, after enough sword play to keep it interesting, will cut down the foreigners and emerge victorious.

But no: this is a Turkish film aimed at an Islamic audience.  Instead, the bearded wielders of curved swords prevail: they cut down the Crusader knights, especially the one loosening his belt, seemingly preparing to violate the poor defenseless teenage girl who had tried to escape (she’s later revealed to be a princess, natch).

Definition of Deconstruction

Deconstruction, considered as an intellectual methodology, and as it was explained to me by the late Barbara Stern, consists in taking some meme, mytheme, genre, type case, cliché, idee fixe, or any such established cultural currency, and performing an artfully chosen substitution. The goal of such deconstruction is to illuminate hidden cultural preconceptions, tacit assumptions, and unvoiced expectations.

One of the simplest applications of deconstruction is to swap genders and assess the effect.  Here is the crudest example I could devise:

  1. He loomed over her, hand raised. She cowered in fear.

Talk about clichés! That formulation is on the same literary level as “It was a dark and stormy night.” But by the same token, it is utterly ordinary, and would excite no comment in any pulp fiction context.

Here’s the deconstruction:

  1. She loomed over him, hand raised. He shrunk back in fear.

That second sentence just sounds wrong. “She” never looms over; that’s something “he” does.  “He” never cowers in front of “she;” that’s something we expect a “she” to do when confronted by an [expectedly violent] “he.”

Deconstruction proceeds by such artful substitutions. The goal is cognitive freedom: to drop the veil from our eyes, by means of seeing our preconceptions challenged, enabling us to set them aside. In the example, we see that physical violence, in our culture, is given a male sign. So confronted, we can decide whether to believe, to accept as an ontological postulate, that physical violence belongs to males, while it is forbidden to, or absent from, females. I mean, really?

Deconstruction: Ertugrul

Let’s be brutally frank: this television series was fielded by the government-run television channel in Turkey, and met with approval from the increasingly oppressive government apparatus there. It’s been a wild success in Turkey and across the Middle East (evidently, the Turkish film industry is to the Islamic world what Hollywood is to the US, or what Bollywood is to the Subcontinent).

It has a heavily-inflected propaganda element.  In this video universe, the Turks are noble tribesmen, living simple virtuous lives, dedicated to Allah, strong and true.  The Christians are Knights Templar, for centuries so easily demonized; the Mongols are depraved heathens; and the emirs of the Sultanate are corrupt agents of debauchery.

In terms of American cultural categories, think of it as a mashup of King Arthur and George Washington, with a dash of the Three Musketeers, and a soupçon of Shakespeare’s King Lear, leavened with a dose of Dostoevsky.

There’s also a strong soap opera element, in the rivalry and scheming of the women, and the importance of family uber alles.

I hope this motivates you to watch it; I’ve found it both entertaining and educational.

But let me be frank: it will never win any Oscars or Emmys for casting or acting.  It can be s-l-o-o-w-w.  It takes dozens of episodes before the male and female romantic leads even touch hands. And characters will occasionally violate Acting 101 (or maybe Playwriting 101) by committing completely unmotivated actions. Moreover, the resident sage, Ibn Arabi, bloviates in the most marvelously obscure way. And the English subtitles can be risibly bad (Turkish is not an Indo-European language, and some concepts just do not seem to translate)

Plus, you have to put up with endless repetitions of Inshallah! and Allahu Akbar!  But that’s part of the deconstruction, for Christian Westerners: to watch adherents of a foreign religion pray and worship unconsciously.  You, the Christian Western viewer, will never watch a medieval church scene in quite the same way again; nor will you ever find a Hollywood portrayal of Muslims praying to be quite so natural or right, ever again, after watching this show.

And you may reflect long and hard on why treachery within the nomad tent is such a pervasive theme, here in this thoroughly Turkish and Islamic cultural product. And in the world?  Hmmm.

But the beheadings are marvelous; as are the headdresses worn by the women. Lots of leather too, and more glorious male hair and bosky beard than even a heavy metal rock band.

Come to think of it, a little back and forth viewing of Game of Thrones, with Resurrection-Ertugrul, might pay dividends. The one Pagan and profane, the other Devout and traditional, but both Medieval to the core.

Onward, cultural understanding!

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