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In the shadow war for regional influence, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are jousting in an arena where Turkey has hitherto had undisputed dominance: television series.
A bevy of Turkish dramas all but invaded the Arab world after 2007, when telenovela “Gumus” (“Silver” in Turkish; it was renamed “Noor” for Arabic audiences) was dubbed and broadcast in Saudi Arabia and beyond on MBC.
It was a gargantuan hit; its finale had 92 million viewers across the region glued to the screen, while its actors became instant stars throughout the region.
But last month, the Saudi-owned MBC network, the Middle East’s most-watched broadcaster, debuted “Kingdoms of Fire,” a 14-episode drama depicting the 16th century defeat of the Mamluk Sultanate which encompassed the lands of modern-day Egypt and stretched all the way east into parts of Saudi Arabia and the expansion of Ottoman rule into Arab lands.
The aim, the show’s producer says, is to focus on the history of the Ottoman Empire not as the zenith of Muslim unity but as a dark time for the Arabs; and how it echoes today in Turkey’s current role in the region through the neo-Ottoman policies of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The Arab world entered into darkness because of the Ottoman invasion,” said Emirati producer Yasser Hareb in a phone interview.
“After all of the criminality actions of the Ottomans in the area, some people present them as the protectors of religion and Islam.”
“And now, these neo-Ottomans say they will restore grandeur to the Islamic nation. We had to respond to this.”
“Kingdoms of Fire” focuses on Tuman Bay II, who led the Mamluks in Egypt and fought a vigorous if ultimately losing campaign against the Ottoman sultan, Selim the Grim, in 1517.
The defeat ushered in the era of Ottoman leadership over the Muslim world, a period that Turkish history often depicts as a moment of glorious pan-Islamic unity, but which “Kingdoms of Fire,” in its promotional materials, says was a time of “bloody rule” and a “curse.”
“To every Arab: The unjust Ottoman enemy wants to invade our lands,” says Tuman Bay as he rallies his troops in one episode, adding that whenever “those barbaric, butchering Ottomans” enter an area, they “pillage its resources, kill its scholar and enslave its people.”
“I promise Allah before you that the Ottoman enemy will not rule this area except over my dead body.”
It’s an argument the show spares no expense in making: The production, which took over a year and a half and cost about $40 million, far outstrips spending on most other Arab TV dramas and features epic battle scenes reminiscent in their scale and scope to “Game of Thrones.”
At its helm is British director Peter Webber, known for films such as “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” and “Hannibal Rising,” and the cast features heavyweight Egyptian and Syrian film stars.
“Erdogan and his supporters say that Arabs yearn for the return of the Ottoman Empire,” Hareb said.
“But what did we get from them during their rule? Nothing.”
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