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The Prequel: Setting the Analytic Stage

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 May 2018

Madeline C. Zilfi*
University of Maryland, College Park


Outside the disciplines of communication and cultural studies, scholarly interest in television programming, especially scripted entertainment, has been overshadowed by attention to digital media, reality TV, and smart phone connectivity. A 2017 University of Maryland conference offered a reconsideration of popular Middle East-produced television dramas and their surprising impacts on national and transnational politics and culture. As conference papers showed, social and historical themes resonated in unexpected ways inside and outside national borders, with state authorities responding, not just with the usual censoring, but with investment in social and historical dramas of their own.

Copyright © Middle East Studies Association of North America, Inc. 2018 

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1 Joel Gordon, “Making the Past Chic: The Historical ’90s of Egyptian TV,” paper presented at conference “History and Society on TV in the Middle East,” University of Maryland, College Park, 7 April 2017.

2 Scholarly articles and media accounts of television dramas since the satellite revolution are too numerous to list. Some of the more extended Anglophone scholarly treatments of the place of televised dramas in the national imaginary and/or the impacts of intra-Middle Eastern programs include: Abu-Lughod, Lila, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Nationhood in Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Gordon, Joel, Revolutionary Melodrama: Popular Film and Civic Identity in Nasser's Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)Google Scholar; Joshua Carney, “A Dizi-ying Past: Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Motivated Uses of History in Contemporary Turkey” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2015); Salamandra, Christa, “The Muhannad Effect: Media Panic, Melodrama, and the Arab Female Gaze,” Anthropological Quarterly 85 (2012): 4578CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and numerous studies on Middle Eastern media by Kraidy, Marwan, including (with Omar Al-Ghazzi), “Neo-Ottoman Cool: Turkish Popular Culture in the Arab Public Sphere,” Popular Communication 11, no. 1 (2013): 1729CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 “History and Society on TV in the Middle East,” University of Maryland, College Park, 6–7 April 2017; Hereafter as University of Maryland Conference.

4 Gili Izikovich, “Forget about ‘Game of Thrones’: Turkish Telenovela that Enraged Erdogan Is a Hit in Israel,”, 29 December 2014. In addition to criticisms in the foreign press, religious conservatives in Turkey, including then-Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan, objected to the depiction of Süleyman's harem preoccupations. They clamored for a more “respectful” treatment of the heroic ruler, preferably via a more martial, less uxorious, portrayal.

5 Leslie Peirce, “Television Drama and Scholarly Writing: The Case of Magnificent Century,” University of Maryland Conference. The documentary film by Nina Marie Paschalidou, “Kismet: How Turkish Soap Operas Changed the World” (2014), which aired at MESA's 2014 Annual Meeting, recorded Arab and Balkan audiences either enthralled or, less commonly, outraged by popular Turkish dramas on domestic television. The film was accessible as of 14 November 2017, on Youtube: .

6 The popular French-produced TV series on Louis XIV, Versailles (2015–) has met with criticism for its fictionalized take on the man and his time, but viewers and critics alike seem content with the trade-off between a little ahistoricism and the combined pleasures of “romanticized history” and “luminous glamour.” “Avis sur la série Versailles,” 15 November 2015,; and “Lavish French TV Hit ‘Versailles’ Reaches UK Screens,”, both accessed 29 November 2017.

7 Moralist critiques have been especially sharp in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, although Pakistanis, too, have reacted against the influx of “cheap Turkish TV programmes” as an invasion on several fronts. In fact, the “cheapness” of the imports refers to the purchase price relative to the cost of producing an equally high quality serial in Pakistan; see AP Archive, “Some in Pakistan Threatened by Turkish TV Invasion,”, accessed 29 November 2017.

8 Turkey's own social and religious conservatives are far from silent in condemning Turkish serials’ “normalization” of non-marital sex, disrespect for religious values, flouting of social norms, etc., but for them it is a long-standing battle only exacerbated by the satellite age.

9 For the implications of “female erotic spectatorship” and the manifold anxieties generated in the Arab world by the serial and its handsome male lead, Muhannad, see Salamandra, “The Muhannad Effect.”

10 Mehdi Semati, “IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), Crisis of Legitimacy, and tele-Visions of Love,” University of Maryland Conference.

11 Whatever the means by which locally produced scripted entertainment is being calibrated to local tastes, Arab viewers in a recent survey of six Arab countries expressed satisfaction with the moral tone and content of Arab productions. This was in stark contrast to their view of non-Arab fare: Shibley Telhami, “The Generative Politics of TV Dramas across the Middle East,” University of Maryland Conference.

12 Joshua Carney, “Resurrection as Reaction: Competing Visions of Turkey's (Proto) Ottoman Past,” University of Maryland Conference.

13 Walter Armbrust, “Scripting a Massacre: National Excommunication and al-Gamaʾa,” University of Maryland Conference.

14 Primary support was provided by the Saudi-owned media company, MBC, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, based in the United Arab Emirates and home to a number of entertainment channels as well as Al Arabiya news.

15 Valerie Anishchenkova, “Caliphs, Kings, and TV Soaps: Making Arab National Identities of the 21st Century on Ramadan Television,” University of Maryland Conference.

17 Regarding the mixed success of Turkey's AKP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) in controlling televised narratives, see Cherie Taraghi's detailed analysis in “Muhteşem Yüzyıl or Muhteşem Rezalet: Controversy Surrounding the Television Series Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Crisis of Turkish Identity,” in Contemporary Television Series: Narrative Structures and Audience Perceptions, eds. Valentina Marinescu et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 41–58.

18 Nick Vivarelli, “Turkish TV Dramas Continue to Sell Despite Recent Turmoil,” Variety, 3 April 2017, reports that Turkey today is “the second largest exporter of scripted TV content after the U.S.”, accessed 13 November 2017.

19 Kraidy and Al-Ghazzi, “Neo-Ottoman Cool,” 17. On the concept of cultural proximity in media consumption, see Straubhaar, J.D., “Beyond Media Imperialism: Assymetrical Interdependence and Cultural Proximity,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8 (1991): 3959CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Pedram Partovi, “Televisual Experiences of Iran's Isolation: Turkish Melodrama and Homegrown Comedy in the Sanctions Era,” University of Maryland Conference.

21 Christa Salamandra, “Past Continuous: Memory and History in Syrian Social Drama”; Ida Meftahi, “Lalehzar Street Re-Imagined: From Hizar Dastan to Shahrzad”; Gordon, “Making the Past Chic”; and Aomar Boum, “Images of Jews in Television and Newspapers in Postcolonial Morocco,” University of Maryland Conference.

22 Orit Bashkin, “Between the Sultan and the Footballer: How Arab Shiʿis and Mizrahim Learned to Love the Ottoman Empire,” University of Maryland Conference.

23 Eric Zakim, “Mizrahim on Israeli Television: Rethinking National Allegory in the Digital Age,” University of Maryland Conference.

24 Edith Szanto, “Mourning Halabja—or the Kurdish Holocaust Industry,” University of Maryland Conference.

25 Jane Gaffney, “The Role of TV Dramas in Shaping the Turkish Image of the Kurds,” University of Maryland Conference.