Muslims

The Immigrant Mind: What ‘The Bride of Istanbul’ Teaches Us About the Muslim World

Luma Simms | September 6, 2017

Istanbullu Gelin, or The Bride of Istanbul, is a Turkish drama that is in some ways similar to two primetime American soap operas of the 1980s – Dynasty and Dallas – but without the smut. This TV series centers on the Boran family, a wealthy, powerful, and traditional Muslim family living in Bursa, a city located two hours away from Istanbul.

Faruk, the main character, is the oldest of four sons; following the death of their father, he becomes the head of the household and takes leadership of the family business, a bus line company with offices in Istanbul and Bursa. His mother Esma is a true matriarch: domineering and manipulating, yet fiercely protective of her family and invested in their wellbeing. Faruk falls in love with Süreyya, a poor violinist and singer who has been living with her aunt since the death of her parents. The characters all have their joys and troubles; as can be expected, secrets and lies are usually exposed, and the effects are far worse than they would have been if the truth had been told in the first place.

As with other dramas, there is plenty of human frailty, sin, and strength on display: backstabbing, revenge, adultery (even rape), and of course the fervent love of the two main characters. But what was intriguing to me was the role religion played in the life of this fictitious family. The traditional Middle Eastern custom (for both Christians and Muslims) of slaughtering a lamb to celebrate a joyous event, and sharing it with neighbors, was performed. The matriarch Esma’s instructions to the servants to share food with all of the poor in the city were executed with care and honor. Prayers were said at meals and at other times. And no matter the haute couture and sophistication of a particular character, he or she exhibited a sincere reverence toward religion that is rarely seen in Western dramas.

Muslim fasts and holy days are kept faithfully throughout the show, and not with the high irony that can be seen in, say, The Godfather series. In one scene, in the middle of a stressful scenario between his old lover and his new bride Süreyya, Faruk asks a servant to fetch him a glass of water. Süreyya gently but immediately reminds him that he is observing a fast and therefore should forego the water. Süreyya’s kind and gracious nature eventually wins over even her scheming and spiteful mother-in-law, Esma. The show’s characters are flawed, but faithful.

Back in the real world, as the violent acts of the Islamic State rage on in the Middle East and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leads Turkey down an ever more totalitarian path, we hear calls from around the world for moderate Muslims to speak up: to say no to terrorism, no to totalitarianism and no to the persecution of minorities. But I wonder: Are the Boran family members as depicted in Istanbullu Gelin what we would call moderate Muslims? How would a family like the Borans respond to Islamic acts of terror?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch-American human rights activist, speaker, and author calling for a reformation within Islam has described three different types of Muslim groups: “Medina Muslims,” “Mecca Muslims,” and “modifying Muslims.” The first, “Medina Muslims,” are the fundamentalists who want to subdue the entire world to a regime based on sharia law (Islamic religious law). The “Mecca Muslims” – which encompass the majority of Muslims around the world – are devout believers who abstain from violence and intolerance. And “modifying Muslims” are those who work toward a reformation of their religion; their goal is a separation of religion and politics.

Ali said that the problem is that there is a duality in Islam:

It’s possible to claim, following Mohammed’s example in Mecca, that Islam is a religion of peace. But it’s also possible to claim, as the Islamic State does, that a revelation was sent to Mohammed commanding Muslims to wage jihad until every human being on the planet accepts Islam or a state of subservience, on the basis of his legacy in Medina.

I see the Boran family in Istanbullu Gelin as belonging to the group that Ali has described as “Mecca Muslims.” We must hope that their numbers exceed that of those we see in the headlines: that portion of Muslims who are defiantly and proudly incompatible with peaceful life on Earth. As Ali and others have said, the only hope to stop the “Medina Muslims” – those who espouse violence and who would subjugate the entire world – is for “Mecca Muslims” to unite with “modifying Muslims” and for both to together lead their faith down a devout path that can coexist with people of other faiths.