I was clueless why my mother, from her home in Karachi via Skype, suddenly started calling my two-year-old son “Engin.” His name is Elias. She revealed that this was a tribute to her current favorite actor, Engin Akyurek.
My mother has fairly catholic tastes when it comes to movie stars but ditching the iconic Shahrukh Khan for a seemingly obscure Turkish television actor was unexpected. So I dug around Facebook and Twitter and it turns out that Akyurek, a 31-year-old actor from Ankara currently stars as the romantic lead in the soap opera Fatmagül'ün Suçu Ne?, one of a number of Turkish TV series that have proved huge hits with Pakistani audiences ever since local cable channels started airing them last year.
While the audience numbers speak for themselves, the Pakistani media has not taken kindly to the Turkish imports: they have been declared part of an American conspiracy; prominent Pakistani actors have protested against the shows, accusing them of precipitating the downfall of local production companies; and they’ve been accused of destroying cultural values; so much so, that even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has reportedly issued a statement that the soap operas “represented neither the Turkish culture nor Islam.”
The immense popularity of these soaps is reflected in the many and various complaints against them and testifies to the soap opera as a 21st century instrument of soft power. And Turkey is wielding this weapon effectively — according to Hurriyet Daily News, in 2012 Turkey exported more than 70 shows to over 20 countries from the Ukraine, Greece and the Balkans to Asia and even Latin America. As the Oxford Business Group’s 2012 Report on Turkey points out, the “soap’s financials are far from soft, too. In 2011, Turkey earned $60m-plus from exporting over 100 television series to more than 20 countries.”
For Pakistan, the Turkish shows arrived at the perfect time, just as the Supreme Court handed down a decision to censor soaps from India that had for years commanded a similarly devoted following across the country. Luckily for viewers though, anecdotal evidence suggests that the ban hasn’t worked and the Indian broadcasts continue unabated for now.