"Gümüş, known in Arabic as "Noor," is one of the world's most popular soap operas. Released in Turkey by the MBC network, "Gümüş" won an estimated 85 million viewers throughout the Arab World during its first season in 2008." (Wikipedia)
In my lifetime, I've made repeated attempts to watch TV soap operas: American ones, Italian, Mexican, Brazilian and even Serbian ones. I could never get beyond the first few episodes. Soap operas always bored me, and then angered me.
Why? Because they were so blatantly false, so aggressive and unfriendly. Their phony, consumer-ad version of lived reality made me feel miserable. My way of being and thinking is systematically excluded from soap operas of every nation.
Far from considering them "popular art," I thought they were elitist, and in a bad way: fantasies of snobbism, created for wannabes, who watch actresses in fancy costume while they themselves buy laundry soap.
However, some months ago my friend told me that a Turkish soap opera exists that made Muslim women unite in the Arab Spring revolution. Obviously watching "Gumush" was a must.
After a couple of indifferent episodes, I got hooked. I immersed myself in the world of the woman "Gumush" and I lived with her. I dreamt about her awful problems, I got angry with her foolish mistakes, I talked to my family and friends about the dire struggles Gumush and I were enduring.
Finally, I understood the role of soap opera as therapy. Soap operas exist so that troubled women can watch other women's troubles, but contained inside a screen. I, too, was not alone, thanks to soap opera, and often so much better off.
Gumush, to be frank, is a very long, often much too long, kitschy and sentimental serial. But I endured patiently, and was even fascinated. I'd never before seen a fictional world that begins with a marriage sternly arranged by grandparents, and that rolls along with free and easy abortions.
I've lived in parts of the world where arranged marriages today are unheard of. In "Gumush", a young girl comes of age, her grandfather marries her off to another clan, that arrangement is settled, no discussion, no choice for the bride. But the women of "Gumush" have an attitude toward abortion that would shock the prudish USA, where the idea of abortion is as polarizing as race is. "Gumush" is a kind of battleground for female autonomy, carried out between the marriage altar and the abortion clinic.
Once I understood what was going on, I was tempted to abandon the serial, having gotten the point. But, the cunning scriptwriters would find a way to show me their hand. At one point, for instance, the characters within the serial gather on the family couch to watch a soap opera themselves.
They even comically recognize their own predicament: Allah Allah, they remark, why we too live those kind of absurd lives you see on TV nowadays, where dead girls come back pregnant, granddad falls in love, the rich get poor and poor get rich! The serial's comic-relief character even makes fun of herself, lamenting: I watch soap operas first thing every morning! I'm really bad! Something has gone wrong with my life!
But lives do go wrong! My father was an engineer and never even watched TV except the news. But, when his wife died, he turned on the TV to make his lonely days shorter. He soon found a soap-opera patriarch to sympathize with. He remarked to me: I notice that only this decent old guy is doing any work! All the other characters are just plotting and scheming to get his money!
"Gumush," the show's central character, is a simple, good-hearted girl from a Turkish village.
The actress who plays Gumush, endlessly ducking and dodging through hoops, silly plot twists and crazy acts of self-sacrifice, does it all with three facial expressions. The actress has redone lips, bow legs, pretentious clothing and is always teetering in high heels. Love and tenderness means everything to Gumush; power, fame and money never cross her mind.
At a certain point in the serial, however, the love-lorn Gumush rebels. I never say no! she realizes. I always trust people, now this habit must stop!
Once Gumush stops saying yes to every demand made of her, the world of the serial stops. She's on strike for a couple of episodes -- almost nothing happens.
So, Gumush goes back to her old soap-operatic habits. An icon of other-directed womanly sacrifice, Gumush gives away her fortune, her love, her pity and forgiveness and even her kidney!
Once she started losing internal organs in the Turkish health system where abortions were distributed so freely, I feared that the authors had gone bored and would kill off the lead.
But the Arab Spring did not need a dead heroine. Gumush survives all her travails, even though we viewers suffer along with her, wondering: why is Gumush so stupid? Why are women in love so stupid with love, and happy only when stupid?
These issues clearly transcend any contemporary Turkish soap opera. Femininity works this way everywhere most of the time. If women are not stupid, giving and happy, then they are angry, selfish and unhappy. Every once in a while, a female character in some book, movie or TV show will catch on to this unfair situation and start complaining, but her family and friends rush to her emotional rescue: you're not yourself! You are tired, go lie down, have a rest! They put a cork in her bottle for her own good.
Gumush is further rendered speechless by her moral idealism and her sheer ignorance. She is not a city girl, and she shuns sophisticated ways. Because she is Gumush.
Gumush is an unloved, but pretty, orphan seamstress from a Turkish village. Thanks to the logic of TV drama, she becomes the beloved empress of a contemporary family of Turkish business moguls. This kind of class fluidity is a basic plot element, much like the arranged marriages and the abortions.
The poor and hard working people have an earthy wisdom denied to the pampered rich, so the rich often rely on their stability of mind and their moral simplicity. The poor, on the other hand, are a pack of Cinderellas. They never directly rebel against wealth and power, in thought or deed. Their complaints are conservative, arising out of love, to preserve the status quo.
Gumush is a deeply traditional girl who never crosses the sultan of the family, the granddad. On the contrary, she reinforces the rules by modernizing them. Commonly Gumush does this with a mobile phone. Everyone in the serial owns a phone (they're Nokia phones, this being 2004 or so) and every episode involves a beeping torrent of SMS messages, lies, frauds, warnings, and small deceits.
In the end, even the sultan admits her victory, but not his own defeat. Nobody loses in a Turkish soap opera. Even the bad guys turn good, while the good guys are merely temporarily bad when led astray by their animal instincts. This prospect of a happy end is comforting, and very old-Hollywood, as opposed to contemporary American serials where, for heaven's sake! nothing ever turns well.
Does any common ground exist between Eastern soap and Western soap?
Well, there is that abiding need to sell women soap. Women wash the clothing of the family, so women have gender interests. Women of all communities know all about the mop, the wringer and bucket. The men of their communities would never gather round a screen to watch such things. The classic feminist question: who cleans the toilet in the household?
How could this silly soap opera become a talisman of female rebels in the Arab Spring? Obviously, it's because they identify with Gumush. Her heart is pure, but her faith in goodness is constantly jeopardized. Like Gumush, the rebel women of urban Egypt want a subversive revolution of female behavior, that can occur under the armature of strict and visibly unchangeable rules. Some time ago an anonymous girl in red was the symbol of women' s resistance and police brutality during the riots in Istanbul. She could have been Gumush.
However Gumush does not take to the streets, she does not tweet or do politics. Pity. Her influence on Arab spring women is cultural not openly political.
These women don't "want it all," they don't "want it now," and they would reject any world that proclaimed itself radically different from the traditions of family. It would be "mission impossible". But they do, in fact, flock in vast hordes to watch a Turkish woman struggle in a Turkish TV soap opera, something their Arab grandmothers never dreamt of doing. What's more, this TV soap has little to do with any Marshal MacLuhan "global village." Gumush is grand-scale, hugely successful, commercial TV that is very much of and for the Moslem village. The West doesn't watch Gumush.
Maybe that is the dead end of the Arab Spring revolutions that started with so much enthusiasm and vigor. Maybe that is what revolutions and soap operas have in common: a conservative backlash ending.
However real women can do better than that. They must save Gumush from her soap opera.