Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ertugrul in the age of Erdogan

As a child, I had thrilled to the story of a powerful, warrior woman on the throne of Delhi but had never wondered about who her ancestors were. I had not thought of medieval Turks as nomads, casting about in whirlpools of contested nationalities. In the modern Indian imagination—especially the Hindutva narrative—Turks are seen as usurpers of power, lumped with Persians, Chagtais and Mongols like Changez Khan who was the Oguz Turks’ biggest foe. Through watching Resurrection: Ertugrul, I began to see them as landless tribes whose only chance at life was a strong sword arm.

The world these characters inhabit is an intensely cosmopolitan one. The bazaars, inns, port towns are melting pots of race and civilisation. The actors come in all shades of brown, reflective of the mixed Greek, Roman, Armenian, Arab, Assyrian and Moroccan ancestry in the region. Watching them I felt something shifting but it took me about a hundred episodes to understand what it was. It was the stone of cultural imperialism and it weighed a few centuries... our awareness of the greater world was minimal—everything between Bombay and Britain was an indistinct blob in our minds. Millions of South Asians worked in the Gulf but we didn’t know its history. We read about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the newspapers mentioned the decade long Iran-Iraq war before that. But we didn’t know how Iraq and Kuwait came to be on the map.

All I knew about Turkey was a couple of lines in my history textbook: The Indian struggle for independence was entwined with the Khilafat movement, which opposed British attempts to strip the Caliph of all power. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defeated colonisers and made it a secular nation.

In fiction, I read about King Arthur, Joan of Arc, Papal politics. I read about the Crusades and knew that these were wars fought between Christian knights and Muslim hordes. The knights, I thought of as vaguely noble: knight in shining armour; knight to the rescue of damsel in distress; knight on a white horse; people “knighted” after great achievements. The Muslim hordes, I thought of as... The truth is, I did not think about the Muslims at all.


Read the full text of my essay on cultural politics, Netflix, and the shaping of minds via storytelling and media exposure in Fountain Ink magazine : 

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