MESA Banner
Drama and Story

Panel X-28, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • In the last two decades, Turkish television drama series have become popular worldwide. After trumping musalsalat in Arab countries, Turkish series conquered Latin America’s television primetime, beginning in Chile, and making their way up to Mexico. This paper asks: Why have Turkish drama series been so successful in Latin America, the land of the telenovela, an erstwhile globally dominant serial television genre? And how have Latin American media, cultural, and political elites responded to this phenomenon? This research is based on ethnographic fieldwork, including in-depth interview with viewers, media-makers, and journalists, in Argentina (2019) and Mexico (2022). The analysis integrates primary sources, including ~50 Spanish-language articles from the Argentinian and Mexican press, but also from Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru…, and ~ 200 hours of Turkish drama series from the historical (Diriliş: Ertuğrul) to the fabulist (The Protector). Other sources include “trade” publications in English and Spanish (and Arabic: Saudi Arabia is a major funder and co-producer of Turkish television drama). The paper finds that Turkish series display a combination of dyadic features (low cost and high production values, “exotic” appeal and cultural proximity, universal themes in particular treatments, and a “liberal aesthetic” with conservative values) that appeal to Latin American viewers. In addition, the contrast between Latin American telenovelas, saturated with sex, drugs, and violence, and Turkish series, which tend to focus on character development and long-term relationships, makes Latin American viewers gravitate towards Turkish productions. One consistent finding was that viewers nostalgically perceive contemporary Turkish drama to resemble the “golden age” of telenovelas in the 1980s. Though Turkish series’ popular success was broadly consistent across Latin America, elite reactions have ranged from dismissive to virulently critical, varying widely by country, spurring a self-critique among Mexican producers and journalists while kicking up a media market crisis and a geopolitical storm in Argentina, where they awakened diasporic activism among the large Armenian-Argentinian community. These primary data are interpreted within a theoretical-analytical framework drawing on Latin American theories of lo popular (the popular), tiempos mixtos (mixed temporalities), and mestizajes (loosely translated as hybridities), developed chiefly by the Spanish-Colombian critic Jesús Martín Barbero and the Argentinian-Mexican theorist Nestor García-Canclini. Moving beyond the context of Latin America to broader South-South relations and cultural flows, the paper elaborates a theory of neo-anachronism to explicate the spatio-temporal entanglements laid bare by the popularity and contestation of Turkish television in Latin America.
  • At the border between feature film and documentary, the works of Fereydoun Rahnema, Parviz Kimiavi, and Nasser Taghvai, pioneers of Iran’s New Wave cinema, engage in distinct ways with the political and intellectual crisis of the period leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. One feature they share, however, is a focus on marginal, existentially unstable figures. In this paper, I argue that possession and haunting in Rahnema, Kimiavi, and Taghvai can be read as symptoms of a porous, temporal self who rejects the state-sponsored call for a sovereign, enlightened, national subject. In Taghvai’s "Wind of Jinn" (1969) the Black practitioners of zar occupy a liminal space that is animated by the pain of an unspoken yet ever-present historical trauma; in Kimiavi’s "P like Pelican" (1972) and "The Stone Garden" (1976), the mystical inner worlds of the protagonists stand as counterdrafts to the social and economic strictures of their time; and in Rahnema’s "Siavash in Persepolis" (1965), figures with indeterminate roots, belonging neither to past or present, reality or fiction, seem to be staging Ferdowsi's Book of Kings. Storytelling here becomes an act that passes through a contingent self and thus depends on a moment of relation, rooted in time: it is a haunting of the present by the past. Drawing on the thought of Michel de Certeau, Stefania Pandolfo, and Adriana Cavarero, my paper explores the meaning of selfhood and alterity in key works of the Iranian New Wave. Ultimately, I ask whether the “internal other” of Iran’s modernization drive of the 1960s and 1970s is not also the Other of modernity itself.
  • The estate of Agatha Christie is enjoying a resurgence of the “cozy” murder mystery, and its influence in massive film and television series hits like Glass Onion and Poker Face. A biography of Christie and film playing on her long-running West End production The Mouse Trap similarly made headlines and had broad audiences in the past year. There is another arena in which Christie influence is having a similar moment in popular culture, an association stranger than fiction. While Agatha Christie spent years in North Africa and the Middle East and famously set her most popular novels in those environments, she is also responsible for the excavation and removal of artifacts from Ur and Nimrud alongside her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan. The British Museum, among other institutions, is no longer defending its right to retain archeological treasures taken from the Middle East and North Africa, including from those sites. Christie is thus a flashpoint of ancient and 20th century histories, and both of current events of the demands to repatriate historical artifacts and of the use of fiction to help illustrate depictions of ordinary life of populations left off the “official” records of the well-to-do and the ruling classes. This paper explores the impact of Christie’s presence in the region, the influence on her fiction, and the popularity of her works translated in Arabic in the 20th century. This will include an overview of Christie’s archeological work in the interwar and post-World War II period, and the encapsulation of daily moments from Egypt to Syria and Mesopotamia through fictional depictions in her fiction. This paper stems from the Agatha Christie estate papers as well as those belonging to Mallowan. The research also relies upon Christie's novels set in North Africa and the Middle East, including one under her pseudonym Mary Westmacott, not for the main plot of Westerners abroad, but for the descriptions of local labor serving them and the types of interactions described on digs and in tourism and travel. It will briefly touch on the history of Arabic language murder mysteries in Egypt and Lebanon, and why Christie’s work has not had similar appeal to series producers and filmmakers as it has had with English and American creators.
  • Shortly after the launch of the Egyptian national TV network in 1960, the country witnessed the emergence of a new television genre called religious drama (musalsalāt dīnīya). These TV shows recreated premodern Islamic history and were usually broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan. Until the early 2000s religious drama remained an indispensable part of Egyptian TV content, formed its own canon, and paved the way for the appearance of similar genres in other Islamic countries, such as the UAE, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. Despite the prominence of musalsalāt dīnīya in Egypt, they were never closely studied by both Western and Arab scholars of television. This disinterest partly stemmed from the stereotypical view of them as low-quality production, which was shared by television critics and prominent scholars of Middle Eastern TV. Given the popularity, influence, and constant presence of religious drama on Egyptian television, it is essential to take a closer look at its history and role in popular culture. To achieve that, the following paper deals with the Egyptian musalsalāt dīnīyah produced at the peak of the genre’s popularity – in the 1990s. By conducting a textual analysis of the TV shows, it sheds light on the mass-mediated representations of premodern Islamic history, which, as I argue, bring nostalgia for the irretrievable past. Particular focus is given to sets, props, and costumes as associating the Muslim “golden era” with specific historical spaces, religious identities, and practices. Thus, the paper shows how musalsalāt dīnīya can be a powerful tool providing certain images of the past and history for their numerous audiences.
  • This paper examines the concept of poetic knowledge as it emerges in Muḥammad Bennīs’s “Bayān al-kitāba”, Abdelkabīr Khaṭibī’s Le lutteur de class à la manière taoïste” and Aimé Césaire’s “Poésie et connaisance”. Drawing on close readings of these works, all of which engage in some way with the manifesto genre, I show that for Bennīs, Khaṭibī, and Césaire, poetic knowledge converges in the poetic image as a way of engaging, interpreting, and ultimately retrieving a sedimented sense of the world through language that is both vivid and open to interpretation. The poetic image thus offers a way of accessing knowledge that has been occluded by hegemonic forms of knowing. By creating and guiding a reader’s vision of the world, the poetic image can destabilize dominant ways of seeing and open up possibilities for new interpretation and understanding in order to cast off imposed epistemologies, and perhaps most importantly, lead towards political action. I argue that the concept of poetic knowledge is both a powerful locus for understanding the complex and interconnected issues that animate each of these thinker’s works as well as an access point for elaborating upon theoretical connections among thinkers of the Global South. Ultimately, I conclude that poetic knowledge conceptually allows Bennīs, Khaṭibī, and Césaire to unpack the disruptive force of the poetic image in a way that seriously connects aesthetic experience to various possibilities of liberation.
  • Famous Moroccan writer, Mohamed Choukri, is one of the most controversial contemporary writers in the Arabic-speaking world. At first seen as pornography, only to be reevaluated as social criticism, his oeuvre continues to spark tremendous international public debate and get professors who choose to include him in their curriculum fired. One powerful aspect of his prose is his atheist stance in a culture where the religious echelon and conservative Muslims find open atheism offensive to religious-based morality. Yet, Choukri’s atheism has been neglected by academic studies. In this paper, I argue that Choukri attacks the idea that religion (and god) is the source of human morality. His literary work galvanizes the creation of a personal morality derived from critical thinking, empathy, and a sense of justice and equality in human experience. I provide an analysis of three aspects of the atheist morality that permeate Choukri’s oeuvre, which I call pre-Islamic, non-Islamic, and anti-Islamic poetics, or literary devices that place the narrator before, outside, and in opposition to Islam. I argue that Choukri’s atheist morality explains the continuous outrage against his work among the religious establishment and vocal conservative Muslims, rather than simply explicit scenes of sex and poverty in his writing, as has been alleged. Revealing Choukri’s atheist morality is important for two reasons. First, it shows his own understanding of his worldview and his resistance to be mislabeled as a Muslim believer. Second, it shows the evolution in the public proclamation of atheism: from a subtler, poetic form in Choukri’s case to the open public atheism we see in North African and other Arabic-speaking countries since the 2011 uprisings.